Letting the Music Lead

with Nana Kwabena

November 10, 2020
BY Kiersten

Joy, melancholy, curiosity; art is the love language we use to convey to the world our personal states, both internally and externally. We use art to condemn violence, to forgo conformity, and on the right occasion, as a radically weaponized tool for liberation. For Nana Kwabena, art is about the emancipation of spirit, and how we use that spirit to evoke change. Not just within our communities, but on a global and diasporic scale. Read his story on art, music, blackness, community, and global outreach.

Kiersten Adams: Where does your sickle cell journey begin?

Nana Kwabena: My parents met when they came to the states— they’re both immigrants from Ghana and met in Ohio. I was born in Ohio. I remember my mom telling me stories of the doctors and the diagnosis, they knew something was wrong, and this was in the eighties. At the time, this hospital wasn’t familiar with Sickle Cell Disease. They knew that something was off and they couldn’t figure it out for a while. To go through that in a new country, I can only imagine the amount of worry that my mom would have when they were raising me. Eventually, they found out that it was sickle cell and they had no experience with it. From there they recommended a doctor that was actually based in Philly who was, of course, Dr. [Kwaku-Ohene] Frempong. So we relocated to Philly, and interestingly enough, we had a family connection with Dr. Frempong on my father’s side, so he was already family. And he was an expert in the field. All of that really worked. The beauty of it is, it worked out better than I could have written it. Getting the best care for Sickle Cell Disease in the country and arguably, the world, it’s not just about the care in terms of research and the resources, but about the people. It’s rare to find that when you’re going through a disease, your doctor is personally invested in that disease because it’s also in his family. That completely changed the dynamic of the relationship.

KA: How has Sickle Cell impacted you between childhood and adulthood?

NK: Being a child with Sickle Cell Disease and coming out of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia [CHOP] you had the greatest care. You have people like Chuck MSW, [nurse] Renee, [other] social workers there who literally would go above and beyond to make sure that every single person that would walk through that clinic’s needs were met, and they felt comfortable. They didn’t have to worry about finances. They didn’t have to worry about the outcome of their kids. They made people feel reassured with the kind of care that they were getting out of CHOP. You had so many different staff members, where I literally never thought of them as healthcare professionals. Not until I was an adult. It always felt like my aunts and my uncles that were just taking care of us. I never felt anything other than family when I was in that building. I think, high school or college, is when you’re really getting to a point where you have to start thinking about transitioning out of the CHOP. You hear the stories of how dramatically different the care is for adults. There’s definitely a psychological, mental, and physiologically shift in my dealing with Sickle Cell Disease.

KA: What does it mean for you as a Black creative to partner with a health organization? That’s still something people wouldn’t think of as a natural partnership, but you are blending the genres of health & music.

NK: When it comes to black self-care, black self-love, it’s been obviously a mainstream conversation for us as millennials. I think about our parents’ generation, the idea of mental health for them was a foreign concept. That was a conversation that they never were equipped to be able to have. In a lot of ways our generation has a different relationship with some of these things that our parents didn’t have. So when I see organizations that have young minds with a new outlook for life and new ways to look at old problems, that for me is exciting. We can’t keep having the same old conversation and expect something radically to shift. we have to bring all of our new experiences and new insight that the previous generations didn’t have the opportunity to have. That’s why I get excited.

KA: How did you get into music production? And did you ever think your journey in music would lead to a collaboration with an organization like Crescent? 

NK: I realized that music is medicine. And the medicine that I’ve been aspiring to get involved in this whole time is actually the music. And that’s what kicked off my journey. I started with poetry, spoken word, rap, then rap turned into someone needing to make beats. I actually learned how to make music when I was in the hospital, of all places. Someone had put ‘Fruity Loops’ on one of my laptops, I was in the hospital for back surgery for a month and I remember I was getting to a point where the sounds in the hospitals actually started driving me crazy. And over time it literally creates this soundtrack, like death of symphony, it’s awful. Fortunately, my friend put this program on my laptop and that’s how I learned how to make music. I would burn it to a CD and put it on a disc-man and just walk the hospital for hours listening and trying to understand how I can make things better. So that was my journey into production. I was in a band in college and that was when my artistic journey was really starting to evolve. I focused on the production and it opened up so many doors for me. To be able to work with other artists as well as to create music and still have the lens of being a performer, a writer, of being an artist in my own right. For me, not only is [music] my own medicine, but it has allowed me to be in a position to navigate life where I can actually connect it back to sickle cell and work with organizations like Crescent and other people that are doing amazing work.

KA: Was it hard to navigate the work world with SCD? Did you feel comfortable sharing your disease with your peers or was it something you felt like you had to keep under wraps in order to work?

NK: As far as me being young with Sickle Cell Disease I definitely went through a phase where you tend to hide what you’re dealing with. I remember being in college and studying abroad under Dr. Frempong where I was working in three different hospitals out of Ghana, and looking specifically at the idea of concealment versus disclosure with sickle cell patients that were elementary age. And overwhelmingly, all of these kids were undergoing Sickle Cell episodes and not disclosing or choosing to share with their parents. I interviewed so many kids that would undergo a pain crisis and go sit in the closet and just try to wait it out for hours. They’re like, I don’t want to be labeled with the stigma of being a ‘sickler’. That idea of the stigmatization of chronic illness, and the idea of the need to hide, and not disclose that. I realized particularly in college that the stigma of Sickle Cell Disease is one of my main enemies. But this reaffirmed me, you’re not going to find out by accident that Nana Kwabena has Sickle Cell Disease, I’m gonna tell everybody. And it switched my whole relationship with it. I’ve realized Sickle Cell for me is almost like a technology. Some other people would look at chronic illness and be like that’s a defect. That’s a malfunction. No, it’s actually the opposite. It’s a feature. And when I switched my relationship to that perspective, it changed your approach. Going back to the study in Ghana, I realized I was setting myself up to go down the path of pre-med. And at that moment I thought ‘who’s working on the other side in culture to actually make it cool to have sickle cell’? I’ll make everyone that has sickle cell feel powerful, that’s going to be my mission. 

KA: Why is it important to champion Black work, artists, organizations, etc. Why should more Black creatives try to partner with other predominantly Black organizations and industries?

NK: The freedom that we want to have as black people not just in America, but globally, will never come to us if we never collaborate with black people. Particularly outside of national lines. It’s like this idea of this utopia that we paint for ourselves, that same energy we’re putting into that utopia, should get the same energy that we should be focusing on Black collaboration, not just locally, not just nationally, but globally. For me, that is a conversation. That is the work. When you look at people that have been able to thrive globally, their homeland and their diaspora fuck with each other. If you want to be a global superpower, your homeland and your diaspora need to be working together, and that’s on a cultural level, on an economic level, a trade level, all aspects. What we’re seeing right now in America has been happening for generations in other countries. Where other people know propaganda is a real thing. Misinformation is a real thing. A dictatorship under the guise of freedom is a real thing. The beauty is that when you start opening up the conversation to not just being about America, you start realizing, that’s how it’s been in X, Y, Z country for 20 years. Boom, there’s a cultural exchange and now you have an insight in how we look at American politics. Because when you look at things like Sudan and what Sudan was able to do a couple of years ago, with their leadership that was led by the youth and actually, it was Sudanese that were also in Canada, in America that collaborated and got that guy up out of there. So some of the questions and the things that we’re looking for strategically have actually been done by other Black people in other places. But we’re not talking about them, we’re not even having that conversation. For me, black people can have individual role models of success. We always have outliers. That can be like the artist, that can be the basketball player, that can even be the black billionaire that has a media company. But black people will never be respected globally if you don’t have nations of black success that are thriving, that are competing in global markets. You don’t get that from just anomalies and outliers, you get that from nations. So that’s why for me globally, the conversation of black collaboration has to be our focus.

KA: How does music heal you? 

NK: If music’s not going to be your own therapy then why create music? If it’s not going to help you deal with an aspect of life that you otherwise would have difficulty dealing with, why are you wasting your time? Music is definitely a part of my own therapy. The way that it’s been therapy for me, I wanted it to be therapy for other people. But that’s just one way of looking at it. I also want it to be powerful for me and power for the people that I love and care about. There are times where music needs to be the retreat and the escape. A place that you are trying to get to, to avoid dealing with their harsh realities of the world. And simultaneously, I love when music can be the thing that actually equips you to deal with the harsh realities. That’s the music that I offer. When we’re feeling tired of negativity against black minds and bodies every day, we do need the therapy. And just as important as the therapy is, we also need to arm up. We also need to equip ourselves, we also need to read, we need to be inspired to walk out of our door every single day, know our worth and actually make sure that we’re seeing that value every single day. And I look at music that way too.  

Nana is a musical pioneer who uses his story to focus on a disease that affects so many in our communities. Through his charity AllOneBlood, he is supporting Sickle Cell Disease patients. Through generously orchestrated beats used by some of Billboards Hot 100’s frequenters Janelle Monae and Jidenna, he is able to bear his bones and introduce you to past, present, and future Nana. Nana is helping pave the way for artists with diseases who want their story to be more than what they told it’s supposed to be. Follow Nana Kwabena on Instagram and check out some of his most recent work on Medium.

discover more stories