The story behind Ghana’s eccentric rap king

Swathed in gold chains, Papa Row is the Ghanaian Rastafarian and rapper talking tragedy and triumph

Accra, the capital city and beating heart of Ghana, is known for its Atlantic fishing, thriving business district and the colourful Makola market. It’s also the home of an intriguing local celebrity, known to the community as Papa Row. “We met all sorts of artists, poets, producers and musicians, but when we first saw Papa Row, complete with his tattoos and bling, we felt he might help reveal a new side to Accra we hadn’t yet seen,” says filmmaker Chris Lee.

Visiting Ghana for Tripod City, their collaborative photography project, Lee, Paul Storrie and Charlie Kwai came across Papa Row at a creative gathering in Jamestown. Struck by his energy and enthusiasm even among the throngs of people present, they exchanged numbers. “Before we knew it we were getting missed call after missed call on our Ghanaian number early the next morning at 7am,” explains Lee. “He was certainly keen to perform for us with a number of outfits and dance moves prepared on the shoot date.” The filmmakers found themselves along for the ride on the Papa Row machine.

In the film, Papa details the driving force behind his musical quest: his Western wife abandoned him in Ghana, taking their child with her. Despite Papa Row’s battle with his own demons and financial situation, he promotes positive influence and change with a fierce energy. Lee observes: “I think this individual commitment goes beyond conceptions of poverty, but without hiding from them either, so we can think more about his values and ideas in relation to our own.”

A lot of Jamestown locals aren’t online, and to succeed in the local music industry requires money for radio play, so Papa Row hustles by word of mouth alone. “As we followed him through the neighbourhood, many folk would yell his name from afar, from local children to the church pastor. Most would stop in the street to bump fists or click fingers – a signature Ghanaian greeting. During his performance on the street, people were genuinely curious and would stop to watch and film on their smartphones,” says Lee. Papa’s performances detail his battle with alcoholism, love and local life – whether his themes invoke mass appeal or not, his charisma and determination alone certainly do.

Lee, Storrie and Kwai went to Ghana to illustrate its impact on modern culture, challenging stereotypes and showing an audience the unexpected. “With our street photography, we wanted to uncover a positive, ’street level’ portrait of the Ghanaians, despite the poverty or corruption that might be present,” says Lee. “The documentary really serves as an insight into one of many characters we met during our time in Ghana.”

Tripod City’s exhibition GOLDDUST takes place at ‘Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes’ in London, summer 2016