Living the Hiplife

Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music

Living the Hiplife

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 54 illustrations, including 9 in color Published: January 2013

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Music > Ethnomusicology

Hiplife is a popular music genre in Ghana that mixes hip-hop beatmaking and rap with highlife music, proverbial speech, and Akan storytelling. In the 1990s, young Ghanaian musicians were drawn to hip-hop's dual ethos of black masculine empowerment and capitalist success. They made their underground sound mainstream by infusing carefree bravado with traditional respectful oratory and familiar Ghanaian rhythms. Living the Hiplife is an ethnographic account of hiplife in Ghana and its diaspora, based on extensive research among artists and audiences in Accra, Ghana's capital city; New York; and London. Jesse Weaver Shipley examines the production, consumption, and circulation of hiplife music, culture, and fashion in relation to broader cultural and political shifts in neoliberalizing Ghana.

Shipley shows how young hiplife musicians produce and transform different kinds of value—aesthetic, moral, linguistic, economic—using music to gain social status and wealth, and to become respectable public figures. In this entrepreneurial age, youth use celebrity as a form of currency, aligning music-making with self-making and aesthetic pleasure with business success. Registering both the globalization of electronic, digital media and the changing nature of African diasporic relations to Africa, hiplife links collective Pan-Africanist visions with individualist aspiration, highlighting the potential and limits of social mobility for African youth.

The author has also directed a film entitled Living the Hiplife and with two DJs produced mixtapes that feature the music in the book available for free download.


“[Shipley] has written with passionate involvement and balances his study with firsthand interviews. The globalization of hip-hop should be no surprise, and this exploration of its reach and how it can be remade provides a fascinating example of the localization and renewal of the form.” — Bill Baars, Library Journal

“Jesse Weaver Shipley's Living the Hiplife is a recently released academic work focused on the music and business of Hiplife, a musical genre from Ghana that combines hip hop and highlife. It follows the earlier release of the documentary Living The HipLife and paints a rich portrait of an industry and an aesthetic landscape in which both cassettes and low-end cellphones are primary technologies.” — Clyde Smith, Hypebot

“Shipley offers up a heady mix of political, business, and music history, of entrepreneurship and converging genres, intermixed with reportage and personal contacts as he explores the junction of celebrity, commerce, and politics in contemporary Ghana. . . . [S]cholars of contemporary African culture and aficionados of hiplife will find enlightenment.” — Publishers Weekly

“The scholarly passages are hung around lengthy, eminently readable sections that will appeal to anyone who might enjoy modern African music styles, and not necessarily those with a hip-hop bias. Even if you have no particular interest or liking for hiplife, this is an absorbing and very informative book.” — Martin Sinnock, Songlines

“[A] fascinating foray into a complex world of musical production, the deployment of shifting technologies, and articulation of conceptions of entrepreneurial success that deserves wide attention and careful consideration…. Living the Hiplife offers readers an admirable mix of ethnographic detail and analytical discussion.” — Nate Plageman, Journal of Anthropological Research

“Shipley’s book provides a wealth of information on hiplife’s history and some of the key figures that most influence the genre. The incorporation of both local and foreign sounds in the creation popular music genre in Ghana was well reviewed. In addition, the look on the intersections of gender, sexuality and power in hiplife was one of the book’s strongest aspects.” — Msia Kibona Clark, African Studies Quarterly

“[T]his study not only originally and brilliantly recognizes the role of the diaspora in this cultural field, but it brightly manages to let the audience speak back to cultural producers. Indeed, Shipley repeatedly succeeds in giving voice to these participants, from a local public transport conversation to online forums…. [H]is book significantly contributes to a much neglected field that is the economy of popular music in urban Africa; and I can only welcome and salute such a study, full of original insights, as a firsthand account from an obviously enthusiastic and dedicated participant.” — Jenny F. Mbaye, Africa

“Shipley makes judicious and useful contributions to a growing literature on African hip-hop and digital pop music scenes…. Overall, the book succeeds as an exploration of a contemporary cosmopolitan African youth culture, which retains and illuminates the considerable complexities of that culture and its local, national, and transnational contexts.” — David G. Pier, Journal of Intercultural Studies

Living the Hiplife moves the reader through the historical and cultural contexts of the spread of hip-hop into Ghana and the birth of hiplife, the creative processes employed by hip-hop artists, the economic and technological dimensions of its transnational circulation, and the moral controversies that emerge in its reception—all without ever losing sight of human agency, which is no small feat. Shipley succeeds wonderfully at representing in rich ethnographic detail contemporary Ghanaians’ use of a popular music genre to engage the world around them.” — Daniel Reed, Journal of Folklore Research

“Shipley offers a provocative, detailed look at key transitions in Ghanaian life and popular culture. This book will undoubtedly benefit a range of scholars in a number of disciplines, including ethnomusicology and anthropology. I note here the intervention I found most compelling—Shipley’s use of ethnography to get at the complexities of globalization.” — Greg Dimitriadis, Journal of World Popular Music

"An important addition to the emerging body of scholarship on African forms of hip-hop, and it is among the first group of monographs dedicated to a particular African hip-hop tradition."  — James Burns, Notes

"Living the Hiplife is an important testimony to the innovative and entrepreneurial nature of hip-hop music in Ghana as well as an excellent example of a theoretically engaged ethnography that productively uses anthropological ideas of value and circulation." — Girish Daswani, American Ethnologist

"Living the Hiplife is about young hiplife musicians in Ghana trying to make good while making do. The musicians are at once artists, entrepreneurs, and hustlers. Jesse Weaver Shipley's ethnography of these artists and their listeners presents their ways of laboring as forms of struggle under neoliberal conditions. I am particularly struck by his identification of the skills of electronic mediation as crucial to good musicianship, good cultural brokerage, good hustling, and good entrepreneurship." — Louise Meintjes, author of Sound of Africa! Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio

"African music, in its newest and most innovative forms, is changing our cultural and political worldview, and Jesse Weaver Shipley is in the know! 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. Therefore this book is more than a look at the recent past and the present; it is a blueprint. Living the Hiplife is a necessary analysis of African word, sound, and power." — M-1, of Dead Prez

"Jesse Weaver Shipley has written a highly compelling account of hiplife in Ghana. Historically and ethnographically rich, it demonstrates how this musical form has affected ideas of Ghanaian identity. Not only does hiplife celebrate entrepreneurship among African youth situated in the 'shadows' of the global order. It also provides them with a language of mobile signs 'geared toward capitalist accumulation and consumption.' Based on a broad range of theoretical sources, Shipley's writing is lively, his insights memorable. This is a book that anyone interested in Africa, anyone interested in contemporary cultural production, will want to read." — John Comaroff, Harvard University and the American Bar Foundation


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jesse Weaver Shipley is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Haverford College.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction. Aesthetics and Aspiration 1

1. Soul to Soul: Value Transformations and Disjunctures of Diaspora in Urban Ghana 28

2. Hip-Hop Comes to Ghana: State Privatization and an Aesthetic of Control 51

3. Rebirth of Hip: Afro-Cosmopolitanism and Masculinity in Accra's New Speech Community 80

4. The Executioner's Words: Genre, Respect, and Linguistic Value 108

5. Scent of Bodies: Parody as Circulation 134

6. Gendering Value for a Female Hiplife Star: Moral Violence as Performance Technology 163

7. No. 1 Mango Street: Celebrity Labor and Digital Production as Musical Value 198

8. Ghana@50 in the Bronx: Sonic Nationalism and New Diasporic Disjunctures 230

Conclusion. Rockstone's Office: Entrepreneurship and the Debt of Celebrity 267

Notes 285

Bibliography 303

Index 317
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