Music Making

Doctoral candidate Osei Alleyne follows a musical path across the Atlantic from Africa—and back.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

By Susan Ahlborn

Ghana is listening to Jamaica. Jamaica is listening to Ghana. And everyone is listening to hip-hop. As a doctoral candidate in anthropology and Africana studies, Osei Alleyne is tracing the trails and transformations of music between Africa and the Atlantic diaspora. He’s found that in choosing what they listen to, people are choosing how to define themselves. 

“I’m looking at how these musics have circulated in these spaces, how musicians have drawn from different cultures, and how Africans in the diaspora have in one way or the other drawn from continental cultural backgrounds,” says Alleyne, a musician himself. “And then at how Africans on the continent negotiate a dominant African-American identity that circulates globally.”

Because of the influence of American media, hip-hop dominates the urban music scene around the world: “Pretty much anywhere on this planet, men and women with an interest in making music or communicating through music have to negotiate their way through hip-hop, whether they take it on, reject it, or take parts of it.”

When hip-hop came to Ghana in the ‘90s, some musicians there chose to rap in Twi, the main language of the nation, rather than just imitate the sound from New York or L.A. They also used music that was locally derived. The result has been a blend of Ghana’s own urban form, highlife, with hip-hop to create an indigenous music style called hiplife. 

While Ghanaians have also looked to Jamaica’s Reggae and Rastafari cultures, they now increasingly draw from Jamaican dancehall, a genre which Alleyne describes as "Jamaica's answer to hardcore hip-hop or perhaps even U.S. gangsta rap." Out of these, Ghanaians have developed a subgenre of hiplife called Afro-dancehall. 

At the same time, Jamaicans and others in the Atlantic diaspora are fascinated with Africa and their heritage. “I find it very interesting that, in the space of the Caribbean and often in North America, the romance is with the ancient Africa and trying to recover who we are,” says Alleyne, who was born in Canada and raised in Trinidad. “And there are Africans on the continent who are trying to be hip-hop or reggae, which themselves are derivative of African music and African affects and African rhythm.

“So it’s this tantalizing cauldron, this crucible, this space of these intersecting identities and musics and bodies traveling, seeking a return to home, and people in Ghana wanting to get out into the world,” he says. “It amazes me to see groups of people drawing on each other for different reasons in a mode of self-fashioning, which is to say, here I am, African. I will circumvent the system and find some deeper sense of who I am.”

Watch Alleyne perform a piece of his own, which he describes as “a Caribbean Canadian-American's take on hiplife,” in Ghana: