David Mensah is not limited by categorization when it comes to music, and he likes to leave it open for the listeners to put their own description on what he does. He has been called the UK version of Avant while others draw comparisons to John Legend. Then again, some people have even mentioned Luther Vandros in their description of the music that he makes.
“I never really go in to the studio with a set brief, I prefer to keep an open mind and let the song happen organically. However to someone who has never heard my music I would say that it is soulful R&B with elements of Jazz”, he says.
Born to a Ghanaian father and a British mother, David draws from an eclectic mix of influences from all over the world when it comes to his music. He continues to be on the rise after his song ‘Food of Love’ was released through Universal Music in 2008. ‘Food of Love’ was his contribution to a compilation album called ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ which was recorded to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.
Recently, ‘My Day’, the first single from his upcoming album was released amidst amazing responses. In the first week it went straight to number 1 on an independent UK music chart from Textatrack. The song attracted great interest from some of the UK’s leading Dj’s, climbing to the number 10 spot on the Solar Radio Sweet Rhythm Chart and number 11 on the Starpoint Radio Official UK Soul Chart.
His debut album “Music is the Food of Love” will be released on VME records on August 31. Most of the production is from Wayne Brown. But he also worked with Ghanaian-born, US Billboard chart topping producer Coptic who rose to global success with records produced with Biggy, P.Diddy, Snoop Dogg, Faith Evans, Bobby Valentino, Trey Songs, Memphis Bleek , Ludacris and Ice Cube.
I got in touch with the rising star to find out more about his music and his upcoming album in the following interview:
Ameyaw Debrah: What inspires your music?
David Mensah: I am inspired by all kinds of things from the people around me and situations I have been through to my observations about life in general. I prefer to write about subjects that mean something to me. You could say that my album is like a journey through my mind. It could be a situation I have been through as in my song “Friends with Benefits” or maybe an observation I have made about the world around me as in the song “My Day”. My day is all about how we interact with each other. I was sitting waiting for a tube in London and thinking how people don’t interact with each other, no good morning, no smile, no acknowledgement and it struck me how much better it would be if we just learned to smile at one another and the song came from that.
Ameyaw Debrah: Which factors influence your kind of music?
David Mensah: I have always been around music and I think that definitely manifests itself in the music I make. Growing up my Dad was a soul Dj, he had so many records that he almost needed another house just to keep them in. My mum was more of a reggae fan and in the 80’s there always seemed to be a reggae version of the soul songs that came out. And I can’t forget the highlife music that my Grandmother would play.
Ameyaw Debrah: How long have you been singing, and how did it start?
David Mensah: I have been singing for as long as I can remember. I didn’t really take it too seriously at first I just loved the feeling of expressing myself through music. I sang in the school choir and joined a gospel singing class run by Patrick Jean-Paul-Dean whose fantastic reputation as a Gospel singer earned him a MOBO Award nomination for Best Gospel. I think it was at that point that I really started to develop and learn to express myself even more. It was with this new confidence that I joined an R&B boy group called Dark Roses. We did loads of shows with very big audiences so you could say I was thrown in the deep end and it was a case of sink or swim. I loved travelling all over the UK with the group and learned so much about performing and the music business.
Ameyaw Debrah: When was your lucky break?
David Mensah: I don’t really believe in lucky breaks as such. I have worked very hard and I am very pleased that it is all starting to pay off now. One of the big turning points for me was meeting world renowned producer Wayne Brown. I feel very lucky to have found a special chemistry with Wayne Brown because it led to me recording my debut album “Music is the Food of Love”. I heard a song he produced for Teish O’Day on the radio and just so happened to be with one of my friends who works for a music channel at the time. I said to my friend that if I could work with the producer who made her song then I would start recording again, at this point I had assumed the production was American and that this meeting would never happen. A few days later I got a surprise email from my friend with the producer’s details and gave him a call. We set up a meeting and I don’t mind admitting that I was very nervous having been out of the game for a little while.
It was very daunting working with Wayne because he has worked with Earth Wind and Fire, George Michael, Lulu, Stevie Winwood, Jonathan Butler, Ruby Turner, Billy Ocean and Junior Giscombe to mention a few. I had expected to play him some of my music and take it from there but within minutes of me being there he walked over to his piano and started playing then asked me to just jam with him. As soon as he started playing the music in me took over and I knew there was something special. It is hard to explain but his playing just inspired me so much that the singing was the most natural thing in the world and the nerves quickly went away. After we recorded out first song together and people started to hear it doors started to open for me.
Ameyaw Debrah: How was this transition for you and how much creative input do you have?
David Mensah: I am blessed with VME Records because I still have loads of creative license and I am always consulted on things. For a long time I was out there on my own so it is a big transition to go from working on your own to working with a whole team. I think the main thing is that they buy into me as an artist rather than trying to change me. While I was making my album I was approached by some big labels who had got to know about me on the grapevine but I found they wanted to take me and make me something I am not. Not sure if it was brave or foolish but I decided to stick to my guns and stay true to the music I love. In fact I know it was brave and not foolish because I am very proud of the work I have done. I got into this game because I love music and not to chase fame so it really wouldn’t make sense to start making music that I don’t feel is me.
Ameyaw Debrah: What can we expect from the album?
David Mensah: I am very excited about my debut album. Most of the production is from Wayne Brown. I also worked with US Billboard chart topping producer Coptic as well as renowned Danish producer Jimmy Antony who most recently worked with soul legend Gregory Abbott. It was amazing to get to work with three different producers on the project because they all managed to get something different from me. I wrote the majority of the songs myself but also recorded a song penned by Wayne Brown and 3 times Grammy nominee Jonathon Butler, as well as the classic soul cut “Whatever it takes”, co written by Junior Giscombe and Wayne Brown. Even though the album doesn’t come out until 31st August I have been very lucky in that the radio response has been fantastic. Both “Food of Love” and “My Day” have been represented in the soul charts here in the UK and played on radio all over the world. It is amazing to think that my music has reached places I have never even been to.
Ameyaw Debrah: Are you in touch with your Ghanaian roots?
David Mensah: I am very much in touch with my roots. After all, to coin a phrase, if you don’t know where you are coming from how can you know where you are going? Saying that I haven’t had the opportunity to go Ghana as yet but it is one of my dreams. My family goes there quite often so they keep me in the loop with what is going on. I must confess I am very much a workaholic and have ended putting off lots of things that are important to me personally till later. My grandmother has always told me so many stories about Ghana that I always feel like I have been there. She also makes my favourite Ghanaian food to bring me a taste of the mother land, it is hard to pick a favourite but Banku & Peanut Soup is very high on the list.
Ameyaw Debrah: What’s your view on contemporary African music generally?
David Mensah: I think it is an exciting time for African music. In this age of the internet you no longer have to go on a mission to hunt the music down. Just sitting at your computer you can be completely plugged in to the music scene in Africa. I think the added exposure that artists are getting is leading to even more innovation and barrier breaking music.
Ameyaw Debrah: Which artists would you like to work with?
David Mensah: I was pleased to see Okyeame Kwame win Artiste of the year in the Ghana Music Awards this year. That was well deserved; I would be interested to hear what we would do on a track together. ASEM is another artist I have my eye on at the moment and I am looking forward to hearing more
Ameyaw Debrah: Any plans of performing in Ghana?
David Mensah: I would love to perform in Ghana. On a personal level it would mean that I finally get a chance to see the place my Grandmother has painted in my mind with her stories, food and photos. On a professional level it would be an opportunity to connect with a music scene that is growing faster than most other places in the world. A place where innovation is happening. With projects like the African Express and Wilberforce 200 I pray the opportunity comes up sooner rather than later
Ameyaw Debrah: Do you see any particular challenges breaking into the Ghanaian market?
David Mensah: I think any market is tough to break into. But I am the type of person to rise to a challenge and not run from it. I am extremely proud of my Ghanaian roots so you will understand that I am very passionate about my music reaching Ghana. When I heard my music was playing on Ghanaian radio stations I was ecstatic. I pray that the album would be received just as well over there but that is in the hands of God.
Ameyaw Debrah: What do you hope to achieve with your career in music?
David Mensah: I hope to keep making music that I can be proud of and keep doing shows. As I said before I am not really hunting fame as such. I just love making music and sharing it with people who share my passion for music. Creatively I have so many ideas that I want to get out so I hope to keep getting the wonderful support that I have to continue on this journey. I have just got back from the USA where I was doing shows to promote the album and I have also been to Norway and Germany this year. I am pleased to say I had a fantastic response. There are lots more in the pipeline and dates will be announced soon on www.davidmensah.com. On the recording front I am working on collaborations with some pretty major artists. I can’t go into more detail on that at the moment but I am sure you will hear in time.
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Why Ghanaian-American Jeffrey Ampratwum is the menswear expert to watch in fashion!
At the start of the Victoria era, early 19th century – the English began to tone down the royal style dressing of the French army, namely those adorned in prestigious regalia and heavy embroidery. It was a sign of English nationalism and sparked a new wave of appearance in men. A few decades later, the suit was born and heavily influenced those in Italy and America. The British and the Americans have a rich revolutionary history, of course, and coincidentally the British colonized the African country – Gold Coast – until 1957 when they declared their independence and changed their name to Ghana.
As part of an independent Ghana, a host of individuals began to exercise new freedoms and venture out of the country into new territories. Many Ghanaians set their eyes on American travel and a wave of trail blazers left the country and settled in the infamous New York City. For most, it was an opportunity to plant new seeds in the hopes that their children would be afforded even more opportunities for a prosperous life.
One of these children of the diaspora is Bronx-born Jeffrey Ampratwum. The only child to Kate Bampoe and Eugene Asante-Ampratwum Mpere, who met in the Bronx after immigrating from Ghana. The dynamics of having African parents and being raised in a heavily eclectic environment gave rise to Jeffrey’s style and prose. More importantly, we can honestly say that there are only a handful of Ghanaian-Americans living in the states that can exhibit a special presentation that reflects both their African heritage married with the esthetic of their nationality. We recently caught up with Jeffrey to discuss how his early influences provided him with a framework to now become such a strong force in the menswear industry in fashion.
AD: Jeffrey, Ɛte sɛn?
Jeff: Haha, Eye.
AD: I had to test your Twi really quick! You know most Ghanaians who are born in the states don’t have a clue about the language unless it’s spoken fiercely in the home.
Jeff: You are 100% correct with that. Ha. But for me, I was lucky in that my mother took me to Ghana before I even knew how to use words. So, in actuality, Twi was the first language and vocabulary I learned, and in essence, English is my second language. So, I’m really decent when it comes to using Twi. I’m a cheat code! But keep that quiet. Ha.
AD: How much of the remnants of the Ghanaian culture factored into your approach to your style and presentation?
Jeff: When I was younger and in school, particularly in the Bronx – it wasn’t always your proudest moment to be from Africa or to say your family was African. Part of the silly embarrassment was perhaps from the narratives that were spinning on television. Americans were being indoctrinated with visuals of “feed the children” which only highlighted the extreme poverty in a few Africans countries. The images and broadcasts were all the same, for decades. So called philanthropist and humanitarians took camera crews into ravaged areas and televised starving children for us to see here in the states. I believe that had a profound effect on young boys and girls born from African parents.
However, as for me – I always looked at being dark skinned and being deeply rooted into my African culture as a super power. I liked the idea of being different, even though all the kids in all my classes were also children of immigrants. They just couldn’t grasp the concept of it at that time. So, from there, it was showtime. My Uncle, Joseph Ken Mintah – was the pioneer as the first in the family to travel to the states – he had extreme style. My mother also is very detailed with her sense of jewelry and fragrances. I adsorbed it all.
AD: Did you start dressing in traditional African attire? What do you mean exactly?
Jeff: Not exactly! But, being an only child really allowed for me to sit deep in thought for long periods of time. Being left-handed allowed for me to be extremely dexterous and detailed. And being raised solely by my mother further allowed me to pay attention to the importance of clothing and accessories – as she dressed herself each morning. It was the ultimate cocktail and I was already drunk with creativity. I started customizing all the clothes I had. By no means were we wealthy, so I had to manage just a few outfits for school.
My styling began when I would turn 5 outfits into 15 – so essentially, a 5-day school week became New York Fashion Week for me. I would airbrush my sneakers, turn Old Navy sweaters inside out for a fleece appeal, and cuff my jeans in 4 different ways depending on my footwear. This soon became a bad habit and made me late for school many mornings.
AD: You see, if you are late to school in Ghana back then – you might as well have sat by the road to hide from both your mother and headmaster! What was college like for you then?
Jeff: Right! Ha. It grew legs during my undergrad. Now all the pretty girls were around, I had more freedom to come and go, and more importantly – I had a stage to showcase my style. I joined a student club in the SEEK Program, and soon became the President and started hosting a string of events based around fashion. 4 years and a bachelors degree later, there were 6 fashion shows and 3 beauty pageants under my belt. Huge successes. I started to doubt my real educational reason for attending college, which was to become a dentist. Fashion was dancing on one shoulder and dentistry on the other. But somehow, I figured out how to still involve the two. My best buddy, Kenny – whom I met at the college on the road to become dentists – made it through. So, I live vicariously through him. And now, coincidentally – together we’ve developed a brand – a service of bespoke mens luxury shoes and women’s handbags, and ready to wear womenswear shoes as well. Named, Kenjeffreys. It is serendipitous because all of the products are sourced and handcrafted in Haiti and infused with Ghanaian culture. As Kenny is from Haiti, we properly employ artisans within the community and focus heavily on our social impact.
Following undergrad, I then began at FIT as student, really just trying to test my styling hand – and to learn more about the industry. While there, I came across extremely talented and knowledgeable fashion professionals that have really guided me. Namely, Sadia Seymour and Joseph DeAcetis. Both wildly experienced, patient and embedded with a wealth of information. Respectfully in womenswear and menswear. You cannot beat that, and I am grateful for it.
AD: That is strangely unique and admirable. Talk to us about how all those experiences and inspirations give rise to the Jeffrey or Che we see today and ultimately, where that places you in your field of fashion and menswear.
Jeff: Sure. Great point. I have been indoctrinated by the basic principles of creativity as an adolescent – with respect to clothing. That is extremely hard to shake. Innately, styling was my ultimate form of communication, seeing that I was a shy introvert. So now, I still revert back to those same feelings…. the feeling of home, warmth, memories, great food and innocent fun. My approach now is exactly the same in the sense that when I am dressing, styling or designing for someone – I am taking into account their entire repertoire and holding a mirror in front of them which reflects the items that they love most. It is a skill that perhaps only empaths are only able to exhibit.
Having the ability to read into thoughts and connecting with the motivating spirits that drives people – is a gift. I ran the New York City marathon three times, and the 2nd time I ran it in a tuxedo! It was my ultimate homage and pledging of allegiance to fashion. Ha.
I also believe my extensive traveling experience has aided to the arsenal. Recent trips to Ghana always resets a creative instinct with me, as I look around and arrive back to a place of self-awareness. It feels right. My cousin Harry knows where to be to capture the real essence of the land. And, coincidentally enough, I am often back and forth to the UK as well. Savile row in London, England -as you know – is a menswear connoisseur’s Disney Land. It is the traditional hub for the world’s best tailored-bespoke suits. Naples and Florence are a close second. However, sartorially, the British have etched their names in the fine-art making of the suit. I do though spend most of my time in Brighton, UK. It’s where my love is and also like a second home for me. The culture there is infused with various styles and the community is inviting. The Duchess of Brighton-Hove, Lady Donna and her amazing friends will assure that you have a great time!
AB: Finally, talk to us about your styling approach with respect to specific talent that you work with.
Jeff: Definitely. This is perhaps an area you cannot teach. It is learned with years of experience and even reading the room wrong most times. I tell my fashion students often that they have to continue shooting airballs at the basket. Get out the miss shots, now – and properly learn your subjects. For example, if I am styling a celebrity for the red carpet – several nuances are to be considered before arriving at a dress or a tuxedo. Such as, what stages in life is your talent currently in, how body conscious are they and what are they most nostalgic about. These (and some of my other secrets that I cannot give away) are the pillars to nailing great style, image and presentation.
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