WIYAALA: Champion of an Equalizing Revolution

The intrepid Noella Wiyaala, known best by simply her surname, is dominating the music scene in Ghana. An unflinchingly bold character and ability to create snappy, Afro-pop beats have sent her on a vertical trip in recognition, both nationally and globally. Wiyaala’s advocacy for empowering women and association with UNICEF and the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection have granted her role model status, especially among African girls. I caught up with the award-winning musician during the 2017 Impact Music Conference, which was focused on women in the industry.

“I think it’s what we need,” Wiyaala says of the conference, post panel discussion with some of the industry’s most audacious female creators. “If you really want to go international these days, you have to get to know the music business.”

Exposure from a couple of Accra-based reality shows initially got Wiyaala’s foot in the proverbial door of the music scene. From there, she established a solo career constructed on her raw talent and a candid online presence that created a dialogue around her as an artist. “That’s how I made it. It wasn’t TV,” she says. “Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – I kept posting about myself, my music, what I stand for.” She attributes the rise of her popularity to what comes at the price of data on your mobile phone. “Instead of watching pornography, which most of us do, use those credits to help yourself. Today everybody has a smartphone. You have the whole world in your palm! Use it wisely.”

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The singer harnessed a dichotomy of attention from her striking, androgynous appearance and risqué Afro-fusion music videos, but her active championing for women’s rights and speaking out against child marriage have made her a substantial, sustainable figure in the public eye. “You need people to understand who you are apart from your talented way of singing. Like it or not, people will always look up to you, what you stand for, what you believe in,” she says. “You need to be patient. Do you want to just be popular for a few months or years and then you go away? Or are you planning a 30 year career?”

Advocacy and image aside, the ‘Young Lioness of Africa’ faces all the challenges that fame brings, both those analogous to any rising star in the modern world and those unique to a woman coming from a small rural village in Africa. “When you are a female doing music, there is this sexism thing. For example, if you go to a nightclub to sing, in their minds it’s like, ‘Oh, shouldn’t that be guys there, smoking, drinking, flexing their muscles? Woman, what are you doing here?'” The traditional mindset that women should be at home preparing themselves to get ‘wifed’ rather than out playing music is oppressive to creative individuals. “That mentality is not helping us.”

Africa often faces a stronger resistance to certain ideals for females than other places in the world. “I see a lot of freedom in the European market when it comes to music relating to women,” notes the singer, who grew up in the small village of Funsi in the Upper West Region of Ghana. “They just seem to go all out. I hear ‘artists’ and ‘musicians’ and it could mean male or female. There’s nothing like, ‘Oh you are a woman? You are doing music?’ Everybody’s free to do any kind of music they like.”

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The outspoken artist still deals with retaliation from her native country. “Some of us are very loud; we speak our mind. When you are free and you are loud mouthed, they tend to look at you like it’s disrespect,” she says. Finding a cohesive fusion of African and Western ideals is tricky business, and no known formula exists that will gratify the whole jury. “If Nicki Minaj had been an African girl – the bashing she’d be getting for showing that buttocks!” Wiyaala laughs. “She wouldn’t be getting any man to marry her – that’s what they say, which is a lie. They like it anyway.”

Wiyaala exalts a jacked-up version of the trait that is so uniquely Ghanaian – a playfully wicked sense of humour. Underscored by a gentle humbleness and punctuated with curiousity, it’s plain to see that the integrity to her roots has kept her feet on the ground. The northern village Wiyaala grew up in has been the backdrop of her music videos and she often travels home to spend time with her family and community, seeking the sweet spot between a colourful African culture and the open-minded mentality characteristic of Western society. “Maybe there are certain things I have done with music that has changed the minds of everybody back at home. They’re like, ‘You know what, she’s good. She’s talented. She’s doing something that’s exciting. Let’s support her.’ I think the little things I did changed people’s perceptions. I understand the culture and started to work it to my own advantage.”

The reasons behind this oppressive attitude toward females in a male-heavy music industry? “I think it’s just fear. They don’t want to be dominated by women. It’s an ego thing that, with time, will go away. Some of us have made an impact to the extent that they are naming streets after us, because we do music. So there’s a change. It’s up to us.”

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Credit: iBold Studio
Last month, Wiyaala’s comments about ‘sex for fame’ made headlines. She maintains her notion bluntly. “As for the sex, stay far away from it, because you can have better sex when you are popular. You even get to choose which penis to fuck!” The old ‘casting couch’ cliché clings to the entertainment industry like a stubborn case of crabs. “Be careful. There are people who take advantage of desperate, talented, naïve, innocent young women,” Wiyaala warns. “The good guys are there, but follow your instincts. Be strong, be wise, make the right decisions, put your foot down and say NO. Think outside the box. Never limit yourself. Do whatever you have to do to get what you want, but do it properly.”

This sort of patience and resilient attitude worked for her. She originally left her village to audition for a reality TV show in Accra, but it took three attempts until she was finally accepted. Before meeting her present-day manager, John, Wiyaala spent years traveling between her village and the city, auditioning, meeting people who tried to take advantage of a young woman trying to break into the industry. This powerhouse of a human, whose beliefs, strength, and independence from the status quo are crushing the preconceptions around women and music, are what make her apart of an equalizing revolution. “Today I can confidently say that it has changed and is changing because some of us have decided to go all out there and don’t care about what people say. Being a woman shouldn’t limit you.”

I was curious what this unvarnished activist might have to say about a comment made by a male friend after I told him about a recent interview I’d had with a female radio DJ. His response was, ‘Oh wow, a female radio DJ? I just love it when girls do guy things.’

“I don’t even know what to say,” Wiyaala says, shaking her head. “You see the mindset? This is deep in the blood. He is just not that intelligent. An intelligent person wouldn’t think certain things are just meant for women and certain things are just meant for guys alone. When it comes to opportunities, we are all the same. Can we say all the men that cook and run restaurants are doing women’s jobs? No. Because we are all human beings. Whatever your talent is, you should do it. I think it’s lack of knowledge that he’s saying that. He doesn’t know and it’s a shame. That person needs to go back and recheck themselves.”

Her outlook for future generations is positive though, and the foundation of this mindset is unshakeable. “If childbirth is the most difficult thing on earth, what can’t we do?” Wiyaala’s hands fly up, like this is the most overlooked point across the globe. “If you can give life, what on earth can’t you do as a woman? So we shouldn’t let those little comments or insults stop us. It’s all up to you. If you are really interested and you are passionate about what you want to do, no matter what people say, you nod, you smile, you go out there and do it anyways.”

Check out the lionhearted artist at www.wiyaala.com

 


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