Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? – Tupac Shakur
Spending 2 months in Liberia isn’t something many American artists get excited about. The country is still recovering from two civil wars and a long bloody dictatorship under Charles Taylor’s now notorious regime. With 250 thousand lives lost and over a million people displaced to refugee camps in neighboring countries, its easy to imagine that there isn’t a thriving music economy in Liberia right now. One thing that it does have, however, is one of the most diverse populations in Africa and our friend Chief Boima knew going in that was bound to mean there would be some interesting cross-pollination in the music there.
Lone Stars is in essence, the rose grown from concrete. As Liberia struggles to rebuild itself as a nation, so too are its people reconstructing themselves, their culture and their music. Welcome to the world of Hipco – Liberian hip hop sung over Gbema beats in colloquial english. The album was compiled by Chief Boima, a well-respected DJ and correspondent on music from across the African diaspora and is available via bandcamp on Akwaaba Records.
Personally, I’ve had a personal struggle getting into African hip hop over the past 10 years. I’ve found that too often its tried too hard to imitate contemporary American music and rejected too much of its potential to draw on heritage. There have of course been exceptions like F’naire from Morroco but I can not emphasize enough how refreshing this record is musically. Beyond the accessibility of english being the primary language, the frenetic pace of the Gbema beats is what kept me locked in. Finally, an African hip hop record where MC’s are rapping to electronically-produced traditional music. Gbema covers a wide range of rhythms, most of them deliriously (and deliciously) frantic, reminiscent of Sierra Leonian Bubu or South African Shangaan.
Unlike the almost angry cadence of most kuduro MC’s what we hear on Lone Stars is a much less hurried but much wider array of flows and some real tipping the hat to the traditional song styles the Gbema beats are drawing from on tracks like Dumyarea. There’s still that call and response element of kuduro which I love on Big J’s – Kalaman, in which he’s speaking to a barely decipherable auto-tuned out woman about reconciliation. There’s also some serious dancehall-infected vybes from the Genesis Crew on their song Champagne.
David Mell’s synth-led pop hit Hero sounds like you could actually hear it on a movie soundtrack for some summer blockbuster and is probably the most accessible song on the album. David somehow manages to ride flawlessly over a complex but subdued percussive poly-rhythm. Listen to the percussion patterns in the low end there. It ain’t easy being a Liberian rapper!
Trying to put myself in the mindset of where this music is coming from I asked Chief Boima to share with me a little bit more about the album. He did us one better and shared this video from the “Youth Crime Watch of Liberia Anti-Gun Rally” in the Red Light Market.
According to the Chief, the guys who run the organization were close friends and great hosts to him and Benjamin from Akwaaba and assisted them in finding the initial contacts for a lot of the artists. The rally sounds like it was a lot of fun. Except for maybe that slightly awkward moment when Takun J performed his F.T.P. track making the organizers a little uncomfortable as they were trying to work in partnership with law enforcement officials to control the number of guns in the area.
This album isn’t some crazy concoction made by collaborating with outsiders. Chief Boima produces a great deal of music but has no production credits on the album. A large share of the album’s production was carried by Infectious Michael and Shadow who appears to also be on MC duty for the opening track. This is a genuine reflection of what’s bumping from cars in the streets of a new Liberia. The Liberia that can claim it elected the first female president in all of Africa. They needed a new soundtrack for this new Liberia and that’s what I’m hearing here.
This album may not have the universal appeal that some albums do. Gbema is too fast for the average music consumer to dance to. But if you’re on a hype ting and you appreciate fast music like soca, this is definitely something worth checking out. There’s no industry in Liberia to support this music so cheers to Akwaaba, yet again, for finding the diamonds in the rough. I would have imagined a much darker and more ominous sound coming out of Monrovia but what they have here is the expressed sound of a generation, trying to break free from years of wartime violence and keep it moving.