The image of African music, as seen through American eyes, goes through phases. Right now, we’re going through a retro moment: It would be easy to look at the recent deluge of compilation CDs (the three Nigeria Special volumes, Nigeria 70, and the Lagos All Routes and Lagos Chop Up sets) and conclude that a) all African music comes from Nigeria, and b) Africans stopped making music sometime in the late ’70s/early ’80s. But African music doesn’t begin or end with funky reissues or the ultra-earnest singer-songwriters who’ve been playing to the NPR and jam-band crowds these past few years.
In fact, sub-Saharan Africa is a whirlwind of thoroughly modern pop scenes, full of musicians combining traditional forms and styles with electronic beats, rapping, and rhythms from across the globe. Ghana’s contribution is hiplife—as the name indicates, it’s a meeting point between highlife and hip-hop, but there are elements of dance hall, bhangra, and more tossed in at will. Black Stars‘ opening track, King Ayisoba’s “Modern Ghanaians,” features a two-stringed guitar-like instrument, the kolgo, and three rappers spieling over a bhangra-like beat. “Oldman Boogey RMX,” by FBS (Function Boyz Squad) and guest-rapper Tinny, is another killer—FBS member Yo’boy sounds like a cross between Busta Rhymes and Elephant Man, and the rhythm is almost manic. The faces of dozens of hiplife CDs—not all by performers included on this compilation—decorate the inside pages of Black Stars‘ booklet. It’s likely these are the only tracks American listeners will ever hear by any of these artists, though, so naturally they’re heard in the context of U.S. hip-hop, to which they serve as a vibrant counterpoint. Who needs to bother with 50 Cent’s stone-faced robo-pimp bullshit or Lil’ Wayne’s pot-fogged solipsism when Tic Tac, Batman Samini, and Tinny are out there?