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Full Circle: A Survey of Hip Hop in Ghana

By artist ayana vellissia jackson

"While Hip Hop’s popular origins are attributed to New York, it is a culture with roots firmly planted in Africa. Would there be Hip Hop without the drum? Would live interactive stage performances exist without the call and response that’s been a staple in African music since time immemorial?

It cannot be disputed that Hip Hop is among Mother Africa’s many children, thus it is not surprising, especially in the current stages of globalization, that youth on the continent are using Hip Hop as a vehicle for their own expression: infusing their perspective and cultural elements into Hip Hop, thereby contributing to the larger art form’s evolution".

ayana vellissia jackson

Youth In Ghana

Visitors to Kenya’s Nairobi airport step off of their flights only to be greeted by airport speakers blasting the latest music from the west, specifically Hip Hop and R&B-- the same music that saturate Nairobi’s dance clubs. Such details are heartbreaking when one arrives hoping to find strong, distinguishable traces of traditional cultures.

Throughout Kenya, more and more city youth drift away from their ethnic roots slowly and without concern. They speak their ethnic languages more infrequently than Kenya's "official" languages: English and Swahili. To the dismay of many older generations, the youths' grasp of Swahili is even more informal and grammatically incorrect when compared to the same youths' grasp of English. In short, there is a dilemma present, a predicament not unique to Kenya.

In Ghana a movement to combat the invasion of western culture has spawned Hip Life. This nationalistic approach to music is a conscious mixture of folk music (known as High Life), traditional rhythms, and Hip Hop style. The music represents contemporary Ghanaian culture by rapping in well-known native tongues over traditional and High Life beats. Through Hip Life, Ghanaian youth remain connected to traditional culture while actively participating in western trends.

Installation Of Full Circle

International exchange is seen as a sign of diversity within the globalization discourse and is encouraged as such, however, at what price, and, to what extent is this type of exchange necessary? Originally, even the Ghanaian government harbored hopes that Hip Life music would become so popular as to eventually warrant an exported product. To some, Hip Life's popularity signifies an escape route to England or the U.S., and as a result, more Hip Life music is created in English: a marketing tactic aimed at a wider international audience.

Full Circle: A Survey of Hip Hop in Ghana is quintessential in more than one respect. First, in it's idea that Hip Hop has returned to the ethno-musical birthplace of its addictive rhythm patterns; but also, in expressing Ghanaian youth's desire to keep remnants of traditional heritage within a contemporary context. Recognizing that heritage strengthens a culture and provides a protection against various oppressive forces, the development of Hip Life is positive and empowering despite the challenges it faces. The shine and gloss of western urban culture is packaged so neatly and so continuously promoted abroad as the latest trend that it encourages mimicry and suppresses the ambition to create something traditional. Still, the fight to maintain and rightfully develop indigenous culture continues. Through Full Circle's photographs, we glimpse scenes of Hip Life's rising cultural autonomy.

In Full Circle, photographer Ayana Vellissia Jackson provides a stimulating visual documentary of the contemporary Ghanaian music scene. Not often are
we able to visualize how Hip Hop has stretched past our U.S. boundaries, especially into Africa. Full Circle allows viewers to engage intimately in the appropriated, reshaped culture. She reveals to us- through examination of musicians and industry professionals- that an ostensibly lucrative western model has swayed the creation of Hip Life. Nonetheless, Jackson softens the edges of Hip Life adding warmth and character to each photo, making each more inviting to the audience and compelling us to form our own opinions of how and why Hip Life is transformative. Such fluidity is necessary in developing discussions of cultural metamorphosis.

The absence of Africa's artistic presence from recent Hip Hop centered art exhibitions denotes a lack of art-historical interest. This exhibition was conceived to begin the conversation. It is necessary to continue in this direction if only to force an expansion of contemporary culture's art-historical field.

Full Circle prompts curiosity and dialogue, introducing questions concerning how this circular interchange affects American Hip Hop and what responsibility we have in what is exported abroad. In this space we seek a balance between a continued Hip Hop influence and a strengthening of traditional foundations. Once such a balance is established, Africa's evolution of contemporary music can further flourish throughout the continent.

Ingrid L. Rogers is an independent curator and emerging artist. Currently, Ms. Rogers is completing an M.A. in Individualized Study from New York University. Her thesis examines methods in which to protect African cultural property within the country of origin.


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