When Pollstar caught up with Chance The Rapper in early January he had just returned a day earlier from an enormously challenging, wildly successful and seemingly impossible feat: putting on a free festival and conference in Accra, Ghana for 52,000. His voice was shot and his exhaustion palpable, but his enthusiasm for what he and his team had just accomplished was energizing. To hear him tell it, it was destiny with so many different strands connecting. Maybe it was his best friend, rapper Vic Mensa, who is half Ghanaian, urging him for years to come. Or maybe learning just before his arrival that his great-grandparents had helped build a school and churches there. Or that he got news of becoming a judge on “The Voice,” just as the bill came due for the fest. Whatever it was, the inaugural Black Star Line Festival (named for Marcus Garvey’s black-owned global shipping line from 1919), included a 6-day conference with performances by Mensa, Erykah Badu, T-Pain, Jeremih, Sarkodie, Tobe Nwigwe, Asakaa Boys and M.anifest along with special guests Dave Chappelle, Sway and Talib Kweli, went off without a hitch. We caught up with Chance to get the deets.
Pollstar: How did you first connect to Ghana?
Chance The Rapper: The thing that spoke to me the most when I first got to Ghana was the art. Ghana’s like in a renaissance right now in terms of the painters, sculptors and photographers coming out of Accra. I went to Ghana my first time to visit my friend Vic (Mensa), but he had other stuff to do. So much of my time I spent in the company of this group of artists who showed me around and took me to the waterfalls and the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, where I learned about the history, the global black identity and Pan-Africanism. He was the first African president of Ghana who I’d never heard of. It was so many things I got introduced to through the art scene.
Did your great-grandma help build a church there?
When I was about to get on the first flight, I texted my aunt in the family group chat because I knew she had done work in Africa. I was like, “Yo, I’m on my way. Is there anybody you think I should connect with?” And she was like, “You should do a geography class because I worked in South Africa.” But she was like, “If you ask your aunts or grandmother, or uncles, or basically anybody in your family, they’ve been going back and forth to Ghana since the ‘70s.” It was a complete shock because I didn’t think a lot of my family traveled outside of Chicago. I was completely stunned. But yeah, it turned out they had built a school and two churches. I met a young girl who came by the conference who had graduated from the school.
Wow. We know how difficult it is to mount a festival and I know you’ve mounted fests in the U.S., but how do you do it in Ghana?
The difficulty wasn’t that it was in Ghana, the difficulty was that I was in another country. If I was Ghanaian trying to put together a concert in California, it’d be the same level of difficulty. The issue is not that the infrastructure’s not there, that the workers aren’t experienced. Accra in December is probably one of the busiest cities for festivals in the world. There’s literally like 20 different festivals going on. And it’s a lot of the same production companies and subletters providing equipment and manpower for these festivals. The learning curve was just working overseas, being on the phone every day, the time change, gathering all the insurance information and having a different lawyer and it was all overseas. The main difficulty was the timeframe. I landed for the first time a year from the date of the actual concert on Jan. 6, 2022, and the festival took place Jan. 6, 2023. So putting that together in a year’s time was mad difficult and the combination of many teams.
Who’s your team?
Well first my brother, Taylor Bennett, he’s part of my management team. There was a production manager, David Salako, a Nigerian American dude I’ve worked with on my nonprofit events. I worked with him for the first time this past year in Chicago on a 15,000-person festival at the DuSable Museum for Juneteenth. Kevin Puig, he’s been my personal production manager for many years, handled a lot of stuff. Kojo Poku runs Big Ideas, a Ghanaian production company in Accra. Rudolph was our second production manager on the ground in Ghana. There were two production warehouses between Silicon and Big Ideas that provided most of the equipment. And then my team in collaboration with the team at BBNZ in Ghana, which was run by a guy named Alvin. It was a lot of people and that’s not even a small percentage of the team.
Were you getting your hands dirty with all the logistics?
I was on the phone literally every day. I’m in meetings with vendors, security, the government. The space we used, Independent Square, is not only a national landmark but also a political space where they still do political addresses. It’s where Ghana announced its independence from British colonialism. I had to be hands-on for it to be exactly what I wanted, which was a free convention for Black folks from across the globe, from the islands, South America, Toronto, Tulsa, Redding and Leeds, Asia.
How was the conference programmed?
The festival was presented by myself and Vic. His family is from Ghana and he spent his childhood going there every year and recently became reconnected and started going every winter. We had been planning a conference at the University of Ghana for many months and at the last moment it wasn’t able to happen. So Vic and a few other friends of his in the activism and arts communities put together a panel of a bunch of different minds to come and speak at the Accra International Conference Center of Ghana and do a series of panels. The goal was to have a free convening of the minds for the week and it wasn’t just producing days of events. We also had a Pan-African conference, we had a free skate with Dashawn Jordan, who’s one of the top U.S. pro skaters as well as Jonathan Skates (a.k.a. Henderson) and SurfGhana. We had a conversation with Dave Chappelle, brunches and nightlife activities, it was really literally a non-stop thing for six days starting with New Year’s Day.
What was your highest high of the whole festival?
It’s hard to process. This was on a global scale and something that hasn’t been done before. That there were no major incidents or accidents is a huge blessing. One thing that really touched my heart was that I didn’t hit the stage for my set until about 5:00 a.m. There were somewhere between 1,500 and 1,700 people and t was the loudest that this 52,000-person event ever was. And I said, “Well, I’m gonna give you the best show I ever did.” And I proceeded to do so. I helped the stagehands do the changeover, and we got on stage and we rocked it like it was a million people out there. There were a bunch of Ghanaians that probably had never seen my set before. A lot of celebrities, Miss Erykah Badu, Tobe Nwigwe were still there. Letitia Wright from “Black Panther,” was there. It was a cathartic moment where I realized I had accomplished the goal. The goal wasn’t to perform for 50,000 people, I’ve performed for 90,000 people, it was to perform for my people, which I got to do in that moment. And two was to produce an event that was safe and intentionally Black that no one there could in their right mind ever forget they took part in. I think we accomplished both those goals and it really felt solidified in that moment.