Music as a Reaction to Societal Ills and as a Source of Community


Music speaks a unique language that captivates all listeners through sound. Music such as hip hop and hiplife surpass geographical, social, and political barriers and have transcended time and boundaries in West Africa. Through the struggles that West Africa experienced, the youth consistently sought ways to address their issues with art and it became a common platform to appeal to the youth. Hip hop and hiplife helped narrate a different story and correct the image projected about West Africa. This musical solution was also found to awaken people’s mental thoughts and spark new ideas to solve Ghana’s many problems. Ogbar Jeffrey Ogbonna Green, a professor of History and the founding Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Music, narrates how rappers used hip hop to direct attention where it was necessary in the statement “Following nationally coordinated protests to court cases and pressure from music label, the violent thrust of hardcore rappers shifted focus from killing the police to killing other black people” (56). The aim was for West Africa to tell a new story after years of being cast aside in shame. Hip hop, rap, and hiplife are the new voice for West Africans such as Ghanaians and Nigerians in the reconstruction of the continent’s image.

Hiplife’s origin began from highlife in the past decades when it was the most popular form of music during the 70s. Its origins are credited to Reggie Rockstone or Reginald Yaw Osei who released his debut album Makka Maka in 1997 and inspired many to adapt to his genre. He combined his native tongue and English in the lyrics “Mesi, won yɛ me ti pen; Mpanyinsɛm, Akwola, wobaa dabɛn? Wo pɛ asɛm. Asɛm se ‘wobɛ da ntɛm’, now you scared, chicken out akɔnfɛm, I’m the best from the GH yeah confirmed, you funny ass dudes are Howard stern, my tone is stern but I’m not concerned.” The other notable pioneers included Talking Drums, Da Multi Krew, and Jay Q Buk Bak. The term developed from the high-class evenings of music and dance that were fashionable among the elite in Ghana. Initially, drums were employed to accompany the lyrics but were later replaced by the electric guitars. It had its origins in other musical styles like jazz, rock, swing, and soukous, and is characterized by the fusion of these genres. As musicians moved out of Ghana to Germany, they carried music with them and it was fused with other genres.


One of the most significant consequences of colonialism was the erosion of Ghanian and Nigerian culture and the dilemma they faced as a result of it after West African music was replaced with what colonial masters considered more appropriate. The generations that followed could not get in touch with indigenous types of music and neither could they relate with what their colonial masters listened to. Consequently, the artists had to come up with newer forms of music that were internationally acceptable but stayed true to African roots and the solution was hiplife. Ghana’s hiplife is a true example of a genre grounded in the country’s language and culture and fused with hip hop, which is more appealing internationally. The music integrates energetic danceable beats with powerful messages that engage audiences, locally and internationally. It has given African youth, a chance to be in touch with their roots and also gain global acceptance. Oris Aigbokhaevbolo in his article Hiplife in Ghana explains the phenomenon: “Artists enjoy a relatively broad space for engaging, danceable rhythms- even when listeners have no idea what is being said. It’s for this reason that Sarkodie, Edem, Tinny and other talented hiplife artists stand out.” (2015). This is despite the fact that he raps in Tiwi and listeners might not even be able to understand him. The music is captivating, engaging and gives a voice to West Africa on the global scene while remaining to its roots. The song Painkiller by Sarkodie, for example, contains lyrics such as “What else Your body go kill me, now! Obidiponbidi, runtown now, yeah Chale your body go kill me, what else Da b3n na wo b3ba?” Because of hip hop and hiplife, West African artists have created their space internationally which also allows the other communities to get in touch with West African roots and understand it better according to Eric Charry, an associate professor of music at Wesleyan University. It gives Ghanaian musicians a chance to connect with the rest of the world and share the story of their country’s roots.

From the 1970s hip hop was a source of inspiration for the youth. For the underprivileged and the downtrodden, it was a way to transform their stories and express themselves. Its roots can be traced back to North Africa and the Caribbean, evidenced by the heavy rhythms and beats in the music. In Africa, rapping goes back to the 1400s when it was finally introduced to the world as a form of performance. However, Charry notes: “Rap as an expressive genre of choice for the children of the post-independence generation of African did not emerge out of any traditions on African soil, but rather began as a direct imitation and appropriation of imported American rap” (4). It is important to distinguish between commercial rap which is more popular in mainstream media and the oral traditions like poetry that laid the foundation of hip hop today as commercial rap does not adhere to the structure in oral traditions which form hip hop today. Over time, these styles were infused with new music and instruments that gave birth to hip hop. This musical style was mostly associated with African Americans, who used it to voice their frustration, joys, and tell their stories of poverty and violence. An example is the late artist Tupac Shakur who is widely known for music that brought social consciousness.  This was something the West African youth could relate to. They adapted hip hop as more than a genre of music but a subculture that hoped to change West Africa politically and socially through music. It is, therefore, only fitting than the integration of hip hop and highlife would produce a genre that is both acceptable globally, and raises awareness locally.

Hip hop now plays an important role as a voice for West Africans like Ghanians, Senegalese and Nigerians to showcase their creativity. Tang notes: “Due to their ability to praise or critique individuals with their oratory skills, griots have traditionally held an ambiguous social status, both revered and feared” (80). Just like hiplife, many artists are combining their cultural heritage with hip hop and its subgenres to create a new sense of music that is acceptable, locally and internationally. The creativity of West Africans is seen in their ability to incorporate both WestAfrican styles of music and international tracks to create profoundly-appealing compositions. Traditional drums are replaced with modern programming and artists are presented with a wider platform to air their issues in a creative manner according to Anima Korang, a professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. International communities have had the platform for many years to demonstrate their creativity in ways considered presentable. Africa, unfortunately, has not had an equal footing in the industry. The subcontinent has long been looked down as being primitive and this applies to its music scene as well. It has often overlooked by famous musicians as they try to find creative artists to collaborate with. Hip hop and hipline have presented West African artists with this prospect of demonstrating creativity from their countries. A good example is Nigerian rapper Falz’z remake of “This is America” titled “This is Nigeria”. Like the original music video done by American rapper Childish Gambino, the remake by Falz tells the story of Nigeria’s current political status and the challenges that the country faced. Lyrics such as “This is Nigeria, never end the recession o, when looter and killers and stealers are still contesting election o, politicians wey thief some billions and billion no dey go prison o” show the struggle the country is undergoing under bad political leadership. Despite the local criticism, the video received high praise internationally as the rapper was congratulated for creativity portraying the state of the country just as the original version accomplished. Hip hop and hiplife voice West Africa’s creativity and individually, which is rarely heard.

The youth have also used hip hop to showcase the musical talent in the subcontinent. In the past, many people did not associate West Africa with anything good considering its past with slavery and colonization. The unification of African Americans through hip hop and hiplife has given birth to several incredible talents in West African music. D’Banj, an artist from Nigeria was signed by rapper Kanye West after his hit single, “Oliver Twist”. The other popular artists from West Africa who are now international artists include Tinie Tempah, Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder, and the more famous Akon. West Africa is no longer famous for its minerals and resources but also for its young talent that is ready to be explored and marketed. Their fusion of creative beats, word patterns, and rhythms into new music has created a revolution that has produced several talents. Dr. Msia Kibona Clark, an Associate Professor of African Studies at Howard University notes: “Many young artists who would have once entered the music scene through the Afropop or traditional music genres have become hip hop artists and have contributed to the evolution of the musical form in Africa” (Clark). This musical style has also been used as a platform to collaborate with local artists and showcase them internationally. The collaboration of Nigerian hip hop artist, Wizkid, and Canadian artist, Drake, in their song Come Closer shows that hip hop has created a platform to showcase exceptional talent from Africa. Hip hop now exhibits the talent West Africans have in music and makes their compositions more acceptable to international markets. Musicians have appropriated U.S. music by bringing in their elements of modern production such as auto-tune to make their sounds more appealing globally. The use of slang and cuss words are widely used by Western countries is also more popular as musicians seek to reach out to their audiences.

Many African artists, however, are accused of being Americanized by the culture. Afua Hirsch, a journalist for The Guardian newspaper, notes: “The continent’s burgeoning music industry is churning out images of champagne bucket-laden yachts, fair-skinned girls in bikinis and the entire range of mixed messages that has made black American music so notorious”. West Africans are no longer satisfied with the image of their continent that shows extreme poverty, hunger, and war. They are looking to repair that image through videos of lavish lifestyles as their way of sharing a different story. This style of music has faced immense criticism locally for not being in line with West Africa’s values and traditions. Hip hop music videos from the West are characterized by semi-naked ladies, stacks of money, expensive cars, and a general image of luxury. These visuals show the America that most people dream about. It paints a good picture of the nation and a sense of admiration for the citizens. West African hip hop desires to adopt that image for Africa. The rebirth of the subcontinent has brought a new sense of pride that artists seek to share with others. While there is a lot of controversy over the use of Western culture in hip hop music, it is undeniable that it tells a different story for West Africa.

The need to depict a different image of the subcontinent has also brought out the necessity for the story to be told by West African artists. While West Africa seeks to integrate with the rest of the world, the global audience cannot fully understand its view point. West African hip hop artists have the unique advantage of telling the continent’s story from their perspective and pioneer new tales. American artist Rick Ross was criticized by Nigerians after he released a video for his sing Hold Me Back, which did not paint a good image of Nigeria. The video showed filthy streets and extreme poverty in Nigeria’s ghettos over six minutes, painting a powerful image of the federal republic in the viewers’ minds. The lyrics “I look in my fridge, my shit lookin’ scarce, I got a few kids, we need some shit on the shelf, I get a knock at the door, they say my rent overdue, and while my niggas sell dope and don’t know what else to do” show the harsh living conditions in the country. While the story may be true to some parts of Nigeria, the country also have other attractive areas that could have been featured. When an image like that is spread internationally, it is quickly adopted as the country’s story. It falls on the shoulders of West African artists to develop their narrative using the same platform. Hip hop creates a sense of responsibility on the artists to share their tales with the fellow musicians and the rest of the world in a positive light.

Some others have felt the need to change West Africa’s social story through hip hop. Many more have used the genre to advocate for political change as their counterpart’s have done in America. Ikonoklasta, an Angolan rapper, used his music to mobilize an opposition against Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the president at that time. His aim was to reach out to the youth and inspire them to fight against the president’s thirty-three-year rule in Angola. Such images show there is hope for West Africa unlike what is depicted by Western media. The continent has changed over the past decade and hip hop and other subgenres are being used to show this change. Earlier, West African hip hop and hiplife music were characterized with narratives of people struggling to make ends meet. This was after the colonial period as many West African nation sought to establish themselves as young democracies. There were many tussles that inspired the artists of the time. Hip hop expresses oppression and discrimination that is used widely during demonstrations. It is more willingly assimilated by the youth and creates among them. As the struggles change over time, the music also adapts accordingly and tells a different story. Currently, West African countries face financial woes and internal conflict which are tackled in music that advocates for unity and the need for change. Hip hop especially creates this platform as the genre is characterized by the word narratives oger sound. Ultimately, hip hop and hiplife offer a new way of constructing West Africa’s history through different generations, which each sharing its story.

The fusion of Western Culture in hip hop and West African music, however, comes with certain consequences. The West African youth are concerned about having their culture eroded by Western influences. This effect is felt in many regions of the world but has only been addressed in recent years. K-Pop, for example, shows significant inspiration form Western culture, a characteristic that has brought criticism to the industry and yet allows it to be more accessible internationally. Without the integration of both cultures, K-Pop might not be as internationally recognized as he is today. In West Africa, the burden to stay true to their roots and not be corrupted by the West is perhaps heavier due to the continent’s colonialism. The youth are burdened with the responsibility to integrate with the rest of the world but keep their culture intact. The infusion of their languages into hiplife tells the need for African youth to hold on to their culture. Many have felt that industrialization and mass media will slowly erase West African culture, until its non-existent. Hiplife tells a different story. It shows that the struggles of the youth to hold on to their indigenous culture can be achieved through a fusion with the present.



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