When Maxine Angel Opoku was still a rookie musician, relatively unknown and struggling to stand out in Ghana’s competitive music scene, she sang about love, romance and being sexy.
Then, in August 2021, lawmakers in the country’s parliament introduced a bill that would jail people who identify as transgender, as Opoku does, and his art urgently turned to advocacy. His music began to attract both legions of new fans as well as powerful adversaries.
“Dear Mr. Politician, fix the country now. The people who voted for you are disappointed in you,” Opoku sings in one of his last songs. “Kill him, kill him, kill Bill.”
The subject of the song is the ‘Promotion of Appropriate Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values’ Bill, which if passed would make identifying as gay, transgender or queer a punishable crime. a maximum prison term of five years.
As Ghana’s only openly transgender musician, Opoku, known on stage as Angel Maxine, is one of the most visible targets of proposed legislation in a country where the gay and transgender community is largely closed off.
“Music is my advocacy tool,” Opoku said in an interview in Accra, Ghana’s capital. “It’s the only way my voice can reach the politicians, the president, the homophobes, the lay people.”
Same-sex sexual acts are already criminalized in Ghana, in part because of a British colonial-era law, but it is currently not a crime to publicly identify as gay, transgender or queer.
In response to the bill, Opoku released a song called “Kill the Bill” and, shortly before that, another song, “Wo Fie”, which means “home”, in the Akan language, one of the most spoken languages. in Ghana.
“Wo Fie” is about how LGBTQ people can be part of every family and calls for tolerance and respect. In the lyrics, Opoku sings about being shamelessly herself.
Opoku, the eldest of five children, was born in Accra on September 3, 1985, to a fashion designer mother and a civil servant father.
“Everyone who saw her said, ‘Hey, you have a beautiful daughter,'” recalls her mother, Faustina Araba Forson, 60. “So I would say, ‘No, it’s a boy.'”
“She loved wearing girl’s dresses, playing with girls,” Forson added. “She was a girl trapped in a male body.”
Still, it took Forson many years to come to terms with his daughter’s identity. Opoku recalled that the mother and child attended churches to hear pastors, including controversial Nigerian preacher TB Joshua, seek to “drive out gay people”.
“One day I was praying and I heard God say, ‘I created her in my image and I love her,'” Forson said.
Opoku started singing at home during morning devotional prayers with her family, and as a teenager she followed the members of a now-defunct girl group. She started playing music as a woman in 2008 while studying hotel management in Koforidua, a town north of Accra. It was a dangerous business. Once, during a set, a bottle was thrown from the audience, hitting her in the head, she said.
Without a label to back her up or to sponsor recording sessions, she put her music – the sound of which is an increasingly popular fusion of Afropop, dancehall and Afrobeats – on hold and instead moved between jobs in the hospitality industry as a cook and waitress, where she faced issues such as sexual error.
Even before the threat of jail in impending legislation, being openly gay or transgender in Ghana was extremely risky, with those who identified – or were perceived to do so – facing violence from outsiders and their own family. Discrimination in employment and discrimination in housing are common.
“Some are forced into marriage, driven from their homes. Some of them drop out of school because they no longer have support,” said Leila Yahya, executive director of One Love Sisters, Ghana, an LGBTQ Muslim advocacy organization and friend of Opoku.
Opoku returned to music in 2018, and while the challenge won her online following at home and abroad, it also left its mark on her. Her home was ransacked and looted by a mob last year, forcing her to cut back on her public appearances. Opoku was not at home when the mob attacked.
“They could have taken me to the police station, maybe I could even have died,” said Opoku, who now performs rarely and only in private. “I could have been lynched”
After Opoku’s house was attacked, maverick musician Wanlov the Kubolor and his sister, known as Sister Deborah, helped her find a safe space and began a professional and personal relationship. The siblings, long seen as social naysayers in the Ghanaian music industry, feature on both ‘Kill the Bill’ and ‘Wo Fie’.
“It blew my mind, the things she lived with day to day – financially, psychologically, physically,” Wanlov the Kubolor said. “I don’t think I could have survived this life.”
Opoku said she also wanted to be known for her music unrelated to her activism. But this has been an unrealized ambition, until now. A full mini album of non-militant songs remains unreleased due to a lack of sponsorship, she said.
For Wanlov the Kubolor, Opoku’s recent rise to power has been both joyful and painful.
“It’s painful because she could have blossomed much sooner, because she’s got super talent, and she could have already been a world star,” he said.
Recently, the song “Wo Fie” went viral on TikTok outside Ghana, and Wanlov the Kubolor believes Opoku’s growing international visibility – while fraught with security risks – could also serve as a protective factor for him.
But Opoku isn’t so sure. “Every day is dangerous for me,” she said. “I can’t walk down the street like a normal person.”
Taking the bus is out of the question, she says, as is going to the market. “I can’t do a lot of things,” she said.
Her daughter’s safety is also a priority for Forson. “I fear very much for my daughter,” she said. “She’s a loud person and therefore a target, and I always pray that God protects her.”
If passed, the bill would criminalize positive portrayals of queer life in the media, codify the widely discredited pseudoscience of conversion therapy, and require families and neighbors of LGBTQ people to report them to authorities.
Those who are arrested can avoid prison by undergoing psychiatric and endocrinological treatment “to overcome their vulnerabilities”. The bill also states that allies who provide any form of assistance to LGBTQ people, such as housing, could be sentenced to between five and 10 years in prison.
The proposed legislation is backed by the country’s powerful religious leaders, politicians from both major parties and large sections of the local media. He also enjoys broad popular support in a country where a 2019 survey found that 93% of Ghanaians would not like to have a gay neighbour.
The bill also galvanized open opposition from a small but influential coalition of local academics, lawyers and rights activists.
Last month the speaker of parliament, who had previously expressed support for the legislation, said it was a priority and would be passed before the next election in 2024.
Partly because of LGBTQ antipathy around the bill, Opoku said it was difficult to see a future for himself in Ghana. It is almost impossible for him to perform freely in public now; the bill would make that legally impossible.
“I don’t see a life here for me,” she said. “If I can’t go out openly, go to the streets to go about my daily business, if I can’t find a job, how can I support myself? This is not a life.
Despite the challenges, she remains committed to standing up for Ghana’s LGBTQ community in the face of this growing hostility.
Her next song, she said, will encourage people at risk to sign up for PrEP, an HIV prevention pill.
“I feel like it’s a liability,” Opoku said. “If I win, people like me will win too.”
She added: “People like me will also be happier, people like me will also feel free.”