I once had the pleasure of interviewing the Beninois singer, Angelique Kidjo, one of a handful of African musicians who can genuinely describe herself as being an international star without exaggerating or lying through her teeth. When she released her first internationally marketed album Parakou in the late eighties, Kidjo relied entirely on using Western instruments in the belief that she was what would make her sound African: her voice, her words and her melodies. World music critics, the vast majority of whom were not African, panned the album for not being African enough. Nevertheless, Kidjo stuck to her guns and today she records albums and tours with the likes of Santana and Alicia Keys. I heard her classic Batonga playing on radio when it dawned on me that her approach to Africanizing her sound had caught on and influenced more artists today than are even aware of the debt they owe her. Hiplife is a genre that draws from the same line of thinking as Angelique Kidjo’s.
Hiplife is said to be a marriage of Ghanaian highlife and the hip-hop that has been so popular amongst the youth of Ghana since the sound first emerged from New York in the late Seventies and early Eighties. However, while it owes some influences to hip-hop, hiplife really is a different sound altogether.
Hip-hop began as more than just saying something over a beat. It is said to have started when a man by the nickname Kool Herc – while spinning James Brown songs at a block party – realized that the crowd went crazy during the part of the song that Brown let his drummer play solo for an extended while. This part of the song was called the ‘break’ and Kool Herc realised that, by joining together two turntables and playing the same record on both, he could extend the break. The crowds went wild and the party goers who would dance during these extended breaks became known as ‘break dancers’, with the music growing to attract graffiti street artists and, eventually, youngsters who would keep the crowd hyped up with a word here or there over the beat. Those youngsters – Masters of these Ceremonies – became better known as MCs, forming the last element (besides DJing, break dancing, and graffiti artistry which came before it) of hip-hop.
For years, hip-hop flourished on the underground while disco, Eighties soul and the power ballads by artists like Whitney Houston dominated the airwaves. The major music companies did not know what to do with hip-hop culture as a whole, but they knew what to do with the MCs whose rhymes and ability to entertain started to eclipse the DJs, dancers and artists who came before them. MCs (or rappers as they are now better known) would go from their humble beginnings to surpass rock musicians, somewhere in the Nineties, as the biggest-selling musicians in the world.
Like the Ghanaians who created it, highlife has always flirted with American music forms. After starting out Calypso-like on the beaches, by the time of our independence, Ghanaians were into jazz music and so highlife got into jazz, producing bands with heavy horn sections and stars including E.T Mensah and the Tempos. Then in the Seventies, African Americans followed James Brown to say it loud how black and how proud they were. Highlife followed his lead, influencing Nigeria’s Fela Kuti to merge it with funk into a new sound – Afrobeat – that was championed in Ghana by artists like Gyedu Blay Ambolley and CK Mann. There was a flirtation with the jheri-curled soul of the Eighties that birthed 'burger highlife'. When Bob Marley caught on again, highlife suddenly became reggae-like, giving birth to artists like Kojo Antwi and Pat Thomas. For the longest time thereafter, highlife resisted hip-hop music but eventually something had to give.
Some had tried (and failed) before him to impersonate American hip-hop acts, but when a young Reginald Ossei started rapping in Twi over beats by producers the likes of Mike Cooke, Panji and Zapp Mallet, he gave birth to both a new persona – Reggie Rockstone – and a new form of highlife. Some called it hip-hop highlife, but eventually the hop was dropped and what remained was simply ‘hiplife’.
Hiplife struggled for popularity at first. Parents did not like the way that it aped the vulgarity and brashness of its American cousin and the teenagers thought it was hip-hop’s poorer and – God forbid – local substitute. Eventually songs by Rockstone, the Native Funk Lords and VIP came to vie with rap and R&B for radio airtime and dance floors. Producers emerged who weaved the rap style with highlife making it even more accessible to the Ghanaian masses. Youngsters began emerging on the scene with no understanding of the fact that rap involves clever wordplay and is so rhythmic that you do not need to understand what a person is saying to appreciate the awesomeness of the rhyme. Sidney and Tic Tac, for example, can make great songs and A-Plus can be controversial but none of the above can rap. Ever the visionary, Reggie Rockstone saw the writing on the wall and disowned the sound, describing his own as hip-hop. Nevertheless, the music continued to sell like hot kelewele. When singers like Ofori Amponsah and KK Fosu began singing over its beats, even parents started picking up on hiplife’s catchy melodies…
… which is probably when it all started going horribly, horribly wrong.
No offence but, as a parent, think back to the music of your youth and remember how you had to explain its musicality to your parents; then remember the pleasure you took in how much they disliked or could not understand it. That was what made the music cool: your parents – who thought they knew everything – could not get it, making the music a joyous secret shared between you and all your friends. Keeping that in mind, fast forward to today and remember the way you danced to Praye’s ‘Angelina’ over the election period. Hiplife is safe and in its safeness, it is becoming uncool.
The first lady of hiplife, MzBel, recently told me that her new sound will surprise a lot of people. I am not surprised. As I am typing this, a young man going by the moniker of Ayigbe Edem is being interviewed on a major radio station. His song is playing in the background and it does not sound like hiplife. Its beats are a less warm and feel rough around the edges. Western. One of track’s featured rappers – Sarkodie - rhymes so fast that I can barely hear what he is saying, yet I am taken by the rhythm of his delivery. This is hip-hop. Yet it is African. Nigerian artists with names like 2Face and P Squared are successfully selling a slicker, edgier sound not just in Ghana but all over the continent. It sounds like American R&B but - with Fela’s pidgin – they have made it Nigerian. Miss Malaika, easily the best of Ghana’s many (many, many) beauty shows, is usually a reliable showcase for hiplife but last year its stage was shared by new acts – R2Bees, Okyeame Kwame, Richie and Asem – whose beats have little to do with the old sound. Yet they are distinctly Ghanaian. I spent the latter half of last year explaining to an older work colleague how a rapper called Kwaw Kesse could seemingly glorify madness, speak no sensible lyrics and yet win Artist of the Year at the 9th Ghana Music Awards. My colleague never understood and that is the point. This new music – GH Rap – is not for you. It is for the kids and Kidjo’s musical children are many.
Do not worry though. Everything moves in cycles and while hiplife may be dying, highlife will ultimately live on.