Mastering her voice
Ghanaian singer-songwriter and MBET alum, Yaa Yaa, hits the high notes
Ghanaian singer-songwriter and MBET alum, Yaa Yaa, hits the high notesBy Charlotte Danby Faculty of Engineering
Bertha Bridget Kankam (MBET ’22) recently completed her master’s degree in business, entrepreneurship and technology (MBET) at Waterloo Engineering’s Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business.
That is a worthy success in and of itself, but Kankam is not your typical MBET student. Better known to many as Yaa Yaa, she is an award-winning singer-songwriter from Ghana.
The 33-year-old crossed the stage to receive her degree at the University’s fall convocation ceremony last year. No stranger to stages and spotlights, Yaa Yaa radiated success as she stepped out in full academic dress robes — a new look for many of her fans.
Yaa Yaa always loved singing, but her first time performing on stage was in 2009 when she participated in the Ghanaian reality singing show Stars of the Future. She was 19 years old and won the competition.
Her singing career quickly took off with growing fan bases in Africa and the U.S. But when her two-year contract with Stars of the Future ended, she had to fend for herself in a tough environment.
“Everything was suddenly on me,” says Yaa Yaa. “I had to lead meetings, develop my own marketing strategy and build a trusted network. I was young and didn’t have a lot of business experience, so a lot of people tried to underpay, short-change or overwork me. It was a massive learning curve, but I stayed strong. By taking charge of my brand, I became an entrepreneur long before I knew that I was an entrepreneur.”
Working closely with other artists and performers, she realized there was a lack of local support for aspiring singers looking to improve their vocals.
In 2017, she branched out from managing her brand, Yaa Yaa, to start a vocal training practice called Vocal Hub. It was a huge hit from the start and demand for its services soon skyrocketed.
“My excitement at my new venture soon turned to panic,” admits Yaa Yaa. “Clearly I had started something good, but I didn’t have the business skills or the tools to manage it, let alone grow it. So I started looking around for a school that could teach me what I needed to know.”
Yaa Yaa knew that she didn’t want to enrol in just any MBA program, she wanted one that specialized in entrepreneurship. With family in the U.S. and Europe, she considered both for her studies. But her online search for the ‘best innovative school for entrepreneurship’ introduced her to some Canadian options, which soon led her to Waterloo’s MBET degree.
“I was a little worried about the cold,” laughs Yaa Yaa. “But the course ticked all my professional development boxes, so I applied. And I’m happy I did – it was the right one for me for sure. I’m really interested in venture creation and I came away with the practical learnings I need to help startups in the creative sector develop innovative solutions to their business problems.”
That said, leaving her home and career to study in a foreign country was not an easy decision to make.
“I knew the course would be good, but would it be worth the stress of uprooting myself for over a year? There was only one way to find out,” says Yaa Yaa. “As it happened, my class was full of international students so I wasn’t on my own.
“I really appreciated how the University pays attention to diversity and mental health. It was a full-on, demanding year, but the on-campus counselling services were always available to us. Plus there were lots of planned social activities to help us acclimatize, make friends and feel welcome.”
Some of her highlights were trying to ski, canoeing the Grand River and introducing her classmates to West African cuisine at a class cultural event.
“I spent most of the ski day on my bum!” laughs Yaa Yaa. “But my jollof rice was a hit.”
Pass the mic
Like many entrepreneurs, Yaa Yaa has multiple irons in the fire at any one given moment. Top of her list is evolving Vocal Hub, now called Voplug, into an international, community-driven platform that connects voice talent – from singers and actors to public speakers – with the resources they need to improve their vocals.
Singing and songwriting will always be driving forces in her life. In fact, while studying, Yaa Yaa won the Best Ghana/Canada Act at the 2022 Ghana Entertainment Awards USA in New York. Needless to say, her fans are clamouring for more music and live performances.
Yaa Yaa can’t wait to get back on stage, but has been busy behind the scenes. She recently served the KW Glee team as a guest voice teacher and songwriter to prepare the youth choir for the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony 22/23 season. The choir’s musical theatre performance in January included an original song written by Yaa Yaa called ‘Remember Today.’
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