Roots, Routes, and Return: Birth of Ghana
By Danielle Welbeck
'This day will never be forgotten
The sixth of March, Nineteen Fifty-Seven
When the Gold Coast successfully
Get their independence officially '
On 5th March 1957, the eve of Ghana’s independence, multitudes gathered in Independence Square, Accra, to usher in Ghana becoming a free nation. Representatives from many countries gathered to celebrate this momentous occasion, including the then American Vice-President Nixon whose delegation included Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Trinidadian Pan-Africanists George Padmore and C.L.R James were also in attendance as personal guests of then Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah. Fireworks lit up the sky, and the crowds roared as Nkrumah declared Ghana ‘free forever’.
The Union Jack – the symbol of the British Empire – that once flew tall above the people was lowered and a new flag of red, gold, green with a black star in the middle was erected in its place. As Ghana celebrates sixty-six years of independence this year, I take a look at some of the musicking that was taking place throughout the diaspora and its relationship to this seismic event.
Trinidadian Calypso Lord Kitchener (18 April 2022 – 11 February 2000) is an important figure in the context of music of the African Diaspora. He received international acclaim as a Calypsonian, appearing on the BBC as he disembarked the Empire Windrush in 1948. There he performed his calypso ‘London is the Place for Me’, which went on to become a poignant visual and sonic image of diaspora and generational migration.
‘Birth of Ghana’ shows that Ghana’s independence was a pertinent and momentous occasion for black people across the diaspora, as the song establishes a diasporic connection between Ghana, the UK and Trinidad. Here we are presented with the tension between the national and the Pan-African, which is present in African nationalism. As the first Black country (aside of course, from Haiti and Ethiopia) to gain its independence from colonial powers, Ghana was presented as the place where freedom is located during the independence era. It was understood that the borders of Ghana were contingent, not necessary; the Freedom that had been birthed in Ghana was accessible to others.
In 1957 Kitchener wrote the calypso ‘Birth of Ghana’ to celebrate Ghana’s independence. The title highlights that regaining independence marked the start of a new beginning. This sentiment is echoed in 'Ghana Freedom Highlife' by E.T. Mensah where he uses both Gold Coast and Ghana to describe a place that had the same physical boundaries, as well as by Nkrumah who describes consciencism, his philosophical theory for decolonisation, as a philosophical statement that will be ‘born; from the disparate ideas of Islam, European Christianity and traditional African society. For the previously colonised African country, formal decolonisation is a creative process that after synthesising disparate peoples, philosophies, and cultures, gestates this fragile entity and births it into a nation.
Before its use in this context, ‘Ghana’ was a word meaning ‘Warrior King’ and a title given to the kings of the medieval West African Empire of the same name located in modern-day Senegal, Mauritania, and Mali. In a speech to the Legislative Assembly on the 18th May 1956, Nkrumah explained that
‘[t]he name “Ghana” is deeply rooted to ancient African history especially in the history of the western portion of Africa known as the Western Sudan. It kindles in the imagination of modern African youth the grandeur and the achievement of a great medieval civilization which our ancestors developed many centuries before European penetration and subsequent domination of Africa began’.
The use of the name Ghana with its connotations of Warrior Kings, and additional context of this being the first country in Black Africa to regain its independence from colonial powers, entrenches ideas of a fierce defence of freedom and liberation that is not only pertinent to citizens of Ghana but also the wider diaspora. We are made to understand that there is a connection to a legacy and an ancestry. Independence, like birth, is a significant date for Ghana and indeed the wider diaspora, but it is by no means the beginning or end of the story.
Moving then from the broad political environment to looking at the song lyrics themselves, after telling the story of the gestation of Ghana, including the role of Kwame Nkrumah, the lyrics then turn to look at the central image of nation – the flag – and its significations. Kitchener sings
'The flag is a lovely scene
With beautiful colour, Red, Gold and Green
And a Black star in the centre representing the freedom of Africa'
It is significant that this image of the nation is being explained musically in ‘Birth of Ghana’, because the tension between the national and the Pan-African is present in both the sonic and the visual image. Kitchener is a Trinidadian Calypsonian, living in London, singing a calypso song about Ghanaian independence. The flag uses the Pan-African colours, drawing a relationship between the national and the Pan-African. The image of the nation is not only an image of freedom for Ghana but in fact, of freedom for the wider African diaspora. It is commonly agreed that the red, gold, and green colours represent the bloodshed during the fight for independence, the mineral wealth of the nation, and the natural wealth and rainforest.
The black star in the centre that Kitchener describes as representing the ‘freedom of Africa’ was used by Jamaican-born Black nationalist and Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey in the Black Star Line, the steamship that facilitated the transportation of goods and eventually of African Americans throughout the Black Atlantic. The Black Star Line also became a key part of Garvey’s contribution to the Back-to-Africa movement. It is striking that the origins of these images of Ghanaian nationhood are themselves Pan-African.
As thousands of Diasporans flock to Ghana in December, and indeed throughout the year, it remains true that the values of ‘Freedom and Justice’ are felt, not only by Ghanaians, but by black people across the world.