A Composer for Every Country: Liberia

Liberia, like Sierra Leone, is a country of two populations - the native indigenous tribes, and people descended from freed slaves who came to the area during the 19th century. In this case, the freedmen were settlers from the American Colonization Society. Founded by Robert Finley, the basic idea was to encourage free African-Americans to go to Africa. If your reaction is "That sounds dumb and is probably racist," well... That was kind of the reaction of just about everybody else at the time. Opposed by both African Americans, who had lived in the US for generations and didn't want to leave, and abolitionists, who quickly learned that the Society's motives had more to do with preempting slave riots than finding a workable solution to the end of slavery. In the words of Gerrit Smith, "This Colonization Society had, by an invisible process, half conscious, half unconscious, been transformed into a serviceable organ and member of the Slave Power."

 
Still, some 15,000 freed African Americans and 3,100 Afro-Caribbeans were settled in what would become Liberia. They created a flag resembling the US flag and drafted a constitution modeled on the US Constitution. Joseph Jenkins Roberts was elected the first President. Missionaries began to go forth and spread the gospel. Things were looking ok, but you might be wondering, "Sure, this sounds fine for the settlers, but how did the locals take all of this?" The answer can be summarized thus: poorly. It turns out, the settlers brought more than their government's structure with them, they also brought US attitudes towards Native tribes with them. The Kru and Grebo peoples, in particular, reacted rather violently as the new Liberian government dispossessed natives of their land and excluded them from birthright citizenship. Indigenous tribes would not be granted citizenship until 1904.
 
Who were the Kru? As a tribe, they are indigenous to the eastern Liberia area, but they had also migrated and settled to various areas up and down the West African coast. More than anything, they were known for their sailing and nautical abilities. This made them valuable to European colonizers and slave traders, who often hired Kru onto their ships to act as navigators and sailors. The Kru, for their part, leveraged their expertise to stay free, and even developing facial tattoos to mark themselves as Kru to prevent capture by slavers. Since the early 1900's, the Kru have been one of three large indigenous groups of political sway, the other two being the Krahn and the Mano peoples.
 
More recently, Liberia has suffered two civil wars, the first lasting from 1989 to 1997, the second from 1999 to 2003. The inter-war years saw Liberia become a pariah state under the leadership of Charles Taylor who helped fund the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone's own civil war. I haven't gone too far into reading about this time period, but a lot of the strife leading up to 1989 had to do with the Cold War and reactions to corruption brought by US financial backing of the People's Redemption Council in 1980, along with inter-tribal conflict between the Kru ad Krahn. Coming on up to today, Liberia is again fully democratic in its election process, and has most recently elected former football striker George Weah in 2017.
 
--- --- ---
 
Music in Liberia is influenced greatly by gbema, which is local traditional music, and various strands of Western religious and popular music. One particularly popular genre is highlife, originating in Ghana and traveling along the West Coast in the 1950's. My reading suggests that while highlife is still played regularly, it's on the old-fashioned side of things. The younger generations have been more into a Liberian brand of hip-hop called hipco, or just co for short. Developing through the two civil wars and becoming increasingly popular since 2000 or so, hipco is full of social and political commentary, with lyrics directed at corruption and economic inequalities. While the lyrics are mostly delivered in English, rappers fold a local dialect called Kolokwa (hence "co") into the flow.
 
Our composer of the day is hipco artist Takun J (b.1981). Born in Monrovia, he lived with his mother and three sisters through both civil wars and started singing professionally when he was 17, releasing the single "We'll Spay You" in 2005. After relocating to refugee camps in Ghana and the Ivory Coast for a time, he returned to Liberia and released his first album The Time which spoke against corruption in the Liberian National Police. He was promptly arrested and beaten, but he soldiered on. The track I will share, "They Lie to Us," draws on his biggest musical influences, Bob Marley in particular. It's message and intent is crystal clear, and speaks for itself.