If you go to any Accra nightclub on a warm Friday evening, you will without a doubt hear a Kuami Eugene song. His music often plays at nightfall, as it is perfect to set a relaxing and exciting mood to your tiring end of the week. With a tempo a bit lower than the usual Nigerian bangers, catchy romantic melodies, sweet lyrics and a touch of blissful highlife, his tracks naturally impose a gentle, romantic yet fun vibe. Expect the crowd to know every word: for the last five years, the singer has been leading the new wave of Ghanaian mainstream music, hit after hit. You will also recognize his signature sound with the tagline “rock star”, that he uses in almost every song. “I think ‘rockstar’ came to me when I released my third song after I was signed to my label”, he smiles, live from Ghana. “‘Angela! That song gave me national recognition. I was all over the place, rocking everything (laughs).” What is Kuami Eugene’s definition of a rockstar? “It’s not the rockstar that comes with a guitar, tattoos, and ripped jeans… My kind of rockstar is about my story. The rocks on one side, because I come from the rocks, I come from hardship. And coming from the rocks, I became a star. That’s what made me the rock star that people talk about.”
Through rock or not, it is clear that Kuami Eugene is a star. Songs like “Angela”, “Wish Me Well” and “Boom Bang Bang” all stand at millions of views and streams, similar to the number of followers across social media. Aged only 25, the man has already released two commercially successful albums, Rockstar in 2018 and Son Of Africa in 2020, which put him on top of the highly competitive Ghanaian music industry. An icon for the youth, when he’s not on national television, he stirs up crowds of thousands of teenagers. Yet, when we chat, he is comfortably installed in his car somewhere in Accra, sitting alone at the wheel; fame and success don’t seem to impress him that much. A trait that probably comes from the fact that even before being a singer, young Kuami Eugene was already a rockstar. “I’ve always had it in me”, he chuckles. “Everywhere I would go, I would pick up the microphone and sing Chris Brown. I was popular locally before I got signed to a record label. I was even playing shows for money when I was in high school! I just needed an opportunity to bring my music to the public.” However, at home, Kuami was a different person, much “calmer”: “I was raised by parents who monitored me on everything. Where I go, what I do, how I talk… I come from really humble beginnings.” Yet, they didn’t keep him from listening to Sarkodie, Shatta Wale, Samini, Davido and Wizkid.
In 2016, Kuami decided to step up his music game by enrolling in MTN Hitmaker, a music reality show known for “giving a platform to upcoming artists”. Kuami did get a platform, but unfortunately lost to another singer named Kelvin, which had him finish third overall. However, he did get home with a win that evening. “The owner of my label was on that show, and he came to me and told me ‘you have something special in you. Let’s come together and show the world what I am talking about’. That was something that stayed in my mind when I went home after the show. Yo, I have something and I’m so glad someone finally understands what I have and what to show to the public. He brought the contract and I signed it!” Alongside his label Lynx Entertainment, Kuami quickly coined his very specific blend of Afrobeats, Afropop and highlife, tailored for nightclubs, weddings and radio, which brought him so close to the Ghanaian youth. “My country inspires me through my audience”, he says. “My fanbase in Ghana is something I don’t want to lose. I don’t play with that. I need to remind my fans daily that I love Ghana so much. I’m here because they started supporting my music before the rest of the world.”
However, it is not because he loves his culture that Kuami Eugene is closed to the idea of going international. Indeed, the Ghanaian singer was actually on one of the biggest songs on the planet in 2021: CKay’s worldwide famous “Love Nwantiti”. The video for his remix with Kuami and Joeboy currently stands at more than 200 million views. “So when I first heard the song it was not even that big”, he recalls. “CKay was a new artist, I was out there and Joeboy was out there. I initially went to the studio with another artist named Blaqbonez, and he was on the same label as CKay. I did the feature for Blaqbonez, and CKay was like, ‘I’ve got a song and I’ll be pleased if you’d like to do a verse on it’. It was a nice song, so I did it! We shot the video in Lagos, and a year later, the song is EVERYWHERE in the world, every corner! I told my manager, ‘in this world, you don’t know who is gonna blow.’” The song now resonates all over the planet, on which Kuami gives a shout out to his country: “come make you shake it for Ghana…”.
Despite the huge exposure of “Love Nwantiti”, it appears to be central for Kuami to remain relevant locally, at all costs. After asking why, the businessman showed his stripes: “Regardless of whatever happens, we get most of our money in Ghana”, he explains. “There are some endorsement deals in our country. International companies that come to settle in Ghana are gonna ask who is the biggest here. And I want them to hear Kuami, Kuami! When you come to Ghana, I’m on a billboard, I’m on radio, I’m on TV and it’s because I am what people locally want. I don’t want to leave, go international and lose what I have here. I need to figure out how to combine both and how to gain from both sides.”
Gaining from both sides was the objective behind Afro Highlife, the five-track EP he released last year which pays a clear homage to Ghana’s musical heritage. Once again, Kuami is not shy to speak about business: “The whole point of Afro Highlife is to dive into the Afrobeats market as well, but then again not go too far from what we’re doing: highlife music. I don’t want my people to be now saying ‘oh, Kuami is now selling out. He’s trying to make music internationally and not focus on us anymore’. The project actually pleases everyone. Internationally and locally.” He smiles when I ask him about any parallel between the 1970s and 1980s highlife singers, and the contemporary Ghanaian and Nigerian superstars. “We don’t do the kind of music they do anymore. There is more heavy bass now, there is more electronic, the beats and the rhythms are different. I mean, we need to change it because the world is evolving. But besides that, I think the similarities between what we do and what they used to do is the lyrics. Lyrics are just words and language. And we say the same things they used to say.”
Another similarity could be the constant dialogue between Ghana, Nigeria and the United Kingdom, very present today as it was already 60 years ago. This is something Kuami is also maintaining, currently getting ready for a show in London with his label mate KiDi. “London! I’m super excited about it”, he says with the biggest smile. “I can’t wait to be there. It’s just amazing. So many times we went to London to support people or to appear at shows, but this time we’re organizing this on our own. I’m so excited about this. It’s going on well and I hope from there we get more shows! From the UK we get to France, from France we go to the US, and from there we go everywhere, because that’s the goal we’re hoping for. Worldwide domination!” World, get ready for your first ever Ghanaian rockstar…