If Hiplife should die before I wake

Ghanaian capital and birthplace of hiplife, Accra

How and when can you define a musical genre as having died?

It’s a one of those debates that recylcles itself again and again as music around the world goes through cycles of change. In hip hop we had the debate that followed Nas’ Hip Hop is Dead, similar statements that were made about punk and the current uncertainty of some about the future of grime.

In Ghana, leading figures of hiplife music, have attracted support and controversy for saying that hiplife was dead, or that it needed resurrection.

Hiplife is a distinctly Ghanaian genre that was formed from the influences of Ghanaian highlife music mixed with hip hop, alongside dancehall and soca. Listening to the music, it reflects a long history of movement and exchange around the different shores of the Atlantic ocean.

Hiplife’s local musical ancestor, highlife, itself is a strong example of how music was influenced by centuries of colonialism. It’s a music played by big bands, with multiple guitars, horns and drums. Its origins go back to the traditional music of West Africa, mixed with European brass bands, dances and sea shanties, along with Cuban son and other Caribbean influences, in some cases brought back by descendants of former slaves returning to Africa as part of political repatriation movements. In Ghana, at the time a British colony, British record companies were already releasing highlife recordings by the 1920s. The use of Ghanaian territory as a major American staging post in World War Two also brought in a massive influence of jazz and swing to the sound, which went on to be hugely influential to all African popular music in the second half of the 20th century.


A mix of classic highlife.

Ghana was the first African nation to gain independence from European colonialism, under the leadership of Dr Kwame Nkrumah. It was also the site of Africa’s first permanent recording studio, established in 1948, and by the mid-70s had a viable music industry with around half a million records being pressed each year in the country.

Dr Kwame Nkrumah

However, Nkrumah’s government was beset by many economic problems. The ultimate failure of the aluminium industry to bring western style economic development to the country, which had been the bedrock of his long term plan, led to his being deposed in a military coup led by Jerry Rawlings, who later himself became President.

The economic and political upheaval that began in the late 70s had a major impact on Ghanaian music, with many Ghanaians moving abroad in search of better economic prospects. Ghanaian communities around the world came into contact with new forms of music making via computers and synthesisers, and the emerging art of DJing as pioneered in hip hop. A lot of these new technologies and methods were transferred back to Ghana itself. Meanwhile, the military government classified musical instruments as luxury imports and imposed 160% taxes on bringing them into Ghana. The government also, crucially, imposed night curfews between 1982 and 84, meaning it was virtually impossible for the large number of highlife nightclubs which had existed in the 70s to continue. For smaller scale parties at home or smaller clubs it was much more feasible to have a DJ, and when the curfews were finally lifted it remained more economical to play music this way than to employ big bands full of professional musicians.

This is where we come to hiplife. From early on hip hop was taken back across the Atlantic from the US to Europe and Africa. Ghana was no exception, and from the late 80s there were people experimenting with rap. In stark contrast to the origins of hip hop, it was originally in Ghana more of an elite phenomenom, from students at elite schools and the children of immigrants who had returned with access to capital, new technology and imported music.

Although there were definitely experiments with rapping before, the figure regarded as the founding father of hiplife is Reggie Rockstone. The son of a fashion designer, he was born in London, grew up in Ghana and also spent time in the US. This gave him a unique position to draw together elements of African musical heritage along with what was going on around the Atlantic in the African diaspora, and bring these together with the use of new musical technologies. He began pioneering the hiplife (mixture of hip hop and highlife) movement around 1994. His debut album, Maaka Maka (I said it because I said it) was released in 1997 and had a huge impact.

Reggie Rockstone

The other thing that gave hiplife a massive boost was the growth of commercial radio in Ghana. From the early 90s the political situation nationally had begun to calm down, and under the the constitution of the Fourth Ghanaian Republic commercial radio was made legal. However, the impact of the political instability of the early 80s, and the economic impact on the big highlife bands, meant there were very few of them left playing Ghanaian music, and the lively night life of 70s Accra had declined greatly. These new stations were looking for music from Ghana to play, and around the same time Reggie Rockstone and the other pioneers of hiplife brought their music on to the scene. This was the means by which hiplife moved out of the elite and on to the streets, initially in the capital Accra and then throughout the country.


Mapouka by Reggie Rockstone

One of the most interesting thing for those outside Ghana about hiplife is the light it sheds on the African origins of what became in the US rapping. After the 80s a young generation had grown up in Ghana that had no access to musical instruments. What they did have were their own voices, and a long history of indigenous lyrical traditions. Very early hiplife made the jump that’s necessary for any local hip hop scene anywhere in the world to progress in terms of credibility-rapping in local languages and accents. Twi, which is in many contexts a lingua franca in Ghana is probably the biggest language used in the records, but there’s also Ga, and in the north (where there’s a slightly different style influenced by a different environment, Islamic music and other factors) languages like Hausa also get used. The youth who rap in hiplife are in fact very interested in the lyrical, proverbial traditions of Ghana, and make use of them in their music.

Lyrically, the content of hiplife uses traditional formats, such as storytelling through the lyrics, using proverbs and sayings and modes of speech that have their origins in the pre-colonial courts of West African states. Hiplife rappers then use these styles to develop moral and social commentary, a great example being crtiticism of the church. Due to tax exemptions for churches, many musicians moved to making Christian music for new evangelical/apostolic/charismatic churches in the 80s. This led to the other major genre of Ghanaian music being gospel. The more secular rappers often mention corruption and abuse of power within these churches.


Pae Mu Ka by Obrafour

Two of the greatest examples of this lyrical skill are the artists Obrafour and Okomfo Kwaadee, who are really focussed on the lyrics. Obrafour’s sound really had a huge impact on hiplife from the release of his debut album Pae Mu Ka (which translates as ‘Split it, Say It,’ i.e. say what’s on your mind) in 1999. It slowed the speed of the music right down so you could really listen to his lyrics, and the production contained at least a nod to the sound of Wu Tang, highly layered and slower than the more dancehall/ragga influenced sound that had come before it. Obrafour means the executioner, a traditional term for the figure charged with carrying out a death sentence pronounced by a chief.

Obrafour


Kwame Nkrumah by Obrafour, a tribute to the Ghana’s first independent leader

Okomfo Kwaadee is a rapper who really uses traditional lyrical styles to tell stories in a deep, resonant voice. He’s noted for rapping solely in Twi, and in a less westernised version of the language, using traditional tone and intonation and avoiding English loan words. His stories often deal with sex and relationships in a style that doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Okomfo Kwaadee

Musically hiplife exploded very quickly to national, and international prominence from the mid-90s on. It has since gone down a number of different musical routes, with, as previously noted, some performers focussing mostly on the lyrics and making more straight up hip hop style electronic beats. Others have really gone back to the roots of highlife, and reused highlife harmonies and melodies in a way that recalls its style in a more modern context. And, as I mentioned, there’s also the northern hiplife sound. Although it originated in the south and the capital Accra, people in the Ghanaian north have also really made it their own, bringing their own musical history and social background to something unique again.

However, this is where we come back to where I started. Many have been arguing for a few years now that hiplife has stagnated. Reggie Rockstone himself commented in 2007:

“I am not happy. Hiplife is going nowhere. It has come to a stand still. Right now we have no hiplife star. No one is building a personality. True connoisseurs of music are not happy with the current condition of hiplife. There are loads of artistes who call themselves hiplifers but they are not. They pay to be stars. They come out with intelligent crap overnight and because they have money to spend, they take up space from the real stars who cannot pay to be on air. It is high time the powers that be sit up to take another look at the arts. People put in places should make things happen.They must sell the hiplife campaign as a product.”

Reggie Rockstone puts a lot of weight on to the damage done by payola to hiplife, and has gone as far as calling artists using this system a “mafia” who are damaging the quality of music released under the hiplife banner. Another major problem is the emigration of artists in search of a better income.

One hiplife artist, Obuor, recently went as far as declaring that he was going to bring about the “resurrection” of hiplife, with a new album and massive concert. His song ‘The Game’ delved into the theme as well. Implicit of course is that without him, hiplife is dead. The concert featured several other leading hiplifers, and historical video showing the pioneers of the genre at work. There was also a performance by staff of the Motor Traffic and Transport Unit, as Obuor has also been well known for campaigning on road safety, which was joined by Obuor riding a motorbike on stage.


The Game by Obuor

However, not everyone was happy about Obuor taking this role of saviour. Kwaw Kese, an artist associated with Obrafour and seen as a great performer but also as someone who can be pretty controversial and hostile towards other artists, attacked Obuor, saying:

“Some people said hip life was dead and they are resurrecting it but they couldn’t do anything, they couldn’t do a thing, to say hip life is dead, what about Reggie Rockstone, Obrafour and co.?”

And Obrafuor has just released a new track clearly attacking Obuor for his stance. The song, ‘Nkasiabo’ takes the form of Obrafour being interviewed by fellow rapper Guru (not to be confused with Guru of Gang Starr). He asks, ‘When did hiplife die without me knowing?’ And he adds that music is dynamic and it’s the musicians who aren’t dynamic enough that don’t want the current changes and growth in hiplife. ‘How can we save hiplife with Atopa Jenjen?’ he says, referencing another track from Obuor’s album.

Kwaw Kese. And no, I don't know why he's dressed up as Santa

It’s clear that some aren’t happy with the direction hiplife has been taking. In the article that the above Kwaw Kese quote is taken from, it specifically talks about artists using crunk style beats instead of what is considered properly hiplife. However, is it really possible for a musical genre to truly die? Even today, for example, there are people within the jazz tradition composing and improvising new music that definitely is jazz. And look at the uproar that followed Nas’ declaration that hip hop was dead.

In an age were there is such a huge variety of recorded music easily available, often for free, throughout the world, it’s hard to see how any kind would ever truly die and never be made again. However, music can stagnate and become less relevant. The real question is whether hiplife is still relevant to Ghanaian youth, or whether it’s time for it to evolve into something new.

Perhaps a better way of looking at the issues in Ghana are the problems that hiplife’s founder Reggie Rockstone highlights-the use of payola, and promotional capital, to give prominence to music whose quality doesn’t deserve it. In the future, what hope is there for progress with this? Well, the more that internet usage and digital distribution is able to advance in Ghana, the more artists will (hopefully) be able to circumvent commercial radio and other corporate paymasters.

But surely you have to be hopeful about a scene that originally emerged from far less advantageous circumstances it now has. A generation that had grown up with economic collapse, military government and a complete lack of musical instruments or musical education grasped new technology and the best of what was coming in from around the African diaspora, and, combining it with their own musical heritage, created a totally new sound that in turn has gone on to spread its influence throughout the African continent. And through both the many communities of Ghanaian immigrants living in other countries and through a direct interface made possible by the internet, it’s spreading beyond the continent as well.

Hiplife download links

It’s not the easiest thing to find good download links, let me know if you know of better and I’ll stick them up.

Hiplife vs. Highlife mixtape

Obrafour mixtape

Kwaadee mixtape

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One Response to “If Hiplife should die before I wake”

  1. Excellent article, really interesting 🙂

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