Listening to Experts: Musical Politics

On October 10th, Nate Plageman visited the African Democracy Project course to talk about his book, Highlife Saturday Night.  In the highlife book and in his more recent work about the history of Sekondi-Takoradi, Nate seeks to push against reductionist narratives about “average Ghanaians” that ignores their daily lives and focused instead on state-centered narratives.  At the center of Highlife Saturday Night is a commitment to ethnomusicologist Christopher Watermann’s idea that “musics don’t have selves–people do.”  As Nate observed, that is true of anything we might study.  Politics, for example, doesn’t have a self.  People create meaning and do things with politics.


Our conversation with Nate was oriented around a number of questions:

  • What did politics mean in 20th century urban Ghana?  How did people conceptualize and experience politics?
  • How did Ghanaians view/approach independence?  And what futures did they attach to it?
  • What expectations have Ghanaians had toward the state?  And how have they confronted the state in their daily lives?
  • How have Ghanaians conceptualized and debated citizenship?

At the center of these questions lay the importance of historicizing projects and thinking in innovative ways about how we conduct research and understand the experiences of Ghanaians.  As Nate’s book demonstrates, if we only look at print media and the formal political sphere, we miss a lot.

By looking at histories of leisure and daily life like that we find in highlife music and dance, Nate was able to construct a narrative that moved away from state-centered narratives and raised a number of issues and questions about the history of politics in Ghana.  In particular:

  • Politics is a relatively new phenomenon if, by politics, we mean multi-party democracy.  In the context of colonial rule, there were limits on African participation.  While there were absolutely precolonial polities and cultures of political practice, we must be careful not to assume a direct connection between those systems and contemporary political practice.
  • Just because people did not participate in the institutions of the state, that does not mean that they were not involved in politics.

In light of these questions, Nate encouraged us to question whether or to what degree independence matters.  What kinds of change did independence bring?  How might change be viewed differently from the political perspective vs. the perspective of the “everyday”?  Does independence just mean rejecting colonial rule?  If colonial rule is rejected, then what should take its place?  What is the nationalist government going to do that is different from what the colonial government did?

Nate’s work helps us think about the ways that people understood “freedom” outside of the equation of “Nkrumah = freedom”.  For example, freedom for some young people meant that elders should relinquish control – a vision of freedom articulated in songs like “Telephone Lobi” by the Black Beats, which called for the breaking down of hierarchies of age, generation, and gender.  The rise of Nkrumah and his “verandah boys”, in some ways, promised these changes explicitly and implicitly.  Organizations like the Builder’s Brigade and the Young Pioneers, which Jeff Ahlman also discussed, brought young men and women from all sorts of backgrounds into the realm of politics in new ways, often literally building the nation through construction projects.  Music also highlights the limits of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Africanist inclusion.  In the Nkrumah governments limits on rock ‘n roll and calypso, we see the tension between the rhetoric and reality of Pan-Africanism.

All of these examples highlight the intellectual shallowness of “nationalism”, as it was articulated and practiced by early leaders.  Despite Nkrumah’s reputation as a thinker and scholar, the vision of nationalism he constructed was generally a form of popular nationalism with very weak roots.  Nkrumah, other government officials, and Ghanaian citizens all sought to answer some fundamental questions:  What does it mean to be Ghanaian?  How do you create a nation?  What is the relationship between the nation and the state?

At the center of Nkrumah’s answers to these questions was a tension between the project to create “we-ness” and the project of encouraging democracy.  The Ghanaian state was simultaneously ambitious and weak–a position that often led Nkrumah and his government to embrace authoritarianism to suppress dissent.  Nkrumah sought to cultivate “we-ness” through African personality, which called for a rediscovery of African values.  However, that narrative ignored a long history of Africans who had been acting on values that predated European arrival and protected identity as a form of resistance to colonial government without the support of a ruling elite.  In the context of more recent realities of global inequalities and persistent poverty, does it matter that people see themselves as Ghanaian?


The following week, Paul Schauert joined us to continue this conversation about the role of music in politics and the ways in which music illuminates “everyday” understandings of politics and the state.  In particular, Paul discussed his book, Staging Ghana: Artistry and Nationalism in State Dance Ensembles, which explores the way that members of Ghana’s most prominent state dance ensembles used their position in relation to national institutions to achieve personal ends of accumulation and socioeconomic advancement.  In some cases, they even sought to leave the nation or critique its leaders.  This form of what Paul calls “instrumental nationalism” certainly undermines the values of the national ensembles.  The Ghana Dance Ensemble was formed not only as a national symbol, but as an organ or institution of the project of “we-ness” – the construction of a Ghanaian national identity.  Nkrumah and the founders of the Dance Ensemble believed that, by placing the musics and dances of the country’s various ethnic groups side-by-side, they would model the process of nation-building and create a new sense of national culture that embraces a new kind of unity in diversity.  As members of the Dance Ensemble, drummers and dancers were assumed and expected to internalize these ideals.  While some did, it is also clear that these individuals used their positions instrumentally in ways that advanced their personal interests, in some cases against the interests of the state or the nationalist project.


Paul’s study highlights the importance of thinking about politics beyond state rhetoric and to look past print media to understand the ways in which national identity was constructed.  However, Paul’s study also encourages us to think about what happens after independence.  If nationalism was rooted in and unified under a shared commitment to anti-colonial resistance, what happens to the nationalist project once the colonial state is gone?  What does independence mean?  For the state?  For its citizens?

Paul’s visit was also an occasion to celebrate the release of Prof. Hart’s new book.  The cake was delicious!


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