The First Epistle – An Op-Ed


Not thought about, not cared about or simply not taken seriously enough? Using the creative arts as a case study to examine the attitude of the State towards job and income creation for the youth.

Somewhere last month, Forbes published its annual list of billionaires for the year 2021. Featuring prominently on that list was Jay-Z, an American recording artiste and business mogul. Reading such aspirational stories about someone who has distanced himself from poverty by distinguishing himself in the craft you also practice has a feelgood factor to it…it makes you dare to dream that you can also replicate such achievements …until you remember that you are in Ghana, where the system seems to be rigged against the creative arts industry. You are probably wondering why we claim the system is rigged? Well, hold that thought and tell us what you think after reading our assessment of the State’s attitude towards enabling the youth to create income through the creative arts industry.

The Creative Arts

The umbrella of creative arts covers all sorts of activities which are generally classified under the fine or pure arts – from photography, videography, performing arts such as music, dance and theatre, film, visual arts and fashion design to interior design. Because people tend to enjoy products of the creative arts in their leisure time, careers in the creative arts industry are usually considered informal. Such careers are also traditionally not perceived as “intellectual” or prestigious in Ghana.

This condescending attitude is typically seen in the emphasis placed on science, business and other related courses in the education system; students in such classes are generally thought to be more intelligent than their peers in the arts classes. Even worse, society generally thinks creative arts practitioners are ‘unserious’. Experience shows that this lowly perception usually only lasts until the practitioner’s creative works attract money and fame. After fortune and fame find a creative, that person suddenly transforms from the black sheep into the goose that lays the golden eggs, from social outcast to celebrity. What that person says suddenly carries some weight, what that person does arouses public interest, and overnight, that person’s life becomes worthy of some emulation.

This comes with a huge burden; family, friends and society at large believe you have made it, creating exaggerated opinions of your earnings and unending demands for financial support. Achieving some success in the creative arts in Ghana makes you realise that the problem with society’s perception of creative arts has nothing to do with creatives themselves, and everything to do with how we are generally conditioned in society. We tend to focus on employability and job security from the so-called formal jobs, usually because such jobs come with a steady stream of assured income which is guaranteed to reward parents for investing in their children’s formal education. Thankfully, the falsity of this view is being exposed now because parents are discovering that a formal education is no guarantee of employment or wealth.

It is no news that Ghana has a graduate unemployment problem. According to a Word Bank report published last year, Ghana is faced with 12% youth unemployment and more than 50% underemployment, both of which were reported to be higher than the overall unemployment rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. The report identified that successive governments have established intervention programmes which have only provided transitional employment options instead of full-time, longer-term employment.

The report urges Ghanaian policymakers to focus on supporting the youth to transition from unemployment or underemployment into productive self-employment or becoming able to help other self-employed youth maintain their existing businesses. What the World Bank does not know is that even without reading their report, many Ghanaian youth, especially in urban areas, have already transitioned and are transitioning from unemployment or underemployment to self-employment, and they are doing so by launching into the creative arts. Over the past couple of years, a wave of entrepreneurship has created new, lucrative professions for the youth. These new professionals include masters of ceremonies, disc jockeys, event decorators, photographers, videographers, make-up artistes, fashion designers, actors/actresses and social media influencers.

The description social media influencer itself covers a host of new age entrepreneurs because many professionals in today’s digital economy advertise their craft on their social media pages, thereby gathering large social media followings for themselves, and it is not uncommon to see such persons leveraging their online presence for paid endorsements and social media posts. “Celebrities” such as musicians, actors and actresses have not been left out of the economic boom created by social media advertising. In fact, prior to the advent of social media, the influencer marketing arena was the exclusive preserve of celebrities through brand endorsements and other commercial deals which leveraged the social capital of celebrities.

In a functional system, a musician’s revenue streams comprise primary income from record sales/streaming and royalties from the exploitation of the intellectual property rights in the artistes’ catalogue, and secondary income from touring/performances, merchandising and other commercial deals such as brand endorsements.

In Ghana, the system is dysfunctional; income from record sales/streaming is usually negligible because of our porous intellectual property enforcement system and the relatively small size of the Ghanaian audience – the royalties paid (if any) are meagre and up-and-coming artistes often (ironically) have to pay to get airplay for their songs. These structural inefficiencies rob artistes of their primary income because an artiste may have all the most popular songs in town but see little to no money for it. Without primary income, artistes only have money from shows and commercial deals to rely on, and here comes the kicker – without primary income, artistes are forced to accept shabby rates for shows and commercial deals because their very livelihoods depend on it.

The story is largely the same for those in the theatre and film industries. The sad truth is that many popular creatives who have entertained generations of Ghanaians have ended their careers as paupers, reinforcing negative societal perceptions about the creative industry. This reality is heart-breaking and will continue to be the case unless something is done about it. The entertainment industry is not called showbusiness for nothing; there is a business aspect to it which can be financially rewarding if it is done right.

For instance, with proper financial investment and the right structures, music and its ancillary entertainment businesses could be a multi-billion-dollar industry which would create jobs and wealth for the youth and the cascading effect would promote the development of the Ghanaian economy as a whole. Who, then, will fix the creative industry? Creatives would, if they could, but they cannot for the simple reason that they lack the required capital.

Corporate Ghana is simply not incentivised enough to do it – especially because there is no system in place to ensure a return for their investments and, quite frankly, also because the current state of affairs gives creatives poor bargaining power which tends to favour corporates during the negotiation of commercial deals. The Government? Well, manifesto after manifesto, campaign period after the other, the dominant political parties have paid lip service to enhancing the plight of creatives.

Without exception, none of them have bothered to invest in the required infrastructure to fix the structural inefficiencies. Instead, they have unleashed and overseen the implementation of detrimental policies which are so flagrant in their disregard of the interests of the Ghanaian creative industry that we can only assume these policies are intended to stagnate the development of the industry and keep the youth in perpetual poverty. We will discuss these policies in turn.

The Food and Drugs Authority (FDA)

In February 2016, the FDA issued guidelines (the FDA Guidelines) which prohibit well-known personalities or professionals from being used in alcoholic beverage advertising. Under the FDA Guidelines, the definition of “well-known personalities” includes any person who arouses sufficient interest in society and such persons may be historical, political, religious, academic or cultural figures as well as celebrities and sports figures. Obviously, this very broad definition affects any person who has distinguished himself/herself in society enough to become an object of public interest.

However, practical reality suggests that the restrictions in the FDA Guidelines were crafted with celebrities and social media influencers in mind because (as we have already discussed) they are the persons who leverage their social capital for endorsement and commercial advertising deals. Given that celebrities and creatives were clearly within the contemplation of the FDA when it was drafting the FDA Guidelines, it is shocking that the FDA did not engage the very persons who were going to be affected by the guidelines prior to its issuance. Responsible regulators of other spaces in Ghana and across the globe usually publicise such intentions and invite comments from the public or interested persons prior to finalising and implementing such actions.

The Bank of Ghana has done this several times before rolling out policies which affect those within its regulatory space. The Securities and Exchange Commission also does same when it is considering regulatory interventions. The FDA did nothing of the sort. Instead, creatives woke up one day and were greeted with news of the restrictions. Creatives who complained were simply commanded by the FDA to comply, in a manner similar to a father telling his child to comply with a unilateral decision concerning the child’s life which has apparently been taken in the child’s best interest.

The FDA has defended itself by stating that these wide restrictions are necessary to curb underage drinking and that Ghana is required to adopt these restrictions to comply with a World Health Organisation (WHO) policy on the matter. Before we question these defences, we must state that we do not think that the fact that the harmful use of alcohol is a serious public health concern which must be tackled by the FDA and the relevant global regulatory authorities can be seriously contested. Our concern is that the problem is with the harmful or irresponsible use (or abuse to put it simply) of alcohol, not merely with the consumption of alcohol.

In fact, all the WHO literature on the matter also recognise that the problem is with the abuse or harmful use of alcohol. The WHO policy document that the FDA has been alluding to even clarifies that the word “harmful” in this context refers only to the public health effects of alcohol consumption, without prejudice to religious beliefs and cultural norms in any way. That being the case, all arguments in relation to this matter should relate to public health concerns only, especially because irrespective of any religious or cultural beliefs and other personal sensitivities, the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages is not illegal in Ghana.

The FDA itself knows this, because one of the objectives of the FDA Guidelines is to ensure the responsible use of alcoholic beverages. Having set this basic premise, any policy intervention must be measured and tailored to give effect to the objectives or rationale behind the introduction of the restrictions, otherwise it cannot be justified. The ban on alcoholic beverage advertising by well-known personalities does not meet this standard and must therefore be re-considered and rescinded for the following reasons.

Firstly, the WHO policies on the harmful consumption of alcohol do not require Ghana or any other state to ban alcohol marketing by well-known personalities. The policy options and interventions recommended by the WHO include regulating the content and the volume of marketing, regulating direct or indirect marketing in certain or all media, regulating new forms of alcohol marketing techniques (e.g. social media), regulating sponsorship activities that promote alcoholic beverages and restricting or banning promotions in connection with activities targeting young people.

You would notice from the deliberate choice of language that restricting or banning only appears once, and that is in relation to activities which are targeted at young people. This restriction is obviously justified because there is a legal age for drinking and associating alcoholic beverages with activities that are meant for only young people encourages underage drinking. The WHO requires its member states to regulate all the other activities, including alcohol marketing. Outright prohibition is a form of regulation.

However, it is not the only way to regulate, and that is why countries which have not imposed similar bans on their celebrities are not in breach of the WHO’s policy recommendations. Outright prohibition of alcohol marketing by celebrities is also certainly not the best way to regulate in this case. It is an analogue solution in a digital world. We think it is important for the FDA to acknowledge that several factors influence the relationship between alcohol and consumers, and because these factors interact, no factor can be singled out as being responsible for alcohol abuse or underage drinking.

For that reason, any attempt to tackle the scourges of underage drinking and alcohol abuse requires concerted effort to succeed. The FDA alone cannot effectively end underage drinking and alcohol abuse. The solution lies in strategic partnership and collaboration between regulators like the FDA, alcoholic beverage producers, advertisers, celebrities and other relevant stakeholders to apply ethical, moral and legal considerations towards the creation of agreed national standards for the marketing and selling of alcoholic beverages in a responsible manner.

Some of these strategies could include requiring celebrities who are involved in alcohol marketing to (i) be ethical (e.g. celebrities who do not drink alcohol should not be involved in the marketing of alcohol), (ii) use their platforms to promote responsible consumption of alcoholic beverages and conduct public education on the ills of alcohol abuse and underage drinking, and (iii) undertake corporate social responsibility activities, including providing assistance to those suffering from alcohol addiction. These measures will go a long way to ensure that the FDA Guidelines meet their objective of promoting the responsible use of alcoholic beverages.

Secondly, it cannot be reasonably suggested that because Ghanaian celebrities have fans who are minors, banning Ghanaian celebrities from alcohol marketing will solve the problem of exposing minors to alcoholic advertisements. Minors grow up in homes where they may have relatives who drink, they go out to family and other social functions where alcoholic beverages may be served to patrons and they watch television programmes which are sponsored by alcoholic beverage companies (for instance, the EUFA champions league is sponsored by an alcoholic beverage company and is watched by many minors).

Even mainstream media still run adverts for alcoholic beverage companies, with some newspapers with nationwide circulation recently displaying FDA approved alcoholic beverage advertisements boldly on their front pages. Simply put, minors would almost always be directly and indirectly exposed to some form of alcohol consumption or endorsement by people they look up to.

Furthermore, the FDA’s approach is anachronistic because Ghanaian minors do not restrict themselves to Ghanaian celebrities; they idolise several other African and western celebrities and, through globalisation, the internet and social media, have direct access to the lives of these persons – many of whom consume, endorse and advertise alcoholic beverages.

These international celebrities are lawfully acquiring wealth through commercial deals with alcoholic beverage companies, thereby increasing their star power and appeal to youth in Ghana, to the disadvantage of their Ghanaian peers whose lustre is being dimmed because local policies are impoverishing them. If at all, the regulatory emphasis must be on procuring the assistance of Ghanaian celebrities to counteract the effect of foreign celebrities on Ghanaian youth, and this can only be done by ensuring that their policies do not detract from the financial and social capital of Ghanaian celebrities so that the celebrities can affect the youth positively through public education on the ills of irresponsible drinking generally, and underage drinking especially.

The above-mentioned strategies will not work unless the FDA sees celebrities, alcoholic beverage producers and marketers as its co-collaborators and stops addressing the concerns raised by creative art professionals as if the FDA is a disciplinarian parent who is putting petulant children in their places. As one author puts it, this collaborative work requires all stakeholders to respect one another’s positions and to act in good faith.

The Gaming Commission

Somewhere in 2020, the Gaming Commission issued advertising guidelines for its market operators (the Gaming Commission Guidelines). In issuing the guidelines, it seems the Gaming Commission learnt from the FDA’s playbook – zero prior engagement with celebrities, absolutely no consultation with the relevant stakeholders and a very wide ban which is ostensibly intended to prevent celebrities from luring the youth into gambling.

To appreciate the extent of the State’s disregard for the interests of creative professionals in Ghana, compare the approach of the Gaming Commission and the FDA to that of their counterparts in England, where a comprehensive review of their gambling regime is currently underway. The object of the review is to help regulators protect children and vulnerable people from problem gambling, while also ensuring that those who enjoy gambling are able to do so safely. The review has been communicated to the public and the committee responsible for the review invited and listened to submissions from interested parties for total period of 16 weeks.

Sports betting seems to be the most pervasive form of gambling nowadays, and sports betting companies have taken the football world by storm. Take England, for instance. It is reported that two-thirds of the clubs in the English championship have a betting firm as their shirt sponsor. In the English Premier League, only 3 teams from the 2020/2021 season did not have arrangements with gambling companies, while as many as 8 teams advertised betting firms on their shirts or sleeves as sponsors. Betting company sponsorship and commercial arrangements also extend to pitch side hoardings, sponsorship of training kits, live televised adverts during build-up, in-game and post-match analysis, and even in video games.

Since football is the favourite sport of many Ghanaians, and the English Premier League is hugely popular in Ghana, many Ghanaians (including children and youth) are and will continue to be exposed to sports betting advertisements. Given that these are foreign transmissions which are very popular with Ghanaian youth, it is indeed curious that the Gaming Commission thinks a ban on celebrity gambling advertisements can prevent the youth from being lured into gambling. Meanwhile, gambling adverts are still being run on mainstream media in Ghana from morning to evening.

Even worse, as with the alcohol marketing problem, international celebrities are signing commercial deals with gambling companies in their home countries and posting these advertisements on social media, in the full glare of the same Ghanaian youth which the Gaming Commission claims to be so concerned about. So, once again, the only serious impact of these restrictions is to hurt Ghanaian creatives economically. Since their actions are so similar, whatever we have said in relation to the FDA and its guidelines applies to the Gaming Commission as well.

In fact, what we said must be repeated with more force for the Gaming Commission. This is because the Gaming Act, 2006 (Act 721), which regulates gambling in Ghana and establishes the Gaming Commission, requires any company which seeks to be licensed to be wholly or partly owned by a Ghanaian. This offers a unique opportunity to Ghanaian celebrities to enter into commercial/advertising agreements with prospective gambling companies in exchange for equity in those companies. In a country where so many important sectors of the economy are foreign owned or controlled because ordinary Ghanaians lack access to capital, one would have thought that the State would focus on fostering and implementing policies which ensure that more of its own people have equity in the companies which are profiting from the digital era and dominating key sectors of the emerging economy. These counterintuitive policies from the FDA and Gaming Commission seem to suggest that the State thinks otherwise.

Restrictions from the COVID-19 Pandemic

The world is still reeling from the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national and international restrictions which were imposed to contain its spread. In Ghana, we had a 3-week lockdown, after which the Government put in place various restrictions on social gatherings. As at the time of writing this, events including concerts, theatrical performances, large social events or parties, weddings parties, and large funerals are banned while beaches, bars, cinemas, and nightclubs have been closed until further notice.

These restrictions literally brought the creative arts industry to a halt, and over a year later, creative arts entrepreneurs are arguably among those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic. December is peak time for the Ghanaian entertainment industry and a lot of social events are usually organised during this period. For instance, Stonebwoy typically has 2 shows each December; the Ashaiman to the World Concert and the BHIM Concert. Both shows, just as several others from big names in the creative industry, were cancelled due to the uncertainty regarding COVID restrictions and the ban on mass gatherings.

However, what did we see when the electioneering period entered its peak? Partisan politics trumped COVID-19 restrictions, as politicians and State officials campaigned en masse with reckless abandon. In fact, the only entertainers who may have been performed in front of massive gatherings in Ghana in the year 2020 may be the entertainers who performed at these political rallies. Frustrated by the growing pangs of hunger and looming poverty and buoyed by the poor examples from our leaders, the entertainment industry stopped complying with the social restrictions and bounced back temporarily. However, the restrictions were reimposed with stricter enforcement after the elections ended, leading to continued suffering for the creative arts industry.

The Year of Return

The last policy we will discuss is the Year of Return. This was an amazing policy which we must commend the Government for. It put Ghana in the spotlight, attracting many powerful names in the world of international entertainment and showbusiness to Ghana, and generating media attention and positive public relations for Ghana which the Government claims would have cost us about US$3.5 million if we had paid for it.

Government also stated that the initiative injected about US$1.9 billion into the economy. All this is very wonderful. Many of the foreigners whose arrival in Ghana was so newsworthy as to make Ghana the envy of Africa are also creative arts practitioners, except that, with the support of (a) proper national systems for the enforcement of their intellectual property rights, (b) financial investment in creative arts, and (c) favourable national policies which have enabled them to profit from the kind of commercial endorsements which their Ghanaian counterparts are not allowed to profit from, these international creatives have achieved significant commercial success and global stardom for their arrival in Ghana to excite the Government.

Of course, it is with this same stardom and appeal that these same international creatives can influence the Ghanaian youth who are watching them partner with brands that Ghanaian creatives are banned from partnering with. Are we cutting off our noses to spite our faces? Anyway, never mind all the hypocrisy, the celebrities were welcomed, the Government rolled out the red carpet for them and we were all very happy.

Creatives were also happy because, having achieved commercial success and gained global repute, these international celebrities have something which is very valuable to the Ghanaian entertainment community; capital, experience, access to the global gatekeepers and the ability to shine their lights on the works of Ghanaian creatives for a global audience. These are some of the solutions to the problems that the Ghanaian entertainment industry is facing – problems which Ghanaian creatives could solve with the capital they do not have.

So, naturally, the expectation was that the Year of Return initiative would provide opportunities for Ghanaian creatives to socialise and network with their international counterparts with the hopes of reaping some of the above-mentioned benefits. Did that happen? Not at all. Instead, Ghanaian celebrities watched on social media as these international celebrities were invited to wine and dine with Government officials and their friends/family at parties where copious volumes of alcoholic beverages were consumed. No calls, no emails, no invitations, no networking and zero interaction with or benefit for Ghanaian entertainers.


We started this epistle with a reference to the aspirational story of Jay-Z. According to Forbes, Jay-Z first became a billionaire in June 2019 due to his income from record sales, touring, merchandise, endorsements and investments like Armand de Brignac champagne and D’Usse cognac. Jay-Z reportedly acquired the Armand de Brignac champagne brand in 2014.

Prior to that, he was rumoured to have a financial interest in the champagne for many years, beginning as a paid endorser in 2006, and subsequently acquiring equity in the brand under undisclosed terms. In arriving at its billion-dollar valuation, Forbes estimates that Jay-Z’s stake in the champagne is worth US$310 million, his investment in the cognac is worth US$100 million and his music catalogue is worth at least US$75 million.

In fact, Jay-Z’s profile on Forbes’ 2021 billionaire’s list opens with the fact that in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, even without a tour or album release, Jay-Z minted millions from his champagne and cognac brands. In a year plagued by COVID-19, with no shows, no performances, no royalties, what do the youth in Ghana’s entertainment industry have? Is the system not rigged against creatives?

The entertainment business is cyclical. Money from album sales, streaming, touring, royalties, shows, merchandising and commercial engagements returns to enhance the cycle. The income is used to improve the quality of music production, increase the quality of music videos, invest in better promotion, packaging and general marketing, and pay for the professional services which are required to make the industry tick. Cutting off the feed at one end invariably affects the whole cycle, especially due to the systemic problems in Ghana.

Meanwhile, the appearance of success comes with financial demands – from family, friends and many of the less fortunate in society who look up to accomplished creatives. An accomplished creative is expected to give handouts or invest in friends, family and fans out of his/her own limited resources, and being unable to do this affects your relationships in many negative ways. How Ghanaian celebrities are able to handle all this, and yet manage to put resources together for social interventions is in itself a miracle.

For instance, the Livingstone Foundation has been providing social, educational and professional support for the underprivileged (especially persons with disability) through scholarships, donations to accident victims and by organising free seminars where various vocational and entrepreneurial skills are taught for free. Through the BHIM Skills Training Workshop, Stonebwoy is able to provide many of his underprivileged fans with an avenue to acquire high value skills and entrepreneurship training in areas such as fashion design, fitness instruction, event management, catering and the production of household consumables.

The next edition of the BHIM Skills Training Workshop, dubbed “the Post-Covid Edition” will take place soon. We encourage readers who know persons who can benefit from this free training programme to be on the look-out for registration details.

Stonebwoy is not alone. Many creatives are also contributing their quota to help the less privileged in society and promote the nation’s development out of their meagre resources. When it is time for elections, many of these same Ghanaian celebrities use their social capital to encourage citizens to go out to vote for the very politicians who are treating creatives with disdain, politicians who only know the value of creatives when it is time to persuade the masses on the campaign trail.

Meanwhile, when it is time for the political class to implement policies which empower Ghanaian celebrities to play their supporting roles, the politicians hide behind the supposed statutory independence of the regulators. As if these regulators are not bound by law to follow their sector ministers on matters of policy – for instance, the Minister of Interior is responsible for issuing policy directives to the Gaming Commission and the Gaming Commission is required by law to follow these directives (for the avoidance of doubt, the prohibition of celebrity advertising is a policy matter which is firmly under the control of the Minister).

As if the President does not appoint all the members of the governing boards of these institutions. It is time to stop this disrespectful attitude towards creatives. The burden of development is a heavy one. The State cannot be expected to bear that burden alone, especially when the State relies heavily on taxing its citizens and aggressive borrowing to finance development. The policies of the State must be strategic and geared towards creating wealthy citizens who will retain their capital in Ghana, hire more locally, invest in Ghana and Ghanaians, and put their hands to the plough to share the burden of development with the Government. Nobody is better placed to do that than Ghanaian celebrities and creative professionals.

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