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Trinity Financial Fellowship in Urban Studies

The Trinity Financial Fellowship supports the academic research of outstanding Urban Studies undergraduate majors at Fordham University as they complete their senior internship and thesis.

FURJParticipants in the Trinity Financial Fellowship produce senior theses related to social and economic concerns, community and cultural initiatives, the built environment and environmental justice. The project culminates with student presentations at the Spring Undergraduate Research Symposium. The projects will be published in the Fordham Undergraduate Research Journal.

Eligible students must be entering their senior year.

Questions regarding the Fellowship should be directed to Professor Annika Hinze, Trinity Financial Fellowship Advisor by email at [email protected].

Current Fellow Insights

Trinity Fellow Catherine Kien

Catherine Kien

“Hi, my name is Cat! I'm a senior at FCRH studying Urban Studies and Sociology, and I was born and raised in the Bronx. I'm interested in community outreach and social work, and I'm currently a youth organizer with Mekong NYC, which serves Vietnamese and Cambodian community members in the Bronx.

Through my senior thesis, I aim to explore the “School-to-Prison-to-Deportation Pipeline,” and analyze data related to urban schools, police presence in urban communities, and the life outcomes of Southeast Asian refugees. My investigation would highlight the ways in which police violence–in addition to unsustainable welfare, mental health challenges, and limited social support–impacts refugees’ ability to settle into their urban communities. I would like to specifically highlight the experiences and conditions of individuals who live in urban sanctuary cities in order to observe how Southeast Asians are actually protected from this systemic violence and potentially deportation.”

Trinity Fellow Sarah Thompson

Sarah Thompson

“My thesis will explore the housing affordability crisis and the climate crisis, posing green building as a remedy to both cases. I plan to study housing solutions in the Bronx, a borough that faces disinvestment and speculation in its housing stock. By collecting data and conducting interviews to examine the efficacy of green building through a social housing model lens, I hypothesize both affordability and health for tenants will improve, while poor housing quality and displacement of residents that arise from disinvestment will be disrupted.”

Past Fellow Research

Lara Cochran

“My thesis will focus on the ways that spatial inequality manifests itself within education, how these patterns are exacerbated in metropolitan areas, and the long-lasting effects they can have, including perpetuating other systemic injustices. I plan to look specifically at schools and educational organizations within the Bronx community and New York City area to see how they are affected and what action is being taken to combat these injustices. I will evaluate the efficiency of these strategies through data and testimony, with the intention of promoting awareness about the policies and unequal distributions of power that influence education. Ultimately, I hope to advocate for the support of successful initiatives that are working to cultivate educational equity.”

Erin McNally

“I am writing my senior thesis on the criminal justice system and its rehabilitation processes in the context of the growing 1099 economy and fissured workplace. I will look at disenfranchised and marginalized groups of previously incarcerated individuals, including how they navigate this new economy, specifically in the frame of race, class and gender. I also hope to focus on the effects of government policies and institutions that target these individuals and families, including the welfare and housing systems. Through the data collection of reports and interviews, I hope to expose the systems of injustice and explore innovative rehabilitation methods that organizations and previously incarcerated individuals are using to circumvent these processes.”

Agata Naklicka

“I am exploring environmental issues affecting slum / low-income housing in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Through my analysis, I hope to highlight issues of climate injustice and the detrimental consequences that climate change will continue to have on developing cities that may have fewer resources for climate adaptation and mitigation. This research will also expand my own knowledge on housing issues globally, and both contrast with and complement my work and internship experience with housing in New York City.”

Featured Scholarship

Kate Sutter, “Effects of Diel Cycle on Observed Behavior and Abundance of the Southern Stingray, Dasyatis americana,” FURJ, vol. 4 (2014): 16–20.

Effects of Diel Cycle on Observed Behavior and Abundance of the Southern Stingray, Dasyatis americana

kate sutter

Kate Sutter is majoring in urban studies and environmental policy. An avid SCUBA diver, she spent Fall 2013 abroad in the Turks and Caicos working as a research assistant. Studies included coral bleaching acceleration, lemon shark ecology, lionfish invasion patterns, sea turtle growth rates and stingray behavior. She currently works at the American Museum of Natural History and hopes to continue in the field of marine biology and ecology. Having traveled to all seven continents, she aspires to dive them all, too.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Margot Wilsterman, Ben Chappell, Cornelia Osbourne and Amanda Cole for their help in the field. Thank you to Dr. Alex Tilley for guidance and organization throughout the entire project. This study was sponsored by the School for Field Studies.


The aim of this study is to begin to understand diel patterns of the Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) in an effort to identify and fill the large biological and ecological knowledge gap of the species. Encounter rates from timed swim surveys were used to analyze the effects of diel stage on abundance (rays sighted per hour) and behavior (foraging, resting, buried, swimming) at four sites around South Caicos, British West Indies. Differences were found in activity patterns between one-hour intervals, but the only variable that showed significant differences was observed disc width (larger) vs. hour (1400). Stingray activity patterns in these tropical reefs could be affected by prey availability, avoidance of humans, or thermoregulation. Limited research on elasmobranchs has been published and this study intends to provide more details on the ecological behavior of the southern stingray.

continue . . .


The southern stingray, Dasyatis americana, is becoming a popularly researched species in the scientific world due to its rapid population decline. This new curiosity has led to an influx in basic behavioral and ecological research. The southern stingray is classified as “Data Deficient” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), because so much more data still has to be collected and analyzed (Grubbs 2006).

Many studies describe the physical biology and ecology of Southern rays, but there are relatively few published behavioral studies. Understanding abiotic factors such as tides, temperatures, salinity, and depth is key to understanding the behavioral patterns and shifts expressed in diurnal (day), crepuscular (dusk and dawn), and nocturnal (night) movement of D. americana. Changes in behavior have been commonly attributed to tidal fluctuations (Huish & Benedict 1977; Teaf 1980), temperature, light (Wolfe & Tan Summerlin 1989), and salinity (Ortega et al. 2009), yet only two studies exist addressing specifically on diel-associated behavior (Cartamil et al. 2003; Tilley 2013). Diel shifts are largely defined by change of temperature, predation risk, tides, and prey habitation, which could effectively be the driving factors for behavioral variation. Evaluation of anthropogenic factors could also significantly influence diel patterns. However, more information is needed in order to understand diel-associated behavior on shallow water reefs. The focus of this study is the behavioral patterns of the Southern stingray in relation to diel periods. Other variables, such as encounter rate and observed disc width, will also be examined in association with diel period. This study contributes to the understanding of behavioral and biological patterns of rays in an effort to fill a knowledge gap and advance conservation management.


study site

This study, conducted under the supervision of the School for Field Studies, was undertaken at four separate sites off the coast of South Caicos (N21.5094°, W71.5178°W), in the Turks and Caicos Islands, British West Indies. Three of the four sites—Shark Alley (N21° 29.021’, W71° 32.053’; Figure 1. Label A), The Grotto (N21° 28.836’, W71° 31.743’; Figure 1. Label B), and Spanish Chain (N21° 29.015’, W71° 31.271’; Figure 1. Label C)—are located on the easternmost coast. The other site, Coast Guard (N21° 34.520’, W71° 29.667’; Figure 1. Label D), is situated on the northernmost tip of the island. These sites are known be a common place for multiple sightings of stingrays.

data collection

Observations of Dasyatis americana were collected at four sites. After 26.5 hours of timed surveys, a total of 169 observations were recorded between 2013 October 23 and 2013 November 26. The number of observed hours, individual sightings, and methodology differed between sites depending on tide strength, visibility, and depth (Table 1).

Each transect was sampled twice in a random pattern by two pairs, averaging an 80-minute transect. The surveyed area spanned anywhere between 100 m2 to 1300 m2. Quantitative observations of depth and time were recorded alongside categorical notes such as sex (determined by presence or lack of claspers), and behavior (buried, swimming, foraging, or resting). A photo was taken directly above the individual with a 40 cm T-Bar next to the ray to accurately record the disc width. Other subjective notes including associated species, scars, marks, or any other unique identifier were also noted.

data analysis

Encounter rate was calculated according to relative abundance and time in the field. All data distributions were checked for normality using the Shapiro-Wilk goodness of fit test. Wilcoxon non-parametric analysis was conductedto check for significance in mean disc width data. A multivariable comparison Wilcoxon test was used for each pair to find specific significant differences in the behavior-time distributions. All data analysis was carried out using JMP 10 statistical software (SAS Institute Inc.)


mean disc width (cm) versus time of day observed

A total of 169 rays were observed. Disc width sizes ranged from 30 cm to 185 cm but later proved not to be normally distributed. (Figure 2). It was determined that there was a high correlation between time of day and observed disc size (Figure 3). Rays encountered within an hour of 1400 hours were significantly larger than rays observed during all other times (z > -4.52, p < 0.0321). There also was a difference in size observations between 0900 hours and 1600 hours (p = 0.0195).

behavior and time of day

The most common behavior observed was swimming. When data was skewed to calculate relative sighting-behavior relationships, swimming was the most prominently observed behavior except at hours 1100 hours, 1400 hours, 1600 hours and 1700 hours. At 1100 hours, 45% of observed rays were buried and 18% were swimming. At 1400 hours, an equal number of rays were observed swimming and buried (37.5%). The sample size observed in the hours after 1600 hours is so small that they are classified as outliers.


Although D. americana is not locally endangered in the Turks and Caicos Islands, it is a target fishery species in other regions around the world. No previous stingray research has been conducted in the Turks and Caicos, so this study is the first of its kind.

The results of this study imply that more encounters occurred within an hour of 1400 hours compared to the other studied hours. A plausible explanation for this phenomenon could be behavioral thermoregulation. Their need for heat would cause a tendency for rays to reside in shallower waters during times when they need energy. The sun is directly overhead at noon, and the few hours following that peak in diurnal cycle would in theory be the time when surface and shallow water temperatures are highest, in a phenomenon called “daily temperature lag” (Barrans 2012) (figure 5).. The hottest hours are the hours following 1200 hours because the Turks and Caicos Islands follow daylight savings time, which means true noon is closer to 1300 hours. Because the study excluded 1200 hours and 1300 hours as an observed time, 1400 hours was the hottest hour that we conducted observational surveys, thus resulting in the highest sightings of rays at that time. Basic human observation tendencies could account for the sightings of larger rays. Observers could have overlooked smaller rays and only recorded the larger, more obvious rays.

Resource exploitation is another possible explanation for increased number of sightings at midday. Warmer waters attract more rays, which become more active due to the heat. Bigger rays exploit resources in warmer waters, preventing smaller rays from foraging in the popular localities. This theory is based on simple size-competition dynamics, which could explain larger observed rays during warmer hours of the day.

Basic study bias had an important effect on these results. Observers analyzed data collected from 17.5 hours of snorkeling in shallow waters compared to only 9 hours of diving in deeper waters. This results in notable data deficiency for the colder, deeper waters. If southern sting rays migrate to warmer waters during the day they probably migrate back to cooler waters at nighttime. A cause of this migration could be an increase in substrate rugosity for purposes of protection.

Diel cycles affect not only rays but also the behavior of their predators and prey. The southern stingray’s primary natural predators, coastal sharks, are predominantly nocturnal foragers (Cartamil et al. 2003). One study mentions “large rays to be distributed more in shallow areas at night and dawn, whereas small rays were in shallow waters during the daytime and dusk” (Tilley 2013). This distribution implies that there is a correlation between predation risk and diel period because of thermoregulation. The large rays dominate the safer localities at night while energy is low. Predation could then be a plausible driving factor of diel-associated movement.

Results also showed that swimming was the most commonly observed behavior. Although this correlation proved to be insignificant, the data is fascinating. Swimming was observed at a high rate possibly due to factors such as predation or avoidance of humans. During the surveys, divers and snorkelers created high disturbances, which in turn could have startled rays and caused them to swim away. Once swimming, rays are more easily detectable. This is significant because it addresses a possible bias in future studies.

In future studies, observations should be conducted for a longer period of time at longer durations. Result accuracy increases with larger sample sizes and longer study periods. Human disturbance may skew results, so increased precaution should be emphasized in fieldwork. Although southern stingrays are not at risk in the Turks and Caicos Islands, information and data gathered from the area can be used to further understand the species. Results showed that larger rays were observed more at 1400 hours than at any other studied hour. Southern sting rays were found to be swimming more than half of the times they were encountered. With detailed ecological knowledge like this, more influential research can be done in tracking reef health, population estimates, and other biological studies.

Stephen Erdman, “Reclaiming a Cultural Identity: Ghanaian Hip-Life and the Bronx,” FURJ, vol. 3 (2013): 48–54.

Reclaiming a Cultural Identity: Ghanaian Hip-Life and the Bronx

stephen erdman

Stephen Erdman, FCRH ’13, is originally from Allentown, PA. Stephen learned about the Bronx’s growing Ghanaian population through his coursework in Fordham’s urban studies program. During the Spring 2012 semester, he studied abroad in the Dominican Republic, where he further developed an interest in cultures of the African diaspora. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning after graduating from Fordham.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Dr. Mark Naison for developing my interest in this topic, guiding my research, and reviewing drafts of my paper. Additionally, I would like to acknowledge Mr. Felix Sarpong and Mr. Collins Owusu for providing an immense amount of background information, personal stories, and further sources of information that helped to shape this paper.


Since emerging from the South Bronx three decades ago, the American hip-hop movement has developed an international following. While contributing to cultural homogenization, the dissemination of American hip-hop has also spawned new genres abroad that showcase local musical styles. The creation of the hip-life movement in Ghana illustrates this phenomenon. This essay examines the exportation of American hip-hop to Africa and the ways that musicians integrated hip-hop with indigenous styles to create “hip-life.” Furthermore, the essay evaluates how trends in African immigration to the Bronx have allowed hip-life to establish itself in the United States. The author employs news articles and interviews with a Ghanaian-American music producer and DJ in the Bronx to help reveal the ways in which popular culture is transmuted between two different societies. This analysis demonstrates local music’s importance to Ghanaian and Ghanaian-American identities and suggests local cultures’ resiliency to the forces of globalization.

continue . . .

Since emerging from urban youth circles in the South Bronx three decades ago, the American hip-hop movement has developed into a commercial industry that enjoys international popularity. Consequently, as Jay-Z and Rihanna emanate from radios from Germany to Japan, the genre’s global dissemination contributes to cultural homogenization abroad. At the same time, American hip-hop has inspired the creation of new rap genres that showcase local musical influences. The hip-life movement in Ghana epitomizes this phenomenon. In the mid-1990s, Ghanaian musicians began rapping in indigenous languages and incorporating traditional instruments and rhythms into their music. After enduring an initial period of skepticism, hip-life has become the most popular music style in Ghana today. In recent years, increased African immigration to the Bronx—the birthplace of American hip-hop—has allowed hip-life to establish itself in the United States. This essay reviews the journey of a musical style from the South Bronx to West Africa and back, revealing the ways in which popular culture is transmuted between two different societies. To develop this narrative, the essay analyzes interviews with two Ghanaian-Americans living in the Bronx who have contributed to hip-life’s establishment in the United States. Their perspectives are components of the broader hip-life movement and demonstrate local music’s importance to the Ghanaian and Ghanaian-American identities, suggesting local cultures’ resiliency to the forces of globalization.

Hip-hop originated among young black and Latino musicians in the South Bronx during the mid-1970s and quickly evolved into a musical movement with an international appeal and marketability. Specifically, hip-hop has become ingrained in popular culture throughout Western Europe, East Asia, Latin America, and Africa.1 Young Ghanaians first listened to American hip-hop music as early as the late 1980s. Mamadou Diouf, Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, and Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo, expert in U.S. African American popular music, assert that hip-hop’s strong rhythms were well received in the country that cherishes its dancing tradition.

This receptive Ghanaian audience encountered hiphop primarily through televised media.2 While other forms of globalized media such as Internet videos, international performances, and increased immigration to and from the U.S. also helped to spread hip-hop to Ghana, the television provided the most direct route for the music’s exportation.3 During the 1990s, 84 percent of television programming in Ghana was American-produced. Much of this foreign material was aired through MetroTV, a network that syndicated shows such as In the House, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and, most significantly, Smash TV, “a youth entertainment program with the hottest USA and local music videos.”4 This access to media exposed youth to new American beats as hiphop could enter the homes of any Ghanaian with a television set.

Jeff Chang, critic of hip-hop music and culture, explains that as a consequence of the proliferation of hip-hop, commercial rap from the United States seized airtime from local musicians in Africa.5 Kirsten Zemke-White, professor of ethnomusicology and popular music at the University of Auckland, suggests that hip-hop’s international presence has contributed to “homogenization, Americanization, or even cultural erosion.”6 Shelley Jones, expert in English language and African development at the University of British Columbia, even goes so far as to argue that the global presence of American hip-hop and its English lyrics has helped to perpetuate neocolonial influences in Africa by subverting indigenous languages.7 Yet, as the genre has spread beyond the United States and reached young ears across the globe, local musicians have resisted these consequences by infusing their own cultural flavor into homegrown hip-hop movements. Tony Mitchell, cultural studies professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, explains that today, “Hip-hop and rap cannot be viewed simply as an expression of African American culture; it has become a vehicle for global youth affiliations and a tool for reworking local identity all over the world.”8 Tara Jabbaar-Gyambrah, professor of African American studies at Niagara University, deems this phenomenon the “indigenization” of hip-hop, where cultures across the globe have adorned the musical framework American hip-hop established with their own artistic tastes.9

Recent popular music trends in Ghana help illustrate how indigenization has produced a new hip-hop style in West Africa. Together with hip-hop, highlife music, a traditionally popular genre in Ghana, has shaped the Ghanaian popular music scene during the past two decades. Highlife developed in Ghana during the early twentieth century, growing out of a combination of indigenous music and foreign influences that European sailors had introduced to towns along the West African coast.10 Until the 1970s, highlife music monopolized Ghanaian dance floors, and today it remains one of the country’s most popular music forms.11 In the mid-1990s, American hiphop and Ghanaian highlife merged to produce a new hybrid musical form: hip-life. Much like the American hip-hop pioneers of the 1970s and 1980s, young Ghanaian musicians began experimenting with “rapping, electronic beats, and sampling,”12 drawing upon elements of both hip-hop and highlife. In 1994, Reggie Rockstone, a Ghanaian rapper who originally performed American-style hip-hop songs in English, made the breakthrough decision to rap in Twi (a language indigenous to Ghana) over hip-hop beats.13 Many artists followed Rockstone’s model, laying a foundation for what has become the most popular musical form in Ghana today.

Hip-life is varied in its use of hip-hop and highlife elements; Rockstone’s early hip-life music and many modern hip-life songs combine American hip-hop beats with rapping in native tongues, such as Twi, Fante, Ga, and Ewe Hausa. Hip-life can also result from the combination of indigenous African beats, such as those found in highlife, and rapping in English or Pidgin English.14 Jabbaar-Gyambrah’s experience at ‘The Next Stop,’ a Ghanaian club, helps illustrate the integration of American and African influences typical of hip-life music. She writes, “The nightclub music was sung in English and Twi with an echoing sound of drums beating in the background. Many people dressed casually in American styles or wore traditional Ghanaian clothing.” She further explains that hip-life music may include “a combination of local rhythms like the Adowa, instruments such as Kpanlogo drums, xylophones, flutes, thumb pianos, and samples of highlife favorites.”15 Thus, while the American hip-hop model is inextricable from hip-life, just as American influences are pervasive in Ghanaian culture, hip-life’s use of native languages, beats, and instruments is not insignificant. This syncretism worked against Americanization by functionally disrupting the replacement of Ghanaian highlife with a purely American hip-hop imported directly from music studios in the United States. The emergence of the hip-life movement has ensured that Ghana’s most popular music is produced in Ghana, by Ghanaians, and through a Ghanaian cultural lens.

Furthermore, hip-life’s success in Ghana largely is due to it deliberately distancing itself from American hip-hop. Although early hip-life music mimicked hip-hop’s rebellious tone, which resonated with Ghanaian youths but bred resentment among adults, hip-life artists soon departed from the abrasive themes that defined American hip-hop, such as drugs, misogyny, and violence. Rockstone sums up the rationale for this development: “Africans celebrate life and music. They don’t want to hear songs that make them sad and play the war gangster.”16 While this sweeping claim portrays the diverse peoples of Africa as one homogenous unit, it conveys the significance of negative responses to hip-hop that encouraged Rockstone to reshape the music according to Ghanaian standards. By producing music that was more light-hearted than American hip-hop, Rockstone helped distinguish hip-life as its own musical genre. Still, it was only after wellknown highlife musicians collaborated with hip-life artists during the mid-2000s that the general public viewed the new genre as unthreatening. Widely beloved highlife musicians provided a seal of approval that granted hip-life universal appeal in Ghana.17

Even before it fully established itself in Ghana, hiplife began to develop an audience in the United States. Specifically, steady immigration from Ghana to the Bronx provided a fan-base open to the importation of hip-life. According to the United States Census Bureau, there were twenty-five thousand African immigrants in the Bronx in 2000 and more than forty thousand in 2008.18 Jane Kani Edwards, director of African Immigration Research at Fordham University and author of Fordham’s Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP) argues that there may be well over one hundred thousand African immigrants and their children in the Bronx, many of whom did not participate in census reporting because of language barriers or fear of deportation (for those immigrants lacking proper documentation).19 This deems the Bronx “the site of the largest concentration of African immigrants in New York City and possibly in the entire West- ern Hemisphere.”20 Edwards explains that affordable housing in the borough—especially in comparison to increasingly gentrified neighborhoods in Harlem and Brooklyn—and African immigrants’ desire to live near each other has contributed to this phenomenon. Within the borough, certain neighborhoods possess particularly high concentrations of Africans, “such as Morrisania, Morris Heights, Highbridge, South Fordham, and Tremont, among others.”21

Of all African groups, Ghanaians have the strongest presence in the Bronx.22 As a result, Ghanaian culture has become an integral part of the Bronx’s social fabric. For instance, University Heights in the Bronx has been nicknamed “Little Accra.”23 Ghanaian groups have also organized annual National Ghana parades and Ghana Independence Day celebrations, and Ghanaians choose a representative of the Ashanti Queen and King in the Bronx. Additionally, among the many languages spoken in Ghana, Twi, Fanti, and Ga have made their way to the Bronx. There is also evidence that Ghanaian-Americans maintain firm ties with family and friends in Ghana. Most of the Africans that Edwards and other contributors to the BAAHP interviewd confirmed that they regularly send money to their relations across the Atlantic. Ghanaians also frequently expressed a desire to return to Ghana when they retire.24 These cultural connections between Ghana and the Bronx created an environment conducive to the introduction of hip-life music to New York City. Kojo Ampah, a Fordham University student from Ghana, explains, “Drive on Fordham Road and chances are you’ll hear hip-life playing from a car.”25 According to Edwards, Kontihene, “the most powerful hip-life artist in Ghana,” now resides in the Bronx.26

Still, while large Ghanaian populations in the Bronx made it possible for hip-life to enter the United States, the cultural exchange would not have occurred, at least to the extent it has, if it were not for the efforts of Felix Sarpong, a Bronx music producer who specializes in hip-life and other African popular music. During the fall of 2011, I contacted Sarpong and conducted several interviews with him over the phone and in his home in the north central Bronx. He was very enthusiastic about the interviews, perceiving my familiarity with hip-life, as a white, college student, as evidence of hip-life’s ability to enter the American mainstream. Since 2003, Sarpong, under the name ‘Phil Black,’ has managed hip-life artists’ careers in the United States. He has organized concerts in the Bronx, promoted local record sales, and encouraged media coverage to help establish the genre outside of Ghana.

The producer is a first-generation Ghanaian-American and believes his cultural roots have served him well; born and raised in the United States to Gha- naian parents, Sarpong characterizes himself as a “bridge-kid” with the ability to span cultural gaps in his personal life and career. However, Sarpong has not always viewed his cultural identity favorably. Growing up, he felt that that he was neither fully American nor fully Ghanaian because of his multicultural status. He recalls that his parents strived to preserve Ghanaian values and customs within their home to counteract the influences of American cultural norms they believed to be immoral and free-willed. Sarpong resisted his parents’ traditionalism, seeking to attenuate his ethnic identity to conform to what he perceived to be normal. In this mindset, Sarpong developed an interest in American hip-hop. As Sarpong matured, his love of hip-hop evolved into a passion for hip-life, a transition that, in part, enabled him to better embrace his identity. Today, Sarpong characterizes himself as “an American fully aware of [his] Ghanaian heritage.” He values both his American accent and understanding of Ghanaian society, a combination that has allowed him to network significantly in two countries.27

Sarpong recalls that when he first encountered hip-life music during his travels to Ghana in the late 1990s, he thought it was very “corny.” He believes that early hip-life music such as Rockstone’s tried and failed to emulate American hip-hop.28 Rockstone, perhaps surprisingly, agrees with Sarpong. In a 2003 BBC article he admits, “The music I make here, if I played to some of my peoples in New York or London they would think it was corny.”29 He asserts, however, that young people gravitated towards his music nonetheless, mirroring American urban youth enthusiasm for hip-hop in the 1980s. According to Sarpong, hip-life production and beats improved over time. He credits rapper Morris Baby Face for creating rhythms in 2001–2002 that propelled hip-life forward and have since inspired about ten beats that are used repeatedly in other hip-life songs. Additionally, Sarpong views Hammer of the Last Two and Zapp Mallet as the first composers of quality party and dance beats that greatly contributed to hip-life’s marketability in Ghana.30

Just as hip-life had encountered resistance from adults in Ghana, early hip-life imported to or produced in the Bronx elicited similar reactions from older African immigrants. Sarpong says that when hip-life emerged in the borough about seven years ago, Ghanaian-American adults thought the rapping promoted a negative agenda of violence and immorality. He explains that at the time, many American Ghanaians were involved in gang activity because they were looking to be accepted in any way they could within their new society. These experiences helped define hip-life as music of and for “the riff-raff.” “It was young people going through a stage in the 90s,” Sarpong says. In the same spirit as Rockstone, Sarpong cooperated with other hip-life leaders to encourage hip-life artists to produce more “socially responsible music” that is, to showcase themes that appealed to the conservative consciousness of many Ghanaian Americans. Largely as a result of his guidance, hip-life production shifted away from gang culture and instead emphasized themes of love and partying. This helped improve adult perception of the genre; today, both youths and adults in the Bronx listen to hip-life, Sarpong claims.

This success has encouraged the producer to try to further develop hip-life’s identity as socially responsible music.31 One of his most recent projects has been the establishment of ‘Youth Icons,’ a non-profit organization that seeks to empower young people in Ghana through music.32 The project encourages cultural celebrities to serve as positive role models for Ghana’s rising generations. Currently, Ghanaian hip-life sensation OBOUR serves as an “executive icon.” OBOUR is one of the most visible hip-life artists in Ghana and was elected president of the Musicians Union of Ghana in August of 2011.33 His involvement with Youth Icons has helped Sarpong maintain hip-life’s appeal among conservative and socially conscious Ghanaians in Africa and in the Bronx.

Hip-life’s success in the Bronx has required other calculated efforts as well. Sarpong believes that his networking abilities have been critical for nurturing hip-life’s presence in the United States. He maintains connections to music producers, DJs, artists, and financers in the Bronx and Africa, as well as politicians and government officials in Ghana—and he is sometimes surprised by how these relationships have supported his goals. For instance, in 2010, Sarpong was visiting Oze Tavern, an African bar and club at 3rd Avenue and 138th Street in the Bronx, when the owner introduced him to DJ Kool Herc, the hip-hop pioneer largely responsible for the genre’s earliest developments.34 Later that year, when DJ Kool Herc was performing at the City Parks Foundation’s Summer on Stage performance in Crotona Park, he announced in front of the audience of 2,500 that he wanted to send a shout-out to hip-life, a new genre of hip-hop. “‘Let’s support our brothers,’ he cheered,” recalls Sarpong. “It was the greatest endorsement I ever received,” he says. Similarly, Sarpong identifies a 2010 article in the New York Daily News documenting his efforts to bring hip-life to the Bronx and his relationship with Dr. Mark Naison, professor of African and African American History at Fordham University, as other key networking successes.35

While Sarpong has led hip-life’s importation to the United States, he has not stood alone in his advancement of the genre abroad. During one of my interviews with Sarpong, he introduced me to Collins Owusu, a Bronx hip-life DJ known as DJ 14K. Owusu has complemented Sarpong’s efforts through his own work in New York City’s music industry during the past decade. Much like Sarpong, Owusu was excited that I felt hip-life’s presence in the Bronx was worth studying. Owusu was born in Ghana and immigrated to America when he was six. Growing up in the United States, he found himself disconnected from his African roots as he tried to blend into the American mainstream. But when he fell in love with African music, this all changed. Today, hip-life and other African genres have reconnected Owusu with his heritage. He plays African music to predominantly African crowds throughout the Bronx and New York City.36

Owusu emphasizes his forays into multimedia as the key to his success. In addition to utilizing Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, Owusu recently established the website,, an Internet hub of African music intended to promote music from a variety of African countries. With a similarly international focus, Owusu is currently producing a showcase of African music that will air in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan via Bronxnet, a local nonprofit cable television station. Owusu believes that this televised music festival will “help the movement come out—at least until we get into mainstream TV.” In an effort to further diversify his publicizing strategies, Owusu recently partnered with African actor Koby Maxwell to produce a promotional video for the 2011 romantic mystery film starring Van Vicker titled Paparazzi: Eye in the Dark. Owusu used hip-life songs as the soundtrack for the video and the film itself will also incorporate hip-life music. Owusu believes that this project is an example of how, like hip-hop, hip-life is “a way of life.”37

Despite these successes, some critics doubt hip-life’s marketability. John Collins, a musician, journalist, and professor in Ghana, argues that hip-life fails to satisfy Ghanaians’ penchant for dancing. He writes,

Hip-life singers mime onstage to prerecorded backing tracks and their shows have practically done away with dancing audiences as well. The audience rather prefers to watch the onstage gyrations and antics of the macho rapper pop star and his dancers...If a person wants to enjoy a popular dance music session in Ghana today, it is better to attend a church service than to visit a commercial hip-life show.38

Owusu contests this characterization, emphasizing that the primary reason hip-life is so appealing is because of its dance beats. “The music is all about rhythm. In many ways, the words are not what matters” he argues. Owusu explains that in response to his audiences’ love for dancing to hip-life music, he compressed forty songs into a single track of about twenty-five minutes. This type of mixing gives his audience heightened dance experiences consisting of many different hip-life rhythms played in rapid succession. In his DJ mix, “Red Rooster,” he combines three of these tracks, explaining that his audiences will dance for hours to the blended rhythms. Owusu also points to Azonto, a new hip-life dance craze based on an African beat-type found in many highlife songs, as further evidence of hip-life’s dance-oriented identity.39 Although originating in Ghana, Azonto has become a global fad that has enjoyed widespread publicity through YouTube videos and celebrity endorsements.40 In the Bronx, Owusu claims that each night, “I have to play at least three Azonto songs now, otherwise DJs ask ‘what’s up?’”

To some, Owusu and Sarpong’s quest to validate hip-life’s appeal outside of Ghanaian and Ghanaian-American circles may suggest that the genre has done less to affirm the resiliency of local cultures and more to bolster the standards of mainstream American entertainment. Their insistence on breaking into the American music industry may indicate that they view local dissemination as a somehow deficient venue for the genre. Likewise, some of their perspectives, such as the value Sarpong places on his American accent and American cultural literacy, may substantiate the notion that deemphasizing ethnic heritage is necessary for acceptance within the ever-crucial mainstream.

Yet, Owusu and Sarpong’s understanding of hip-life’s place within the international music scene does not easily conform to this cynical perception of their cultural self-awareness. For example, Owusu is concerned that many African artists, such as Young Ice, belittle their roots as they navigate foreign music markets. In his opinion, this only hurts African music industries—especially those like hip-life—that are trying to establish themselves abroad.41 Both men agree that the next hurdle for hip-life and other African music to overcome is the lack of recognition among African artists of their heritage. Sarpong thinks progress is already being made. For example, D-Black, the first hip-life artist to be nominated for BET’s Best International Rapper Award, celebrates his African heritage as part of his image.42 Owusu and Sarpong believe that the industry needs more artists like D-Black to give African music the exposure and credit it both deserves and needs to thrive. Sarpong states that “paying homage to Africa” is at the forefront of his agenda as he extends his networks and increases the number of artists he manages in the United States. While Owusu’s and Sarpong’s commitment to ‘all of Africa’ may unjustly mythologize the continent, it also suggests that not only are they unwilling to sacrifice acknowledging hip-life’s African heritage as they promote the genre, but they view its cultural roots as something that must be capitalized upon to further the music’s success. In this way, Owusu and Sarpong’s perspectives support hip-life’s cultural autonomy and ability to succeed within the mainstream without conforming to other cultural ideals.

On a more personal level, Owusu and Sarpong’s desire for their musical peers to embrace their identities through hip-life is evidence of the intimate influence the music has exerted upon their self-awareness as Ghanaian-Americans. Both individuals recall feeling disconnected from their families’ heritages as youths, and they both claim that hip-life helped them overcome their own self-imposed suppression of their African identities. Rockstone professes similar sentiments. In his reflection on leaving the American-style rap tradition to explore the musical potential of Ghana’s native languages, he states, “We weren’t being ourselves back then. But now it feels like we’re all coming back home.”43

Thus, while the worldwide dissemination of American hip-hop may be critiqued as a homogenization of non-American local cultures, indigenization movements such as hip-life illustrate the ability of said cultures to reclaim their identities. The movement’s emergence in the Bronx perhaps even demonstrates the potential for Ghana to invert the process of Americanization by exerting its own cultural influence upon the United States. Hip-life’s introduction of indigenous lyrics, conservative content, and African beats to the Bronx may signal a gradual infusion of Ghanaian styles and values into mainstream American culture. While it is unknown how much hip-life will actually bear upon the culture of the United States, especially given the immense difficulty foreign-language artists face in finding favor among English-speaking audiences, Sarpong and Owusu are optimistic. Owusu asserts that hip-life is among the most marketable music genres today. “We can compete with rap, we can compete with R&B, and we can compete with hip-hop—because we have the material,” he claims. Considering the growing trend of African immigration to the United States, the wide appeal of hip-life across various age groups within Ghanaian culture, and the burgeoning international Azonto craze, Owusu’s optimism may be warranted. Like hip-hop, hip-life may soon emerge from its humble beginnings to leave an indelible mark on cultures beyond its own.