Ghana: Country profile

6 March 2006

A brief overview of the history of music censorship in Ghana

Music censorship in Ghana over the last hundred years has involved popular artists being censored by various hegemonic institutions that include colonial administrators and police, Christian mission houses, post-independence governments, modern bureaucracies and the Ghanaian national army.

By John Collins

A more continuous and cyclical generational form of hegemonic control over youthful popular (and neo-traditional music) has emanated over the years from both the traditional authorities and the older and more conventional layers of the general public at any particular moment of time. Such as the suppression of young highife musicians by some traditional rulers in the early 20th century, the traditional elders disdain for youthful simpa, konkoma and kpanlogo in the 1930s, 40s and 60s, the moral indignation of the older generation of urban Ghanaians over some of the highlife records of E. K. Nyame and King Bruce in the 1950s and 60s, right up to the current dislike of hiplife and its associated youth sub-culture by the parents of today

The sanctions used by these hegemonic agencies and conservative generational groupings have been varied.

Performances have been censored, such as the curbs put on ‘obstructive’ and ‘objectionable’ brass bands in 1900 Cape Coast by the colonial District Commissioners, followed by the ban on the ‘indecent’ and ‘obscene’ osibisaaba dance requested by missionaries. Then in the late 1940s came the questioning of concert party leaders by colonial authorities for their anti-British plays. After independence there was the police harassment and caning of kpanlogo groups linked to the anti-Nkrumah political opposition during the early sixties and the six-month government ban on northern simpa music during the 1969 Dagbon Chieftaincy dispute.

There have also actual arrests of artists over the years. These range from the jailing of guitar players by the colonial police during the 1920s, to the harassment of young kpanlogo drummers by the Ghana police of the late Nkrumah period and to the police detention of Nkrumah’s personal musical ‘jester’ Ajax Bukana after the anti-Nkrumah coup of 1966.

Forms of political censorship have been imposed on recorded music: such as the ‘subversive’ Independence Highlife commented on by Padmore in 1952 that so worried the British Colonial Office in Accra, or the ten thousand copies of E. T. Mensah’s Ghana Freedom Highlife destroyed on the order of Nkrumah in 1957.

Songs have also been banned on radio and television by the various post-independence governments that totally controlled the airwaves until the mid 1990s. These included political songs by both guitar band and dance band highlife musicians, as well as supposedly political highlife songs that the general public re-interpreted and gave a political meaning to. Likewise songs containing lyrics with a strong sexual innuendo or content, like today’s burgher highlife and hiplife have, in more recent years, been criticised in the newspapers and banned by state radio as well as by some of the new commercial FM radio that have appeared over the last ten years or so.

Another form of censorship that may appear in Ghana in the near future is a result of a new Copyright Bill that is going before the Ghanaian Parliament that, if passed, will oblige Ghanaian performers (and painters, writers, film-makers, designers, etc) who wish to commercially utilise their own indigenous folklore, to pay advance fees or taxes to the government – to be precise: the Ghana Copyright Administration and National Folklore Board – and also seek permission from it before proceeding with their creative enterprise. The hegemonic ‘repressive’ and ‘centripetal’ implications of this idea are too frightful to imagine – but that is a topic for another article or paper.

This text is an excerpt from ‘One Hundred Years of Censorhip in Ghanaian Popular Music Performance. In Popular Music Censorship in Africa’, Ashgate Publishing Company, UK and USA, (eds) Michael Drewett and Martin Cloonan, 2006, pp.171-186. It will be included in the new version of John Collins’ book ‘Highlife Time‘ (not yet published).

John Collins has been active in West African popular music since 1969 as a musician, bandleader, studio-owner, writer and social scientist. Between 2003-5 he was Head of the Music Department of the University of Ghana in Legon. He still teaches at the University and is also the Chair of the BAPMAF Highlife-music Institute in Accra and plays with a local highlife band called Local Dimension.





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