When Noella Wiyaala was eight, her family moved from the relatively large town of Wa in the Upper West Region of Ghana to the village of Funsi. It was quite an adjustment. In Wa, there had been electricity and sugar. In Funsi, it was pitch-black at night, and porridge was sweetened with shea butter, which wasn’t sweet at all. In Wa, she had blended in — but in Funsi, she was treated as an oddity, a city slicker with highfalutin’ ways, especially because her mother insisted that the children attend the local Catholic school.
“Nobody was going to school in the compound house, and we were the only people that came out with toothbrushes,” she says of her morning routine, conducted in the glare of village life. “You are cleaning your teeth and they are watching you like, ‘Eihhh! They have money, they have a toothbrush, they have toothpaste.’”
It was not only her toothbrush and school attendance that set her apart. Wiyaala, now an Afro-pop singer who has just embarked on tour of European music festivals, stuck out in other ways too.
“When I was small, the young children would call me ‘man-woman’ because of my muscles. They were like, ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’” Wiyaala liked to wear trousers, and when she asked her father to buy her a pair for Christmas, he too made fun of her.
Her father, who had a rare civil service job, was desperate for a son. Instead, he had four daughters with Wiyaala’s mother, and moved on to a second wife and then a third in his quest for male progeny. The girls kept coming, Wiyaala says with a smirk. To this day, her father has no son.
After the family moved into former nurses’ quarters, one of the village’s best buildings, there was a generator, meaning that there was power for three hours every evening. “You have to finish cooking quickly. By 6.30pm you’re all done, you’ve eaten and you are waiting. Then they turn on the lights and you go, ‘yeah, light on, light on!’ Then you put on your TV,” she says, emulating the wide-eyed reaction of the children.
It was the music videos she watched on television, and later on borrowed VHS tapes, that spurred her own interest in music. She remembers seeing Madonna for the first time. “Of course, now I know that it was green-screen, but then it looked like she was in the sky, flying. I was like, ‘Oh my God, how’s she able to do that?’”
Wiyaala gradually began to perform in public, especially after her family moved to the larger town of Tumu. There she won a dance competition at the age of 13, improvising a costume from her mother’s tablecloth and other borrowed items. She improved her English by writing out song lyrics phonetically and committing them to memory.
When her family finally moved back to Wa, she started earning money as a backing singer. But her university education was cut short by a lack of funds. In Accra, the Ghanaian capital, where she tried out for reality TV shows, her tomboy image held her back. Music producers saw her as a “bush girl from the village”. By her mid-twenties, her hopes of success were fading.
That all changed when, in 2012, she entered Vodafone Icons, a Ghanaian equivalent of Britain’s Got Talent, and won — partly thanks to a naturally powerful voice that meant she could carry off crowd-pleasing songs such as Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best”.
Wiyaala, who sometimes calls herself the Lioness of Africa, still sings in English. But with growing recognition in Ghana, where she is known as much for her androgynous look and stances on topics such as female genital mutilation (FGM), she has started singing in her native Sissala and Waale languages. Her second album, released last December, is called Sissala Goddess. She describes the sound as “pop African traditional”.
The songs, which she writes herself, come about, she says, in much the same way as music composed in the village. There, people sit around banging out a rhythm on a drum and extemporising lyrics out of everyday events: a bird flew by, the church is full of people, there’s a marriage or a funeral or a romantic scandal.
“Village Sex”, a recent video release, opens with a lewd all-male conversation about what makes a woman “sweet”. It quickly morphs into a song and accompanying video in which a confident Wiyaala whips the boys into a frenzy. “Back in my village, we have our own style of sexy,” she says, adding — perhaps in deference to her mother’s strong Catholic faith — that couples should get married first.
Wiyaala says she has decided to be beautiful on her own terms, refusing to make concessions to producers in Accra who wanted her to dress a certain way or to lighten her skin. “Music directors in Ghana have the nerve to tell darker-complexioned girls like us that the camera works better with lighter skin,” she says, her voice rising with scorn.
Before she had established a look sometimes compared to Grace Jones, people asked her to be more feminine. “Shake a bit of booty. You know how they do it in America and Europe. People will think you are from the zoo,” she recalls being told. “I said, ‘No. This is beautiful. This is our culture and if there’s anybody who can sell this culture, it is people like me. Because I was born here.’”
Wiyaala is known for her bold, angular costumes and exaggerated jewellery, much of which she sews or makes herself based on village designs. Sometimes she wears dresses traditionally worn for war, or those used by practitioners of juju magic. She has campaigned against FGM and child marriage — but also defends village culture, which she hopes her performances can bring to a wider audience. She cites not only music and fashion, but also the sense of community and village customs, such as dispute resolution mechanisms and deference to elders. She prefaces many of her songs on stage with a detailed explanation of how they fit into village customs.
“Everywhere you go, the traditions are both negative and positive,” she says when pressed about the misogyny and poverty she has struggled so hard to escape. “I have decided to go with the positive.”