How Kwesi Arthur’s Feature On ‘Top Boy’ Emboldens His Storytelling Ethos

The artist has long championed young Ghanaian experiences and now it's taking him global

After twelve years depicting the unassuming realities of the Black British experience, ‘Top Boy’ has reached its season finale. In art; it’s never truly final, after all, since the experiences have been committed to a form whose very existence is to preserve the ethereal beauty of mankind’s creation. For the great films that have been released over the years, the feeling of watching its closing scenes has held the miracle of instant and yet gradual transcendence. 

The best way of giving viewers that sure feeling of rush, or melancholy, or any other desired feeling, comes then from the music that’s being scored atop the action. ‘Top Boy’ has gripping tones to heighten its tension, but it’s used urban, new school music as the times go, most often digging into the golden wells of Black music in modern Britain, which sprawls the genres of Hip-Hop, Grime, Bashment, Afrobeats and several others. With the immigrant experience also deeply tied to the history of Black people in the country, as several Africans and Caribbeans have sought greener pastures across different eras starting from the seventh century, the series also nods to these influences through its music. 

Emerging as one of the most important musical voices on the new, last season of ‘Top Boy’ is Kwesi Arthur, whose song “Winning” can be heard on the new season. It’s a thrilling fifteen seconds, soaked in the Twi-inflected bravado of Kwesi, an artist who occupies a singular space amidst the giants of contemporary Ghanaian music. Since the turn of the 2000s, the genre HipLife emerged as the most popular form of Ghanaian expression, a colourful blend of Hip-Hop and Highlife sensibilities; the former recognisably the younger sound, for melodic timeliness it turned to the guitar-streaked Highlife, whose modern techniques had first evolved in that same land more than fifty years before. 

Unlike Black Sherif whose adaptation of the sound is pointed and wizened, Kwesi wields his Ghanaian expressions close to him, rather utilising rap as his primary medium through the variant stages of his career. It is for this reason he’s an early charter of the cross-continental seas, become familiar among diasporan audiences as early as the mid 2010s. Thus the showing on ‘Top Boy’ is a natural extension of an artistic relationship that began years before for Kwesi Arthur, before he sung himself into modern TV history or created the song that would. 

Consider a record like “Ade Akye,” the opener from 2017’s ‘Live From Nkrumah Krom’ EP. Over a production which switches to incorporate more hardcore Hip-Hop zest, he raps about where he’s coming from with the inimitable focus that’s become his brand. A watchful eye kept out on the street, the bars were realistic in its depiction of Ghana while establishing the ethos for Arthur: flying past the limitations of his physical location. It’s thus telling “Free” was the song which follows: with brighter loops, an Highlife bounce, it’s a lesser-stakes song, but lines like “Make I find my way oh” was indicative of Kwesi Arthur’s desire to grow, and when music consciously plots a way out of the dicey situations of its creator, its appeal would be outsized because there’s a larger story lurking behind its skeletal form. 

One of Kwesi Arthur’s biggest early hits was “Grind Day,” which also appears on the aforementioned project. Anthemic without losing Kwesi’s soulfulness, boisterous without centering shallow pride, it was testament to Kwesi’s long standing belief that whoever works diligently should revel in the fruits of their labour. Even if not immediately, then imminently, since life was supposed to be a give and take situation. That’s what makes his music so fitting for film; those are the exact same stakes captured in cinema; the weight of what’s given and the levity of what is received, their energies clashing against each other. 

Kwesi Arthur’s rap skills continued to be heralded in the following year, most especially in records like “8PM in Tema” and “The Anthem”. While the former was unavoidably Drake-esque (he made the city postcard record famous, after all), the latter had a more Western bounce, with Kwesi flexing his melody-laden flow over the glossy production. “Can’t fuck with your man dem, talk too much; me no like dem,” he sings on the opening line, revealing, in language and sensibility, the supposedly wise introspective demeanor that’s springing up as truth across Black dominated young circles, from Accra to Port-Harcourt to Stratham and Kingston. Everyone’s advised to move carefully, especially when one has dreams of Kwesi-sized proportions. 

To his credit, Kwesi Arthur embodied that aesthetic, not only in his music but also, and most crucially, through his personality. He wasn’t one to be found in the ugly controversy, twisting in the mud waters of frail egos and distorted celebrity images. Everything Kwesi did was premeditated, timed with the precise viciousness of a hunter chasing game. “Woara” was an early showcase of his Highlife sensibilities, and for the rest of 2018 he continued those popular plains, as heard on the KiDi-featured “Don’t Keep Me Waiting”, the Dancehall-inflected “Porpi,” which then served as a fine precursor to “African Girl,” his last single of the year which featured Shatta Wale. 

On the first day of 2019, the artist released ‘This Is Not the Tape, Sorry 4 the Wait’, a short project which totalled just over eight minutes. Coming at a time when his early listeners were missing the rap side to him, he felt compelled to remind them the artist they fell in love with hadn’t changed. As the tape revealed, Kwesi Arthur hadn’t stopped framing intensely personal concerns within the prism of the community, creating songs that anyone could relate to. “Live or Die” and “Don’t Keep Me Waiting Part II” were demonstrative of this quality, existing on varying ends of the sonic spectrum, but unified through their vulnerability, while Kwesi rapped with the weight of responsibilities that came with being heralded as a voice of the young in his hometown. 

By this time, Kwesi Arthur was viewed as a hero of some sorts, in the striking way that superstars like Sarkodie and Shatta Wale before him hadn’t. The artist who was closest to the communal relevance that he had was Stonebwoy, whose Bhim Nation was considered a sort of community for young Ghanaians who share the positive values of the Dancehall veteran. On the other end of 2020, the artist released the second edition of the ‘Sorry 4 The Wait’ series, but before then there were a slew of afro-inspired releases which included “Why (Nana Ama)”, “Revolution Sound”, and “Nkwasiasem,” all of which possessing distinct sounds, from the mellow R&B sound to the dusty rap production, and then the azonto-inflected Ghanaian pop sound, showcasing for a fine stretch, why Kwesi Arthur would come to be heralded internationally. 

2021 was the year which solidified Kwesi Arthur’s iconic status. Around that time, the new vision of Hip-Hop which was permeating semi-urban areas of Ghana was getting acclaim and being championed by indie lovers across the world. In no time, the Drill style known as asakaa was a genuine sensation for young global audiences, and among its more popular purveyors was a teenager known as Yaw Tog. With the menacing groove of his record “Sore” tearing through the continent, and with remixes better received for their potential to uplift an artist’s international standing, it came as a pleasant surprise at the start of that year when Stormzy appeared on the remix of the song, alongside Kwesi Arthur, who was the conduit between Yaw Tog’s Ghanaian origins and his international ambitions, which the British rapper signified. 

Together, all three rappers incinerated the booming production, and even amidst the varying perspectives of his co-star, that of Kwesi Arthur was evidently striking. After all, he’s been speaking the truth to social realities since he emerged on the scene, and has ostensibly mastered his language. The song which appears on ‘Top Boy’ was released that same year, a demonstration of Kwesi’s expanding reach into pockets of diasporic affiliations. It’s fitting that he featured Vic Mensa, a rapper whose Ghanaian roots have been a centrepiece of his artistic journey in recent years. Along with his friend and fellow American artist Chance The Rapper, both acts have been eager to connect with the history of the West African Country. Collaborating with an artist like Kwesi Arthur opens up the possibility for a sonic relationship that goes beyond the music to touch on the actual lives of the Ghanaian youth, which Kwesi Arthur, more than any other artist of his generation, has championed. 

Since 2019, the African music soundscape has been in consistent relationship with audiences outside the continent. It goes as near as ODUMODUBLVCK creating music with UK rappers, and as far as Rema hosting a tour across India. Wherever there are shared aspects of cultural existence, there’s a musician looking forward to tightening his links and positioning themselves there. For all his introspection, Kwesi Arthur has moved with that intentionality, and it’s a great sign that he is reaping the dividends of careful placement. 

When the artist released the ‘Live from Nkrumah Krom Vol II’, his perspective had changed; in place of the zeal to dominate is the bleary-eyed exhaustion of someone who’s seen it all. “I just wanna be alone, writing my songs,” he sings on “Pray For Me”. With collaborations like Cruel Santino (“Kill My Spirit”) and Nasty C (“Walk”), the artist was aligning with other young auteurs pushing their respective genres, but the resultant music was unmistakably Kwesi in execution, bubbling with the overtones he’s had all career long. 

“As Africans we got a story to tell,” said Kwesi to NATIVE Mag when he released his debut album ‘Son of Jacob’ last year. Its title inspired by the Hebrew connotations in his culture, its release was delayed, first by the pandemic, and later by the death of his grandma, whose voice also features on the project. Telling a story—this has been the ethos of Kwesi Arthur for as long as he’s been into art, writing poetry or singing in the choir. As he says, “There are so many sides of the story that still need to be heard; our perspective is needed.”