“Bro, I have been on the road, and trying to promote my new album,” King Promise tells me via a telephone call from Kumasi. A few hours before we speak on the phone, he explains that he was talking into another mic as a guest on a talk radio show, announcing to listeners that his debut album “As Promised,” was worth their time. King Promise sounds mildly hyped – his vocals undulates when he refers to the project released in July, 2019 – as his current promo run has been a success. “I’m just happy for this project, it’s been a long time coming!”
Born Gregory Promise Bortey Newman, the 24-year old Nungua Native is one of Ghana’s most exciting young voices redefining the soundscape of West Africa. First gaining recognition as a collaborator on The Ghanaian Vision DJ’s ‘Double Trouble, released in July 2017, Promise embraced the limelight with a string of local releases. But it wasn’t until his work on ‘Oh yeah’, a sappy romantic ballad where he began to come into his own. Other songs such as ‘Selfish’ and ‘CCTV’ elevated him beyond Ghana to other parts of the continent, including neighbouring Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, where his music has found new homes. His stock has grown, paid performance requests have come from some of the most distant places. In 2018, he toured the USA, playing sets across venues in Washington D.C, Ohio, Philadelphia and Worchester.
In December, his headline concert in Accra, titled Promise Land was sold-out, with supporting performances from a handful of local stars including Sarkodie, Medikal, Stonebwoy, La Meme Gang and Sister Deborah. “I’m sorry I keep mentioning King Promise’s name, he is my best artiste of the whole Ghana,” Afrobeats superstar Mr. Eazi disclosed in an interview on Hitz FM in 2018. It’s a praise that has been echoed in many corners which promise processes as necessary inspiration rather than external pressure. “It means more motivation to keep growing because it means we are doing something great,” King Promise explains. “And you know, to be acknowledged as one of the best is a big thing, so it therefore gives me inspiration to keep going because it means people love what you’re doing. So it can only get better.”
With the streams pouring in, and his base of supporters expanding, Promise has come a long way in two years. It’s a journey that began in Nungua, a town in Accra where he was born to Francis Newman and Angela Quaye, businessmen who raised him with music. “My father had a good taste in music,” Promise remembers. “He only played the best stuff and these are things that have influenced me to be the kind of artist that I am today, because of the kind of music he played at home and the music I heard growing up.” That music comprised a variety of genres. Traditional Highlife grooves, mixed in with Dancehall from Shaggy, and pop from the boy groups Westlife and Backstreet Boys formed the foundation of his music education. “When you listen to my music, you feel like a lot of highlife vibes and then you feel like some R&B vibes in it and then you feel like Afrobeat in it and sometimes some dancehall,” Promise explains. “So like, so many different genres and all of that shaped me to be who I am today.”
Promise says although his father was influential in his choice of career, he found out about his music career when he blew up while studying for a degree at Central University. He graduated in 2017, a feat that enabled that his music received parental blessings. “I personally like to learn. I love education. When I was in school, I loved being in class, I loved listening and all of that,” says Promise. “Just like I love my music, I also like to learn. So it wasn’t really hard for me to keep my eyes in school. The only issue, I’m not going to lie, is the distractions, missing a couple classes here and there. But at the end of the day, I was determined to go through and I did it.”
You can find that pursuit of growth in his July-released, 15-track debut album, As Promised. The project leads with Highlife harmonies layered over lyrics drawn from youth, happiness, and the beauty of being in love. On album lead, ‘Commando’ he reinforces his undying love for his lady with sappy lyrics that come alive with syrupy crooning: “Maybe me anever see another girlie like you/The way you move your body move your body, me alike girl/Come make abi your commando/Ago fight for you, commando.” The single, another career hit, was picked out of over 30 songs recorded for the project. Promise tells me that although his recording process results in hits, he never sets out to deliberately make them.
“I had no theme in the beginning but it was more of love, happiness and just having a good time that was all I was trying to put out. I actually didn’t even put like a number together,” he says. There’s also a glow in his voice when he talks about Wizkid, the Nigerian superstar who was a guest on smash hit single, ‘Tokyo’. The Killbeatz-produced song was made in Ghana, as an organic labour of love between both artists. “What you hear on ‘Tokyo’ is Wizkid’s first take. Wiz just did one take and it was perfect. We were just in the hotel room, we didn’t even plan it. It just happened. I also jumped on it, did my verse. He came back to Ghana, we shot the video and boom! It just took over,” Promise says, smiling.
Life for King Promise should be lived with happiness. And why not? He is young, he is rich, and he is in a prime position to influence his country’s music for years to come. There has been some weak talk about him taking the baton from legendary Highlife greats, and ushering the genre into the future as a custodian of the culture. Ghanaian Highlife is famous for its legendary performers, including E.T Mensah and Nana Ampadu. The genre is influential as a musical export running throughout sub-Saharan Africa and taking diverse forms in different countries.
African music has been the subject of a scramble by the major labels, with Universal Music, Sony and Warner Music stepping up operations across the continent and signing up talents to deals. Promise has had to watch his colleagues including Stonebwoy, and Cina Soul snag deals to amplify their music to a broader audience in foreign spaces. He believes that it is necessary for these partnerships to happen, as it benefits the culture to make the music travel. But he isn’t looking at getting signed to an American record label right now. There’s still space for him to grow into locally and on the continent. “I’m signed to a label in Ghana called “Legacy Life Entertainment” and that’s owned by Killbeatz who is a legend out here and Africa in general,” Promise says. “And this is a label I’ve been able to work with, with them having my interest at heart and wanting me to go all the way to the top and we are just taking our time working on the music and progress has been immensely beautiful and it can only be better. So I’m in no rush for no big label deal whatsoever.”
Despite possessing one of 2019’s best albums, Promise believes it’s the smallest of achievements on his belt. True legacy, he believes, comes from inspiration, and spreading your blessings beyond your family. He dreams of a time when his existence will be motivation for Ghana’s youth, looking to get ahead in life. “Considering where I’m from, who I am to believe that I could be who I am today and actually push for it and be here today?” he asks. “It’s something that’s crazy!” I want the youth from the ends, when they look at me, they should be able to say “if King Promise did it we can do it.”
(This article was written by Joey Akan; he tweets via JoeyAkan)