When we think of artists making it “against the odds,” we rarely think of the “odds” in terms of those faced by Noella Wiyaala. The second of four daughters from the remote town of Funsi in the Upper West Region, her upbringing was typical of that area but decidedly a typical for that of a future performer. Until eight or nine years ago there was no electricity in Funsi, life was remote, and to be born a woman meant a future of early marriage, servitude, and no such thing as a dream to attain. Regardless of all these obstacles, Wiyaala seemed to know from a young age that she was destined for different things, with a telling tale: “When I was about five years old, my mum and dad had a fight and she took me and my sisters to Tamale to spend some time with an auntie.” She says, “We were waiting for her in a local pitou bar and I entertained the patrons with singing and dancing. They enjoyed my performance so much they threw coins for me and I swept them up and gave them to my mother and told her that when I grew up I would get more money for singing and dancing.”
The odds of this were still pretty steep, regardless of the fact that she sang regularly in church. But she was tireless, continuing, “I also used to organize the children in the village to put on shows for the my grandfather who was the village chief. We had a generator in the village and occasionally we would get to watch TV. I saw a video of Madonna in her song “Take A Bow” and that inspired me to dress up and imitate her. I instinctively knew I could do what she was doing.”
Decamping from the small environs of Funsi to the larger town of Wa was where she got her first start, joining the local music scene that centered around Echo Soundz recording studios, hanging around to get studio time and getting her voice heard as a mostly unpaid session singer. From this she managed to record her first record, Tuma (Work), which she sang in Sissala and which gave her some local exposure. The Northern region though, can be quite a remote and isolated place and she knew that she would have to venture south if she wanted to fulfil her dreams of reaching a wider audience, so she made the big decision to head to the capital, Accra, to audition for Ghana’s Stars of the Future. No overnight success story, it took her three attempts before she was able to reach the finals. A brief spell in the group Black ‘n’ Peach paved the way for her to establish herself as a solo artist and sign with Djimba World Records. And she hasn’t looked back since.
In the Ghanaian musical landscape, where the majority of women tend to embrace the “high fashion” and pristine looking aesthetic, Wiyaala stands out. This wasn’t a calculated move, just a natural one, and although she is routinely compared to Grammy award winning Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo or cultural icon Grace Jones, she is entirely herself, explaining: “When I entered the reality shows in Accra, the music industry people always used to advise us how we should look and what we should sing. But after I won Vodafone Icons in 2012 and later went solo, my manager encouraged me to be myself. As a teenager I had always been a tom-boy with my own ideas about how I should look. I’ve always been creative about making my own clothing. So I cut my hair and I designed my own outfits. Why should I wear ‘Brazilian’ weaves or western outfits when we have our own beautiful African prints and beads to promote? I love my short curly hair and my black skin dressed with an African inspired look.” Her Afro centrism is refreshing for someone that is making waves on international stages, becoming a veteran of the music festival circuit this summer, and playing Shambala, Greenbelt, and Freedom Festivals in England.
Her background and upbringing still heavily informs her music. “I love to sing about my local culture in my own languages of Sissala and Waale. Songs like ‘Siiko’ and ‘Sun & Moon’ are inspired by the environment I grew up in. ‘Siiko’ tells of how we used to sit and play under the moonlight. The old men would tell stories, the women would gossip whilst the kids would happily play games. It was a time of community which we should try to reclaim. Let’s not forget who we were and where we come from.”
There are also many issues in a still-evolving Ghanaian society that she highlights through her association with UNICEF and has become a role model for young women with her strong lyrics and independent “do-it-yourself” attitude that many young marginalized women are inspired by. “I could see how girls and women were disadvantaged in a patriarchal society.” She says, “FGM [Female Genital Mutilation], child marriage and lack of educational opportunities for girls are easy to see as injustices, so I just automatically spoke out about these things. When I became better known because of music, people started to notice. When I sing ‘I need a man to Rock My Body,’ I’m really saying ‘look girls, you have the right to choose who will rock your body. It’s not up to men to decide for you!'” She hopes other women in a similar position to she was will, “Fight for your own education, for that brings economic independence and the freedom to make your own choices in life.”
Her hopes for the future are large for Ghana, where she points out the stark realities of life and notes, “We need to see an end to the endemic corruption we have in all levels of Ghanaian life so that the people may benefit from improved education, healthcare, and infrastructure.” As for herself, she dreams of huge success on an international stage, “Not because I want to ride around in a Rolls Royce or a private jet. I just want to prove that a small African girl from humble origins is good enough to get to the very top. I hope it may inspire my sisters from the village to know that everything is possible.”