Outside of Africa and certain circles, if you bring up hiplife in conversation you will probably need to explain yourself. That is, you will if your listener’s eyes don’t glaze over when you say it’s from Ghana.
But inside Africa, you have to be living pretty far from any cell phones, TVs or internet cafes to not know the jerky moves of the Azonto dance or the aggressively catchy fusion hip-hop that’s come to be known as hiplife that inspired it.
Inside Ghana, it’s hard to even explain the kind of real estate the sound has in the national consciousness. Lazzy, one-third of pioneering hiplife group VIP, took time out after a photo shoot to try to quantify things via cell phone:
“Hiplife is everything in Ghana right now. It gets like 90 percent more airplay than any other song. It’s there when you go to the clubs, to the bars, you hear hiplife.”
The word combines hip-hop with highlife, a jazzy Ghanaian genre driven by brass and guitar. Hiplife itself is a combination of hip-hop, highlife and even more traditional Ghanaian folk elements like the kpanlogo drum. The sound is African rhythms and hooks in overdrive with a little dancehall and Auto-Tune smoothing the ride. The lyrics are in English and Ghanaian regional languages. As pop goes, it’s a musical freight train and it’s spreading far beyond Ghana’s borders.
VIP, comprised today of members Lazzy, Promzy and Prodigal, has been one of hiplife’s major engines for over a decade. And, in many ways, their story is hiplife’s story. They came up among founders of the genre like Reggie Rockstone. Today, they collaborate with the top names in the game like Sarkodie and foster young talent like their protégés in FOI. Last year, they took home Artist of the Year at the Ghana Music Awards.
“VIP are like that household name. Every few years they have this hit and it’s like an amazing comeback and you walk down the street and you hear the women in the market singing their songs and the little kids singing their songs,” says American documentary filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.
His film HomeGrown: HipLife in Ghana chronicles the hiplife pioneers’ rise to fame. He got to know the group while studying in Ghana and DJ at the college radio station. He befriended the then up-and-coming group when they brought their CD to station. He ended up directing the video for their song “Besin.” In the video a pack of small boys chases the trio through the dirt streets of Nima, the neighborhood in Accra where VIP is from. He couldn’t have known that someday they’d be the biggest hiplife act in the country.
VIP – Hiplife in Ghana :
As a young hip-hop fan, Jacobs-Fantauzzi’s mind was blown by VIP, hiplife culture, even the nickname VIP has for their ‘hood from which their record label takes its name:
“It was called Boogie Down Nima. It was so crazy for me to learn that. These kids across the world called it Boogie Down Nima because they saw the connection to what was happening in the Boogie Down Bronx.”
Fast forward ten years and he’s flying around the world with his old friends, and screening their success story. His more recent footage of the group shows them performing triumphantly at an awards show in South Africa, hopping a plane to perform in London, and swinging by Lazzy’s store VIP Kollection in Accra’s New Town, about five minutes away from Nima. It carries CDs and the VIP clothing line Vision Gear. The video for the “I Think I Like Am” of 2010?s Progress, features a party bus, pool lounging and a lot of models.
They’ve flown to Sierra Leone as musical ambassadors for peace. They’ve performed all over Africa, and all over the world. They’ve released seven successful albums. But if you ask Lazzy about the trio’s biggest accomplishment, he’ll say it’s just being VIP at all. He means it, and that has everything to do with being from Nima, a place he describes matter of factly as, “the ghetto in Accra.”
“Let me put it this way, it is a great thing to come up from where we come from. Because, where we come from in Nima, people think good things can’t come out of a place like that. We came out of a place like that and we proved a point. We’re holding that flag everywhere we go, we let people know that we’re from Nima,” Lazzy explains.
The members met in rap battles in Nima and realized they’d be better off joining forces around 1997. They began by performing as a group at street festivals and Labadi beach. In addition to talent, the members have troubled early lives in common. Prodigal lost his mother at a young age. He never met his father. Lazzy’s father was a musician who passed away in the ’90s.
“That was really hard for him. He talks about having to leave the house at a young age because of all the stress. He kind of found a way out through hip-hop,” says Jacobs-Fantauzzi.
When Jacobs-Fantauzzi had an outdoor screening for HomeGrown, it was clear that Nima couldn’t be prouder to have the rappers as their representatives.
“The chief of Nima came and did this beautiful speech about how VIP has been able to put Nima on the map around the world and enabled people to see Nima in a new light. People were yelling, pointing at the screen. It was received incredibly. I think that’s what made V.I.P. so excited about it,” the filmmaker says.
But it’s not just Nima that’s proud; an entire country gives it up to them, perhaps because of the unique way that they are able to represent all of Ghana. While on the surface their music is all about having a good time, they say a lot to their people just by being who they are. Blitz the Ambassador, the Ghana-born rapper, now based in New York knows the group well. They appear on the remix of the song “Akwaaba” from his latest album Native Sun, and they were special guests when he played Ghana with Les Nubians. He also remembers when they first came out quite clearly.
“They were the voice of Nima, and, more than Nima, they were the voice of Ghana’s voiceless. In hearing them and how they were representing Nima and in hearing how they were representing that sound, it was something new.”
Lazzy, who speaks Hausa in addition to English and is part of Ghana’s northern Muslim minority, was pivotal in terms of representing more of Ghana.
“At the time it was more of a southern thing where everybody was pretty much rhyming in Twi,” explains Blitz. All the members rhyme in a variety of languages including English, but with each member coming from a different ethnic group, they could connect with fans from all over Ghana.
“Another important thing for them was that they added a religious tone to it,” says Blitz, pointing out the significance of their early hit single “Ranasallah,” which celebrated Eid al-Fitre, the Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan. “More than the music, they represented a whole other element of Ghanaian culture which wasn’t getting as much shine at the time,” Blitz continues.
VIP doesn’t stand for very important person – the initials stand for Vision In Progress. Any member of VIP will tell you that a part of their vision is giving back. “Any time we drop an album, we take kids from the ghetto and we send them to school,” Prodigal explains with pride. At this point there are nine kids that they’re looking after using proceeds from their albums. When their eighth album 7/11 drops, they’ll add another few. “As long as we’re still living and making music we’re taking more,” he says.
VIP shows their love and respect for their roots though actions, and always though their words. You find a deep reverence for their cultural roots in their music. Usually performing with a band and a DJ, the instrumentation and spirit never strays too far from the highlife they grew up with.
Lazzy namechecks Ghanaian masters like Ko Nimo as readily as Wu Tang and Ice Cube.
“When you listen to the kind of music we play, you can hear the feel of highlife in every song we have. Even though we rap and stuff, highlife plays a major role in our songs. Highlife is part of every Ghanaian,” he says.
In everything VIP does, and in every hiplife song, you can hear an echo of the Ghanaian concept of sankofa, or moving forward while learning from the past. Jacobs-Fantauzzi divided up HomeGrownusing Ghanaian proverbs, including one related to Sankofa, which might be the most relevant to the film overall.
“The idea of Sankofa is like returning to your roots to be able to move forward and I think that’s what hiplife is able to do, going back and finding what’s uniquely yours and being able to present that to the world,” reflects Jacobs-Fantauzzi.
The music itself is indeed moving forward. Lazzy says he’s been able to observe some changes. More people are rapping in English to reach a wider audience and rhythms are changing.
“The beat is getting hotter than what it was. At the same time, you still get the highlife feeling that gets the people dancing the way we dance here,” he says.
Ghana’s music industry has come a long way since VIP got together too.
“Now, there are home studios popping up all over. When I was there, there were like two, and they weren’t even studios. There was Dope Rhymes studios in Nima, and, basically, they would get American instrumentals and they would rap over them and make little demo tapes in the late ’90s. Now, there are actually professional studios with Pro Tools and everything,” says Jacobs-Fantauzzi.
And VIP, of course, is enjoying the fruits of their continued progress. One of the sweetest is bringing their music to Ghanaians who have been living abroad for many years. Lazzy says, while they might not always be hip to hiplife, his countrymen and women always catch on fast:
“They go crazy. They love it. They love the idea. A lot of people, they left the country when it was just highlife, back in the day. And hip-hop. That’s all they used to listen to. And now they’re just so happy about the new generation and what they’re doing, bringing hip-hop and highlife together.
It’s not only Africa their music is reaching anymore. With dates in Malaysia and India in the works, who knows how far their vision will take them. “We are still a vision in Progress. we haven’t even gotten over yet and we are working hard to get there,” Lazzy says.