Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music.
Living the Hiplife is a well-balanced ethnographic account of the current popular music scene in Ghana. This work is part of a series of publications that provide an updated perspective on Ghanaian highlife music since the seminal work of John Collins in the 1990s (Highlife Time [Accra, Ghana: Anansesem Publications, 1996]). Nathan Plageman's recent book, Highlife Saturday Night, for example, looks at the emergence of highlife music in the 1940s and 1950s within the context of the creation of urban middle class life, ideals, and aesthetics during the late colonial period in Ghana (Highlife Saturday Night: Popular Music and Social Change in Urban Ghana [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012]). The present work looks at the most recent evolution of highlife music, hiplife, which the author Jesse Weaver Shipley distinguishes as a "popular music genre that fuses hip-hop sampling, beatmaking, and a rap lyrical flow with older forms of highlife music, Akan story telling, and proverbial oratory" (p. 4). In examining this new style of hip-hop music in Ghana, Living the Hiplife is also an important addition to the emerging body of scholarship on African forms of hip-hop, and it is among the first group of monographs dedicated to a particular African hip-hop tradition (see Brad Weiss, Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops: Global Fantasy in Urban Tanzania [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009]; and Eric Charry ed., Hip Hop Africa: New African Music in a Globalizing Worltl [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012]).
Although its title might indicate that it was written for ethnomusicologists, Shipley is actually an anthropologist, and his book rather presents an ethnographic account of popular music in contemporary Ghana, through the eyes of its stars, groups, and producers. Thus, instead of transcriptions and music analysis, the author takes an artist-centered approach through the use of interviews and anecdotes that highlight contemporary issues in Ghanaian popular music, such as transculturation, gender, digital media, popular culture, and urbanization. The author also analyzes several song texts to uncover the use of parody and humor to make oblique political and social commentaries. Shipley presents hiplife as being simultaneously global--incorporating the latest fashions in international hip-hop music and culture--and local, through its use of Twi and pidgin English, both lingua francas in southern Ghana and among Ghanaian immigrant communities. This last feature distinguishes hiplife sonically from similar-sounding musics coming out of the African diaspora.
The first two chapters outline the emergence of hiplife music from earlier forms of highlife during the 1990s within the context of a period of extensive rural-urban migration in Ghana, when young people left their hometowns in greater numbers for the capital, Accra, or eventually even abroad, in search of modern careers outside of agriculture. Some migrants formed a new middle class of western-educated Christian civil servants, teachers, and soldiers, whose regular salaries allowed them to become the primary consumers of mass media, including radio and television programs, as well as records and audio cassettes. More germane to this work are those migrants who came to Accra in search of new artistic opportunities; their voices are represented in the book by several struggling young artists whom Shipley meets in Accra pursuing their dreams within the tough economic demands of big-city life. Over the years, all of these urban migrants have come in contact with other black music styles from the Caribbean and Latin America, via recordings, which have regularly provided new sources of musical inspiration to highlife musicians. These encounters with various musics of the African diaspora provide the foundation for one of the book's major themes, namely, the complex interaction between black music cultures across the Atlantic, a topic that the author navigates with great sophistication by drawing on contemporary studies of transcultural contact that highlight both its resulting affinities and disjunctions (Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003]; Veit Erlmann, Music, Modernity and the Global Imagination: South Africa and the West [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999]). Shipley also considers the impact of Ghanaians living in the diaspora, particularly in international cities like London, Hamburg, New York City, and Los Angeles, who maintain the flow of transnational products back toward their home country. The picture of highlife music that emerges in these early chapters reveals a constantly evolving local music form that periodically opens its floodgates to new innovations from other popular black music styles, including jazz, soul, funk, disco, reggae, and now hip-hop, absorbing in turn the ethos, attitudes, fashions, and slang of these musics into contemporary expressions of Ghanaian youth culture.
The themes discussed above are explored further in chapters 3 and 4, which describe the life, artistry, and influence of Reggie Ossei Rockstone, the primary innovator of hiplife music. Rockstone left Ghana after secondary school, and spent many years abroad in London and New York City engaged in various trades to support his fledgling career in music. As an immigrant in London, he connected with other black migrants, particularly Afro-Caribbeans, and became involved with many important hip-hop crews in the London popular music scene as a DJ and rapper. When Rockstone returned to Ghana in the 1990s, he fused the latest developments in American and Afro-Caribbean hip-hop music into the prevailing styles of highlife, which produced Hiplife, a new genre of highlife music set to hip-hop and international dance rhythms. In assessing the impact of Rockstone's musical innovations on contemporary Ghanaian music, Shipley draws on Barber's model of a "culture broker," an influential figure who is able to localize foreign elements into something that is accepted locally as a new yet authentic cultural product (Karin Barber, "Popular Arts in Africa," African Studies Review 30, no. 3 ; 1-78). Rockstone's rise to stardom in the middle of the 1990s also parallels changes in the Ghanaian music industry, which began to focus on solo performers rather than musical groups. Similar to the hip-hop music industry in the United States, what emerged in Ghana are a few record labels that feature a core of producers who make the beats, organize the recordings, and eventually promote and market the music, and the artistic talent, fashionable young rappers who have the potential to connect with a mainstream audience.
Chapter 5 looks at the use of parody and humor in Ghanaian popular culture through the lens of two popular hiplife songs, "Vote For Me," a song that pokes fun at the unachievable promises made by the candidates in the 2000 presidential election, and "Scenti No," a song making fun of body smells. Shipley uses these two pieces to demonstrate the ways that humor is used to express underlying social sentiments. For example, the Native Funk Lords's (NFL) "Vote For Me" (2000) parodies the image of the "fat president," who profits selfishly from state resources at the expense of the people, a theme that was also prominent in the work of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti of Nigeria (Michael E. Veal, Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon [Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000]). During that era in Ghana, the image of the "fat president" was manifested in the minds of many Ghanaians by the career of outgoing president Jerry J. Rawlings, who entered power in the early 1980s very thin and retired in 2001 rather robust. The chorus of the song, "Vote for me, I want to chop president," uses the pidgin English term "chop," a word originally meaning "to digest" or "consume," which was transformed in the local vernacular into a verb meaning "the attainment of (a position, etc.)." The chorus synthesizes these dual meanings into the image of a person who attains, chops, president, and is thus able to physically chop more food. This chapter draws on relevant literature from the field of oral performance, particularly works that focus on the impact that popular lyrics have on urban culture (M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986]). Chapter 6 looks at issues relating to gender in hiplife music, again largely through the experiences of a popular female performing artist, in this case the rapper Mzbel. Shipley examines the ways that female performers are denigrated in Ghana for supposedly having loose moral values, making them the target of abuse on online forums, YouTube, Facebook pages, and other media sites.
The final two chapters look at how Ghanaian hiplife artists have connected with transnational networks of Ghanaians and other West Africans living abroad in order to secure greater markets for their music. Chapter 7 looks at the experiences of Mensa Ansah, a Ghanaian rapper living in London, who is popular among a cross-section of African ethnic groups. Mensa is also active in the music scene in Accra, where he has brought his knowledge and access to the latest digital technologies to his own music and to that of his musical acolytes. Chapter 8 looks at hiplife music as a rallying point for Ghanaians living abroad, particularly in the Bronx, where music plays an important role in articulating a Ghanaian identity that is distinct from other black immigrants. Shipley also aptly describes the intermingling of American and Ghanaian aesthetics during local events and performances.
The world of hiplife, as described by Shipley, is not unlike that of popular music in the United States, with corporate-sponsored national talent competitions, tie-ins with movies, television, and other media, and connections with various governmental figures and organizations. With these broader themes, this work is also of immense value to students, researchers, and courses examining issues relating to popular culture, gender, social change, the media, and technology within a contemporary African context.