Teaching “Ghanaian Popular Culture”–A Modest Proposal

Joseph Frimpong

Joseph Frimpong

By Joseph Oduro-Frimpong  (Ashesi University, Department of Arts and Sciences)

When I was asked to write a short piece for this forum, my initial intention, of course, was to use the opportunity to flesh out and test some preliminary ideas related to my current research on Ghanaian popular media. Instead, I have decided to propose to fellow members, the need for us to begin to consider teaching Ghanaian Popular Culture (GPC) on our different campuses. Perhaps some will argue they are not experts in this area and given the multiplicity of disciplines under African Studies, I agree with this position. However, I insist that given our varying research experiences in Ghana, acquired during our doctoral training, in the very least, equip us for this task.

For example, in any of our varying fieldwork stints, most of us have definitely observed, photographed and commented on those interesting trotro inscriptions, Pentecostal-Charismatic religious signs, the incredible roadside hand-paintings and/or recent clothing fashion trends. Furthermore, GPC can be taught as part of regular courses under African History or African Literature courses. Frimpong Image One

This plea to begin teaching a GPC class stems from the lingering negative attitude among our students, fellow colleagues and non-academics. In this century, one still encounters negative stereotypes about the popular arts as either unworthy of scholarly attention, and/or as incapable of offering any valuable insights into the society we study. Perhaps in the past, we did not have a cogent body of research on the topic to help teach such a course and consequently dispel such myths. Fortunately, we now have  ‘a critical mass’ – to borrow a clichéd phrase – of high quality scholarly research for a semester’s (if not a year’s) course on GPC.

So what are some of the exciting topics in a GPC course? One area is “Popular Market Fiction” – to use Esther de Bruijn’s apt term. This genre of popular literature (characterized by its vivid thematic cover images) has been outside the radar of Ghanaian/African Literature.  As of writing, I am not aware of any published work on this genre (although one eagerly awaits de Bruijn’s forthcoming volume). In spite of the absence of scholarly work in this area, this genre provides intriguing raw materials for varied rich discussions on important contemporary Ghanaian issues.

Another theme to explore is political cartoons. In recent Frimpong image fivetimes, in addition to Akosua, there have emerged highly talented cartoonists such as Anadan, The Black Narrator,and Daavi whose works incisively comment on Ghanaian social and political issues. In view of the dearth of academic work on Ghanaian cartoons in general, I can only recommend a book chapter on Akosua in the edited volume Popular Culture in Africa: Episteme of the Everyday (2014).  ‘Ghanaian Popular Video Movies’ is another theme that one might want explore. The video movies have received considerable attention including the numerous articles by Birgit Meyer (and her forthcoming book on the topic), Carmella Garritano’s (2013) book and a 2014 article, “Sakawa Rituals and Cyberfraud in Ghanaian Video Movies,” in African Studies Review.

Frimpong Image Three‘Popular Ghanaian Music’ (with a focus on Hiplife) is another important arena. Some of the major works one can use include Jesse Weaver Shipley’s articles and his recent book (2013), Halifu Osumare’s (2013) volume as well as articles on the topic by Harry Odamtten, Glorya Cho, and Joseph Oduro-Frimpong.

The above-mentioned areas in a GPC course (and the suggested readings) are obviously not exhaustive. They illustrate the tip of the GPC area, which in my view is vast and expanding. My plea to members to consider teaching this course (as we see at Ashesi University College) will help to firmly situate GPC as a legitimate sub-discipline in African Studies. As well, a GPC class will begin to create the awareness that these genres equally provide credible insights into the complex dynamics of contemporary Ghanaian life. Hopefully, such attitude will help to nurture a certain hesitancy in naively tagging Ghanaian popular cultural practices as ‘inauthentic’, ‘valueless’ and/or ‘mere entertainment’.