After going from living on the streets to becoming a famous photographer in his home country of Ghana, Tacitus Bailey-Yabani moved to Muskegon in 2014. Now, the owner of the Abeshi shop in the downtown Western Market has set his sights on changing the world by connecting people, breaking down barriers, and building communities through his art, his food, and his uplifting energy.
As Tacitus Bailey-Yabani walks around downtown in November’s frigid autumn air, he can’t go more than a couple steps without someone yelling out his name, or more often, shouting “fyah, fyah, fyah!”
“Yeah, man, fyah, fyah, fyah!” Bailey-Yabani, who moved from Ghana in West Africa to Muskegon in 2014 and is the owner of Abeshi Fotos + Crafts, a photography, art, clothing, and jewelry business that operates in one of the new chalets at the downtown Western Market, will yell back, smiling and pumping his arm in the air as he says the phrase that’s become a mantra in his own life.
“I’m a street boy; I lived on the street in Ghana. You have to do your best to survive on the street, so ‘fyah, fyah, fyah’ means your energy, your love, your hustle,” says Bailey-Yabani, who moved to Muskegon to be with his wife, Jessica, whom he met at a music festival in his home country. “It’s the fire that’s coming out; it’s the fire that people are enjoying with love.”
As Bailey-Yabani has become a familiar face throughout Muskegon, hearing this succession of fyahs has become increasingly commonplace. A couple weeks ago, when we were interviewing him outside his Western Market shop, passersby regularly shouted the phrase, to which Bailey-Yabani would raise a hand in greeting and laugh as his friends—downtown shop owners and brewers and politicians—emphatically waved to him before disappearing into the warmth of places like Rootdown and Unruly Brewing.
“Everyone around here knows me,” he says, explaining the flood of hellos he receives. “They know me and love me, and I love them.”
Tacitus Bailey-Yabani's shirts emblazoned with his mantra of "fyah, fyah, fyah." Photo by Jenna Swartz
And it’s true: in a matter of just a couple years, Bailey-Yabani has become something of a local celebrity, with everyone from Muskegon Mayor Stephen Gawron (whom the shop owner calls “one of his favorite people”) frequenting Abeshi to Unruly Brewing naming a beer “Fyah fyah fyah,” a chocolate coconut stout, in his honor this past summer.
“Tac is this to-the-top brimming over vessel of love and excitement,” Gawron says, using Bailey-Yabani’s nickname. “You’re coming down the street, and you hear, ‘yah man, yah man, yah man’ and ‘up, up, up’ from him. Abeshi means I am here; we are here, doing this together. If that doesn’t tie into the idea of Muskegon, into Muskegon rising, I don’t know what does.
“It’s always a joy to be in his presence,” Gawron continues. “Tac and his fellows at the Western Market are that physical manifestation of what we’re doing together, how we’re creating that sense of place… It’s the realization of a lot of hard work over a decade of really re-creating that place that we know as downtown Muskegon.”
Tacitus Bailey-Yabani in front of the Abeshi chalet at the Western Market in downtown Muskegon. Photo by the Michigan Municipal League.
Western Market debuted downtown this past summer and features 15 locally-owned businesses operating in colorful chalets lining Western Avenue. City officials gave their stamp of approval for the market in order to offer affordable rent to area entrepreneurs, as well as to grow pedestrian traffic in Muskegon’s downtown.
Spend any time with the Abeshi owner, and it’s evident why he’s become so well known so quickly throughout the city and why he’s a rising star in the city’s growing entrepreneurial landscape: he’s charming, honest, funny, and poignant. And he wields words powerfully. A conversation with him can, within minutes, move from stories of him living on the street in Ghana as a teenager to his internationally acclaimed photo exhibitions in Accra, the capital of Ghana, to moving a little more than 5,700 miles from his home in Ghana to Muskegon.
Tacitus Bailey-Yabani holds one of the necklaces he sells at Abeshi. Photo by Jenna Swartz
“When I first got to Muskegon, I thought to myself, ‘This is a big place with big chances, big opportunities,” he says. “The people are wonderful here. I wanted to bring my culture, my heritage here, so I started selling things—Ghanaian art, jewelry, my photographs of Ghana—at the [Muskegon] Farmers Market. Then the [Western Market] chalet opportunity came, and I wanted to do that.
“I love talking to people in the shop; they’re very interested about my country and my life,” Bailey-Yabani continues. “People really love the store. They want to talk about my country, learn about where I grew up. I want to tell my story to the world.”
Growing up in Ghana
Bailey-Yabani’s story begins in Accra, a city of about two million people situated on Ghana’s Atlantic coast—a space that for centuries was known as part of the “Slave Coast,” where millions of Africans were forced onto boats and sent to lives of enslavement in North America, South America, and the Caribbean between 1525 and 1866.
A photo Tacitus Bailey-Yabani took of Jamestown in Ghana.
Now known as West Africa’s music capital, Accra is a sprawling city pulsing with energy; countless artists, musicians, and chefs call the metropolis home. It is there, Bailey-Yabanai explains, that you’ll find some of the most vibrant street life and marketplaces you’ll ever encounter. And it is these spaces, the streets and the markets, that propelled him to fame; Bailey-Yabani became a prominent photographer in Ghana and was most well known for capturing images of life on the streets he knew intimately well.
Several photos he took of Jamestown, now one of Accra’s liveliest areas that’s teeming with fishermen and street vendors selling everything from barracuda to motorcycles, are framed on the walls of his home in Muskegon. They are of life as Bailey-Yabani knew it in Jamestown: a world of boats and fishing and art and tantalizing scents. Like so many places in West Africa, it is a place filled with life, but it is also a place filled with a horrific history in which millions of people’s lives were destroyed—something Bailey-Yabani, and Ghanaians as a whole, do not forget.
“You know Jamestown? This is where there were slaves,” he says, pointing to his photo of Jamestown’s coastline, a place home to the James Fort, which the British built in the 17th century and which was used hold more than a million slaves before they were forced onto boats to travel across the Atlantic Ocean.
A photo Tacitus Bailey-Yabani took of homes in Accra.
Bailey-Yabani was born at Tema General Hospital in Accra in 1985. His mother, Margaret Akita, died when he was four years old, and his father, Osoronko Nana-Yabani, left his mother before Bailey-Yabani ever had a chance to know him.
“After my mother died, I went to live with my grandmother, Victoria Merley Bekoe, and she’s the one who taught me everything: how to be a man, how to cook, how to hustle,” says Bailey-Yabani, who grew up with his one brother, Spinoza Nana-Yabani, one of many family members still in Ghana. “Grandma was very wealthy. She’s the one who was paying for my school fees, for everything for me to study.”
Following his grandmother’s death in 2000, Bailey-Yabani ended up living on the streets, parking cars to make money. Then, around 2006, he met a man who would forever change his life and become a godfather to him: Emmanuel Owusu-Obonsu, an acclaimed Ghanaian-Romanian musician and film director who found Bailey-Yabani a place to live. Then, at about 20 years old, Bailey-Yabani moved into the Pidgen House, a space in Accra filled with musicians and artists. Owned by Panji Anoff, a music producer and all-around cultural icon in Ghana who too ended up transforming Bailey-Yabani’s life, the Pidgen House was where Bailey-Yabani ended up falling in love with photography. From there, his life became a roller coaster of adventure, from traveling West Africa with big-name musicians to interning at the Pidgen Music label, owned by Anoff, and becoming a famous photographer.
Tacitus Bailey-Yabani in Ghana. Photo courtesy of Tacitus Bailey-Yabani.
One of the photos Tacitus Bailey-Yabani took of children in Ghana, now framed in his home office. Photo by Jenna Swartz
Within a matter of years, Bailey-Yabani’s images became known throughout Ghana. Just before he moved to the United States, his photography was featured in a 2013 exhibition in Accra, “Trotro Adventure,” which also included work by the German photographer Sofia Mitre. He also had his work presented in “The African Child” exhibition, which highlighted his photos of children living on the street in Ghana.
“When I started taking pictures, the children inspired me because they reminded me of myself when I was hustling on the streets of Accra,” Bailey-Yabani says. “I’m drawn to taking photos of the kids, of the marketplaces, of the street life. Being on the streets taught me so much; I am proud to be an African child.”
Moving to Muskegon
In 2014, Bailey-Yabani decided to take a major leap and leave his home country for Muskegon, in order to be with his wife, Jessica; the two now live in the Nims neighborhood with their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Damian—named for Damian Marley. (Bailey-Yabani is a huge Bob Marley fan; he’s even hung out with Damian Marley and the Marley family on numerous occasions in Jamaica.)
Tacitus, Jessica, and Damian Bailey-Yabani. Photo courtesy of Tacitus Bailey-Yabani.
A photo of Damian on Tacitus Bailey-Yabani's colorful office wall in Muskegon. Photo by Jenna Swartz
“The universe, the Jah, will always bless me; my wife is my blessing,” Bailey-Yabani says. “The family I never had growing up, I now have. I have my own family, my own house, my own business. I’m very proud. My grandmother still comes to me in my dreams, and I think she is really happy and would be proud of me too.”
Upon arriving in Muskegon in 2014, Bailey-Yabani immediately began to sew himself into the fabric of the city, and he started operating Abeshi at the Muskegon Farmers’ Market that year. As he continues to do with Abeshi at the Western Market, Bailey-Yabani sells his own artwork, such as his photography, as well as goods from Ghanaian artists, including handmade jewelry, clothing, patchwork sneakers, hand-sewn backpacks, and paintings. He then sends the proceeds from those goods back to the artists in Ghana.
Ghanaian shoes and backpacks are sold at Abeshi. Photo by Jenna Swartz
Tacitus Bailey-Yabani partners with artists in Ghana and sells their goods in Muskegon. Photo by Jenna Swartz
“I want people to know what Abeshi is about,” Bailey-Yabani says of his business, named for a word in Ga, his mother’s native language that is spoken in and around Accra, that essentially translates to, “I’m here.”
“I want people to know we’re here; we’re into changing humanity,” he says. “For us to move forward as mankind, we have to live in respect. If we can live in peace and harmony, we can do anything. That’s what Abeshi is all about.”
Now, Bailey-Yabani, who works at UPS when he’s not running Abeshi, and his wife are hoping to expand the business and offer Ghanaian food and a series of cooking classes, titled “A Taste of Abeshi,” at Kitchen 242, the culinary incubator located at the Muskegon Farmers Market. [To see some of his current culinary offerings, click here.]
Necklaces from Abeshi. Photo by Jenna Swartz
Eventually, the Bailey-Yabanis would love to open their own Ghanaian restaurant to introduce Muskegon to the tastes of Ghana: a culinary world filled with fried plantains, yams, maize, a vast array of rice dishes, and cassava—one of the world’s most drought-tolerant crops that is a key ingredient in a number of Ghana’s popular spice-filled stews.
The idea behind the food expansion follows Bailey-Yabani’s entire outlook on life: it’s about connecting with people, building relationships, forging a world filled with individuals who want to get to know others different from themselves.
“Meeting people, sitting down with people, that’s what life should be,” Bailey-Yabani says.
This story is part of Rapid Growth's "On the Ground-Muskegon Lakeshore" series, which aims to amplify the voices of the community members who make up Muskegon's waterfront neighborhoods. Over the next three months, our journalists will be embedded in the city's lakefront communities in order to dive deeper into topics important to residents, business owners and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Anna Gustafson, please email her at [email protected], or connect with her on Facebook.
Support for this series is provided by Downtown Muskegon Now, the Muskegon Business Improvement District, the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Pure Muskegon, Watch Muskegon, and the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.
Photography by Jenna Swartz, unless otherwise noted. To connect with Jenna, visit her website and Facebook page.