Mista Silva talks dance clashing, African pride and the meteoric rise of Afrobeats.
Kwame Amponsa, aka Mista Silva, released his debut EP Full Vim in 2012. The success of that project led to a record deal with Polydor in 2014, and he then went on to become the first unsigned UK Afrobeats artist to have his music playlisted by BBC 1Xtra with ‘Now Wats Up’. He’s since been building his catalogue and touring with an unrelenting commitment to Afrobeats, standing as a long-time figure for cultural pride among British Africans.
I sat down with the 27-year-old London-born Ghanaian to expand on the story of the Afrobeats scene and sound, touching on how living in Ghana as a teenager shaped his rise as an artist, and his role in building the sound in the UK.
Where did you grow up?
South London, Brockley to be precise. That’s Lewisham Borough – between Peckham and New Cross.
Are you someone that reps Lewisham hard? Because there’s obviously a lot of Lewisham pride.
I rep, of course. Obviously, it’s part of me, I grew up there. But it’s not like I go around screaming, “I’m from the Blue!”. When I was young, let’s say about 16/17, I was screaming, “Blue Borough”, I was screaming, “Brockley”, I was screaming, “Turnham”. But as I grow, I represent the world.
Yeah, you were screaming “Turnham” until you were sent to Ghana, right?
[Laughs] There you go!
So your parents were like, “You know what, you’re going home”?
Yeah, obviously I was in an environment that’s influenced by gang culture… and there was a lot of gang culture going on. So, with those influences around me, and me not taking the routes that were making my parents happy, they were just like, “There’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of trouble, there’s a lot of things happening and you’re getting into a lot of things that we don’t want you to be involved in”. So, being parents, they took me out of that place.
How did you feel about that decision?
Obviously, man was hurt leaving the mandem, and we were doing our thing because at the time we were into grime, init. So I was doing my thing.
I could imagine how frustrating that was. How long did you spend out there?
Like a year and a half… But I’d say two years basically.
So when you were in Ghana, is this when the Afrobeats thing started for you?
I wouldn’t say it started then because I always listened to Afrobeats regardless – listening to hiplife – as that’s what was around me. Having African parents, it was always there. But obviously, being in Ghana, that’s what I’m hearing 24/7. That’s what’s bangin’! That’s what’s on national radio, that’s what’s in the car, that’s what’s in the shops, that’s what they play. So being around that influence and that culture, learning about myself – who I am and where I come from, being with my direct family there – it just changed me. It changed my perception, it changed how I move.
So, you went there, you got consumed by the culture and it instilled a sense of African pride in you, and when you came back you realised that the culture was so underrepresented that you felt like you had to do something about it, right?
There you go! Because nobody was reppin’ it. When I came back it was the start of funky house (around 2007) and nobody was trying to rep it.
You must’ve come back and thought, “rah… this is some rebore Afrobeats.”
Yeah, literally! That’s what it was. The music was bare tribal, a real African feeling but it’s still Western, if you know what I mean? I was thinking, “rah, what’s this? I’ve been listening to stuff at this tempo, this kinda vibe but it was more African orientated”. So with coming from grime and having that lyrical ability, I was just like, “fuck it! Let me just vibe on the funky ting with the lads”. But where I’ve put my African elements into the funky – as I’d just got back – that’s what started stemming more towards the Afrobeats and people were just saying, “yo Silva. You’re hard. There’s no one like you mixing the funky with the African influences.”
So, me Kwams, A Star and Flava, we did our ting and it popped! We just came with the confidence and courage that we were gonna represent this flavour, coming on this African tip. It’s hard, it’s wavy, it’s cool… you man stop boyin’ the ting! [Laughs]
Yeah, it’s like Skepta said in the Wizkid ‘Ojuelegba Remix’, “When I was in school being African was a diss, seems like you need help saying my surname, Miss.”
Exactly! So we were like, “nah, it’s not that no more! We were just vibsin’ it up. That was back in 2010/11. There was no one doing it then.
You’re definitely the spearhead of that movement on the ground level.
Yeah, and during that period, Fuse ODG came with ‘Azonto’ and brought the sound to the forefront.
So, with that said, are there two African Afrobeats artists and a song from each of them that you could recommend?
Davido – ‘If’ and, erm… it’s hard, man!
Yeah, there’s a lot to choose from. Is there a particular song that everyone’s going mad for? The one that just sets the dances off right now?
Runtown – ‘Mad Over You’.
How about any UK Afrobeats artists?
J Hus – ‘Did You See’. And, Erm… myself! [Laughs] J Hus and myself.
Which of your tracks represents you best?
[Editor’s note: This track is due for release May 2017]
Noisey did a Lagos edition of their series on international music scenes, and you performed at the screening launch party. What did you think of the documentary?
I actually didn’t see it, but my manager told me Burna Boy was in it and that was kinda cool because his (Burna Boy’s) Dad used to manage Fela Kuti, so it was interesting to hear that. I didn’t know that Burna Boy had those kinda roots behind him.
A big part of the Afrobeats scene is the dance culture, and it’s a big part of what you do, because you really perform! There aren’t as many performers about these days.
This is what I’m saying. There are a lot of things in music that are going on where I just think, “rah, you can be an artist from just being in the studio now. You just put a song out and you’re an artist and don’t even take into value people’s performance and all the elements of music culture”. That’s what I’m starting to notice. For example, I was in a session yesterday and I was writing the song and one person was just like, “these days people don’t care about content; people just wanna hear vibes and beats.” I’ve been in music since I was a little yoot, and I’ve been taught to make music with content, with sense, with meaning, with a message.
True, it’s a different generation.
Yeah, the next generation is like, “it’s a good beat, it’s good vibes, it don’t even matter what he’s saying.” And I’m just like, “rah?!” It’s kinda shocking, but, hey…
I think these things change, though. Trends come and go. But back to the dancing. Where are the best club nights to hear Afrobeats and see people bruk out the most?
LA Lounge in Canning Town. That’s more of a Nigerian crowd.
Who can people follow on social media to stay in the know?
I’d say Smade, he’s a promoter.
I see a lot of interesting videos involving what seem like dance crews on your Instagram. Are there actually Afrobeats dance crews, and do they clash?
There’s quite a few… and it pops off! Dancing is such a big part of the culture. There’s an event called The Afro Dance Championships we started last year just for the dance community of Afrobeats, and that’s growing. There are different categories: duos, solo, groups. They battle it out for the crowd and the judges. They battle it out to different vibes – the 100BPM to 140BPM Afrobeats stuff, the whole range of Afrobeats styles. If you wanna get involved, you @ the Homebros Instagram, you @ The Afro Dance Championships Instagram with your dance video, and if they like it, they’ll contact you to compete.
So, you want this to be a respected institution?
Yeah, it’s done. It’s a ting, still. And this year we’re doing it again.
I remember seeing a video from one of the clashes that looked like it was held in a studio and it was reminiscent of the early 80s breaking culture. Where people compete for the culture and for raw pride. It’s not a glossy event in a swanky venue. That’s the vibe I’m getting from you.
I feel you, I feel you… that’s it!
Words: Timi Ben-Edigbe