NATIVE Exclusive: The second coming of Kirani Ayat
The Ghanaian rap artist is revelling in finding his purpose
The Ghanaian rap artist is revelling in finding his purpose
“I didn’t even think I would be doing music, all my life I wanted to be Ronaldinho,” Kirani Ayat says in a tone that’s half-candid, half-jovial. We’re speaking over phone on a Tuesday evening in August, with his long-awaited debut album exactly a month away, and there’s a constant vigour in his voice that illumines the clarity and assured sense of purpose he seeks to convey. Perhaps, that’s what happens when you’ve had to travel the scenic road—the map is clearer because events and memories from the past are seen as an integral part of the present.
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Even though he had a huge reverence for Ghanaian Hiplife and American rap from a fairly young age—he name drops legendary Ghanaian producer Hammer and the 2003 Hiplife compilation LP, ‘The Execution Diary’, visuals from Buk Bak, as well as early ’00s classics from JAY-Z and Eminem—Kirani didn’t see music as a path until later in his life. He became convinced after the encouragement of friends who saw the rawness of his freestyle abilities. “I was a music lover before I became an artist. Being an artist came super late in my life,” he tells me. That lateness, though, still meant he was right on time.
Taking advantage of the SoundCloud era in the mid-2010s, a period when young African artists were bypassing modish industry norms and sharing music that was mostly averse to mainstream trends, Kirani Ayat emerged as a leading figure in a burgeoning movement within Ghanaian rap. “Then, when they’d ask us the genre of music we were doing, we’d just say ‘Wanna Our own be different’,” he recalls. Heavily influenced by Trap and Alternative Rock at the time, the music Kirani was making was sonically boisterous and lyrically exuberant. There was an emphasis on beats with speaker-rattling low end knock, and the rapper regularly mined a raspy vocal cadence for an impassioned delivery mode that prioritised grunge and rage-ready hooks.
On “IDKY”, his official debut single from November 2015, Kirani stomps across KaySo’s synth-laden beat in a mix of Hausa and Pidgin English, proclaiming the tenacity of his drive irrespective of dissenting voices. That song, along with follow-ups like “Let Them Know”, the mellower “My Girl” and Kuvie-produced “Yawa”, brought the rap artist increased notoriety with each new release. The same exuberance he embodied in those songs also coloured his decisions as an independent artist, a special instance being his funding methods for a headline live event in 2016.
Debuting the year before, Kirani founded Music of African Descent Festival—MADFest—an event meant to champion the part of underground rap he was becoming a key part of. Keen on expanding the scope of its first edition, where the stage “was like the size of two tables combined,” Kirani sold nearly all of his personal wares and appliances to pull together funds for the show. With a much bigger stage, he stacked the line-up with Kwesi Arthur, Medikal, Worlasi, and several other rising artists working within the same Ghanaian Trap and alt-rap corner as him. The motivations for his risk was simple: he wanted to show tangible proof of the increasing visibility of him and his peers enjoyed, and he wanted to put on for his hometown of Madina.
“As far as entertainment, there isn’t that much that happens in Madina and it’s not because we don’t have the talent or the audience,” Kirani tells me. Named after the Islamic holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia, Madina is a suburban town within the Greater Accra Region, growing from a community of less than a thousand people to a bustling part of Accra with well over a hundred thousand people, thriving businesses, and a connecting point to several neighbouring countries in West Africa.
With a significant portion of its population being Hausa and Muslim, the town has an identity centred on community and pride. “I won’t say we like fighting, but we won’t allow you to cheat us,” Kirani Ayat explains. “Because of that, they will say we’re brash and tough, but some people confuse that for, ‘Oh, they like fighting’. That’s life in Madina, you have to be tough to survive here. I love Madina.”
Late last year, Ghanaian rapper M.anifest released his fifth studio project, ‘Madina to the Universe’, an ode to the town that bears the trademark toughness and raw energy Madina is associated with. Earlier this year, Madina native Camidoh became one of Afropop’s latest breakout sensations with the continent-spanning, saccharine hit, “Sugarcane”. Before these more prominent happenings related to Madina’s creative scene, Kirani Ayat has been staunchly repping his town, whether that’s the namedrop on his first single or continually leaning on Hausa language and culture as the primary driver of his lyricism and song-making.
“I love Madina”
While he was plotting his way to making Madina an important hub for new school Ghanaian rap music and gaining relevance within Ghanaian music, scoring co-signs from veteran colleagues and idols like Hammer, Kirani also had to deal with an impending move to the U.S. “Literally six months after I blew up in Ghana, my visa was ready for me to travel,” he recalls. With family in the States, the move was supposed to be a start to a life away from Ghana and Madina, but Kirani didn’t want a life away from his home. After all, his rap dream was starting to become reality. “I’m like, ‘Yo, chale, what the fuck? This thing that I wanted all my life is happening for me here and you want me to travel.’ It was a tough decision for me but I had to do it, and that kind of derailed my career a little bit.”
A lot changes in music within a year. For example, at the start of 2021, Black Sherif was relatively anonymous within Ghanaian music conversations; by year’s end, he’d become inescapable. Imagine Sherif had to move away to another continent just as “First Sermon” was heralding his rising star, there’s every possibility he wouldn’t have been able to build on that success. There’s a grassroots element to properly breaking out in Ghanaian music, and even African music, a proven fact with the many examples of artists—from Reggie Rockstone to M3nsa—making their way back and ensuring their base of operations is closest to their primary audience.
During the year he spent in the U.S., Kirani Ayat tried his best to remain a visible part of that rap movement, even dropping his debut EP, ‘Zamani’, from over there. Without his physical presence, though, the project did little to further his ascent. “It wasn’t satisfying at all,” he tells me of dropping that EP, even though there were fans and friends who praised the project. “One of the things people loved about me was my performances, so releasing that EP while I was away wasn’t good for me, ‘cause I couldn’t perform, and the project had songs that required me to perform. Till date, people still message me about that project but I feel like it could’ve done way more.”
Set on coming back to Ghana, Kirani dedicated himself to working seven days almost every week, in order to save as much money as he could to relaunch his career. “I had to come back and start all over again,” he says. That meant realising that the sound had changed on his return, and his ‘Wanna Our own be different’ peers who were on the ground had popped. Thankfully, his reputation had not been wiped off. On coming back, several producers who always wanted to work with the rapper reached out to him, one of which was respected producer Magnom.
“He gave me two records, I recorded two songs, and M.anifest got on one, and Sarkodie got on the other,” he tells me. Those songs gave him a needed shot of confidence. “Both of them were literally singing praises on the song about me at the end of their verses, which is something these guys don’t do and they weren’t even on talking terms.” That didn’t instantly rocket him back to notoriety, but it provided a steady ground for Kirani Ayat to restart and start growing beyond his regrets of leaving Ghana in the first place.
“At first I used to say I don’t have any regrets, but that’s a lie,” he candidly admits towards the midway point of our hour-long conversation. “Everyone has regrets and the best thing you can do is have awareness of them so you can move forward. There’s some proverb about acknowledging your past to get to your future, so yeah, I definitely have regrets but there’s pros and cons to it. I know that being around would’ve helped my career blow up way more than it is now, but I’m aware of those regrets and that has made me the man that I am now. I know what I want to do, it doesn’t weigh me down anymore.”
There’s a renewed impetus and deeper sense of identity on Kirani’s newly released debut LP, ‘Aisha’s Sun’. Announced back in 2018, the album went through a wholesale change on the verge of its initially scheduled drop two years ago. “When the pandemic happened, I went through shift and it changed my perspective on my music.”
Due to the sonic shift he noticed on his return from the US, Kirani decided to try on various sounds for size, teaming up with Papa Chie for the old school feel, electro-rap 3-pack, ‘Sabo Sabo’, and leaning into mid-tempo Ghanaian Pop on the romance-themed ‘Her Vibe is Right’. This genre-hopping played a huge role in the initial draft of his album, but the rap artist didn’t feel it represents who he is and what the message in his music should be at this point in his career.
“I thought of my legacy and how I want to be remembered, which might seem early in my career but I figured that, once you have an early start with this thing, it gives a clearer focus on your direction,” he says. “I decided to record a whole new album with a whole new identity, and it’s going to be something that’s meaningful to me.” On ‘Aisha’s Sun’, Kirani Ayat leans even more on his Hausa culture and Madina identity, burnishing the album with the stubborn perseverance that has defined his career, the unyielding self-confidence he’s always had, an increased appreciation for family, and a musical canvas that’s as eclectic as it is distinct sounding.
‘Aisha’s Sun’ is an enveloping listen right from Kirani’s yodelling on the intro. While he mostly raps and sings in Hausa, the marriage of Hausa folk music and his earlier Trap influences is a beguiling backdrop to keep listeners, especially those that may not understand most of his lyrics, engaged. Even the attitude is infectious, whether that’s belting out his lungs out over tribal drums on “Ina Jin” or barrelling his way through booming bass on the pre-released drill-tinged single, “Sarki”, which came with a video paying homage to Dambe, the traditional Hausa combat sport. “Take your time/Live your life,” he sings on the hook of the penultimate track, a terse submission that sums up the mission of the album.
“I found my purpose”
“It’s such a powerful language for me to not use it in my music, because it’s so commanding,” Kirani tells of me the increased Hausa use in his music. “I have to make music in the language that I’m comfortable with. There’s some things that rolls off the tongue easier in my language, and English waters down a lot of languages. It’s important that I communicate with the immediate people that understand me, there’s already way too many people making music in English. I’m in the space where I’m making music for the 50 million-plus people who speak my language, and the other people who don’t understand it can fall in love with the beat, the melody and the style.”
A by-product of this lingual and cultural reverence is its cross-generational appeal. Until recently, Kirani’s deeply religious mum and grandma weren’t supportive of his music career, even after an aunt had testified to the thousands she’d seen yelling the rapper’s lyrics at Madina’s Number 1 Park during MADFest 2016. With ‘Aisha’s Sun’, though, they’ve become fans of Kirani Ayat the rap artist.
“These are important people in life that have been unbelievers, but my grandma played the album and told me, ‘I love this album,’” Kirani tells me. “She’s telling me what her favourite song is and she’s singing along. That’s not to be like this is some old people music, because I have friends that are telling me, ‘Yo, Ayat, this album is amazing’. At first, it was just my friends who were fucking with my music, but now, it’s also my grandmother who didn’t even want me to be an artist in the first place.”
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‘Aisha’s Sun’ is a marker of the excellence Kirani Ayat always wants to be associated with. It’s also the most consequential point in his second coming, now fully relishing his journey after years of hopping around for sounds and styles that he thought would immediately vault him back to the path of potential superstardom. “I found my purpose,” he wistfully says towards the end of our chat. “This is the second time I recorded ‘Aisha’s Sun’. That first version was fire but it didn’t have an identity, this one does. You listen to “Sarki”, you listen to “Duniya”, and you know they belong on the same project even if they’re very distinct in sound.”
By turns soulful and boisterous, the album is wonderful portrait of a man who’s embraced what it means to walk your own path and evolve according to the hand life deals you. “I’m growing as a human, I’m not that young anymore. I’m happy that my music is growing with me,” he says. “I told someone that I don’t want to be just jumping on my stage in my 30s, I did that in my 20s. I want the same people who were jumping with me then to be coming to my performances to be grooving and enjoying themselves. At the same time, I want to keep expanding my audience, and the best way I can do that is not to conform and keep being true to myself.”