- Living the Hiplife: celebrity and entrepreneurship in Ghanaian popular music by Jesse Weaver Shipley
From the outset, Jesse Weaver Shipley’s book on hiplife offers an informed reading of the Ghanaian economy of music production, drawing on extensive field-work with interviews conducted by the author as early as 1998 and as recently as 2012.
Divided into eight chapters, supported by an introduction and a conclusion, the book purposefully and simultaneously addresses the production, consumption and circulation of hiplife music, culture and fashion. It takes the reader meandering through Accra, London and New York, and, ingeniously proceeding through repetitive flashbacks in time and space, the book gives the stage to artists, managers, producers, scholars, online and live audiences, the general public, public [End Page 339] officials, Accra-based Ghanaians, those from the diaspora, men, women, young and old. The author regularly introduces chapters with a beautifully crafted description, and offers rich ethnographic accounts of urban scenes relevant to each theme throughout the book. Regrettably, the theoretical framing often reads as being disconnected from the empirical material, with the result that the author does not always achieve what he intends in terms of innovative, fluid and revealing narrative.
Illuminating hiplife as a socially significant genre and stressing how artists, songs and fashions circulate across urban and transnational spaces, the introduction situates the musical aesthetics in time and place, while the conclusion reconnects hiplife’s aesthetics with its entrepreneurial practices. The first four chapters provide a broad depiction of hiplife’s emergence and its significance to national public discourse, enquiring into the historical development and ambivalent appropriation of hip hop as another African diasporic fashion and sound, one that celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit in a nascent neoliberal society in an original way. The second half of the book explores how hiplife music as a ‘mobile form of sonic nationalism’ (p. 230) built around media circulation as well as polarities of locality and foreignness, tradition and modernity, cultural belonging and self-expression, allows artists to associate themselves with virtues of travel, translation and celebrity to remake themselves as entrepreneurial social mediators. In my view, Chapters 5 and 7 are particularly insightful and enlightening regarding the processes of urban music production in Africa. Each respectively, on one hand, highlights humour and parody as key to value transformation, while reminding the reader of the central connection between self-fashioning and celebrity; and on the other, outlines how ‘music making is about entrepreneurship, driven by changing media and business forms’ (p. 229), in an ecosystem where celebrity branding is the new currency and ‘labour is seen as an investment in connections and future possibility’ (p. 208).
For a field desperately in need of the ‘newness’ that Shipley so eloquently describes, this book is both rich and dense. However, the book covers so much that the conceptual depth does not always honour the empirical breadth, and one wishes that the author would step back and pause on key elements he recurrently suggests throughout the book but only touches upon–notably on the implications of the economic contradictions of this cultural production, in which having money and connections seems to be a prerequisite of a successful career; in which music workers are able to develop their music and make a career out of it, but only while relying on another conventional job; and in which processes of ‘learning on the job’, ‘bulimic working hours’, ‘prod-user’ dynamics and coproduction, informal networks and ‘portfolio’ careers are distinctive characteristics of entrepreneurship. In fact, Shipley, who relies on Marx’s Capital for his theory of value, could have enriched it with the Italian autonomists’ critique and their bottom-up theory of immaterial and affective labour, which has been extensively used in conceptualizing these dynamics of cultural labour. This, I believe, would have sharpened the relevance and heightened his account of how ‘music becomes a form of entertainment and lifestyle’ (p. 283).
Also, and despite the fact that throughout the chapters we have caught vivid glimpses...