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Meet the artist who’s trying to empower Ghana with hip hop

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‘Papa Row’ is a short film based on and named after a Ghanaian rap artist who seeks to inspire the masses through song and dance.

Based in Accra, the country’s capital city, Papa Row once lived a life of despair and hopelessness. His wife left him, taking their child with her. He became an alcoholic. His finances went into shambles.

But he eventually changed all that, and now, he is seeking to help others do the same.

Papa Row now roams the streets, spreading the word about his battles with his inner demons, using these experiences to promote positivity and good vibes.

In the short, filmmakers Chris Lee, Paul Storrie, and Charlie Wai shows us how the hip-hop artist has become a guiding force in his community.

We talked to Lee to get a behind-the-scenes look into the making of ‘Papa Row’.

How did you come across Papa Row? What made you decide to document his story?

“The encounter was unplanned. We (photo collective ‘Tripod City’ coposed of me, Charlie Kwai and Paul Storrie) were in Ghana as part of our own collaborative photography project to reveal a different side to West Africa, and we were looking to film something to help vocalise and complement our photographs.

“We had received word about an event in Jamestown, Accra via Steloo (a fashion guru, artist and the only DJ/ producer playing House music in Ghana) and it was really a chance encounter we had at this creative gathering that sparked the idea for a documentary.

“We met all sorts of artists, poets, producers and musicians, but when we first saw Papa Row, complete with his tattoos and bling, we felt he might help reveal a new side to Accra we hadn’t yet seen.”

What was it like filming in Accra, Ghana? What was it like to spend time with Papa Row?

“We got chatting at this event and we were struck by how energetic and enthusiastic he was about his music. He was keen to show us some recent content he had recorded on a friend’s iPad and although the venue was noisy, we were left in awe over his charisma on camera about ten seconds in.

“It was after four minutes of us watching his muted rap when he eagerly swiped to play a second video we knew he would be quite the character off camera as well. He was quick to exchange numbers, as is the general etiquette in Ghana, and before we knew it we were getting missed call after missed call on our Ghanaian number early the next morning at 7am.

“When we went to meet him for a second time before shooting, Papa brought us a crumpled up poster he had kept from a music festival he was performing at a few months prior. I believe he continues to perform through word of mouth, considering there is little known about him online. (The internet had not really taken off in Jamestown yet.)

“We learnt for an artist in Ghana, regardless of talent or potential, you need hard cash to get featured on the radio or music channels, and I think Papa is still saving up. Once he had got around the idea that we would be helping to promote him with our film for free, he couldn’t stress enough how much he would love to do a UK tour.

“Although we couldn’t promise that, we did say that we would try our best to get some exposure for him online with this film. But I do think a tour could be a Kickstarter project in the making!

“On the shoot date, he was keen to perform for us with a number of outfits and dance moves prepared. To some extent we had to go with the flow, but we were particularly captured by his open and laid-back attitude when speaking in the interview. People would begin to gather if we were ever at one place for too long, so we would tend to keep on the move.

“As we followed him through the neighbourhood, many folk would yell his name from afar, from local children to the church pastor. Most would stop in the street to bump fists or click fingers (a signature Ghanaian greeting). When shooting, everyone was curious to know what we were doing and the odd chancer might try ask us for money, but we were used to it, having spent the last few weeks taking candid photos on the streets.

“Sound was the second-biggest issue, as everyone and everything is so loud and expressive, whether it be the chickens, traffic or speakers blaring music, it was tricky to find a secluded spot.

“But the single biggest issue was the heat. It was unbearable for us Brits during the day, so we had to reduce shooting at peak times and drink litres of water to reserve energy.”

How’s he doing now after the release of the short film? Has it helped him get his message of positivity across?

“It’s been hard to keep in contact since our Ghanaian sim card won’t work over here back in England. Whether Papa’s messages about alcoholism or ‘breaking your jaw if you joke with him’ (hence the cow jaw) is successfully communicated or not is really left to the imagination.”

As filmmakers, what’s your biggest takeaway from making ‘Papa Row: Rising Star’?

“Our mission in Ghana was about giving a voice to modern culture, challenging stereotypes and showing the unexpected. We wanted to uncover a positive, ‘street level’ portrait of the Ghanaians, despite the poverty or corruption that might be present.

“The documentary really serves as an insight into one of many characters we met during our time in Ghana. The most challenging thing to come out of filming was how we would be portraying Ghana with our photography or film work alone.

“Regardless of Papa Row’s wealth (or lack of), he continues to promote positive influence and change in his own way with such energy and charisma. I think this individual commitment goes beyond conceptions of poverty, but without hiding from them either, so we can think more about his values and ideas in relation to our own.

You can come see more film and photos at Tripod City’s exhibition GOLD DUST from June 10 to August 6, 2016, at Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes in London.

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