Living the 'HipLife' in Ghana

A musical movement in Africa reshapes hip-hop.

February 19, 2009, 1:43 AM

Nov. 9, 2007— -- A quick Google search of the phrase "HipLife" pulls up a surprising 78.8 million hits.

But what is it? A fad diet? A new self-help book?

No, HipLife is the hip-hop of West Africa. A musical fusion of HighLife, a mid-20th century form of traditional popular music in Ghana and Nigeria that incorporates jazz, West African rhythms and hip-hop, HipLife is West Africa's contribution to the international hip-hop movement.

"HipLife, I would say, is a musical style. It's a way of combining rap, hip-hop and other musical traditions and different kinds of rhythms," Jesse Shipley, director of the Africana studies program at Bard College, told ABC News. "But it's also a cultural style. It's an attitude. It's a way people express themselves. It's a way for the youth of Ghana to see themselves as public players."

Shipley has followed the rise of the HipLife movement in Ghana for the past decade.

"In 1997 and 1998, I went back to Ghana and, literally, there were hundreds, thousands of kids going to rap shows by local artists," he said. "This was out of the blue. There was this big explosion. It had been an underground movement and the grenade youth, particularly young boys, were rapping -- really interested in rap hip-hop. And it was this public thing going on. I wanted to explore where this came from, what were the connections."

As Shipley's interest in HipLife grew, so did his desire to bring this music to the international community. He began working on a documentary of the genre, its artists and its fans.

Now, four years later, Shipley's film, "Living the HipLife," which was selected to screen as part of the African Writers and Director's Guild week at FESPACO, the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, in February 2007, is opening the world's eyes to the sounds of West African rap.

"One thing that I want people to get from this film is that HipLife is very different from hip-hop," said Shipley. "It certainly has its roots to some extent in hip-hop, but I don't want people to think that hip-hop is the same all over the world. ... It picks up local ideas from local places."

Drawing on African linguistic tradition, HipLife is influenced both by pop culture and by regional customs and anecdotes. This music also incorporates multiple languages and dialects, adding to the depth and complexity of the music.

"Living the HipLife" focuses on the many layers of HipLife music and culture, showing the mutability and fluidity of this genre and the ability, perhaps necessity, for artists to make each song their own.

"HipLifers are really trying to find a sound that is global, African, as well as Ghanaian. A lot of artists from South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria … are trying to find a unique sound, which is also going to speak to a global audience, and that's a struggle of the music industry more broadly speaking," said Shipley.

Ultimately, Shipley hopes "Living the HipLife" helps people learn something about contemporary Africa, allows them to rid themselves of stereotypes and preconceived notions of the continent and its people, and opens Western audiences' eyes, ears and minds to the talent and potential that is out there.

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