Julie Okine, a talented Ghanaian singer, was the first woman to join a highlife band full-time. After meeting highlife legend E.T. Mensah while working in a shop, Okine began singing with Mensah and The Tempos in 1953. She bravely entered Ghana’s entertainment industry during a time when music was not considered a “respectable” profession for women, and she continued to make history when she later wrote and recorded Ghana’s first feminist popular music song.
While information regarding Okine’s early life remains scarce, Okine is noted to be a Ga name. The Ga are an ethnic group prevalent in the Southeast coast of Ghana.
As for Julie Okine’s evolution as an artist, there was little else she considered doing according to John Collins, author of Highlife Giants which highlights Okine. “I think I’d fade away and die if I had to do another job” she stated.
"Instead, she sang boldly, influenced by other Black women of the time like the talented South African musician Miriam Makeba and African American greats Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan...."
Julie Okine ignored close-minded, patriarchal views at the time which considered female musicians “loose women.” Instead, she sang boldly, influenced by other Black women of the time like the talented South African musician Miriam Makeba and African American greats Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan. In 1956, Louis Armstrong visited Ghana with the All Stars which featured the famous blues singer Velma Middleton. E.T. Mensah, leading member of The Tempos band in which Okine sang, was said to be motivated by such American swing and jazz bands fronted by Black females. Taking further inspiration from American swing, The Tempos often sang in both English and Ghanaian languages, catering to foreign nationals and their elite Ghanaian acquaintances.
As noted above, Okine was responsible for Ghana’s first feminist popular song, “Nothing But a Man’s Slave,” released in 1957 with The Tempos. In the song, Okine describes going out on a Saturday night for a bottle of beer and meeting a nice Ghanaian man.
“He want to know my name,
he wishes to know my game.
If I die of a man’s love,
I’m nothing but a man’s slave.”
The song was released around the same time as Ghana Freedom, an album E.T. Mensah produced to commemorate Ghana’s independence from Great Britain on March 6, 1957. Okine’s description of an independent woman who refuses to be defined by a man is admirable and consistent with her commitment to being a singer at the time.
Another song Okine recorded with The Tempos is called “The Tree and the Monkey,” released in 1958. In this song, Okine describes the persistent nature of monkeys in pursuit of love. It’s a sweet-sounding song where Okine shows her range and the ability to sing alongside the instruments as she does in “Nothing But a Man’s Slave.”
Overall, Julie Okine’s career had a significant impact on the African music industry as a whole. She and The Tempos influenced the Rhythm Aces dance band to add a female singer named Cathy in 1954, and they later brought their “swing jazz” sound to Nigeria and inspired the highlife band Cool Cats (later renamed the All Stars in 1963). While there, they influenced the musical legend Fela Kuti, who eventually moved to Ghana in the late 1960’s and turned his brand of highlife into Afrobeat.
Special thanks to Julie Okine for her courage and valuable contribution to the highlife genre!
Written & Researched by Evonne Opoku (2022)
Reviewed by the AOTH Team
Evonne Opoku is a creative advocate passionate about Black art and communities worldwide. She was raised by Ghanaian parents in the USA and has worked as a social worker and attorney in Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore. In 2018, Evonne and her sister started AFROTHREADS, an African Textile Studio that celebrates culture, creativity and craftsmanship. Since September 2022, Evonne has been based in Accra, Ghana working on a variety of personal and professional projects.