I didn’t know Ebony Reigns -not in any concrete way. We didn’t school together or share a circle of friends.
But I felt like I knew Ebony Reigns.
I recognized her in ways that I might recognize younger versions of myself. Ebony felt familiar. I have been following her career since her first major hit single Kupe* -an up-tempo jam about a suspicious lover who she demands more honesty and accountability from. The glossy video displays a dreadlocked Ebony navigating daily life with her male lover in their home, interspersed with sensual scenes of Ebony reflecting on the lack of respect, care and accountability that her lover provides. The chorus chimes “Nd3 wo b3 ti Kupe”** -a declaration of Ebony’s frustration with unrequited love. We see Ebony’s lover sneaking off to make private calls and we know that he occasionally goes to Kumasi under the guise of work meetings, only for Ebony to find out that he spends time with another girl named Belinda. On the surface, this song is just another tale of a woman chasing after a man that clearly does not want her or feels no sense of responsibility to their partnership. In the context of Ghana, men’s infidelity is often expected and rarely sanctioned; it is not uncommon to hear of wives who are well aware of their husbands cheating ways, but continue to stay for the kids, the resources, the social status of being married or the general pressure to maintain the status quo. However, for me, this song and Ebony’s particular demands reflect the possibility of a feminist defiance to this cultural expectation.
Similarly, in Date Ur Fada, Ebony tells her lover that she will do almost anything to win and sustain his love -with the stipulation that if he breaks her heart, she will date his father, ultimately to seek revenge. This bold and comical statement is a testament to Ebony’s fierce, resilient and justice-seeking spirit. While one might interrogate the pettiness of responding to heart break by dating the offender’s father, in the context of a patriarchal country like Ghana, women seek power and emotional justice in the ways that they can. Rather than retreat into herself, Ebony seeks emotional justice in a vindictive act. It is significant that she feels she is able to challenge the emotional abuse of a cheating spouse through a sexual act with the perpetrator’s father. Quite frankly, Ebony was not here for your opinions of her. She couldn’t care less about your respectability politics and appeared to live life on her own terms.
As far as I could tell, Ebony was not a feminist -at least, it was never something she declared. And we certainly don’t know what she could have become had she lived on. However, songs like Turn on the Lights reflected what was possible for a feminist sexual expression for young women in Ghana. The song is a confident, braggadocious statement of body positivity, encouraging her lover to keep the lights on during love-making as Ebony is not shy or uncomfortable with her body. There is often a perception that Ghanaian women are frigid or too conservative in the bedroom and certainly not comfortable with making love with the lights on. For Ebony, her body confidence allows her to challenge this construction of Ghanaian femininity in ways that we might consider feminist. Turning the lights on functions as a metaphor for her deep level of transparency, honesty and openness about her desire for sexual and bodily expression.
Admittedly, I have struggled with the new wave of dancehall music in Ghana as a reflection of a continued “de-Africanization” of our art; I sometimes feel that the rise of this genre demonstrates the increased capitalist pressures within the Ghanaian music industry to create music that is more “worldly” or globalized. I am also challenged by the appropriation of Rastafarianism within Ghanaian dancehall that cheapens the spiritual and political purpose of the faith. Ebony was not exempt from this critique. But still, it is significant that she was able to sustain a strong, healthy brand within the context of a male-dominated dancehall scene in Ghana. While I do not want to assume that the average Ghanaian girl can access the sexual power that comes with being a celebrity, I do think that Ebony’s image offered us something different. Existing in a hyper-masculine and hyper-sexualized industry in Ghana can be a bit of a mindfuck for women. The daily pressures to perform sexiness for the male gaze is even more complicated when one actually has their own desire to be sexual in their image. Was Ebony’s image actually liberatory or did it simply reflect the non-choices women have in mainstream patriarchal entertainment industries? I don’t seek to romanticize the challenges Ebony would have likely experienced, but I do wonder if we oversimplify the matter when we do not recognize her moments of agency.
And Ebony was never created in a vacuum; her image was made possible by the women who came before her such as Mzbel in Ghana, Tanya Stephens in Jamaica and yes, even Beyonce! There is a legacy of women artists who challenge the space made available for them in the music industry. Ebony was everything she wasn’t supposed to be. She was brave, daring, courageously sexual and in her words, a 90’s bad gyal. Her death hits me hard. For me, she represented the defiance of young womanhood. It was controversial, demanding, compelling and rooted in a Ghanaian experience. Ebony represents for me what is possible in a liberatory sexual politics for Ghanaian women. I didn’t agree with every song she sang -her messages could, at times, feel counter-feminist or downright tacky. But overall, Ebony’s presence in the music world signalled a new wave of bold, outspoken and clearly articulated sexual politics of young people in Ghana. Whether she was challenging us to fight domestic violence in songs like Maame Hw3 or she was reminding us of the depths of her pettiness post-heartbreak in Date Ur Fada, Ebony was never one to shy away from strong opinions. In a sociopolitical climate like Ghana, this matters.
Her popularity was the constant reminder to me that, indeed, we are not as socially conservative as we claim to be as Ghanaians. Nor should we be. The tattoos, piercings and scantily-clad clothing choices signalled to many conservatives that Ebony was “spoiling the youth”, when in fact Ebony existed at the cross section of sexual expression, empowered defiance and Blackgirljoy.
As I write this, I am sitting in my hotel room in Bangkok at the tail-end of a week filled with strategizing and organizing around sexworkers rights. Upon reflection of the challenges surrounding the fight for labour rights for sexworkers, I am continuously struck by common prohibitionist arguments that often position female sexworkers as needing to be rescued from a life of sexploitation. I have written in other spaces about how anti-sexworker laws affect all women who may be perceived as promiscuous, non-respectable or loose women. At the heart of the debate about a woman’s right to sell sex is the underlying patriarchal belief that women should not have the right to monetize or control how and when she engages in sexual expression. To be honest, I don’t know if Ebony would have supported sexwork. I don’t know much about her political consciousness. But I do know she provided a space (where before there was none) for young women to express sexual desire in ways that were unfuckwithable.
I am not sure what happens now. But I know that she will be missed and that what she did for our notions of femininity and womanhood in Ghana will be felt for years to come.
This is for Ebony, who taught us all how to be 90s bad gyals.
Reign in peace, chale.
*Not to be confused with her first actual single, “Dancefloor”.
**Today you will hear kupe!” –while I wasn’t able to find the exact translation of “kupe”, the general tone of the chorus suggests that she aims to set her lover straight.