Hiplife, a Sound Imported From Ghana, Arrives on a New York Stage
When Evans Appiah moved to the Bronx from Ghana at age 8, he was teased for his accent. As a way of fitting in, he learned to rap. By the time he got to Middle School 391 on Webster Avenue, his friends were calling him “Lighter” because he rapped so fast and furious in English that it sounded as if he were spitting fire.
The Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop, shaped Mr. Appiah, now a baby-faced 27. But it was not until he returned to his native Ghana four years ago that he rediscovered his musical roots.
“When I went back,” he said, “that’s when I fell in love again.”
He began adding to his hip-hop repertoire by collaborating with artists from Ghana’s unique genre of hiplife — a blend of hip-hop and upbeat indigenous soul music called highlife.
The path from Ghana to New York is well traveled, as the city’s 27,000 Ghanaian-born residents can attest. Now hiplife is making a bold New York debut on Saturday at the Apollo Theater.
Mr. Appiah, now known as Lighter T.O.D, will be one of 11 performers coming from Ghana and Nigeria, setting the stage for the Ghanaian headliner, Sarkodie. That the concert takes place at an African-American musical mecca represents a milestone for a transnational experiment that began in Ghana two decades ago.
"The Apollo is really like a test in an exciting way for the Ghanaian artists to reach out to broader audiences and to enter into the American mainstream musical consciousness,” said Jesse Weaver Shipley, a professor of anthropology at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and the author of “Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music.”
But it is about more than just music for a population that makes up the largest Ghanaian diaspora in the United States.
“I am waiting for this to take off,” said Mark D. Naison, a professor of history at Fordham University. “This is saying: This is a legitimate path for our children to embrace. Because it could lead to some popular recognition for our community. And it could lead to opportunities as producers, promoters and maybe even club owners.”
He added, “We haven’t reached the point where it has kicked into the club music of Manhattan and Brooklyn yet.”
As Felix M. Sarpong, a Ghanaian community leader and cultural adviser for the Bronx Musical Heritage Museum, said, “Hiplife is still a baby.”
Terry Masson, a 28-year-old promoter who was born in Ghana and grew up in Newark, said he spent thousands of dollars of his own money to produce the concert. Before, when he brought premier Ghanaian artists to New York, they performed at local venues like Gaucho’s Gym in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx.
He admitted that not everyone in the community may see the show as he titled it, “History in the Making.” He said, “In the view of Africans, they want to see you doing it before they jump on it.”
Back in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, the artist who is considered the godfather of hiplife, Reggie Rockstone, 51, certainly understood the concert’s significance. “It’s really surreal what my young soldiers are coming up with, what we built,” Mr. Rockstone said in a telephone interview. “And now they are headlining? It does something to my soul.”
Born Reginald Yaw Asante Ossei in Britain, he lived in Brooklyn in 1987 as hip-hop was soaring, then returned to Ghana in the mid-1990s. In 1994, he started rapping in Twi, his native language, instead of English. Mr. Rockstone said his father, Ricci Ossei, a Ghanaian fashion designer, was the one who coined the name “hiplife.”
The style, according to Mr. Shipley, blends rap in a Ghanaian language with the beats and rhythms of highlife, incorporating lyrics that often draw on Ghanaian proverbs and storytelling. And that is where the genre comes full circle, Mr. Rockstone said. “The blueprint of hip-hop is African,” he said.
In return, hiplife offers Ghanaians in America a connection. “It’s that generation like Lighter, they bridge the gap,” Mr. Rockstone said.
Mr. Appiah recalled that his first performance in New York was for a sixth-grade talent show, when he rapped an original tune he called “Study Pass Class.”
Study was all his parents wanted him to do, so he could become a lawyer or a doctor — what all Ghanaian families tend to want for their children, he said. Music was not a respected career. “At all,” Mr. Appiah said, shaking his head.
After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, Mr. Appiah went to technical school to become a building engineer like his father. That lasted a year. It took his parents four years more to accept his choice of profession, and only after the first good reviews came in.
Mr. Appiah now lives in Atlanta and Accra, but returned to New York this week for the concert. He is staying with his parents in Tracey Towers, the concrete apartment buildings looming over the northwest Bronx where so many Ghanaian immigrants live that Mr. Appiah nicknamed it “Twi Central.”
His mother, Bernice Boamah, 56, shook her head when talking about her son’s rapping. “Before, we don’t like it,” she said. “But now it’s O.K.”
Now Mr. Appiah says about a quarter of his tracks are in Twi. His English lyrics, like those in a track called “City Dreams,” describe his childhood with raw poetry:
“From the motherland to the Bronx in ’96, trying to find my way to riches through blind men, city full of beautiful people ... and I’m in, I’m chasing grand on the concourse, boy I’m grinding.”
Today, his role model is not so much Jay Z as it is Sarkodie, a dynamic 27-year-old performer who raps in Twi and has a clothing line and corporate endorsements.
The heart of the Ghanaian neighborhood can be found outside Papaye restaurant at the corner of McClellan Street and Sheridan Avenue, off the Grand Concourse. There, Sarkodie is the hiplife star who resonates most with the younger crowd.
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