It was in 2011 that Fuse ODG had an awakening. Frustrated with his experiences growing up in south London, he decided to take a trip to Ghana, the country of his birth. “I saw a whole new Africa that I had never seen on TV,” he says. “You’re just a human here, you don’t feel like a minority. It feels like home. That’s the energy I got from coming back: peace of mind.”
That trip was a catalyst for what happened next: a string of hit Afrobeats singles that melded old African highlife rhythms with western rap and R&B melodies. Now, the 30-year-old is about to release his second album, New Africa Nation, which comes hand in hand with a vastly more ambitious project: to build schools, bring together communities and change the way Africa is perceived.
Today, we are in the birthplace of that project – the mountains of Akosombo in Ghana. With its pink sunsets and dense green foothills, it is as close to Eden as you will find on Earth. Here, Fuse tells me about his vision. “It’s like Marcus Garvey said: ‘A people without a knowledge of its history is like a tree without its roots.’ If we can learn our history through visiting where we’re from, we’ll understand that we actually come from royalty; that our history is full of leaders.”
Leader is a fitting title for Fuse. He’s a standard-bearer for Afrobeats, the music of West Africa’s youth, which has flourished among the diaspora in places such as Britain, where the sons and daughters of African immigrants have warped the music with the sounds of their surroundings. For Fuse, this was a tough estate in south London, where he saw friends killed and discriminated against. “Even though I’m a happy person,” he says, “I was likely to have a down time in the UK. You step into someone’s institution or building and you get treated a certain way. It’s not nice. It makes you feel less of a human being.”
After his trip, Fuse decided to put Ghana at the forefront of his music, taking the local Azonto dance to a global audience. The dance is a rhythmic thrusting and jerking of arms, ankles and hips that he packaged into a viral hit single of the same name. Subsequent singles, Million Pound Girl and Dangerous Love, reached the UK’s Top 5. The continent now informs everything he does. “I love myself more now,” he says. “Africa has done that for me. And if you love yourself, you’ll be able to love other people; you value them how you value yourself.”
This sentiment is perhaps why he turned down the Band Aid 30 single with Bob Geldof in 2014. He found himself unable to recognise the Africa painted in the lyrics, for example: “No peace and joy this Christmas in West Africa.” He wrote in the Guardian at the time: “I, like many others, am sick of the whole concept of Africa – a resource-rich continent with unbridled potential – always being seen as diseased, infested and poverty-stricken.”
New Africa Nation is designed to change that image, and not just through music. Its first physical outpost is a primary school carved into a clearing on a mountain in Akosombo, built by Fuse’s team for the students scattered across the valleys. I join Fuse on a trip to the school with some of his friends, who have gathered to paint the classrooms and raise funds for a secondary school. The sky is bleached blue, birds screech in the trees and Fuse is standing on the mountain addressing the students. “We need to have conversations about how we can build the continent and have successful businesses,” he says. “From schools to festivals to everything else that we’re building together as a community, as black people. With that, we’ll be self-sustainable.”
This is the motivation for the rallying call that is New Africa Nation. The album opens with Bra Fie (“come home” in the Ghanaian dialect of Twi), an animated duet with Damian Marley, where Fuse wails: “Don’t forget where you are from … We are one.” It is a show of strength and solidarity – African and Caribbean people arm in arm, separated by water, but bonded by blood and history.
“Your family members, you need to reunite with them,” says Fuse. “It’s so important for them to come back home because, spiritually, this is where they’re from. Their soul is here, their ancestors are from here. If we move together then we’re stronger as black people.”
This mood is carried through the album. Stirring melodies are ministered over jazzy Afrobeats production, with lyrics that call to his fellow Africans to link arms and build a new nation from within – featuring a Twi-speaking Ed Sheeran on Boa Me, a song they wrote and recorded together after a trip to the school.
Days later at Fuse’s Tina (This Is New Africa) festival in the capital city of Accra, people flock to an arena by the beach. The atmosphere inside is everything Fuse had hoped for: African people of all backgrounds celebrating the sounds of the diaspora.
We dance to UK Afro-swing and Ghanaian Afrobeats, and watch British-born artists such as Kojo Funds and Skepta alongside African giants such as Joey B and D’banj. Fuse comes out in traditional kente cloth to serenade the crowd, his vision for Africa slowly taking shape.
I stop by Fuse’s sprawling mansion in Accra the next day. He sits in his home studio reflecting on the success of the shows and the schools. “This would have never happened years ago,” he says, a long white robe covering his frame, “because we never valued Africa, we were not really proud to be Africans. We wanted to dissociate ourselves, due to how they perceive us in the media: that Africa is a jungle, people are dying.”
He feels that Africa has, for too long, been judged on a scale in which money is equated with happiness. “It’s easier to take from someone if the person doesn’t value what they have,” he continues. “But we come from a place of peace, a place of love, and that, in itself, is a powerful weapon to be able to face the world with. Knowing where you are from can build who you are.”
These are not featherweight mantras for Fuse: the schools he envisioned are now occupied or under construction, offering an education to children who had gone without; across the country, supermarkets are lined with some of his products, including the Nana dolls, toys intended to foster an appreciation of dark skin tones for black boys and girls. There were conferences at the festival, too, with economists and politicians on the panel. Here, Africans from all over the globe who had relocated to Ghana could speak on their experience of returning home, voice their joys and their obstacles. Work is also under way for the first direct flight connecting Africa and the Caribbean, “putting a system in place where we can travel freely to see each other”.
Fuse is not rushing things. “One step at a time,” he says. “We have come a long way. But you have got to be patient. Sometimes, you have a vision, but it takes a while for reality to catch up.”
But he is keen to keep pushing on, relaying the reality of Africa to the world, and using his music as a vessel for a mission larger than himself. “Music doesn’t need a passport to travel,” he says. “We’ll use it to gather our people together. Come to the school. Let’s build, let’s build!”