A few years ago, Wanlov the Kubolor was appearing on a national talk show in Ghana when the host asked him a provocative question. She wanted to know whether it was true that Wanlov, one of the most popular rappers in the country, wears nothing under the skirt-like cloth he typically has wrapped around his waist. In order to prove that it was, in fact, true, Wanlov unwrapped the cloth. I don't remember whether the host had a follow-up question.
Getting naked on national television would be a risky career move for an entertainer in any country, but it was especially daring in Ghana, which a 2012 poll found to be the world’s “most religious country.” And while the stunt garnered plenty of condemnation, it also won Wanlov accolades from younger fans. In other words, Wanlov got away with it. He's been pushing boundaries in Ghana ever since, inspiring reactions that say a lot about the West African country.
“I’ve got hate messages in my Facebook for saying something obvious,” Wanlov told me on a recent night in a quiet neighborhood in Accra, where he lives with his two sisters and mother. The "obvious" thing he said involved the Prophet Muhammad. "Leaving Tokyo," he wrote, "London see you in 13hours…did prophet muhammed ever sit in aeroplane? So so camels n gallying.” What followed were several death threats, including those from people who said they wished to stab him with a knife instead of shooting him so they could better see Wanlov die up close.
“[Muhammad] was walking around and riding camels,” Wanlov said. “It was just an obvious statement.”
Despite what he may say, Wanlov knows full well when he's pushing buttons in Ghana — and he's an equal-opportunity mocker. He recently posted a picture on Facebook of Jesus flipping the bird next to the words, "Hey Pastor. Give everyone their money back now and get a fucking job! Love, Jesus." He dedicated the picture to Nicholas Duncan-Williams, a Ghana-based mega-church founder.
“Those were not my words,” Wanlov explained when I asked him why he'd said that about Duncan-Williams. Instead, he told me he had simply reposted an internet meme. “I would have used the word kwasia.” Kwasia is a Twi word meaning “fool.”
When I lived in Accra, I saw Wanlov on many occasions. He's hard to miss — he walks or rides barefoot everywhere he goes, and he really does routinely wear the cloth wrapped around his waist. He sports long dreadlocks and a thin beard. The half-Ghanaian, half-Romanian was born in Romania and raised in Ghana; he want to college in America but never graduated. He has five babies on five continents — he points that out on his Twitter bio — having welcomed his latest, a boy, in Yokohama, Japan this past January.
As I went to meet Wanlov, I asked Rudy, the driver of the car, what he thought about the rapper's chances of, say, being killed. "I don't think he's in danger at all," Rudy said. "It's because of his presentation. If I said those things, I'd be in danger, because I carry myself like a typical Ghanaian. But people don't take him seriously, though he's extremely intelligent."
He's also angry. While Ghana is often lauded for its economic growth and relative stability, there are looming problems. Vast economic inequality has tempered enthusiasm for the country’s development of its oil reserves. There's a lack of jobs for young people despite a wealth of talented young people. And the cedi, the country's currency, is in something of a free-fall.
When Wanlov mocked Duncan-Williams, he did so because of the way much of the country was reacting to rising prices resulting from the cedi's fall. Duncan-Willians had called for prayers. Meanwhile, members of the president’s cabinet blamed the fall variously on witchcraft, magical dwarves, and the construction of large buildings.
“This is what we have in this country,” Wanlov told me. “It’s unbelievable. The price of everything is going up and these guys don’t care because it doesn't touch them.”
Wanlov is currently preparing a traveling film festival with environmental protection as its theme; the show will project a selection of films onto the sides of buildings in cities across Ghana. A film he made with M3nsa, his partner in the group FOKN Bois, had its US premiere in New York in February. Called Coz Ov Moni 2, it was a sequel to what was touted as the world’s first pidgin musical.
“It cost about 30,000 cedis,” Wanlov said of the film. That was about $20,000 at the time. Now it’s about $15,000 — and dropping. Wanlov will no doubt have more to say about that.