The Hip Hop Generation: Ghana’s Hip Life and Ivory Coast’s Coupé-Decalé
Afropop Worldwide’s co-producer Siddhartha Mitter looks into the burgeoning Hip-Life and Coupé-Decalé scene in West Africa by featuring comments by leading scholars Jesse Weaver Shipley, Simon Akindes, and Dominik Kohlhagen.
Jesse Weaver Shipley is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Director of Africana Studies at Bard College . He has also made a documentary, “Living the Hiplife,” about hiplife pioneer Reggie Rockstone. The film premiered at the FESPACO biennian festival of African cinema in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in March 2007.
Hiplife has been the main pop music of Ghana for the past few years and it seems like a very vibrant scene, even if it’s little known outside Ghana and the global Ghanaian community. How would you describe hiplife?
Jesse Shipley: On the most basic level I would say hiplife is a combination of rap music with direct African American influences in Africa, and all the complex diasporic implications of that, and highlife music, which is popular music which itself has multiple kinds of music, but is popular music in Accra, which has been popular since the early 20th century. And hiplife really brings those two together. Though within those two kinds of musical forms, there’s multiple kinds of influences that go into hiplife music. So to say that hiplife is just those two together isn’t really recognizing the complexity of it.
Hiplife is something that’s been defined in multiple ways by different people in Ghana. It represents a kind of youth cultural movement. Hiplife actually has a slightly contested origin, in the sense that several different people claim to have used the term at different times. Reggie Rockstone uses the word hiplife in one of his early tracks, where he says “Let’s do it for the hiplife.” Another early artist, Panji, who runs Pidgin Music also used hiplife in an early interview. And both of them used it in this early moment to coin this term for a music which didn’t have a definition because they were combining rap, hiphop and highlife music in new creative ways. They were trying to define this youth culture.
How did hiplife come into being?
Jesse Shipley: Hiplife music as a genre, as a defined musical form, I would say was started by Reggie Rockstone. Other people in Ghana, various people had been rapping since the late 1980s, and certainly in the early 1990s. Some people had been rapping in Twi, other African languages, Fanti, many people were rapping in English, young African artists, kids in secondary schools particularly in the metropolitan cities, Accra, a little bit Cape Coast I would think, Tema, maybe Kumasi a little bit, youth who had access to African American kind of music, who had access to rap, started rapping. But it wasn’t until Reggie Rockstone came back to in 1994 that hiplife really became a movement.
Tell us about Reggie Rockstone.
Jesse Shipley: Reggie Osei Rockstone is a very interesting person and really the innovator behind the hiplife movement. He went to Achimota, which is a very important and historic secondary school in Accra . His father was Ricky Osei, who was a well known fashion designer, who had gone to London, come back, and was a well known cultural figure in Ghana. Reggie was a breakdancer originally in school, he was known for his dance moves. And Reggie went to London and New York after school, he moved to London , and he was interested in fashion, the whole hiphop culture when that was coming up. And in his time in London and New York, he got interested in different aspects of hiphop: he got interested in bringing the fashion together with the music and the dance, and with his partner, Freddie Funkstone, who was his early music partner he knew from Accra, they formed a group with DJ Pogo in London, and they were part of a group called PLZ. Parables, Linguistics and Zlang.
In 1994, Reggie and Freddy came back to to perform at a Panafest event – a Panafrican theater festival which was put on in Accra . And when they returned to in 1994 they found a kind of local scene going on. They found a couple of people rapping in English, a couple of people rapping in local languages, and through a series of events Reggie started rapping in Twi at that point. And I think there was a real kind of creative thing that happened at that point: I think that they were a little frustrated with the scene in London , they could only get so far without experimenting with African music. Because I don’t think people in London were interested in sort of experimental music with more of an African feel. They were interested in being closer to a New York feel.
So when Reggie came back to Accra and started rapping in Twi, it had this creative burst. Because he had all these different things going on. He could rap fluently in English and Twi. He was fluent in the different kinds of codes: he knew hiphop, he knew local idioms in Accra , so people recognized him as cosmopolitan as well as local. And he kind of crossed over registers. I think that’s why he was so successful. Other people had rapped in Twi but they didn’t have the hiphop style. Other people were rapping in English in but they didn’t have the cosmopolitan feel, they felt like they were trying a little too hard sometimes. But Reggie was able to bridge these gaps. When he came back in 1994 the other important thing that happened was he met a really innovative DJ whose name was Rab Bakary. And Rab had come from New York, he was an engineer who was a DJ in New York, and who was in on vacation visiting family, and he met Reggie just by chance at a nightclub. He heard Reggie and they had this immediate connection. So Reggie and Freddy and DJ Rab starting cutting some tracks. And this turned into Reggie’s first album and second album. Initially they were rapping in English and well as in Twi, trying to experiment with the different kinds of forms. They hadn’t figured out the formula yet. They were trying to use straight-up hardcore American kind of beats and then rapping in Twi, or using English lyrics and trying to put African rhythms under it. It was a creative moment, they were really trying to gather a lot of different influences, electronic beats, live instrumentation, guitar, all kinds of things.
What was the setting in which hiplife was born? What were people listening to before hiplife came about, and how did hiplife reflect changes that were going on in at the time?
Jesse Shipley: Can I give a little history? In highlife music was popular in the 50s, 60s going into the 70s. And in the 70s there was highlife music, there were highlife guitar bands which would play at outdoor shows, there was Afrobeat, there was Afro-rock; Osibisa was an important Ghanaian group which had crossed over in London, Fela Kuti lived in Accra for a while which was a huge influence; American R&B and soul music was huge, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Ike and Tina; there was a huge concert called Soul 2 Soul in Accra in the early 70s, where Ike and Tina came, Wilson Pickett was there, Santana, and this had a real influence on local bands. In the 70s highlife bands started bringing more of these kinds of forms into it. So highlife has always been a form which has incorporated different kinds of music.
There was a political coup in 1979, there was another political coup in 1981. This – one of the effects of this was that there was a curfew. Around this time there was a lot of economic strife, people were really struggling economically. And because of the curfew, and because of taxation of musical instruments that came, live music really died. Accra had been known for decades as a place where – nightlife was huge in Accra . It was known as this vibrant spot in West Africa . In the late 70s early 80s this kind of nightlife died. All the older bands – people went abroad, musicians left, people also went into the church, started doing church music instead, but nightlife really just died for a while.
In 1992 there was a democratic constitution and the Fourth Republic of Ghana was established. One of the effects of this constitution was to allow the privatization of radio. It took a while for this to really kick in, before private radio stations really started to evolve. But in the mid-1990s private radio stations started to emerge: Joy FM, Groove FM, Vibe, Radio Universe, different stations started to come on air. Once this happened they wanted to play Ghanaian music but because there hadn’t been a lot of live music recently, there was actually a lack of local music that kids were listening to. They were listening to a lot of African-American music, but it was really interesting listening to the radio at that time, because you’d hear American country, rock and roll, they were really trying to figure out a local radio playlist. And this was at exactly the same moment when Reggie was coming back to , when local youth were again starting to try and figure out music.
Really what I think happened is, it wasn’t so much a social problem as it was musical: people didn’t have instruments. And the young generation hadn’t been brought up playing instruments. Two generations before, kids had grown up playing guitar, kids played drums, the youth had access to musical instruments. But the generation coming up in the 90s didn’t have as much access to musical instruments. What they had was their voices. So they were experimenting with lyrical traditions. And rap naturally worked into that in a really interesting, complicated way. Highlife is still there, highlife has always rejuvenated itself over the last few decades. So highlife musicians are still working and making interesting highlife. Highlife then got influenced by rap and vice versa. A lot of the supposed hiplife musicians are sounding more and more like highlife, using highlife harmonies, melodies, things like that, so sometimes they’re into hiphop styles but if you listen to their music it’s much more like older highlife, more and more so.
So it seems from a number of things that you’ve said that hiplife began as something of an elite musical form, with the innovators attending top secondary schools and getting to travel overseas.
Jesse Shipley: One of the ways in which hiplife actually replicates what happened with highlife is that both of them are forms that started on the coast, started with relatively elite populations who had access to English language idioms, who had access to foreign cultural production, to different kinds of musical traditions. And they are both forms that then became more locally relevant, more locally important. But hiplife really started in some of the elite schools – some of the people who had access to hiphop. And who had friends who would go to New York or London and bring back rap music. They would have access to the kind of elite culture, they would have more access to videos, things like that.
And there’s been a longstanding cultural back and forth between and the and maybe even more so, nowadays, with the .
Jesse Shipley: A lot of African American musicians have been in Accra; as well as other parts of Africa, but in particular has a historical connection to the African diaspora, partly because W.E.B. Du Bois moved to after Independence . The first leader of independent , Kwame Nkrumah, was very interested in the pan-African movement. So has an important place within pan-Africanism, within African diasporic imaginaries. African American musicians – a lot of people have gone back there, Stevie Wonder is in a lot, Isaac Hayes, this concert in the early 70s called Soul 2 Soul was an important thing. For me it’s something really important to recognize to is the complex way that hiplife music shows us the movements around the Atlantic world. The ways in which influence doesn’t just go in one direction, but that African diasporic forms, musical forms religious forms, have this kind of trans-Atlantic movement. So African American forms, hiphop is supposedly an African American and Afro-Caribbean form, but then people in Africa start to reincorporate this into African traditions. It points to the idea that origins are complicated, are never singular.
One of the things that is interesting about hiplife for me is that it becomes a point for people to talk about diaspora. It becomes a way that people in talk about origins and traditions. So you’ll have certain musicians saying that hiplife music is African, because it’s based in proverbial speech, it’s based in story telling, in what happens in the chief’s palace when people pour libations, when the okyeame speaks, the use of proverbial speech. Some rappers will point to that. Other rappers will say no, this is African-American and we’ve incorporated it back into Africa . But for me it becomes a way that people talk about race, talk about politics, talk about pan-Africanism, talk about all these kind of things; it becomes a language for debate, it’s not just one thing.
So, returning to the music: Reggie and friends start making this music in the mid-1990s. How did it spread? How did it become a real movement as opposed to just a one-off trend that comes up and quickly fades?
Jesse Shipley: The most important thing about how this music propagated had to do with the private radio stations. Private radio stations gave this new music a platform. And this is where elite connections do make a difference. The people making this music had connections within the kind of urban elite, and the people involved in bringing new capital, new kinds of technological skills, all these people were talking to each other in one way or another. So once the people in the radio stations recognized that there was this new kind of music they really started to put a little bit of it out there. Reggie’s first couple of albums were hugely influential in these kinds of ways. They were never that great a commercial success actually, which is often the case with someone who’s a real innovator, but I would say that the private radio stations were a huge influence. There were a couple of early television shows also that were starting to highlight some of these new musicians.
The other thing was, street life really started to come up in Accra . People had a little bit more money, a lot of the young Ghanaians who had left as children, or whose parents had left, were coming back to . They were bringing back media skills, bringing back an interest in hip hop, bringing back an interest in African American culture, so there was a kind of vibrancy that was going on in the mid 90s. Historically you can never point to one person. I would say Reggie was certainly the most important early figure in this movement. But you can never say that a musical movement or any kind of movement is about just one person. He sparked something that was already going on. There were a lot of kids there who were rapping, trying to find something new: What is the new going to look like? What is going to be the voice of the Fourth Republic ?
It’s such a compressed history. Hiplife blew up really quickly. The conditions were set for a new musical form. In no way is this unique: Everybody knows rap is huge all over the world, it’s a global kind of music. But it has a different kind of valence everywhere. And it has different conditions and different historical reasons for its resonance. In it moved very quickly in the mid 90s, when Reggie started rapping. I’d say 1996-98 were the early years of hiplife. In 1999-2001 this new generation starts to rise up. From 2002-2004 there’s a kind of established sensibility. And I would say from 2005 through the present, I think a lot of people in the music industry in would agree there’s a kind of stagnation. Hiplife isn’t where people would want it to be necessarily. I think there’s a lot of debate about where the music should go. And I don’t know whether it’s going to go in a kind of new direction or really change into something else. I wouldn’t put my money on – if we have this conversation in five years, whether hiplife is going to be the same or whether it’s going to be something entirely different.
Was there opposition to hiplife? Presumably there were people whose musical or cultural sensitivities weren’t open to it…
Jesse Shipley: Hiplife isn’t something that everyone has taken to. It represents a segment of youth and a segment of the older generation who have taken to it. There was a lot of strong reaction against it. It points to some of the complex debates around foreign influence, around racial identification of origins. Certain segments of the population, certain religious segments and certain segments who identify themselves with traditional culture saw hiplife as foreign, saw it as influencing society negatively in terms of morality, as fostering open sexuality, as being about smoking pot, as being a negative moral influence on the youth – growing dreadlocks, things which many people in Ghana would say are not local traditions. A lot of people in the church – in the mid 1990s the other thing that’s going on in , as in most of the world, is the rise of charismatic and evangelical Christian movements. And I think hiphop and rap and hiplife have had a kind of complicated relationship to Christianity. You see hiphop groups in churches in some places. But again the churches have often legislated against hiphop as morally corrupt.
The way I see it in Ghana, and I think it’s true in a lot of places, is that there are several choices that youth have these days. And I hate to say it, but I think that the political revolutionary movements in a lot of places don’t have the kind of valence that maybe they had. I think that the youth have certain choices and one of the choices is to join churches, and another choice is to really get involved in youth kinds of cultural movements, which is hiplife. So I think that a lot of youth that are really identified with being born again, with the kind of new Christian movements, would distance themselves from hiplife. One of the moral debates that’s really fascinating is that you see a lot of the hiplife lyrics, they’ll make little digs, they’ll insult the church, they’ll say how the church is really corrupt, they’ll talk about how the pastors are corrupt and use the money from the church to build their own houses, those kinds of things. So I think the youth in hiplife are themselves moral critics and see themselves as a kind of check on influences of things like churches. So there’s a kind of debate that goes on in music and around music.
The youth who are into hiplife see themselves as kind of the bastion of tradition in an interesting way. Youth who are interested in hiplife are actually recuperating various kind of proverbial traditions. Their lyrics are really deeply proverbial, they are using these story telling traditions, they are using deep proverbial ways of story telling, ways of talking, and so in some ways they’re really more interested in traditions than some other aspects. However from the older generation they are seen as corrupt. They are seen often as being morally suspect, as being street culture, this isn’t traditional Ghanaian. I had a friend, who is very elite, in Accra , whose son was on a rap program in television, and she was incredibly embarrassed. She didn’t want people to see that her son was on this rap competition. And yet people were calling her up and telling her, I just saw your son on television, and she was cringing. So it’s not always seen as a positive thing.
How much of a role is there for women in hiplife?
Jesse Shipley: There aren’t a lot of women rappers in hiplife. There’s a handful. And I think the two most important are Abrewa Nana, and Mzbel. And Mzbel has been likened in the media to kind of the Lil’ Kim of Ghana: she she presents herself in a kind of sexual way, she doesn’t apologize for being a sexual woman on stage. There’s been a big controversy around her. She put out some songs that were seen as being very sexually promiscuous, were seen as presenting female sexuality in a way that wasn’t publicly appropriate, and at a concert at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, she was actually assaulted onstage by some audience members, some of the students on camera actually grabbed her and treated her with great disrespect while she was onstage. They were brought to trial. But she also was sexually assaulted in her house. And this was really a horrible event, and in some of the discussions around this kind of assault on this artist, there were all these kinds of discussions of whether it was appropriate for her to be expressing sexuality publicly as a young woman, whether she deserved to be assaulted, what was going on with this situation. What was interesting was that it represented the kind of moral conflicts that are going on in this kind of urban society – as they have in rap in the . But she was criticized for being too sexual, so some people were saying well she deserved to be attacked, because she was being so sexual she provoked them. And other people were saying, what if it was your mother, what if it was your sister, would you feel the same way? And I think – she’s a very talented artist and it’s a shame that she was so horrifically treated in this way, there’s no excuse for that. And I think this controversy really represents some of the controversies in Ghanaian society.
So once hiplife became established, what are some of the major evolutions it went through? How unified is it, or are there multiple different styles that have come about?
Jesse Shipley: Hiplife has gone in a couple of directions. One direction hiplife has gone has been using really straight electronic beats, like hip hop, with the focus being the lyrics. Twi rap, using proverbial speech, using story telling. And I think the most important rapper after Reggie of the next generation, and who really in some ways made hiplife accessible to the youth was Obrafuor. Obrafuor’s music is much more focused on the lyrics. He’s considered to be a real lyrical master, he uses proverbial speech, he uses story telling, indirect speech, really powerful; he’s known for that kind of thing. And he incorporates political and moral commentary into his tracks.
Another direction that hiplife has gone is really focusing on the highlife beats, the highlife harmonies, the highlife melody, that kind of sensibility, and bringing in a little bit of rap. But often sounding really much more like an older highlife sensibility with more of an electronica beat. This important direction of hiplife has been focused on dance, and the aspects of highlife which were popular dance styles. If you look at the historical record and you talk to people who were young 20 years ago, 30 years ago, they saw highlife as modern, as cutting edge and not necessarily Ghanaian. As bringing in different kinds of foreign influences or as being the latest kind of style that was hip, that the youth were dancing in the streets. Now 20 or 30 years later, that same music is seen as “traditional.” So things that are like bringing back the kind of highlife styles, the dzama beats, the palango beats, which were the latest thing a while back, those are now seen as a nostalgic recollection, and the youth are now really into this highlife thing.
For some of the older generations, when they listen to somebody like Reggie, they hear this as hiphop. It doesn’t resonate necessarily in a dance tradition. But then some of the other groups like Bukbak, Jay Q who’s making beats, Akyeame, Obour, Sidney, different people who are using local dance styles, those are the people who get crowds dancing, who resonate with the older generation as well. The older generation might not be listening to the lyrics, but they say “OK, this resonates, this sounds like highlife.” So you get older generations listening to hiplife because they’re hearing the beats, and younger generation listening to it because they’re also listening to the lyrics. So it resonates on different levels for different people.
How big a component is hiplife of the live music scene in Accra, or in Ghana?
Jesse Shipley: As a live genre, the live music scene in Accra didn’t return to what it was. You don’t find very many hiplife musicians using live instruments at all. Most of them are rapping over electronic beats. So live shows often are rappers with their CD, either rapping over beats or just rapping over their full track. Some of the older musical critics have pointed out that this isn’t necessarily live shows, it’s turned into more a spectacle than a dance scene.
At the clubs and bars and various kind of drinking spots you hear hiplife. Ten years ago you heard hip-hop, American music, those kinds of things. But now you hear a lot of hiplife. That’s what you hear in the clubs mostly. There’s only a few places in Accra where you can hear highlife in its older form.
Are there regional variations? Is hiplife more a phenomenon of certain parts of the country, certain social groups or ethnicities or regions?
Jesse Shipley: One of the things that’s important about hiplife is its use of different languages. Hiplife has come to be focused on using different kinds of Twi, different kinds of Akan languages. But people are also rapping in different languages, using a lot of Pidgin, people use Ewe, people use Ga. I think the most important Ga rapper is Tinny. Tinny is really using traditional Ga language and speech culture and things like that incorporated into a hiphop style. A lot of the people that are rapping in Twi are not necessarily Akan, that isn’t necessarily their first language. People from the north of , Twi is not their first language, people from Accra who grew up speaking Ga, will be rapping in Twi. It becomes a sort of lingua franca as it has in other realms in Ghana.
Hiplife has a cosmopolitan feel, it’s rooted in Accra and Kumasi , and it’s a national form without a doubt. However within hiplife there are definitely regional scenes. If you go to Tamale, the main northern city in Ghana, there’s a local scene there where people are rapping in local languages — Hausa, Dagbani — bringing in a different kind of musical sensibility that has a more Islamic influence, a different rhythmic sensibility. And those tapes are being produced in Tamale, and are circulating certainly within Ghana but don’t have as wide a circulation as the artists based in Accra and Kumasi .
All in all, how big a force is hiplife in Ghanaian culture today, and what does the state of hiplife tell us about underlying changes in Ghanaian society and culture?
Jesse Shipley: Hiplife makes up a large percentage of the music industry in Ghana. Hazarding a guess I would say it makes up 40 percent of the music industry. Gospel music is the other huge musical form right now that’s commercially important. And those two, hiplife and gospel, in some ways represent the differences in urban life that go on in contemporary Africa . The huge charismatic Christian movement, and the different youth cultural movements that identify with a different kind of cosmopolitanism which hiphop and hiplife represent. So I think it’s a big movement but it’s not a majority of people. I think it’s a segment of youth culture, a lot of underprivileged youth are listening to this music. It becomes a way that youth in rural areas identify with the big city. So I think you see youth in small villages in Ghana, they hear hiplife and they think OK, this represents the modern life, this is where it’s at, I want to be in Accra because maybe I can get a better life, maybe I can get a job, maybe I can identify. I think a lot of kids come to Accra and Kumasi seeking work, and often are disappointed. Hiplife becomes a way that they can move in life, a way that they can find a kind of community in a society which is struggling with economic marginalization within a global community.
Simon Akindes, a native of Benin, is Associate Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He is the author of the chapter “Playing it ‘loud and straight:’ reggae, zouglou, mapouka and youth insubordination in Côte d’Ivoire,” in Playing with Identities in Contemporary Music in Africa (Mai Palmberg, Annemette Kirkegaard eds., Uppsala , 2002).
A lot of people internationally only learned about the Ivorian pop music called zouglou through the big hit “Premier Gaou,” by Magic System a few years ago. But zouglou actually goes back quite a long way, to the late 1980s. Can you try to define it for us?
Simon Akindes: Zouglou is an urban musical style based on traditional rhythm, especially alloukou. Alloukou is basically a traditional rhythm from the western part of the Ivory Coast. No guitar, nothing special, no other instruments, it is just popular songs with a lot of percussion, dancing, happy music. Before alloukou was appropriated by the youth in Abidjan, it was used for what in Ivory Coast is called “animation,” which means that when people got together for funerals, baptisms, other family events or community events, there would be groups that would gather percussive instruments, drums, pieces of wood, and so they would make music. They developed a set of very specific songs that they used to play, and that was the origin of zouglou. So little by little those youngsters developed the musical style that came to be known as zouglou, using alloukou.
What were the origins of zouglou as a pop music – how did the first zouglou songs originate and become popular?
Simon Akindes: Zouglou came about towards the end of the 1980s. It was appropriated by students who were doing animation and playing alloukou when they had sports events and so forth. So what they did basically at the end of the 80s was to use that music as a basis for their own problems – for venting their own concerns and their own problems. Actually the students in the Ivory Coast had been a very spoiled group. Houphouët-Boigny gave them all they wanted, free transportation, subsidized meals, accommodation, everything cheap, so being a student was very prestigious in the 70s in the Ivory Coast. So towards the 80s when the economic crisis became very acute, students still had that prestige. But they did not have the benefits and the advantages that they used to have. The lifestyle completely changed. If you hear a zouglou song for example and they are talking about “cambodiens,” [“Cambodians”] — cambodiens were people who lived 3, 4, 5, 7 in a room that originally was just for 1 or 2. So students started having all kinds of problems – I’m talking about everyday problems, daily problems – and in addition to that the political situation changed. Houphouët-Boigny was not having the easy rule that he used to have before, and people wanted more freedom. They wanted to have more say in political affairs. It was a time of student protest. So they started singing, with no sophisticated instrumentation, and there were many different types of bands that came about. The music just caught on and it became a hit in Abidjan toward the end of the 1980s.
So the early zouglou bands were made up mainly of students?
Simon Akindes: Yes, they were originally students, especially students living in Yopougon [the large popular outskirt area of Abidjan ]. Yopougon was a very vast city and a lot of students resided in that area. The original groups you had groups like – One of the most important musicians was probably Didier Bilé and he had Les Parents du campus; you had Esprit Gazeur, and there were other groups like Les Potes de la rue. Les Parents du campus means Campus relatives. It means we are part of this large family campus. Les Potes de la rue means the guys, the street guys, the street buddies. Esprit Gazeur means the spirit of enjoyment in French. Gazer means to enjoy life, to have a love of the good life.
Zouglou quickly became the major sound of the Ivorian street. What would you say was its heyday?
Simon Akindes: Between 1989 and 1997 zouglou was the most widely listened to — was very popular among the youth for many reasons. First of all for the very first time Ivory Coast had their own music, people were very proud of that, that this is an internal creation, not imported for anywhere, so they were very proud of that. Another thing that made it very interesting and that caught the imagination of the Ivorian people was the use of nouchi which is the local language – the local popular language, at least the urban language.
Ivory Coast was in a peculiar situation before then, as a major center of African music production and distribution that nevertheless didn’t produce very many national stars, or domestic musical styles that caught on elsewhere in the continent…
Simon Akindes: Côte d’Ivoire is certainly the crossroads of African music, and Abidjan is a very cosmopolitan town. People are just crazy for music in Ivory Coast and people were listening to almost everything. From the beginning when you had the Congolese rumba, you had R&B, French music, even country music. There was a country music group in Côte d’Ivoire called Jessaby. Pop music was really important at some point, then break dancing, rap came in, it is a very cosmopolitan place. But in terms of African music, Congolese music had been dominant for a long time all across Black Africa, and Côte d’Ivoire being an economic capital, being the hub for artistic activity in West Africa, a lot of musicians came from everywhere to perform and to play in the Ivory Coast. Manu Dibango was there, the Malian Bokana Maiga was there, he was even the leader of the radio orchestra, the RTI, Radio-télévision ivoirienne; Manu Dibango also led that orchestra. A lot of musicians, Papa Wemba from the Congo, Moni Bile from Cameroon, all those musicians used to come to Abidjan to perform and many of them even lived there. So they had a lot of influence on the various trends of Ivorian music.
Côte d’Ivoire is still a major center of production. Some of the most sophisticated studios are in Abidjan . But the music that was popular in the discos, clubs, nightclubs, radio, was either makossa, soukous, n’dombolo, kwassa-kwassa; all those rhythms were very popular in Ivory Coast. And being one of the most successful countries in West Africa or in the whole of Black Africa for that matter and not having a musical style that could be attributed to Côte d’Ivoire was really a problem for many Ivoirians. They wanted to lead the way in that field too. For them it was difficult to conceive of themselves as among the first and not having the best music in the continent. So that is one context that favored the creation of zouglou and the acceptance of zouglou as an authentic, typical Ivorian style.
Authentically Ivorian, but probably not to everyone’s taste, since it was a rough, underground or street kind of music.
Simon Akindes: The history of zouglou is very special. It started as a grassroots musical style and it remained a grassroots musical style for a very long time and it is still to a large extent a grassroots music. But when it first came out a lot of Ivorians, especially those who had a lot of contacts with the external world, with the global world and those who were part of a certain elite, did not really accept zouglou because of the language; and the grassroots character of the music is not only the language, it’s also the themes, daily life, sung about in a very crude manner, the language is not polished. So zouglou became the music of the people but not necessarily right away the music of the elite, especially the political elite. But when they discovered that well this was the only thing that really came out of Côte d’Ivoire and was becoming popular all over West Africa , then everybody embraced it. But still some people do not look at zouglou as a true representation of the refined nature of the Ivorian people.
One of the striking things about zouglou is that it’s very narrative, right? A typical zouglou song tells a story.
Simon Akindes: Oh yes. That’s another characteristic of zouglou. It is about stories. They tell stories. Everything is a story. It is not deep thinking or deep intellectual explanation of what is happening; it is a story. And the grassroot character is shown in the way they tell the story. Because they tell stories but the way they tell it, but they go to local languages, local metaphors, local images, local expressions that they change, they manipulate, they transform, and that establishes the connection with zouglou and the people right away. If you are a local language speaker, a Bété speaker, a Baoulé speaker, if you live in Abidjan, if you have stayed in Abidjan for some time you will understand this very quickly. That’s the strength of zouglou.
The stories are about everything. Zouglou musicians became the custodians and the recorders of whatever was happening in Ivory Coast in the immediate lives of the musicians themselves and then in the culture of the country. You talk about corruption, you talk about the way that people behave toward each other. You talk about cultural traits, you talk about group perceptions, the way that people perceive the other groups. For example one theme that people liked a lot in zouglou and that became very popular is when they started describing what they believed were the traits of the Bétés, the Baoulés, the Dioulas and so forth. They are talking about nation building, political scandals, economic scandals, everyday life.
But you know one of the things that characterized zouglou really was the ability to put to the public place, to bring to the public place what they were experiencing privately in their families. For example when they are talking about côcôs. The côcô is the person who likes to benefit or profit by others, take advantage of others. So they sing about almost anything. But the thing about zouglou also, it’s an affirmation of the desire for good life, easy life. They want to enjoy – what they call in French la joie de vivre, that’s the spirit of Abidjan actually. People want to forget about everything and enjoy themselves when it is time for enjoyment. So zouglou is an affirmation of that spirit. They are going to list all the problems that they are facing in a very humoristic way, it’s very satirical, with a lot of derision, but in the end they will tell you, no matter what we are here, we are going to enjoy no matter what happens we are here, we have to live our lives, we have to live our youth, and that nobody should prevent us from doing it.
Let’s talk about the language. The blended French spoken in Abidjan is very vivid and inventive and funny. How did it develop and how does it feed into zouglou?
Simon Akindes: It came to be known as “Nouchi” later. But in the first place it was “Moussa’s French.” In the Ivory Coast there were a lot of immigrants from Burkina Faso; it actually started long ago when Burkina Faso was Upper Volta, they came to Ivory Coast to work by themselves, and also there were waves of workers that were recruited by the French to come and work in the Ivory Coast before independence. And so the French that was used to address them, to talk to these people, and to uneducated people in general, was a kind of broken French. But that French developed gradually by itself, especially like places like Yopougon and Abobo in Abidjan , and in every metropolitan area. The language developed, and it developed by itself. So as time went and as the stigma of that language being associated with immigrants started fading away, what happened was that the youth appropriated it. So it became the language of the maquis, the allocodromes: the maquis is the African restaurant, usually open restaurant where people gather and talk, but it was also a place of cultural activity. And then the allocodromes were all over Abidjan , these are places where people used to go and eat alloco, fried plantain. And there is a culture that developed around those places and around the language. So in many different places people started using that type of French. And when zouglou came about that was the language that was used for it.
“Nouchi” actually means something like a rascal. So the language became adopted, and at least for music, for plays and for comedy. That’s another things a lot of comedians use that language. It is rich, it is lively, it is spontaneous, it connects directly with people, the language the experiences, as opposed to using traditional French. There are a few terms that were widely used in Abidjan , when you say for example “c’est un faux type” – it means he’s not an honest person. “C’est un gaou” means he just arrived, he’s naive, he doesn’t know what goes on here. When you say “je vais te yangami,” it means I’m going to mess up the place. And then the language developed: when you say in Abidjan “Quitte là,” it means go away, move away. Something else about zouglou were the loubards. The loubards were a group of young people who dropped out and started to build up muscles, very huge muscles; it was also the fashion that came from the . And they started terrorizing neighborhoods, and the girls. They became popular and feared in Abidjan . It as the birth of small gangs. So nouchi was very much used by those people. And that was also linked to zouglou, in the sense that you know, the way they walked, the way they danced – the way they danced influenced the dance style of zouglou: you have to show your muscles and so on and so forth. All those factors gave rise to nouchi.
Nouchi spread from the bottom up, which is very interesting. A lot of people didn’t like it, especially the Ivorian elite that was connected to the outside world. And it came through culture, through music, it came through comedy, and that’s it. It’s now there. But of course it’s just like slang in many countries, it is not the language that is going to be used for official business, it is not the language of instruction, but for its purpose of expression people’s concerns, people’s problems, it is very very important. It is also very dynamic, it changes with time and incorporates a lot of new things.
What has happened to zouglou since its heyday? It seems that nowadays the principal pop music of Ivory Coast is coupé-décalé, which is a whole different sound, which many people consider less inventive and less sophisticated; so how did it come to crowd out zouglou?
Simon Akindes: One thing is clear about zouglou is that it became the quintessential musical genre of the Ivory Coast and people recognized it as such. “Premier Gaou” was the time when it hit the whole world, Magic System became very famous, actually they are based in now; and then mapouka followed, and soon after, in 2002-03 came coupé-décalé. So zouglou has maintained its own identity and I would say its own integrity, because it is positioned now in the Ivorian musical scene as a very specific genre, and a very national genre also. There were a few developments in zouglou, what I would call subgenres in zouglou, but it is the same kind of music, and they didn’t develop very independent track for themselves within the zouglou movement. Now with coupé-décalé there is a very big problem. You have all these DJs, Ivorians and Congolese who are producing coupé-décalé. Zouglou has been a little stifled in a way by coupé-decalé, and it’s a problem for zougloumen too. Not long ago I read an interview by Asalfo, the lead singer of Magic System, and he was saying that if we need to survive we should produce more, we shouldn’t worry about what we get in terms of money, we shouldn’t worry about the economic viability of our production, what we should do is get out there and make more music. Because we are being completely swallowed. He was also responding to some zouglou musicians who are saying well, because the music is pirated and we are not making money, we are not producing music anymore.
The other part of this is the political situation, with Ivory Coast in a civil war in late 2002 and still split in two, under various tenuous peace settlements, up to this day. And there has been a lot of discussion of national identity, debates over nationalism and xenophobia, resentment of , and other complicated factors… How has this played out in the music, and how did it affect the evolution of zouglou?
Simon Akindes: It’s kind of very peculiar sense of nationalism that developed, Ivory Coast against the French. And of course that was the language of the government too. As a result probably the government also started financing musical groups, and a result a lot of zougloumen took sides, they took sides with the government. And one of the examples is Fabeti. Fabeti even samples Laurent Gbagbo’s speeches in the way that Alpha Blondy sampled Houphouet. So you have now southerners versus northerners, one thing that is very peculiar also is the fact that most reggae musicians are northerners and they are very critical of the Gbagbo government, and they remain very critical of the government even after that incident with the French. Yeah, Tiken Jah Fakoly, but even Alpha Blondy himself; but Alpha Blondy, he knows how to navigate the world of politics. He’s a very seasoned musician. Tiken Jah is in exile but Alpha Blondy is right there in Abidjan, he’s still doing fine, big nightclub in Abidjan and so on.
Most of it was zouglou, at that point it was still zouglou. Soum Bill, Yodé, there was a zouglou collective that played “Liberez mon pays,” and they had a very beautiful video that went with it. But it is the spirit of zouglou also, we don’t want war, we might be poor and have lots of problems, what we want really is to live in peace and enjoy our lives. That’s the strength of zouglou. And that’s also what you see in some of the most recent songs, you have for example Espoir 2000 have a song in which they say look, we don’t know how we pay for what we drink in the nightclubs. But we are here and we are going to be here until 7 in the morning. What it means is that we don’t have anything, we are going to do what we can to get what we need, to get our drinks and then enjoy ourselves, but we are here and we are not going anywhere. That’s a very Ivorian spirit.
In just a few years we have moved away from a music of protest, a music of insubordination, a music of disobedience, and a music of protest for more justice, for more equality in the society, a music that was close to the poor and their ways of life — now we are moving gradually to a very divided scene. So that is very interesting, and the musical genres are going with that; you have zouglou on one hand, very close to the government especially since 2004, and you have people like Soum Bill who are not ready for that, but who are not openly critical of the government either but who are saying very interesting things about globalization, about loving each other, when you love your neighbor, that’s when you become religious. But what they need to do in my view, zouglou musicians, is to develop a culture, a real culture a musical culture which does not exist in the Ivory Coast. In the sense that arrangers, composers, there should be very formal training of all these aspects of music production for the music culture to develop. So if zouglou musicians could really band together and decide to strengthen the culture of zouglou as a musical genre and take it to higher levels, I think they are going to make zouglou maybe not the most popular music, the most commercial music, but at least a type of music that will play the role it has played at the time of its creation.
Dominik Kohlhagen is a scholar of law and anthropology and a researcher in the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Juridique de Paris at the University of Paris -I and the first academic to publish research on the Ivorian popular music coupé-décalé. His article “Frime, escroquerie et cosmopolitisme : Le succès du ‘coupé-décalé’ en Afrique et ailleurs” appeared in the journal Politique Africaine in spring 2006.
Coupé-décalé is the hot sound now in Ivory Coast, and it has also spread across Africa and even beyond with amazing success. And in fact it wasn’t even born in Africa to begin with… Can you tell us the story of its origin?
Dominik Kohlhagen: Coupé-décalé appears in a quite particular way and a particular place. It was around 2002, in was not in Ivory Coast, not even in Africa, but here in Paris, more precisely in the Atlantis, which is a quite trendy African nightclub in the northeast of Paris . It was created by a couple of young people: Molaré, Bobo Sangui, Lino Versace, Solo Béton, Douk Saga, who were not musicians and whose initial intention was probably not to create a musical style. They were young immigrants, one can say from a quite modest background, who had achieved a certain financial success and wanted to show off their wealth in some provocative manner. They were known to drive expensive cars, dress in a very fashionable way, to give out money around them and to pay drinks and champagne for everybody in the nightclub. So you can imagine they were on quite good terms with the DJs. And this was the way they got known, because they were known to create a quite joyful atmosphere, they were ambianceurs as one would say in Ivory Coast, people who put others in a good mood. And when they arrived no the dance floor the lights were turned down, and people were asked for acclamations, and this was the way they proceeded to draw attention to themselves and to have the opportunity to create their own dance styles, and a little bit later to create their own music, together with the DJs. So this is the way coupé-décalé appeared first.
So who were these guys? Were any of the French-raised? What do we know about how they made their money or what their real circumstances were?
Dominik Kohlhagen: They were all very recent immigrants, and I hesitate to use the word immigrants; most of them arrived 2, 3, 4, years ago from a very modest background in Ivory Coast. None of them was French born. Most of them succeeded financially very quickly in , by not always very clear and very honest ways — that’s what people say, one doesn’t know exactly. Some of them have spent some time in prison but this is also rumors, it’s not very clear. What is clear is that they are quite young, between I would say 25 and 35, recent arrivals, and people who succeeded in some way quite quickly after their arrival in .
And these ambiguous activities become central to the message behind the music, right?
Dominik Kohlhagen: If there is a message, what coupé-décalé actually means – well couper in Ivorian slang means to cheat, to cheat somebody, décaler is to run away. So coupé-décalé initially means to cheat somebody and to run away. This message was put forward in quite some provocative way by these young people, saying well we have succeeded here by cheating the whites, or cheating the French and now we are here – and this is the third word which comes all the time in the first songs of coupé-décalé – we are here to work, travailler. Couper, décaler, travailler. And travailler means distribute the money, throw the money away, share it with other people on the dance floor.
The origin of coupé-décalé is quite disputed among some people. Generally one says the first real song was the “Sagacité” of Douk Saga, whose real name is Stephane Hamidou Doukouré. It is one of these songs that appeared in this night club the Atlantis, but it’s not really sure if it’s the first song. But it’s the origin of this whole movement, many later songs refer to this one as the first song. And Sagacité was the name of the movement, which other artists then later reused as well.
The beginning of this music was quite improvisational, and that is what is unusual about this music: it was a public show of improvisation, of dance movements but also of a new kind of music. From my point of view the influence is quite Congolese at the beginning, I think this is linked to the fact that Congolese music was the music in vogue at this time in African nightclubs. The rhythm is more Congolese than Ivorian, I would say. But there is also an influence of zouglou music and earlier Ivorian music, especially in the way the texts are mixed to, are linked to the rhythm.
So the music was born among Ivorians in Paris . How quickly did it return to Abidjan and spread in the local scene in Ivory Coast?
Dominik Kohlhagen: It went very quickly, only some months later after the first songs had been produced here [in Paris], and it worked in the same way that it worked here; it was the same people that went back to Abidjan as well, who proceeded the same way, who went to nightclubs and made themselves known by distributing money, attracted the attention of the DJs, and who then had the opportunity to produce themselves and to make their show. There was also another context which was probably quite beneficial for these artists: It was the beginning of the Ivorian crisis and there was quite a need for some distraction and something else than only these dark images of war and of a country in crisis, which made the national television produce a lot of music shows which gave these people the opportunity to produce themselves on television.
The time coupé-décalé arrives in Abidjan as far as I know is in the beginning of 2003. The crisis in Ivory Coast started in September 2002, so at this time as you probably know the north of the country was taken by part of the military, a rebellion, and was occupied for almost five years now, because this situation is still going on. It’s not clear if it’s a coincidence that coupé-décalé arrived at this time in Abidjan , but I believe that this situation has probably favored this kind of music, this kind of joyful music in context of crisis. And by the way in the beginning of Ndombolo was also in times of crisis, there are some parallels between the beginning of these two musics.
What’s interesting with coupé-décalé at the beginning is that there is no political message at all. This changes quite quickly but in the beginning, this was really music of people who have succeeded abroad — which in this sense could be an element as well, you can succeed abroad but you can’t succeed in your country. But first of all it’s a music to dance to, to forget what is surrounding you, and it probably arrived at a very good time. And it has also arrived at a time when there was some national uprising in Ivory Coast and quite a strong manifestation of, we want to save our country and we have our Ivorian culture, and the fact that a music which could be considered a national music, like coupé-décalé, arrived in Abidjan at this time was quite beneficial for this music I would say.
It seems like there are dozens or maybe hundreds of different coupé-decalé artists and songs and dance moves, that ultimately don’t sound all that different from each other, but still have their own energy and flavor…
Dominik Kohlhagen: Well there is an incredibly huge amount of songs and especially of substyles, something very special about coupé-décalé. In the beginning you have sagacité, then quite soon you have prudencia, farot-farot, saute-mouton, sentiment môkô, konami, fouka-fouka, decalé chinois – Chinese décalé – festiboulance, guantanamo , grippe aviaire… In coupe-decale every artist is free to invent his own style, and that is something that has probably made the success of coupe-decale later on, because every artist is free to make reference to other styles which have been invented by other artists; there is quite a solidarity between the musicians this way. And in many songs you can see artists imitating the styles of others, or caling them directly by their name, and this is something very special with coupe-decale. It would be very difficult to denominate all the substyles, there must be hundreds. And every song proclaims to be a substyle almost. Sometimes the difference is very slight only. In the rhythm I would say there are only very slight differences, it’s the way to dance it, to make some gestures, to – well, it’s very difficult to distinguish one from the other. But every substyle has some special movement, some special way to behave, but it’s not necessarily marked on the rhythm I would say.
So what is the emergence of this style, and this mode of creative expression, telling us about youth in Ivory Coast or elsewhere, and how they are responding to political events and social changes going on around them?
Dominik Kohlhagen: I think something coupe-decale expresses – first of all I think what coupe-decale expresses is an incredible intellectual and artistic energy, which is probably characteristic for Ivory Coast and for West Africa as a whole. But it expresses also a quest for new values, which is somehow expresses in the original text, coupe-decale, to cheat and to run away, but above that there is a general quest that you can find in many songs not just for values but for a common future, for instance there is one question which comes quite frequently in many songs, which is, “On est ou là?” Where are we actually? What’s happening? Where are we? And in quite a recent song of DJ Jacob, together with Kaysha who is from the French Caribbean, the text is “On sait pas ou on va, mais on y va quand même.” We don’t know where we’re going but we go there nevertheless. I think this is something quite important in coupe-decale, this quest for future, this quest for values, and the answer is normally well, we don’t know where we’re going but we enjoy our life. I think to sum up this dimension of what could be expressed in coupe-decale, it would be that.
Ultimately a lot of coupe-decale sounds similar, and it’s not really considered a very sophisticated music, given its reliance on dancefloor chants and the like. Yet it’s also extremely successful, and you’ve also argued that it’s not as simplistic or shallow as it might appear on first impression.
Dominik Kohlhagen: I know that normally that is what is said about coupe decale and I wouldn’t say that it’s a very sophisticated music neither. But I think the way coupe decale grabs things from all sides like current events, like some words like recently grippe aviaire, bird flu – when bird flu appeared immediately the were some artists who made a song about bird flu, even if it’s not very intellectual what they had to say. It immediately translated some words which are in the air into something different. When you go through Abidjan this time, every time you hear this song you can see chairs flying through the air or people crawling on the soil. And now for example it’s Guantanamo . Of course it’s not very intellectual to make a song of Guantanamo which doesn’t express more than to put both hands together as if they were tied, but you have for instance these songs, every time somebody shouts “ guantanamo ” you have to put your hands together like if they were tied. This is something I find very interesting with coupé-décalé, it’s a very vivid and very reactive music. And it’s in this way I would say it’s intellectually rich. But of course there is no profound message behind it, and it’s not a very sophisticated music. But it’s very vivid and reactive music, and that’s something I think one should not underestimate.
And it’s become very popular at a time of conflict; in fact, Ivorian music has really for the first time taken over dancefloors all over Africa at exactly the same time that Ivory Coast, the country, has been going through this protracted political and military crisis, with debilitating social and economic effects.
Dominik Kohlhagen: There is quite some irony in this contradiction and I think this is probably one of the main reasons why coupe-decale is not very well seen by some people, is criticized as not being a very intelligent music. There is this contradiction and I think coupe-decale is really a music which permits people to project themselves in some kind of other world, this is something you can see quite well in a lot of videoclips. Many of them now are filmed in Abidjan, but especially the former clips 2 or 3 years ago, many filmed in capital cities in the or in Europe, and coupe-decale really celebrates some kind of other world that you can still find in Abidjan but only for very few people. And this is possibly one of the reasons why this music has had success, and even in other countries which are having very difficult situations presently, economically, this music shows another possible world in economic terms but also in terms of values. Everything is possible in this world of coupe-decale, and it’s possible in a very short time. If you look at somebody like Douk Saga, who died six months ago, who was the founder of coupe-decale, this is somebody who went to Europe with almost nothing, nobody knows really how he did but he succeeded to make another life possible even in this situation which is presently staying on in Ivory Coast. So this is some kind of social project, some fantastic social project which is transported by this music.
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French, called Nouchi, gazer means to enjoy life, to have a love of the good life.
Afropop Worldwide associate producer Siddhartha Mitter is a New York-based journalist. He reports on urban culture for WNYC New York Public Radio, and he writes about world music, jazz, hip-hop and R&B for the Boston Globe and other publications.