Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Cultural Production in the Neoliberal Periphery

Posted in Culture, Ghana, Global Africa, Reviews by ruben eberlein on June 18, 2013

hiplifeMy review of Jesse Weaver Shipley’s Living the Hiplife. Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music was published by Blätter des iz3w in its June edition. It is a wonderful book which gives an in-depth account of current trends in cultural production and cosmopolitanism in Africa. Read an English translation of the text here.

In Africa, music is omnipresent. It is by far not only pure entertainment, but has political, social and moral dimensions. How effective music can be became clear for instance during the elections in the year 2000 in Senegal as young Hiphop artists helped to dislodge the acting President Abdou Diouf and to initiate a change to Abdoulaye Wade. At the end of the 2000s, the musicians were equally critical vis-à-vis Wade whom they accused to betray the democratic values he once stood for.

In his book Living the Hiplife, Jesse Weaver Shipley, Professor for Anthropology at the US-American Haverford-College, traces the origins and significance of Hiplife, a Ghanaian mélange of Hiphop and Highlife. To start with: This wonderful publication is a must for everybody who is interested in cultural production, African cosmopolitanism and aesthetic entrepreneurship at times of peripheral neoliberalism. Very accessible, empirically rich and theoretically ambitious, Shipley succeeds in presenting an exceptional contribution to musical anthropology.

It is interesting to read how Shipley locates the economy of Hiphop, which gained massively in importance in the 1990s, within the frame of rising neoliberalism in Ghana. The ideal of the self-reliant entrepreneur who gathers economic and symbolic success independent of the state fits ideally with the narrative of the Gangsta rapper, coming from a miserable background and working hard in order to achieve fame, material prosperity and social recognition.

The Hiplife stars which are followed by Shipley in Accra, London and New York – Reggie Rockstone, M3nsa, Mzbel and VIP are some of them – all embody the fusion of entrepreneurship and artistic glory. The mediation of success is a symbolic value in itself that can be transformed by way of music into material capital. An important role play the transnational connections of this genre. Prosperous musicians often commute between Europe, the US and West Africa and collaborate with collegues. Their foreign experiences, taken together with the proof that one is still in touch with local life, constitute a kind of currency that plays an weighty part in their establishment in the West African and international showbiz.

The public debate about Hiplife in Ghana, according to Shipley, also reflects the tensions between a Western-oriented cosmopolitanism in an era of free trade and so-called traditional values. Especially older Ghanaians regarded the music in its beginnings as un-African and culturally contaminating. The apex of this discussion was reached after the physical assault and the sexual violence against the female singer Mzbel. The author dedicates a whole chapter of his book to these distressing happenings.

Shipley’s anthropological study received a kind of accolade through the enthusiastic praise of M-1, member of the US-American Hiphop duo Dead Prez, who wrote: „The all-too-important voices that comprise the tidal wave of creativity throughout Africa, and especially in Ghana, will be the most significant voices of the future. (…) Living the Hiplife is a necessary analysis of African word, sound, and power.“ I agree with this appraisal without reservations.

Jesse Weaver Shipley 2013. Living the Hiplife. Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music. Duke University Press: Durham/London. 329 pages, about 21 Euro.

This review was originally published in German by Blätter des iz3w in its June edition. You can find a html version here or a pdf version here.

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