Hiplife in Ghana: a musical mix
By Atkilt Geleta
Eyes are squinted toward the stage. Heads bob up and down, bodies flail left and right. The MC alternates between delivering a double-time staccato rhyme and initiating call-and-response invocations with the crowd. Chunky bass drums boom from enormous speakers and arms are raised in a collective overture towards the stage.
The scene is identical to any hip-hop show in North America, only the setting is Busua beach in Ghana’s Western Region, where the Asabaako music festival has drawn an audience of foreigners and locals.
Artists such as Wanlov the Kubolor and Yaa Pono occupy the stage singing hiplife, a genre which combines re-imported western genres, namely hip hop, reggae and dancehall — whose origins are wholly African — with local styles.
The cultural transfer began centuries ago, when traditional African music was transported to the West along with millions of slaves.
Over time, the music of the diaspora evolved with technical advances in music-making, eventually giving birth to popular musical art forms such as soul, reggae and hip hop.
This music, later popularized and mass-produced around the world, has been re-imported into Africa en masse and is being voraciously consumed and recreated by locals.
Wanlov, one of hiplife’s most popular artists who has garnered an international following, asserts that while western genres have found a home in Ghana, artists are lending their unique voice and not simply mimicking.
“It’s dangerous to just take the whole picture and just impose it over here. We have to also tell out story from the grounds here because everywhere is different,” he says.
Artists sing about Ghanaian issues, such as local politics and urban life, in languages like Twi, Ga and pigeon.
And in Ghana, music is everywhere.
In the counry's capital, weekly reggae parties draw hundreds of people who to soak in Jamaican rhythms. The city’s shops, stands and marketplaces blare reggae and dancehall throughout the day and into the night. And hip hop tunes boom in popular clubs nightly, where revelers sing along enthusiastically.
Wanlov confirms the prevalence of western musical forms in Ghana.
“We didn’t have a music in our youthful times being made by ourselves that carried the vim, the youthful energy, braggadocios kind of thing” says Wanlov, “so we easily identified with the youth in Jamaica, or the ones in America.”
The music is also about empowerment. As blacks in the West endured prolonged institutional racism over the last few centuries, living in marginalized communities rife with social and political issues, the experiences bled into the content of the music. That sentiment remains today.
“When somebody is talking about poverty or police brutality or whatever it is, we can identify easily with it over here” Wanlov confirms.
“That there is universal.”