Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music

By Burns, James | Notes, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music


Burns, James, Notes


Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music. By Jesse Weaver Shipley. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013. [xiii, 329 p. ISBN 9780822353669. $25.] Music examples, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.

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. …

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