The 2013 Hipco festival
It’s two weeks until Christmas in Liberia, and the once war-ravaged city of Monrovia is feeling festive. The main drag that runs past the UN peacekeeping mission’s headquarters is swathed in red, white and blue lights, and pleas for roadside bribes from underpaid police officers and city workers have changed from, “Cold water for the officer?” to “What about my Christmas?”
A few miles from the exhaust fumes and holiday markets of downtown Monrovia, about 10,000 Liberians are standing shoulder-to-shoulder along a strip of beach known as “Bernard’s”, watching a raised stage that backs on to the Atlantic Ocean.
The last of the day's sun casts a soft glow over the knock-off Nikes, Calvin Klein T-shirts and Gucci shades that seem to be the obligatory uniform among the majority of the crowd. On stage, a young woman named Peaches struts from corner to corner, waving her hands above her head and rapping in a thick Liberian accent. A plywood sign behind her reads: “2013 LIB HIPCO Festival” in brightly painted letters.
“Hipco” is a style of music that emerged from the streets of Monrovia a few years ago. It’s uniquely Liberian, spoken in the local, mixed-English tongue (known as “Colloqua”) and rooted in the fears, joys and dark humour of the country’s young urban poor.
The genre draws some of its inspiration from rap and RnB, as well as other West African dance music scenes, but its local character is what defines it. The music can be a little rough – production values are low by modern standards and the sound is still evolving – but, at its best, it’s one of the most innovative genres in modern African music – upbeat without being corny, political without being self-referential and always good to dance to.
As the night goes on, a few more acts perform songs that I've heard blaring from tiny radios tied to motorcycle taxis in Monrovia. Security around the stage is tight, and a few times a drunk or adventurous audience member gets too close to the bodyguards and is tossed backwards or smacked with a baton. Finally, a tall, wiry guy wearing a black bandana and tank top takes to the stage. The announcer shouts out, “Y’all ready for Takun J?” and the crowd collectively lose their shit.
Takun J performing at the Hipco festival
Jonathan “Takun J” Koffa is as much of an icon as Liberia’s struggling music industry can produce. He’s a Monrovia “city boy” – born and raised in a place that, until not too long ago, was defined by its block-ruling warlords and trigger-happy Nigerian peacekeepers. The city’s youth see him as a success story who didn’t need an American masters degree or an election victory to make something of himself.
“Hipco is our own way of relating to each other easily,” he says while sipping a cup of sour red booze called Mandingo Bitters. “I’m trying to talk about my country, and I want people to understand what I’m saying, so that’s why I bring it into that vernacular.”
Sitting in a downtown courtyard he’s converted into a makeshift bar and performance area, he explains the value of keeping the music local. “Artists talk in an American accent, and people say, ‘What kinda thing that man talkin’?” he laughs. “All we gotta keep doing in Liberia is to keep doing what we’re doing and recognise our own culture. I think that’s gonna go faster than me trying to rap like Americans, be like Americans.”
Takun has a complicated relationship to identity and nationality. The USA looms over life in Liberia; the country was founded by freed slaves from the American South, under the supervision of a white-run NGO, and its flag is a pared-down version of the stars-and-stripes. While most Liberians are proud of their historical connection to the States, they’re also aware that they've long been neglected by their estranged founders, and resent the arrogance of the idea that American culture is somehow better than theirs. In fact, hipco itself is a departure from the belief that musical success can only be achieved by putting a Liberian twist onto an American sound, rather than the other way around.
Takun in Monrovia
Takun’s break came after his 2007 song “Police Man”, a scathing takedown of the corrupt local police force. Soon after its release, he wound up with a lesson in post-conflict free speech after officers showed up at one of his performances. “People were like, ‘Oh, who that pekin [local slang for a young boy] who spit that policeman song?’” he remembers. “I was in the dressing room when the lights in the building went out. After about 10 minutes the electricity came back on, and suddenly there were cops behind the bar. I started taking pictures and one of them slapped me. I fought them and they threw me in a truck, then brought me to the depot, where about seven cops beat me.”
After a crowd threatened to burn the station down, the local police commander ordered his men to release Takun, allowing him to return to the venue, still wearing his bloody T-shirt and sporting wounds on his face from the beating.
Takun released his debut album in 2012, and it’s pretty much dominated Liberian airwaves ever since. The album, titled My Way, is a ground-eye view of life in Monrovia, featuring high-BPM dance tracks, some Liberian reggae and more takedowns of government corruption and neglect.
By any account, being a musician in Liberia is difficult. While elites and foreign companies are doing well, the country overall is poor, and cash is scarce for entertainers. Wary promoters prefer to push genres that they know will draw a crowd, like Nigerian club music or Ghanaian Azonto. Financial backers have been slow to recognise the potential of hipco as a regional export, aggravating artists who expect more local support for the scene. “One thing that really pisses me off is when they prioritise artists from outside the country for shows,” says Takun. “If you bring an artist from another country to do a show and you devalue me, it’s like you don’t even have respect for your own culture.”
Still, despite the low financial reward and challenging environment, hipco is thriving as a community-sustained art scene. In the past few years, local hits have begun to compete with D’banj, Akon and the other larger, internationally-known artists who previously ruled the Liberian charts.
Takun performing in a Monrovia bar
In Liberia’s fractured society, hipco artists like Takun are spokespeople for a maligned generation. Liberia’s wartime criminal racketeers – the surprisingly still-popular Charles Taylor being the most visible of the bunch – relied on teenagers to fight and kill, and many of them still live in the city, searching for work, traumatised and alone. Takun has sympathy for them. “I don’t blame them,” he says. “They were enticed by people who got money. When you need money to sustain your family – your mum’s sick, your son nah even got food to eat – and someone comes to you with Gs, like, ‘Yo, hold this AK – go and bust ass, go and fight…’ It’s not their fault.”
The redemptive message of Takun’s music holds an appeal to this generation of Liberians, as well as those who are starting to come of age in the shadow of the country’s long internal conflict. For example, since the civil war brought with it an increase in sexual violence, rape and other forms of sexual abuse remain among the most frequently committed crimes in Liberia. That prompted Takun to write a fictional account – “Song for Hawa” – of a young girl being sexually abused. It’s not rare to see a young woman fall to her knees or silently cry when he performs it.
The country is trying to escape its past. And while some point to Nobel Prize-winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and a decade of silent guns as a sign that the country is moving back towards its pre-conflict stability, not all is as it should be. Corruption is entrenched, it’s nearly impossible for most people to find decent work and the immense wealth being acquired by the country’s elite has yet to trickle down to those who need it most. Artists like Takun are among the first to express the resiliency, humour and frustration of life for those living in this environment.
Takun J on stage at the Hipco festival
Back at the Hipco festival, the stars are out and the smell of weed is wafting from the broken concrete structure that’s serving as a VIP section. Takun stands under the lights and raises his arms. After a long pause, he slowly starts to recite lyrics to the album’s biggest hit, “My Way” – an appeal for dignity and power to be given to average Liberians. The audience cheers and whistles, loudly singing the words back towards the stage.
“My aim is not to keep hipco in Liberia, but to take it out,” he says after the performance. “I’m trying to affiliate in different dimensions to make sure that Liberian music is heard in every way.” And he might not be far off achieving his goal. As access to technology continues to expand across Africa, allowing more artists to utilise social media and online promotion, it looks as if genres like hipco could be on the verge of making the step up from regional to national – or even international – scenes.
Artists like Takun are currently occupying a strange, frustrating hinterland, nurturing a backyard movement while also dreaming of a hit that could cross the border and propel them and their music to new heights. But for now, it's doing a good job of inspiring its local fans; as the thousands of voices on Bernard's beach sing along to Takun’s final song, Liberia looks like a place for celebration and renewal, not poverty and war.