The LargeUp Interview: Stonebwoy On How Dancehall Conquered Ghana 🇬🇭

February 21, 2024

Words by Jesse Serwer
Illustration by Jah Banks


Afrobeats may be the dominant sound of today’s West Africa but in Ghana you won’t travel far without hearing the sounds of reggae and dancehall cutting through the air. That’s due not only to the country’s well-established affinity for Jamaican music, but also the rise of homegrown Afro-dancehall in recent years.

No one has lifted Ghana’s dancehall movement higher than Livingstone Etse Satekla, better known as Stonebwoy. Not only is Stonebwoy one of the most popular reggae and dancehall acts across Africa, he’s earned the respect and adulation of discerning Caribbean audiences as well. One of a small handful of foreign dancehall acts to have graced the stage at Jamaica’s signature music festival, Reggae Sumfest, he’s collaborated with the likes of Beenie Man, Dexta Daps, Kabaka Pyramid, I-Octane and Sean Paul.

In 2023, Stonebwoy dropped his major-label debut, 5th Dimension, through Def Jam Records. The backing from one of the world’s most iconic music labels is proof that Afro-dancehall is not just a niche concern, but globally significant. Even as the album finds Stonebwoy continuing to broaden his musical range, reggae and dancehall remain at the core of his identity.

I jumped on a Zoom call a while back with Stonebwoy to discuss the origins and growth of Ghana’s booming dancehall scene, as well as his own rise to the top of its food chain. We discussed how dancehall first entered popular consciousness in Ghana, how he came to specialize in it, and the shared cultural lineage that resonates so deeply between Ghanaians and Jamaicans.

For a visual component, we commissioned artist Jah Banks to hand paint an original illustration of Stonebwoy that would speak to the conversation’s themes. The artwork is inspired by the classic Jamaican dancehall art from the ’80s as well as the hand-painted movie poster style from Ghana, which has become world renowned in recent years. Yet, much in the way that Stonebwoy fuses dancehall and Ghanaian flavor to create something new, the result is something unique.

LargeUp: What was your first introduction to dancehall music?

Stonebwoy: It was reggae songs. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Lucky Dube, Senzo. Primary school times. I should have been around seven or eight. [CJ Lewis’ 1995 single] “The R to the A,” all them times there is when I was actually paying attention to what ragga was.

LargeUp: Today, everyone gets all the same music at the same time, all around the world. Back then, it could take years for a song to travel across the ocean. 

Stonebwoy: It’s not like immediately as it got released that it would hit Ghana. But it doesn’t take too long for music to break through. A world hit record is a world hit record. I think people in Africa will gravitate to it to the extent where it will surprise the artists, if they came down, to realize how big their songs were in Africa at the time.

LargeUp: When did you start to hear reggae and dancehall from local Ghanaian artists and how did it impact you?

Stonebwoy: The local ones I started hearing from were Rocky Dawuni and Felix BellBlack Prophet, Sonni Balli… These are the local names you would hear around those times when I was around the age of 10. Late 1990s. Some of these artists were doing reggae songs but they had that ragga deejay style. You know how ragga deejaying is a way of throwing lines in there without singing them necessarily? It had that style. The Sonni Ballis and Black Prophets and the Yogie Doggys and Terry Bonchakas, these are the names that were on that ledge. Both styles broke through at the same time.

LargeUp: What were some of the first local records you heard that made you say, I can do this, too?

Stonebwoy: Growing up, I was singing in church and school. I knew that I was musically inclined. The most popularly spoken local dialect that is used for music is Twi. But I am not Twi. So when I use Twi, it sounds… not right. That didn’t encourage me to take on the local style, which was highlife music. I thought I would like to do something that people can understand. Because we were all going to school and being taught English, I could express myself in English as well. And I can express myself in my local dialect, Anloga. I could ask my parents if I didn’t understand something and I wanted to get the words well, to compose music.

My vision and inspiration was to go beyond the language barrier. And enter into a certain musical style that could also allow me to express myself but is going to appeal to an international audience. And the local audience because I could still blend the local style. This was how I got inspired. I’ve always known that I could but [the question was]: How am I going to do it?

LargeUp: What was the first dancehall song to break out as a major hit?

I can only speak on from when my eyes started opening to realize. Locally at the time there was Samini, with one other highlife artist that the song broke viral. Sonni Balli broke a record with one female singer. These were the songs that broke dancehall around those times, and many more followed.

LargeUp: How did Jamaican patois become a part of how you, and other Ghanaian artists, express yourselves? When we speak of patois, we are basically speaking of African language  that Afro Jamaicans adapted over time to new surroundings. That certain expressions may be re-crossing the Atlantic is fascinating to think about.

Stonebwoy: I like this question. You admit that Jamaicans reflect the local African dialect, and African languages in that format. Because the way they speak, it has African intonation to it. It has similar flow and similar approach. On that note, we can already relate to the Jamaican culture. Africans relate to the Jamaican sound not only because Jamaica brought about the sound, but these are also Africans from the Western Hemisphere. We are all Africans. It goes beyond the physical looks and into the DNA and the cultural habits that we have had, that has lived on and been passed through generations. If you ask me how, this is the link that we have. So Ghanaians can speak their own patois as well. Yes, [Jamaicans] are the originators of the patois language. But we could relate, we could connect.

What words from Jamaica are already in Ghanaian dialect? Things you might say regularly but you could go, wait a minute, that’s a Jamaican term?

Stonebwoy: You find [terms] like “E deh deh”: It’s there. Africans have always had a pidgin language that says “e dey dey.” There is no other way I could say “it’s there” in a pidgin form, where I wouldn’t say “e deh deh.” Like patois, West Africans have their own Pidgin English that is 70 percent similar to patois. Even amongst Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and Ghanaians, it is the same, but the intonation and the accent is different somehow. So the patois vibe has been inside of us for a long, long time. If I want to say That’s how it is, it would be: ‘So e dey.’ Jamaicans might say ‘suh it set.’ That’s what makes it so easy for us to connect. It’s a part of us as well.

LargeUp: We know that Jamaicans who are of African descent, which is most Jamaicans, can trace their roots to West Africa, with Ghana being the most direct link. How would you describe the connection between Jamaican and Ghanaian people? When you speak to a Jamaican, do you feel like you’re speaking to a neighbor, as opposed to someone from the other side of the world… or are there certain things that you’ve noticed that are different?

Stonebwoy: It feels really close. These are our people, we are similar, we are one people.

LargeUp: What are some surprising, or eye-opening, conversations you’ve had with people from Jamaica and the Caribbean on this topic?

Stonebwoy: The conversations just unearth the fact that we are one people. Like, with food. Rice and peas is originally Waakye, a dish from Ghana. The balled corn, the roasted plantain. The pumpkins, the dumplings. Some conversations, we’ll be like, Yo bro, you know we’re one. That’s how conversations go every time I’m in Jamaica, or the Caribbean. You realize the similarity. That one was born out of the other. From music to lifestyle, everything.

LargeUp: What was your breakthrough song as far as dancehall, and people knowing you as a dancehall artist?

Stonebwoy: That would be 2009 when I dropped “Over the hills and valley, from mountaintop to the gully…” [sings “Hills & Valley”] One big tune. That’s what broke me into the dancehall fraternity. Before then, I had singles, and reggae songs from the start. I jumped straight up into doing my style, reggae/dancehall style, straight up.

LargeUp: I heard there was a dancehall competition where you got your start, can you tell me about that?

Stonebwoy: That was not a dancehall event, that was a radio program called Kasahari, hosted by Dr. Duncan on ADOM FM, that gave an opportunity to everybody to shine. I was on that program from its inception, and I murdered everybody til today. In that time, I was in Senior High School 1 to Senior High School 3, from age 14 to age 18. I would have to go to Kasahari every weekend. To showcase my talent. If you lost the battle, you don’t come back. I had been going on and on and on.

By the time I got out of senior high school, I had a very strong core fanbase because that program was played on national radio, in every corner. I had a huge [catalog] of material from the underground. It was all genres. I would pair up with anybody who did reggae or dancehall, and anybody who could sing. Because I could sing. Typically I would pair up somebody who could do the ragga ragga.

LargeUp: Did other big artists come through?

Stonebwoy: Yes, that was where [I] met all the big artists at the time. Everybody had to go through Kasahari. That was the hottest weekend program in the country. I don’t know what to compare it with in America. Samini was a bigger artist at the time, and we connected right on the program. After senior year in high school, he invited me to join his camp, and he was my mentor for four years, from 2008 to 2012.

LargeUp: Was Samini the first Ghanaian dancehall superstar?

Stonebwoy: He was the first to gain prominence to the levels. He was the first artist to win a MOBO award in the U.K.. And the first to sign a brand ambassador deal with a telecommunications company. That was huge. And I was his prodigy. He had a lot of people in his camp, but I am really still grateful for the opportunity he gave me, to pull me along. I moved on from the High Grade Family to BHIM Nation.

LargeUp: Many countries have locally popular reggae and dancehall artists, but they tend to stay local. They just don’t translate internationally. When did you start to notice that what you were doing in Ghana was actually being embraced outside of the country as well, and where?

Stonebwoy: There were some apps that were being used at the time. People would play your song who lived abroad. They would send you a video, and be like Yeah, look at that. Somebody was banging  your song in Japan, or the UK. Then you know some people are gravitating to the song. I don’t think YouTube had even really emerged at that time. We were just dealing with the traditional means. There were a few online apps that could let you know your music has broken through here and there by word of mouth. Because we were a colony of the British, I think any Ghanaian artist who broke through overseas would have to tell you they broke through in the U.K. first.

LargeUp: Zimbabwe is another country in Africa, where dancehall has become really popular… 

Yes, Zimbabwe and Uganda. In Zimbabwe and Uganda, I am one of the most popular international artists right now. They are doing their own thing as well, but they know wah gwaan. They know what’s going on in Ghana. When it comes to the international scope of reggae and dancehall [in Africa], Ghana is the champion as far as we know. Especially the work input and the levels that we have always been commanding.

LargeUp: Can you talk about the competition within Ghana. Obviously you have a well known rivalry with one artist there, but is it like that across the board? In Jamaica, dancehall is very competitive. Describe the competition reggae brings out. 

Stonebwoy: It is similar to the competition in music everywhere, not only in the reggae and dancehall fraternity. As I speak to you, there is some new beef going on with two rappers that are females. There is always going to be competition. Life itself is a competition on its own. If it becomes dirty, it will have a toll on everybody. It should be a healthy competition. You have to compete against yourself to be the better version of yourself every time. If your competition is targeted at somebody then you’ve already lost. You are going to be working and moving at the pace of that person.

LargeUp: Why does the media in Ghana sensationalize the competition in dancehall so much. I have a Google Alert set for the word “dancehall,” and so many of the articles I get sent are hyping gossip about dancehall artists from Ghana.

Stonebwoy: Wow, that’s crazy. That means Ghana is on the map. Ghanaians, they are a passionate people. We are passionate. As human beings, we all have emotions. Whatever we do with music, emotions are going to be affiliated. Nobody is emotionless. If you are emotionless, you are not alive, you are actually dead. But compassion drives you to do a lot of things for what you believe in.

LargeUp: How has reggae and dancehall in Ghana grown over the last few years?

Stonebwoy: The whole [dancehall] movement has actually done a lot for Ghana. The example is my own self. We’ve done a lot for the country with the reggae/dancehall vibes that we have, and I’ve always embraced. Over the past years it has grown. It is the leading genre for the country right now, internationally.

LargeUp: When did you start to see that the dancehall core, particularly in Jamaica, was really recognizing you? There is dancehall and reggae in every country. But very little of that is accepted in Jamaica, or even recognized at all. There’s such a fast pace of new music there, so there has always been very little room people have to explore foreign versions of their own music. 

Stonebwoy: If you want people to care about you, then you have to know what to do. I have my PR team in Jamaica so, when I get in there, I go straight to work and put in one or two interviews and all of that. You know the channels. It doesn’t happen automatically, except [if] it’s a huge news. It has to be newsworthy to get picked up automatically. Other than that, you have to speak your news. You have to find a way into the news.

LargeUp: What put you on the map in Jamaica?

Stonebwoy: When I started linking and doing collaborations with a few Jamaican artists, names like Morgan Heritage. They start looking into you. Another part is when I won Best International Artist from BET in 2015. That was like global news. It put on from that time.

LargeUp: You make afrobeats tracks and other styles of music as well. What are Ghanaian listeners demanding the most from you?

Stonebwoy: They want to hear Stonebwoy. Stonebwoy is a versatile artist that touches everything and anything, and has a very big musical background, but his style is afrobeats and reggae and dancehall mostly. They are open to new things when it comes up. It is not a box, it’s all spread across.

LargeUp: Who else should we credit for the growth of reggae and dancehall in Ghana?

Stonebwoy: Big ups to all the DJs. There’s been reggae DJs that have been there and supported the whole movement. We are talking about Black Rasta, who is a strictly reggae DJ, we are talking about King Lagazee, we are talking about Mr. Logic who also used to produce the whole movement. We are talking about Rude Ty, even cut across to DJ Black in the country. I can only mention a few that come to mind off the top of my head but there are a lot. DJ Justice, all of them keep running things.

LargeUp: What about producers?

Stonebwoy: Beatz Dakay, [Mix Master] Garzy, and StreetBeatz. These ones have been there running things. Another one called Fox Beats, he produced “Motion” featuring Jahmiel. And MOG Beatz. All these man dem have been very instrumental in the production bit.