Review | Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music by Jesse Weaver Shipley

Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music. By Jesse Weaver Shipley. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013. [xiii, 344 p. ISBN 9780822353669. $24.95.] Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Jesse D. Ruskin


Shipley’s new book accomplishes more than its title implies, spanning African popular music’s transnational roots, hip-hop’s international routes, and, more generally, postcolonial cultural production in Africa and the black diaspora.  Focusing on the Ghanaian musical genre of hiplife – an amalgam of hip-hop, highlife, and local varieties of speech performance – Shipley examines entrepreneurial aspiration as both an aesthetic and economic practice, and demonstrates how the achievement of celebrity is critical in transforming good music into good business. Situating artistic agency in its wider contexts, this book offers an intimate look at the role of audiences and publics in the life of a musical genre. The work can be divided into two broad sections: the first four chapters trace the making of hiplife as a genre by examining its historical conditions, cultural contexts, and creative processes, while the second four chapters focus on the technological practices, economic strategies, and moral debates that characterize the genre’s circulation and reception.

The first chapter places hiplife in the context of an earlier era of popular music production in Ghana. Highlife music flourished in coastal West Africa between the 1920s and 1960s as artists creatively recombined European, African, and black diasporic styles and instruments. Shipley argues that highlife, as a semiotic practice, pointed both to local attachments and global belonging, a duality of signs that was useful to Ghanaians grappling with the contradictions of nationhood and modernization. The second chapter locates hiplife in a similar dialectic, the genre serving as a cultural toolkit for youth navigating Ghana’s late twentieth-century transition to a neoliberal economic order.  For elite Ghanaians, hip-hop represented connection to a cosmopolitan black world and the genre’s entrepreneurial ethos demonstrated alternative paths to success for youth on the margins of Ghana’s privatizing economy. While hip-hop was initially received as foreign and morally suspect, Ghanaian artists were able to revalue the genre as an African form by incorporating highlife music, local languages, and traditional speech practices.  The “foreignness” and “localness” of musical genres, Shipley suggests, should not be viewed as fixed categories; they are rather assessments contingent on the social and historical positions of the actors involved.

The third and fourth chapters examine how hiplife innovator Reggie Rockstone and his protégées transformed hip-hop into a genre representative of Ghanaian localities and traditions. Shipley asserts that this became possible only when artists learned to balance musical innovation with respect for established forms of speech and music. As did highlife musicians before them, Ghanaian hiplife artists indigenized black diasporic music by creatively realigning signs of the old and new, integrating markers of local tradition and global modernity. Both respectful and irreverent, hiplife emcees took on Akan titles like Okyeame (spokesperson), Obrafour (court executioner), and Kontihene (town chief), while using Akan proverbial speech and storytelling to cast themselves as local cultural authorities. At the same time, these elite musicians refracted such “traditional” wisdom through their cosmopolitan experiences of mobility in order to represent themselves as authoritative interpreters of black diasporic signs. Shipley rightly places speech practice and bodily performance at the center of this “self-fashioning” process. Hip-hop offered young Ghanaian men a model of bodily control and self-reflexive speech that allowed them to create new personae and imagine forms of agency that would have otherwise been closed to them. Hip-hop’s valorization of the artist-entrepreneur as urban cultural hero aligned well with neoliberal ideologies of self-making and gave young men a language and method for pursuing their aspirations.

Shipley argues that the meanings associated with hiplife music are made in processes of circulation and reception, that is, in the dialogues between artists and their audiences (Chapter 5). Knowing that Ghanaian audiences expect public speech to be indirect, ambiguous, and humorous, hiplife artists use parody and proverb-like speech to engage their listeners in interpretive debates. Ironically, the instability of meaning and moral value that drives circulation also threatens to destabilize authorial control and makes it necessary for hiplife artists to continuously maintain the authority of their public personae. By tracing how several well-known hiplife songs became implicated in political debates over public and private morality, Shipley demonstrates that musical circulation is as much a social process as it is a technological feat. In contrasting the Ghanaian public’s acceptance of male hiplife artists with their ambivalence toward female artists like Mzbel, the author shows how musical production and reception is gendered (Chapter 6). He argues that while men’s speech and bodily comportment are taken to represent the potentials of neoliberal self-fashioning and material success, women’s bodies and behavior have become the focus of moral debate about the dangers of modernity and the corruptness of individual wealth accumulation. In this regime of meaning, women’s musical expression has come to signify either the maintenance or degradation of a “traditionalized moral order” (196).

The seventh and eighth chapters deal with how value is created, debated, and negotiated in the circulation of hiplife. Shipley treats value, in the Marxian tradition, as the meaning and relative worth that people assign to the products of human labor.  He demonstrates that the value of musical commodities cannot be reduced to the cost of labor expended in their creation (the labor theory of value), but rather that value is created through the artist’s mediation between the artwork and its reception. Not only is it difficult to quantify the creative work that goes into the making of a hiplife song –involving as it does trans-continental collaborations among artists, producers, DJs, and promoters – but its value is also determined by non-material factors. The aesthetic worth and moral quality of a musical work is not inherent; it accrues in the circulation of music through various communities of listeners. While Ghanaians at home may value hiplife for its innovative aesthetics and cosmopolitan associations, for example, Ghanaians abroad value it for its references to the languages and traditions of “home.” Hiplife artists are well aware of these complexities and work strategically, with a variety of audiences in mind, to convert artistic value into economic value. The artist’s aspiration towards celebrity is the catalyst on which this value transformation depends.  Hiplife performance conveys images of cosmopolitan material success and local moral authority through techniques of sonic style, bodily control, and affective speech. The degree to which these signs are perceived as legitimate is the measure of a hiplife artist’s celebrity, while celebrity, in turn, functions as a “currency” that drives circulation and sales through the promise of future value (279). Aesthetic, moral, and economic value, then, is created through social relations and adheres both to musical products and the personae of artists themselves.

Shipley’s book is commendable for bringing ethnographic grounding, biographical detail, and historical context to transnational processes of genre formation and circulation that are too often obscured in the abstract language of globalization theory. Since hiplife owes its success in large part to the creative imaginations and entrepreneurial efforts of specific individuals and groups, the framework of cosmopolitanism offers greater theoretical precision. As an analytic that accounts for both global structures and cultural imaginaries, cosmopolitanism brings wider patterns and processes into frame without losing sight of human agency. Following this line of thinking, Shipley convincingly demonstrates how the creative choices and entrepreneurial aspirations of hiplife artists are enabled and constrained by neoliberal economic and technological arrangements. He likewise shows how the discourses of audiences and culture brokers are similarly situated and implicated in the making of an influential musical genre. This book is a must-read for students of African music and would be a valuable addition to university courses in popular music, digital media, economic anthropology, and social theory.

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