It’s 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday in Gbarnga, Bong County Liberia, and I awake to someone frantically calling my name. I jump up and scramble out of my room to see James, my Liberian bunk-mate sitting next to a radio with a huge smile on his face. A crunk Hip Hop beat rattles the speakers, and over it, a voice raps in a language I can’t decipher. In disbelief he turns and says, “Boima! This is Kpelle Rap… and it’s good!”
Crowd at the Youth Crime Watch Anti-Gun Rally in the Red Light Market in Paynesville, Monrovia.
In Liberia, music has tremendous social and political power. In a country with high rates of illiteracy, it is a central mode of communication, and the main component of countless communal activities. It has potential as a powerful tool in its ability to connect with the numerous disaffected and marginalized youth in the country. On the other hand, it has been used as a rallying tool for the campaigns of corrupt politicians and warring factions. Even now, as Liberians enjoy a relative peace and some form of elective government, the music industry is deeply involved in the politics of the nation. For the disgruntled youth of Liberia, Hipco, Hip-Hop in Liberian “Colloquial English”, has served as a voice for their dissatisfaction with the nation’s leaders and wealthy elite, and has arguably inaugurated the beginnings of a cultural revolution.
Hipco rapper Takun J.
Liberia was declared an independent “state” by a group of freed American slaves in 1847, who had begun settling in the region as early as 1820 with the support of the American Colonization Society, a group of white abolitionists, clergymen, and slave-owners. “Citizenship” in the new country depended on lineage and membership within the elite minority that created the state. Liberia’s colonizers lacked the military might possessed by those of other colonies with aboriginal populations like the U.S., South Africa, and Australia, and so the Americo-Liberians, and “Congos” (repatriated slaves from ships captured after the slave-trade was abolished), exerted control over the indigenous peoples through a system of indirect rule, and over time fused their own political and religious cultural norms with those of the indigenous groups. As Stephen Ellis demonstrates in his book The Mask of Anarchy, reverence for ancestors and elders, a central organizing principal of the indigenous Liberian social hierarchy, was incorporated into national politics, creating a patrimonial system with the president sitting at the top of a social-spiritual-political patronage pyramid. This model of rule persisted for over a century. With the implementation of recording technology, the Liberian music industry, like everything else, was financed and controlled by politicians. This sometimes resulted in pro-ruling party propaganda songs like the following:
Popular local music during the industry’s early years was mostly Highlife (which Liberians say originally came from the local Kru fisherman) and American-influenced R&B. While the capitol’s elite enjoyed Western-oriented sounds, some artists did push against the Congo-Americo hegemony by performing songs that were from, or celebrated the interior.
Takun J and his crowd.
In 1980, Samuel Doe led a group of young army officers into the Executive Mansion, and assassinated the Americo-Liberian president William Tolbert. Becoming the first president of full indigenous descent, he could have taken advantage of his position and initiated a democratic revolution. But Doe never managed to fulfill the revolutionary potential that such a rebellion carried, and instead, he placed himself at the top of the political pyramid. When Charles Taylor enacted a coup against Doe in 1989, it sparked a seven-year stretch of violent conflict later dubbed Liberia’s First Civil War.
In the heat of this nightmarish period, Liberia’s most popular recording artists fled into exile. Record production all but halted, but music was to still leave an indelible mark. Much of the front-line fighting was carried out by young people who had been drafted into battalions like Charles Taylor’s “Small Boys Unit.” Taylor himself became widely known by the nickname “Pape.”
Young soldiers often “learned” how to fight from American pop-culture icons, like Rambo. Hip-Hop legends, The Notrious B.I.G. and Tupac who were embroiled in their own “civil-war” of sorts, served as patron saints of the battlefield in both Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone.
It wasn’t until 1997, when Charles Taylor was voted into office, that a lull in the fighting allowed for cultural growth and reconstruction to resume. With personal computer recording technology on the rise, artists from different regions across the country began recording local folk and gospel songs using software and synthesizers in home studios, initiating a new indigenous-oriented sound called Gbema.
Young people who had weathered the war years, yet retained an ear for music, also took advantage of the new digital home studios and started recording rap songs in Liberian Colloquial English, birthing Hipco.
Easy S and L 2 Sweet on the mic performing at Red Light.
After a few years of Charles Taylor’s rule, the fighting resumed when LURD, a group of loosley affiliated warlords associated with the Mandingo community, invaded from Guinea. In the midst of the fighting, Taylor was indicted by the Special Court of Sierra Leone for war crimes, and in 2003 he was exiled. A ceasefire was declared, but the remaining warlords fought amongst themselves to steal as much money and influence they could in the transitional period. It was during this period, interestingly enough, that Hipco was able to find its own political potential, speaking against the injustices of the transitional government.
Soon after the departure of Charles Taylor, Liberians in exile started returning home in droves, and a whole new wave of artists would come to make their mark on the Hipco scene. Cypha D’King and DJ Blue from the U.S., David Mel from Nigeria, and a significant number of artists and producers arriving from Ghana. When I started to ask some of Liberia’s biggest artists like KZee, Infectious Michael, and Master Black about Liberian artists I had met at the Budumbura refugee camp in Accra, not only did they know them, but many had started out recording together there. Through these connections U.S. Hip Hop, Naija Pop, and Ghanian Hiplife (and the trends that are happening there ) have all been picked up, and brought back home to Liberia.
Today things are improving in in the country, but there is still a long way to go to have a truly representative government of the people. Africa’s first democratically elected woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has become a darling of the international community (the best way to win an election), and the Liberian government does everything they can to pander to a pro-West agenda. One can still sense a significant disconnect between the government, aspiring politicians, and the average citizen. Many youth in Monrovia are disillusioned by their current situation, reflecting the sentiments of young people in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and Senegal:
So Fresh – They Coming Again
The legacy of the war and its politics are still a strong consideration for local producers. In a studio session in Monrovia I was sharing some of my own productions with the engineers, and they asked me for any sample sets or loops I could give them. One of the sets they wanted was a Dancehall Sound Effects pack that was circulating around the Internet. An engineer started cueing up samples and when he reached the folder filled with bomb drops, sirens, and gunshots, a debate ensued on whether or not to include the sounds in a track. One side was going for a global sonic aesthetic while the other side was against using the explosions, pointing out, “we are a post-conflict society”. As we sat and auditioned samples, engineers and musicians in the studio were having fun guessing which kind of weapon made which noise. Their intimacy with the sounds was a little unsettling.
If there is a style of music in Liberia that could really voice this political discontent, it’s Hipco. Even when rappers are not expressing overtly political messages, the music remains politically relevant and powerful in its ability to reach out and connect with ex-combatants and Liberian youth in general.
What’s more, the independent music scene is probably the only universally accessible institution in the country. Today you can find artists challenging entrenched notions of Liberian identity by performing in various local languages such as Krahn, Bassa, and Kpelle (as mentioned above), and artists have also started sampling “indigenous” sounds like Gbema. It’s these kinds of cultural fusions that excite me the most, they’re something I’ve been chasing for years.
Despite Hipco’s activist potential, it has not yet been able to exploit its positive social influence to the fullest. While it is helping to define a new national identity for an entire generation of young Liberians, the economics of the industry are still entrenched in the same old patronage systems. While home studios have allowed artists to record independently, CDs and tapes still dominate the market, as opposed to Ghana, where the MP3 is the most common currency, and one company holds a monopoly on the manufacture and distribution of CDs and tapes. A political system that has traditionally kept many Liberians from forming local businesses combined with the growing problem of local piracy has made independent music a risky enterprise. Cellcom, one of the only local corporations, does sponsor events, but they seem to be the only ones doing so. Other locally operating corporations like Firestone, Chevron, and various mining companies are foreign entities, who don’t tend to have much interest in connecting with local youth. As a result, the only way for many artists to make a living is through sponsorship by politicians or foreign businesses.
Since it was an election period while I was there, I saw many artists scramble to politicians to do tribute songs in hopes that theirs would be picked for use in the campaign. Politicians also chase down the most popular artists to “persuade” (read: bribe) them to support their camp.
Jakanese performing with Chief Boima as DJ.
However, even with all this recognition, local music is still not getting the financial and promotional support it needs to comfortably sustain itself. When foreign artists come to town they’re payed tens of thousands of dollars by local sponsoring companies, while the invited Liberian artists, who often steal the show, may get only paid fifty. Ghanian, Nigerian, and American music dominates the airwaves, and sets the aesthetic barometer for local artists, and while there are some DJs and radio stations that do promote local music, many DJs just won’t play Liberian music unless they’re paid. It is still evident that the upper classes don’t fully appreciate local music.
As a clear example, one Sunday afternoon in Monrovia I was invited to a prominent politician’s house for lunch by his son, a rapper. After we ate, and the son and his friends performed for the guests, we all sat through a lecture by the politician’s wife on how being a musician wasn’t a serious job.
The above song is the Kpelle rap song that I talked about in the introduction of this piece. What’s significant about my friend’s reaction is that it really represents the Liberian attitude towards their own country. The current industry is one of those institutions that shows real potential to deliver on the democratic promises made by politicians. But, while democratic waves such as the Hipco movement are starting to stir, the general population can’t believe its happening.
In order to to ensure that those waves manifest in Liberia and similar countries, they’ll need more solidarity and support from like minded young people in other countries around the world. Whether or not Hipco will truly spark a youth led revolution in Liberia remains to be seen. Whatever happens, the music will stay strong just talking about daily life in the L-I-B:
Photos by Nora Rahimian