"Hiplife is everything in Ghana right now."
Outside of Africa and certain circles, if you bring up hiplife in conversation you will need to explain yourself. That is, 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, known as hiplife, that inspired it.
Inside Ghana, it’s hard to even explain the kind of real estate this sound has in the national consciousness. Lazzy, one-third of pioneering hiplife group VIP, took time out after a photo shoot 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. The music itself combines hip-hop, highlife and traditional Ghanaian folk elements like the kpanlogo drum. It’s characterized by African rhythms and hooks put into 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 popularity is spreading far beyond Ghana’s borders.
VIP, comprised today of members Lazzy, Promzy and Prodigal, has been one of the genre’s major engines for over a decade. In many ways, their story is hiplife’s story. They came up among founders of the genre like Reggie Rockstone and today they collaborate with the top names in the game like Sarkodie, while fostering young talent like their protégés in FOI. Last year, the group 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 VIP’s rise to fame. He got to know the group while studying in Ghana and DJ at the college radio station, befriending the then up-and-coming group when they brought their CD to the station. He ended up directing the video for their song “Besin,” in which a pack of small boys chases the trio through the dirt streets of Nima, the Accra neighborhood where VIP is from. He couldn’t have known that someday they’d be the biggest act in the country.
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 wence 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 pioneering 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. Their reality is actually even bigger. VIP has 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.”
Their triumph over Ghana’s airwaves is an unlikely story, but one that Ghanaians love them all the more for. “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 Nima rap battles and, around 1997, realized they’d be better off joining forces. They began performing as a group at street festivals and Labati 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,” 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 manage to say a lot to their people just by being who they are. Blitz the Ambassador, the Ghana-born rapper based in New York, knows the group well. The trio appeara on the remix of “Akwaaba” from his latest album Native Sun, and they were special guests when he played Ghana with Les Nubians. Blitz remembers when their early days 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, for instance, who speaks Hausa in addition to English is part of Ghana’s northern Muslim minority. He was pivotal in representing Ghana’s polyglot diversity. “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 English included, but with each member coming from a different ethnic group, they could connect with fans from all over Ghana in a way that hadn’t been done before.
“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.
Over time, the stars have come to represent even more than cultural unity. VIP doesn’t mean very important person – the initials stand for Vision In Progress. And 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, they’re looking after nine kids 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.
While VIP shows their love and respect for their roots through actions and words, you find a deep reverence for their cultural roots in their music too. Usually performing with both a live band and a DJ, the instrumentation and, most importantly, the spirit never strays too far from the highlife music they grew up with.
Lazzy name checks 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.
His words ring true when you listen to his music. 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 HomeGrown using Ghanaian proverbs, including one related to sankofa. That one 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,” the documentarian reflects.
Indeed, the music itself is moving forward. Lazzy says he’s observed some mutations in new hiplife coming out. More people are rapping in English to reach a wider audience and the rhythms are speeding up. “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. Jacobs-Fantauzzi observes, “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.”
And VIP, of course, is moving forward and enjoying the fruits of their continued progress. One of the sweetest of these is bringing their music to Ghanaians who have been living abroad for many years. Lazzy says, while Ghanaians in diaspora aren’t always be hip to hiplife, they do tend to 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 Africans their music is reaching anymore either. 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.