Azonto – A dance of Defiance

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Last summer, following the entry of the hit single azonto into the UK’s top ten music chart, London witnessed the emergence of a new dance craze taking its name from the single. Thenceforth, it semed the city was engulfed in the pulsating sound of Afrobeats and succumbed to the delightful rapture of its attendant dance. Azonto descended upon agile bodies, like a joyful seizure poised with rhythm and verve, and captured the imagination of many observers.

The dance, with its beguiling and audacious expressions has grown in notoriety and even found the heir the the British throne, Prince William grooving to its syncopated ecstasy; contrary to the Prince’s questionable and distinctive interpretation of the dance, dancers of azonto are looked upon as cultural iconoclasts- ‘blipsters’ of a new age- daring to challenge the mainstream idioms of hip hop.

Azonto has brazenly thrust itself onto the tempered public spaces of the city; on the trains, street pavements, parks and everywhere possible, challenging the visual and spatial aesthetics of the metropolis. To say the least, it signaled a temporal capture of the urban space by a minority or alternative youth culture, in search of visibility. As a result the urban landscape and its environs served as the natural site for performance. This comes as no surprise, since from the heydays of jazz to hip hop, urban spaces have facilitated the growth of minority art movements. Azonto also reinforces the strong affinity between youth movements and urban spaces. The dance has also courted some controversy in regards to its origin. In an interview with BBC Africa’s Paul Bakibinga, Sarkodie claimed to have given ‘birth to azonto’. His statement revealed nothing or very little information about the origin of the dance and in fact serves as a clever commercial ploy- that closely linked his hit single azonto to the dance. Therefore for a better understanding of what this dance is about and why it differs from the rest, it is worth going beyond all personal claims of ownership, to trace it origins and significance to the Ghanaian community as a whole.

Azonto, developed amongst the youth in Ghana as a cathartic release- an arcane expression of freedom in the face of current economic hardships. It emerged against the realities of massive youth unemployment and gross national moral deficit (i.e. corruption). It is urbane and transnational in its affiliations and promotes a strong sense of national identity. Azonto evolved out of a traditional dance called Kpanlogo. Both genres involve a set of coordinated hands and feet movement that incorporate into dance, expressions of everyday activities and bawdy gestures, with the intent to amuse. It renders a playful depiction of ordinary events and activities such as washing, driving, boxing, grooming, praying, swimming, etc. using basic knee bending and hip movements. The dance unlike its predecessor, allows for a great deal of improvisation. It is mostly performed in pairs but also admits solo performances and permits a wide scope for self-expression. Azonto, tells a story, it presents to us enigmatic fragments of youth experiences in Ghana. It could be considered as a parody of youth experiences, that also celebrates life and communal wellbeing.

The Ghana commission upon realizing the unifying quality of this dance form fostered the creation of an Azonto Ghana Commission, which uses the dance to promote peace and unity amongst Ghanaians from all walks of life. The azonto dance commission fulfills this by organizing popular arts and entertainment around Ghana and provides support to groups and individuals that use the dance to reach out to communities in Ghana. Likewise, in fear of a political blood bath leading to the 2012 elections in Ghana, the NGO Foundation Ark advocated for peace and unity in Ghana by organizing ‘Azonto for peace dance competitions’.

Where its forebear kpanlogo has strictly remained in the cultural ownership of the Ga people of Accra, azonto on the other hand plays on a wider national identity. It transcends all ethno-cultural identities and welcomes various interpretations in its performance. Its national affiliations also extend beyond the physical territories of Ghana. In other words, azonto represents Ghana’s national dance par excellence.

The dance has struck a chord with Ghanaian youth in the diaspora, and like a call to arms, many have taken to the streets and public spaces to reassert their national pride. The strong sense of youth nationalism attributed to the dance is evidenced by the fact that most communities in the African diaspora identify azonto as a feature of Ghanaian culture. Just like dagga,dagga or durty wine of the Jamaicans, azonto has also been nationalized. One only has to be young and Ghanaian, to be asked the question can you do the azonto? If the answer was to fall in the negative, several petitions would instantly fly in to have the respondent surrender to the people’s demand or risk being snubbed at. Some consider azonto to be a hereditary feature, deeply wired into the DNA of all Ghanaians. Thus a true Ghanaian must be able to do the azonto with very little effort.

Even the president of Ghana, John Mahama, felt compelled to prove his ‘Ghanaianness’ by demonstrating his azonto moves on national TV. Although a bit rusty, given his age, he rendered a slightly better performance as compared to that of the Prince. It must have something to do with the predisposition of ‘African genes’ towards a natural sense of rhythm.

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Bearing in mind that, most African dance forms involves a degree of orchestration and performed at particular communal or social gatherings, azonto on the other hand has no designated site of performance. Therefore, upon choosing the public space as the set for their story, the young authors of this dance are flexing their autonomy over established customs.

Azonto is less of an exhibition of youthful agility like break dancing and  other forms of street dance, instead it represents a tacit yet subtle form of defiance towards expected norms in Ghanaian society. Most of the performances of azonto rely highly on street idioms and mannerisms born out of youth experiences in Ghana. Through Azonto, the youth in Ghana are negotiating new spaces for visibility within their national/ cultural landscape. Hence, azonto is doing for Ghanaian youth today what highlife did for a generation earlier. Just as highlife spoke of the mood and state of mind of former times – thus it signified the good times, the birth of the nation, the liberation of Ghana from colonialism, azonto on the other hand, blithely hits on a much somber note, marking a change from the days of liberation to present realities.

Azonto stands out from its predecessors and contemporaries. It grants young people an extraordinarily and existential presence denied to them in mainstream society or within the socio- political make-up of Ghanaian society. Especially, in a society where the youth are expected and taught to recoil silently in the background, azonto, has made it possible for them to reassert their identity and presence by reclaiming the public spaces as sites of performance. In this sense, azonto uses dance as a countercultural vehicle to challenge the gerontocratic norms of Ghanaian society. In simple terms, the dance seems to sanction [youth] defiance towards time honoured societal norms. Yet the most intriguing feature and as mentioned earlier, is the transnational connection engendered by the dance across the diaspora.

Evidently, azonto is shaping a countercultural movement that promotes a collective consciousness amongst Ghanaian youth that breaks from traditional norms, and instills in them a strong desire for change. On that note, any understanding of this dance form must be placed against the backdrop of emerging youth movements across Africa. Indeed, the revolutionary desire towards change amongst African youth is not only found in marches on Tahrir square but also inscribed in emerging counter cultural movements in Africa.

Henry Brefo is a writer and commentator and a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies.