Sunday, October 30, 2005

Hiplife, Vlog-style International

I've now got a place where you can check out some video clips of rappers in Ghana. My camera captured the scene: individuals' biographies, live performances, freestyle battles, and a fascinating view into the life of numerous young artists. As hiplife takes on many forms in and around Ghana's capital, Accra, I spoke with a vast spectrum of characters. From the 13-year-old schoolyard ragga boys to the 30-something and older crowd of industry movers and shakers, I talked to a ton of people.

Click on the post title above or here to see my first video post, Kwaw Kesse Rocks Tema.

This video clip is a good example of a more underground, but well-organized, show. Tons of excited kids were seriously feeling Kwaw Kesse's audacious jams. In many of his songs, Kwaw uses foul language and insulting epithets, which riles up these wild teenagers to a fevered pitch (somewhat comparable to some of the better hip-hop shows I have seen back here in America). Contrasting with most mainstream hiplife shows, this show features Kwaw actually rapping into a live mic. Most hiplife shows rely on lip-syncing in order to preserve the tightness of the performance, and to help the artist focus on intricate choreographed dances. This is wack, but with most promoters employing severely used sound systems, miming becomes preferable to having the mic go dead mid-song. In this performance, Kwaw keeps the original tracks playing, but has the mic switched on so you hear his actual voice. A hardcore show like this is rare in Ghana, especially among the more established artists who are less apt to risk a disaster, technical or otherwise, which could spoil or delay a show.

FYI--Kwaw Kesse means Big Kwaw (Kwaw is a common Akan name). Dude comes from Agona-Swedru, where he started kicking rhymes as youngster in the schoolyard...

Friday, October 28, 2005

More on Rep Busters Nkasei (click here for a great article on "Yefri Tuobdom" in Ghana Review International)

While doing this research on hiplife in Ghana, I often took fieldnotes or memos in addition to all my filming. After a long day, I would just write out my thoughts and experiences and impressions...Kind of like this blog. I don't believe in scribbling notes the whole time while chatting with people, so I prefer to go back later on that day or as soon as possible after the interview or performance and write down some of things I thought were important or interesting. Memos helped me summarize and organize my thoughts during research.

This is my memo from the day I interviewed Nkasei

18/08/05 Interviewing Nkasei- Shy's house, St. John's, Accra

I arrive and meet the people who own a liquor and drinks shop attached the house where I am supposed to finally meet the group Nkasei. After weeks of phone tag, waiting, getting stood-up at least twice, I was going to get my time with these cats who have recently blown-the-fuck-up.

The guys arrive a bit late but I enjoy myself chatting with the neighbors. They show up in an SUV, dressed in typical low-key hiphop gear, nothing too flashy. One guy, Shy, has bleach blonde dreads, while the other, Naa-K has a bleach blonde beard. We are meeting at Shy's place it turns out, which is very comfortable: plush couches, big stereo, big screen TV. The guys seem to be enjoying their current tide of success.* "Yefri Tuobodom" is all over Ghana right now: radio, TV, newspaper, etc. The controversy surrounding whether or not the song denigrates the people of Tuobodom in particular and Brong-Ahafo region in general has drummed up a lot of media coverage (unprecedented as far as I have seen for any one song). Daily, I see letters-to-the-editor concerning the issue across the entire spectrum of newspapers and magazines. I hear radio call-in shows mention the topic while the song is played at almost "Konkontibaa"** levels of repetition, only for me "Yefri Tuobodom” never gets old for some reason. I see the video, interviews with the artists, and mention of the song on TV (can't remember which stations). The impact of the song is clear, just walk around town and listen. On numerous occasions I witness hilarious but, often serious, exchanges between passengers on buses that spring out of one being accused of being from Tuobodom (because they acted stupid or ignorant or "bush” in some way). In any case, the people of Tuobodom, as they were depicted in the song (and in the words of the song's composers), are people of the past. They are not meant to be a representation of the modern people living in thatbrightly-bush, brighty-lit town by the roadside just outside of Techiman, BA.

*- One thing I noticed with hiplife musicians in Ghana, if they got some cash they were quick to style themselves (and their friends and family) out poss. This means getting name-brand clothes, a car, their own pad, rocking the expensive clubs, etc. But most of these guys aren't really making enough to support this kind of lifestyle. They often feel pressure from people around them to spend more and be generous, which is something they don't seem to have a problem with. It's just that the large amount of image maintainenece involved with being a mainstream hiplife artist means that many of the stars are actually kind of broke, though relatively they aren't doing too bad...more about this whole issue in a near-future post!

**-"Konkontibaa" turned out to be THE hiplife anthem during my entie year in Ghana. It is not possible to compare its popularity and prevalence with any one song in America for two reasons: one, we don't blast music in public spaces (24-hours a day in some cases) , and our radio playlists and formats are not THAT homogenous (relatively compared with Ghana).

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Hiplife's Humorous Duo Turn Heads Internationally (Finally), Click here to hear about it from BBC

One of the things that is so fascinating about hiplife music is the abundance of controversial lyrics. Ideas of what is acceptable in terms of offensive words, ideas, or images varies a lot between the States and Ghana. Recently a hilarious duo who are altogether veterans in the hiplife game, but had not been heard from in a while, came out with a song that has put them back in the public spotlight. "Yefri Tuobodom", which means "We're from Tuobodom," is a song based on an old folk tune that pokes a bit of fun at the not-so-rural town of Tuobodom. Nkasei, the group in question, put together an updated version of this song and made an enormous hit out of it. The original song functions sort of like a summer camp sing-along and has been sung for years by Ghanaian youth: think "Jingle Bells, Batman smells..." or something of that nature. A friend of mine used to sing it with his mates during a volunteer program he did in a village no where near Tuobodom about ten years ago. The groove is totally unqiue at time when more and more songs either come from two major schools of thought production-wise (Hammer vs. J-Que, to be dealt with in a future posting).

Watch the video.

Basically, the song seems to mock the people of Tuobodom, which has put a stain on the rep of a town no one had really heard of before. Is bad publicity better than no press at all?

I wrote a bunch about this whole issue but it got erased somehow, so I am going to leave it here for now. Just don't have the energy to write it again. Check out the above and below links and read about how this song caused a stir in Parliament, in the media, and the hearts and minds of average folks all over Ghana.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Digital Static: Where Does Hiplife Come From? (Pt. 2)

The last few days have seen me sorting out my DV tapes, which are the primary record of the Hiplife Complex. This blog is merely a parasite. It survives from sucking small morsels of information off those more than 35 hours of footage I shot over several months documenting hip-hop and hiplife in Ghana earlier this year. As I get myself more organized, I'll be posting some clips and photos take from my collection, but for now it's just words unfortuntely. But as the first couple posts attest, there's much to be fleshed out, so I may as well continue.

Hiplife came about in time dominated by electrified highlife and gospel, both of which are heavy on the cheesy synths and drum machines, while light on the live bands that formerly made decent livings playing around Ghana. Live band refers to a group that plays actual instruments in an acoustic or electro-acoustic ensemble (i.e. electric guitars, brass, winds, keyboards, trap drums, and amplified voice). Somewhere in the late-70s and early-80s, these live bands began to die down. After a series of unstable military regimes, and then two coups led by the charismatic J.J. Rawlings, Ghana found itself in a stark economic situation. For several years (from around 1980 to 1983) there was a curfew, killing nightlife and leaving the numerous bands without gigs. At the same time, music had been taken out of the schools' curiculum, making way for Rawlings' idea of utopic agrarian education. Students learned how to do more practical things like tend to farms and make handicrafts instead. The final major factor leading to the near disappearance of live band music in Ghana was a 150% import duty placed on musical instruments, it seems someone in government considered a saxophone with which one would make one's living to be a luxury...

Musically, people were getting into something different in those days anyway. What they call burgher highlife was going on by the late '70s. Since so many Ghanaian musicians (and doctors and lawyers, etc. for that matter) sought better working conditions in other countries during the '70s and '80s, there were large expatriate communities in a places like Germany, England and Nigeria. Hamburg had an enormous number of Ghanaians living there, which made for a pretty happeneing music scene. These musicians blended some of their hometown style with what was hip in late '70s Germany. Burgher highlife came out of this era and filtered its way back to Ghana, making a lasting impression on local highlife. This a poppy highlife with a dash of disco in there, four on the floor with wah-wah guitars. Sounds cool on paper but it turned out to set Ghanaian pop music on a (some say downard spiral) course toward where we find it today. Burgher highlife is downright metallic in its production. I mean, the drum machine beats sound so dated, tinned out and cliche (and they probably were even in their time), I can't help but sort of cringe when I here some of this stuff. Lyrically, I understand, the useful lessons and social commentary classic highlife has always been known for are still in there. Highlife today is still evolving and still commands a good deal of attention, albeit in consolidated quantities. No doubt, there will always be space for some form of highlife in the mainstream spotlight, so far as highlife is for Ghanaians what rock n' roll (or jazz for older folks and squares) is for Americans.

Gospel is huge in Ghana, representing the largest share of the marketplace. With a watered-down reggae drum machine beat, it is tricked out with less-than-modern, and not-even-close-to-realistic samples. That's chill anyway because Ghanaian gospel is wholesomely G-rated and seems to be enjoyed by just about everyone. One funnny thing I found out when asking about female rappers in Ghana is that people often expect a girl to be a gospel singer, while guys are usually hiplifers. I met a few female rappers who rocked the mic hard in their own feminine way and they mentioned this perception sometimes. While there are a lot of successful male gospel singers in Ghana, it seems like the majority are female. Through tours of church congregations nationwide, along with numerous Chirstian radio stations in every major district, gospel musicians move relatively massive quantities of cassettes and CDs. I've even heard that this pay to play, or payola, radio scheme/scam that is currently afflicting hiplife artists hasn't significantly affected gospel DJs. The hiplifers could certainly learn something from the grassroots marketing techniques and the highly-touted morally constructive behavior of Ghana's gospel artists...

So, now, the contemporary commercial backdrop, which is the context for the emergence of hiplife, has been set: on one hand, you have teched-out highlife that became less and less recognizably linked to the internationally favored highlife of yore (compare contemporary champions Ofori Amponsah, Daddy Lumba, Daasebre Gymenah with E.T. Mensah, King Bruce, and Nana Ampadu's early stuff), and on the other hand, you have gospel's repetitive, occasionally nauseatingly plastic pulse. Looking at the musical and aesthetic environment hiplife developed in, is comes as little surprise to find the majority of hiplife embodying both the flashiness of contemporary highlife and the culturally relevant issue-raising of gospel.

Hiplife didn't start out this way though. At one point, early on, it had the well-known hip-hop beat taken from abroad. Facing West, the youth favored the American style of music for the first few years. And then some local influences took over and the music has never been the same...more on what hiplife sounds like now and how it got there in the next chapter, keep with me!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Hip Hop+Highlife=Hiplife, or, Where does Hiplife Come From? (pt. 1)

This sounds like a pretty simple concept: combine the energy and vibe of hip hop, the melodic and rhythmic structure of highlife, together with lyrics spit in local languages, and you get hiplife. Not so simple in fact because, as mentioned in yesterday's post, there are a multitude of opinions on the topic. Some artists tell me it is the hip-hop beat with the vernacular rhymes that make it hiplife. Others tell me hiplife must contain Ghanaian music (i.e. locally-derived rhythms and melodic patterns) in order to be considered hiplife. Otherwise, if you got someone rapping in Twi or Ga or Hausa or English, for that matter, over so-called foreign beats, then it is simply a Ghanaian doing hip-hop or rap. And that is not hiplife. Further complicating matters, that is not "Ghanaian." But what do I do as a researcher, running into Rapper A who tells me Rapper B is not doing hiplife, and the next day I ask Rapper B who tells me Rapper A is not doing hiplife. I listen to the radio or read the newspaper where BOTH are referred to as hiplife. Issues of authenticity sure are a bitch...

So while hiplife began as simply Twi lyrics over hip-hop beats, it has evolved (especially in the last five years or so) into a music that in most cases includes highlife and/or palmwine rhythms, melodic/harmonic movements, and vocal styles (through the use of characteristic phrasing, timbre, and cadence). This is confusing enough without taking into account the growing number of true-school stalwarts who insist on maintaining what they believe to be Reggie Rockstone's original vision of what hiplife is supposed to be, again, hip-hop beats with Twi lyrics.

What do I mean by hip-hop beat? For those of you that live under a rock (possibly in a Red State), I mean a beat in four/four, heavy on the bass kicks, usually a tight-sounding snare crack on two and four, along with myriad variations therein. Suffice to say, if you do in fact have no clue what I'm talking about please take a moment to turn on MTV, BET, or basically any FM radio station and check out what much of the world has been digging for the past twenty-odd years.

If you don't have much of a background in highlife music please see any number of great websites, books, and theses devoted to the topic, especially anything written by Prof. John Collins, one my mentors and the foremost scholar on the subject. Highlife is a whole other blog unto itself for someone with a bit of ambition but I will try and quickly lay it down for minute.

Imagine a time when Europeans, returned slaves from the Caribbean, and native Africans all shared space along the West African coast circa the mid- to late-1800s. The Europeans brought with them, along with other more destructive concepts, brass band music and Christian hymns. The formerly enslaved people who had been able to make their way back to Africa carried with them new instruments and song forms (many of which were rooted in Africa but had evolved in their own way due to influences they encoutner while in the Diaspora [see Paul Gilroy's amazing book, the Black Atlantic]). And, of course, the local Africans had their complex and varied traditions of popular songs and dances.

Although the people responsible for this development hailed from geographically disparate places we now call Jamaica, Cuba, Nigeria, Ghana, England, and Portugal (to name just a few), their sounds merged and manifested into a handful of genres. By the 1920s, palmwine music took hold in the British Gold Coast colony (now known as Ghana). Palmwine developed further as it was fused with newer trends from abroad like big band jazz and calypso. Palmwine groups orignally consisted of three musicians, but they soon grew in size and the music became know as highlife. They called it highlife because of the high-class nature of the scene it produced. You had to be rich to go to the big dance halls and clubs that played dance band highlife to tuxedoed men in top hats and women in expensive gowns. Therefore, those who enjoyed this Africanized analog to American jazz were said to be living the highlife. As it quickly became the dominant popular form in Ghana, as well as other much of the rest of West Africa and parts of East and Southern Africa, dance band highlife represents the first real music industry for Ghana. Records were pressed and sold all over the world, hip clubs popped up all over town, and Ghana's first celebrities emerged.

At the same time, guitar band highlife took shape as a sort of small group style that was consumed and produced by a more rural and working-class audience. They two forms broke off from palwine simultaneously, representing an emergent class schism which still exists today. Both changed with the times and still exist today in their own (sometimes pathetic) way. Though you wouldn't know it by the sheer volume of kids with backwards baseball caps and Timberland boots running around town these days. Long story short, these two intertwined movements, guitar band and dance band highlife, ruled the Ghanaian popular music scene in some form for much of the rest of the century.

That is, until the youth got wind of what was happening in the New York, Kingston, and London. At first reggae ruled, with kids latching onto the popular images associated with that style. Rude boys and dreads began to pop up in the Ghanaian music scene and continue to run things in their own way today (this is a topic that deserves a lot of study, as at least half of the rappers in Ghana got their start as raggamuffin boys and lickle rasta brethren). It wasn't until much later that someone actually had the balls, and the cash, to put out a hiplife album. This came after several years of rap and breakdance contests throughout the country, which focused on English-language toasts over stolen beats from the West. Reggie Rockstone changed all this with his first release, Makaa Maka, sponsored by his wealthy international fashion-designer father. No one had yet released a recording with rap in Twi at that time.

As can be read about ad nausium elsewhere (just ask your good friend Mr. Google, or Jeeves I guess), Reggie represented the whole package for Ghanaian youth and came at just the right moment. The radio waves had been liberated from decades of national control, so the privately-owned stations that began to appear in the major cities needed something hip yet local to play. Apparently people quickly grew tired of hearing foreign tracks and didn't want to hear their parents' and grandparents' highlife music either. Local reggae didn't cut it because it never sounded as real and tight as the Jamaicans did it and it didn't seem to have that localized identity. Plus, despite Ghana's relatively high literacy rate, not everyone can understand lyrics in English very well. So, Reggie, who had recently returned to Ghana after a semi-successful career (depending on who you ask) as an English-language rapper in London with the group PLZ, decided that he was going to give the kids what he believed they needed: a voice.

As Reggie told me the first time I interviewed him on my first trip to Ghana in 2002, "The youth in Ghana never really had a voice before I got here. They had to listen to all their brothers in the Diaspora and shit..."

It is this statement, and its implications, that led me to spending a whole year in Ghana talking to as many musicians young and old that would tolerate my presence and incessant queries...

The Hiplife Complex...A Beginning of Sorts

Rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel by recounting the history of hiplife, I submit this first entry in the name of shifting the emphasis of hiplife research and documentation on a different course. No longer is it acceptable to simply recount hip-hop's history in Ghana and leave it at that, as this has been done already. Rather, I set out to relay my personal experiences and observations-- gathered mostly during a year-long sojourn through the dankest of urban tenements, the most lavish of post-independence decadence, and everything in between--regarding the most visible, vital, and controversial movement in Ghanaian music probably ever.

Hiplife is visible because it is everywhere (in Ghana): radios blasting at all hours of the day and night in virtually every neighborhood, household, and market in the country; TV stations incorporating it into their programming at every level, from game shows to political talk shows to commercial advertisements; cassettes, CD's, VCD's, DVD's and internet cafes act as the third most common set of go-betweens by which hiplife travels from the often makeshift studios of Ghana's sweaty capital Accra to the ears and bodies of millions of Ghanaians, young and old.

Hiplife is vital because it has not only reached critical importance nowadays (for reasons to be covered later), but because it is in flux, constantly. This dynamism is not limited to what we normally think of in terms of music or art evolving organically. No--depending on who, where, and how you ask the question, "What is hiplife?", you'll get as many different nuanced and loaded responses. And that, madamfo, is part of the reason why I chose to spend the last three years of my young life researching the topic.

Finally, hiplife is controversial because, despite its utter ubiquity, not everyone in Ghana appreciates what it says or what it stands for. "Hiplife, shitlife" I've been told by a man who used to make a pretty impressive living producing and promoting the A-list of Ghanaian highlife musicians for more than three decades. "Do you really see the music as having any redeeming value?" I've been asked by several younger traditional musicians, who wish they could gain more local recognition for the absolutely brilliant work they do that goes almost completely unnoticed in their homeland while being adored by high-paying audiences abroad. One of the fascinating things about the hiplife complex is the concept of profanity in Ghana. This is something I go deeper into in the weeks ahead, but suffice to say a song about tadpoles can cause an unprecedented national stir and then go on to sweep the Ghana Music Awards. This is not before the artist had to present his case to a panel of award show judges, explaining why his song should not be considered profane and should be allowed to compete in the awards program.

Above, I submit that hiplife is the MOST visible, the MOST vital, and the MOST controversial musical movement Ghana has seen. This is not to say that highlife did not embody any and all of those characteristics. Instead, these discussions will hopefully get across just how big of a role technology, mass media, and globalization have played in making hiplife what it is today.

Damn, there's way to too much to cover! Please bear with me as I attempt to piece together the seemingly endless adventures, thoughts, and theories that make up The Hiplife Complex.

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