Last week Liberia voted for its next president. While the rest of the world praises the current president and candidate, "Ma" Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, most of the Liberian youth feels completely left out. And based on my short stay in Monrovia over the summer, they have good reasons to feel that way. A quick glance at the reality facing Liberian artists is a good indication of the overall malaise among the youth.
Guided by my friend Chief Boima, who'd already been in Monrovia for a month, I met a lot of young artists, including some of the most famous in the country. Guys like Takun J, David Mell and K-Zee. Their music plays everywhere, people recognize them everywhere and they're even courted by political parties. Boima and I sat down at a meeting between some of Ma Ellen's political advisers and the aforementioned artists, who were essentially asked to sing praises for the party in exchange for a hefty financial compensation. This may seem like a good deal out of context, but keep in mind Liberia is a place where hundreds of thousands of people have perished for following the wrong leaders. So if these artists chose to endorse "Ma" Ellen, they would instantly become opponents of other candidates' supporters, and being an opponent in Liberia can get, well, messy.
David Mell, Takun J and K-Zee (pictured above in that order) did not choose to endorse "Ma" Ellen, so they left the meeting the same way they arrived: alone. Stars in their country, with no one around them to turn their stardom into something more tangible than handshakes and big-ups. I've been around Africa, but I've never come across a scene so disconnected from any kind of professional opportunity. Radio stations are not supportive and corporate sponsors are still scarce and stingy. There is absolutely no music distribution of any sorts, to the point where getting a hold of popular music is sometimes very difficult. Yet these artists go hard at it. They keep recording new songs and filming new videos. They perform at shows and even tour the country. They do all of this, usually, for little or no money. But they keep their hopes up, and perhaps more than anywhere I've been in Africa, they welcomed Boima and I's efforts to spread their music with wide open arms.
The compilation we pieced together means a lot to me. We chose to call it Lone Stars, not only a hint at Liberia's nickname—yes, Texas is not the only Lone Star State—but also suggesting the artists' complete isolation. Picking one song out of the bunch to feature here was not easy. But when Boima and I were going through the dozens and dozens of songs we amassed, one song completely stood out. It sounded like nothing we'd heard. The beat was relentless, the sound was clean and futuristic and the dancehall-style vocals were contagious. But what really got us hooked was the AutoTune breakdown. This song came from the minds of the Genesis Crew, out of Gbarnga, a fairly remote district capital, once the base of Charles Taylor's troops. It was made on a state of the art Mac tower running Logic Pro! Africa never ceases to surprise and amaze me. Give it up for champagne.
Download: Genesis Crew, "Champagne"