At a glance, forging a DJ career in Ghana isn’t that different to how selectors come to make it in the UK. They usually start out by playing campus parties while still at school or university, hone their skills in competitions, play clubs and land regular radio shows which grow their audiences. But there is a difference. In Ghana, to succeed, not only do you have to be active in clubs and on radio, but crucially, you must also play what the people want to hear. The country’s biggest DJs, such as Joy FM’s DJ Black or 2017’s Ghana DJ Award overall winner DJ Vyrusky push genres such as hiplife, Afrobeats and hip-hop. So what do you do when your music taste falls outside the country’s favoured sounds? Accra-based DJ/producer Keyzuz realised there’s no blueprint, and with her career of challenging the status quo, planted the seed for the creation of an electronic music scene in the West African country.
In the UK, sounds coming out of Nigeria and Ghana are an ever-growing source of inspiration for the African diaspora’s new generation of producers, but British-born music genres such as bass and grime are not making a comparable impression on Ghanaian ears. “I think it’s about the way we discover and consume music,” Keyzuz explains over email a couple of months after I first meet her. “Generally, people here are a lot more excited about the music that they know or are bombarded with on a regular and most of our taste-making is still very heavily radio-driven. Anything that gets airplay is what people will naturally gravitate to and that just happens NOT to be electronic music.”
Keyzuz was schooled in the country’s eastern and Ashanti regions before returning to the capital to study computer engineering at the behest of her parents. Their belief that music was something you could learn in your bedroom meant that Keyzuz quickly abandoned plans to pursue the subject at university and began her self-education. Playing her first gig while in her third year of uni, Keyzuz started out just like everybody else around her, her playlist full of the kind of radio hits she’s now grown so weary of. “It was heavily commercial so, of course, they loved it,” she recalls of her first crowd. Since then, she’s increasingly gravitated towards “dubstep, melodic trap, future bass and drum ‘n’ bass.”
In opposition to what Keyzuz describes as a strict timetable of genres at Accra’s bars and clubs, where hip-hop will be played first, followed by dancehall and then Afrobeats when the party really gets going, Keyzuz’s sets have no such parameters. When I watch the 26-year-old perform at Ghanaian culture and heritage centre Nubuke Foundation, the cohesion comes not from genre but the creation of a unified moodscape, made all the more convincing by the way Keyzuz plays, with razor-sharp intent. She’s not reading her crowd for approval but presenting her sonic narrative, if not exactly fully formed then fully envisaged, an assuredness that will draw you in even if her choice of music isn’t familiar. It’s a captivating performance, the eyes of her audience focusing on her in a way I’d not seen while watching other DJs in Accra.
Almost from the first track Keyzuz exudes energy, but not in the over-the-top way you sometimes see when DJs dance hectically in between mixing. Music seems to be both a catalyst for physical concentration, her body tensing as she lifts the soles of her feet off the ground, and a release as she projects a more spontaneous approach to hitting the drum machine. Typical of the night I see her perform, she confirms her sets are grounded in bass, but peppered in Middle Eastern samples she describes as “pure magic” and permeated by “Ghanaian traditional percussion”, a combination of elements she’s honing in her productions too, to be released in due course.
When we meet up after the gig, Keyzuz tells me that in Ghana there isn’t a culture of going to see a DJ play. Nights out to clubs aren’t planned weeks or months in advance. People go out more casually. As a result, the majority of Keyzuz’s gigs don’t take place in Accra’s clubs. She’s more likely to be performing in mixed-use warehouses and galleries, where live music is combined with photography exhibitions, or playing big outdoor events such as the annual street art festival Chale Wote. But such a niche career trajectory hasn’t been an altogether smooth ride, especially given the financial risk of offering the opposite of what’s in demand. “It’s definitely taken a lot to be confident enough in my chosen path to be insistent on the kind of music that I want to play, knowing that that would drastically reduce the kinds of gigs that I could take,” she says.
In spite of the challenges Keyzuz faced eschewing her country’s favoured genres, her profile grew and in 2016 she earned a ‘Best Female DJ’ nomination at the Ghana DJ Awards. But it was an accolade she found profoundly problematic, taking to Twitter to decline her nomination. “I don’t DJ for awards so I wasn’t really that interested in that. I just want to play music, I don’t care about being the best DJ. But the female thing is something I’ve thought about a lot. At certain points it’s like they wanna use the term ‘female’ for visibility, but it’s like, just say DJ.” In answer to whether anything changed after her protest, she replies, “they just talked about it for probably for two or three weeks but nothing’s been done about it. They still have that category in there so I guess they’re not ready for change.”
Does such a climate not make her want to leave her home country and pursue her career elsewhere? “Ghana is really one of the most peaceful, politically stable places to live considering what’s happening in other parts of the world,” Keyzuz asserts. “I wake up every day grateful to be in this space because it’s good for my peace of mind. That being said, my identity definitely goes against the grain of the kind of society I find myself in, which is very conformist and heavily influenced by pop culture. I find it very difficult to be as excited by the things that everyone else is going crazy about, and most times I feel like we would have such a vibrant scene if we allowed ourselves to think more outside the box and were not so concerned with society’s opinions about the way we choose to live or express ourselves.”
DJing in itself is an act of rebellion for Keyzuz because “my folks would rather have me do something else,” but perhaps her most prominent statement of non-conformity is the mask she wears when she’s performing. “The mask was a natural progression because I’m a very private person. I love being able to be known as an artist but also have my privacy when I’m just hanging out,” she says. Paradoxically, the desire for anonymity grew into an awareness of the power of identity within the realm of being a musician and is something she explores on the Beat Phreaks platform she creative directs. As well as showcasing artists, it aims to “bridge the gap between the creative process and the business of the music, because that was a gap that was wide open here. A lot of artists don’t really know about the artist as a brand.”
Looking to the future, Keyzuz hopes the strides she’s made within the country’s alternative spaces will eventually find their mirror in the mainstream club culture. “We need promoters who are willing to book DJs and give them as much spotlight and respect as an artist would get. One thing I’ve realised is that most times, when there’s an event that has both DJs and other artists on the bill, the DJ ends up getting treated like an intermission, which I feel is not really helping to change the situation. I would love to see Ghanaian event organisers put the DJ front and centre like any other artists, but I think growing a culture like that takes both collective and individual effort.” With the success Keyzuz has already enjoyed, the work of her mission has most certainly begun.
You can find Kamila on Twitter.