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Jess Engebretson: Hipco—the Living Art of Liberia

January 4, 2013

Amid violence and devastation, a transgressive music thrives.

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Image from Flickr via United Nations Photo

By Jess Engebretson

Even on Christmas, Liberia’s National Museum is gloomy. Small windows throw squares of light across the floor, and the air is thick and still. Outside, tinsel dots the sides of buildings and the streets are uncharacteristically clean, but the museum itself makes no concession to the holiday. Lines of black mildew streak its plaster façade, and the porch out front is bare. Inside, your eyes take a moment to adjust to the dimness. Wooden carvings lie scattered across a series of tables; angular masks stare down from the walls. The names of recent visitors are written neatly in a log book. There aren’t many.

Before its fourteen-year civil war, which ended in 2003, Liberia was actually something of tourist destination—white sand beaches hugging the Atlantic, lush rainforest inland, a couple five-star hotels. Back then, the country had big dreams for its art museum; a 1982 UNESCO report recommended the installation of “air conditioning and hydro-temperature control,” as well as a photo-laboratory, a cafeteria, and a staff of thirty-five. There were outlines for educational trainings, plans to recover artifacts that had been lent to the US.

Like so many of Liberia’s projects, the UNESCO plan was a casualty of war. Some of the museum’s art was sold to fleeing expats when fighting began in 1989. Much of the remainder was looted or destroyed in the 1990s. During the 2003 siege of Monrovia, a grenade blast knocked out an entire wall. Today, the wall has been repaired, but further museum renovations are not high on anyone’s agenda. Liberia’s government is focused on restoring electricity and pipe-borne water to the capital, reintegrating ex-combatants, and creating jobs. The country has made striking progress over the past few years, but it’s still one of the poorest countries in the world—ranked 182 out of 187 on the UN’s Human Development Index. Fixing up the National Museum will have to wait a few years.

Like other former warlords who continue to wield power, Johnson gets mixed reviews from Liberians—some see him as a protector; others, as a criminal.

So when I first visited the museum at the end of 2010, the place felt like an eccentric uncle’s attic. Artifacts were arranged haphazardly, unidentified or labeled with handwritten cards. A few mammoth drums loomed well above my head. Light filtered in through dusty windows; there appeared to be no electricity. One of the museum’s employees perched casually on a dark wooden table that had belonged to Liberia’s first president, pointing out Kpelle masks.

The most striking object in the museum, though, wasn’t a piece of art. It was a boot: a generic man’s boot, rather small, well worn. The boot was preserved in a glass case in the middle of the museum’s bare, sunlit second floor. It had belonged to Prince Johnson, a warlord who controlled part of Monrovia back in 1990. On September 9th of that year, Johnson’s rebels cornered then-president Samuel Doe and carted him back to Johnson’s base on the outskirts of the city. You can still buy street videos of what happened next: Johnson coolly sips a Budweiser as his men slice off Doe’s ears. Doe died of blood loss later that night; Johnson wound up a senator in Liberia’s legislature. Like other former warlords who continue to wield power, Johnson gets mixed reviews from Liberians—some see him as a protector; others, as a criminal. He ran for president last year and got 12% of the vote, good enough for third place. Today, he lives in a sprawling compound just outside Monrovia, where he tends to a pet eagle and gives the odd interview to nervous foreign journalists.

* * *

My Christmas visit to the National Museum came at a difficult time, for me and for Liberia. Neighboring Ivory Coast’s 2010 post-election crisis was slowly morphing into civil war, and some ten thousand refugees had already crossed the border into Nimba County. Aid agencies had been setting up refugee transit centers for weeks; Liberia’s peacekeeping force, UNMIL, was redeploying troops to beef up security. I was planning a reporting trip to one of the border villages hit hardest by the wave of refugees, and periodically wondering if I had bitten off more than I could comfortably chew.

More prosaically, I was tired. Tired of bush taxis that broke down for seven hours at a time, of living behind walls topped with broken glass and barbed wire, of air so humid that the clothes I hung out to dry grew a fine white fuzz of mold. I was tired of working in a university department where literally half of the professors had ties to former rebel groups, where I was asked to develop a human rights curriculum in concert with a man whom the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had recommended for prosecution for “gross human rights violations.” I found myself thinking of Prince Johnson’s boot preserved in that glass case, wondering how to cope with a country in which art had been displaced—literally—by the symbols of war.

I wondered if the museum would ever attract visitors who were interested in its collections, rather than its decline.

Walking home that afternoon past impromptu Christmas parties in the street, I wondered if the museum would ever be fully rebuilt. I wondered if artifacts sold or looted at the height of the war could be recovered from whatever private collections they’d ended up gracing. I wondered when a curator might sort through the piles of photographs heaped in a corner of the second-floor gallery, separating snapshots of a triage hospital from 19th-century daguerreotypes. I wondered if the museum would ever attract visitors who were interested in its collections, rather than its decline.

More broadly, I wondered if the place of art in Liberia had been permanently shifted by the war. Most Liberians had spent the past decade-plus watching the country’s disintegration. Many had participated in the violence, including some 15,000 child soldiers. Many young people could not remember a time before the war. When everything around you is broken, how do you learn to build something new? I met many Liberians during the time I lived there, but none called themselves painters or potters or writers or sculptors. It seemed possible that people’s very capacity to create had been dulled by the relentless experience of violence—that in the aftermath of such destruction, imagining anything beautiful had begun to feel impossible.

* * *

Months later, after I’d moved back to the US, I finally noticed something that seemed obvious in retrospect: I’d never considered music as part of Liberia’s art scene. Its very ubiquity made it easy to miss; I worked at a radio station and music was simply the backdrop to my day, a half-heard murmur as I wrote the newscast. It blasted from taxis’ open windows as I walked home, from church revival services on Wednesday nights, from video clubs where knots of men followed the latest Man U game. When I left Liberia, the world suddenly seemed too quiet. My colleagues at the station had sent me off with a flash drive full of songs, and as I whiled away mornings on my parents’ porch in Virginia, I listened to those songs over and over again. Most were American or Nigerian; Liberia’s recent history hasn’t been kind to the music production business. But there were enough Liberian songs to make me think that whatever story we tell about art in Liberia has to include music—and that with music in the picture, the tone of that story changes completely.

At the heart of Liberia’s music scene today is hipco, the country’s take on American hip-hop. Hipco combines traditional rap rhythms with samples of street noise and synthy background loops. Artists record themselves in homemade studios, and producers mix tracks on fifteen-year-old software. The music they create is, from a technical standpoint, lousy—the vocals made muddy by cheap microphones, the volume swinging erratically from one phrase to the next. Yet Liberians recognize this music as theirs. Hipco is peppered with references to current events and shout-outs to specific places—Broad Street, Blue Lake, Saniquellie. Crucially, it’s rooted in Liberian English—a slangy patois that can be incomprehensible to visitors but that’s shared by Liberia’s sixteen tribes. To understand this music, you don’t need to speak standard English. You don’t need to be literate to listen. Hipco is street music, the soundtrack to the daily hustle. It’s as egalitarian as art gets.

Hipco is also political, skewering corrupt police and out-of-touch politicians. Consider one of the anthems of 2011, ‘They’re Coming Again’ by the duo Soul Fresh. The song begins with a jumble of voices—a snapshot of a busy market, maybe, or of a discussion in one of the city’s hatai debating societies. But after a moment, the lead singer’s ominous croon kicks in: they’re coming again, he warns. They’re coming again. “They,” you realize, are the politicians gearing up for election season, coming with the Koran and the Bible, come here, lie / say God sent them to rule over us.

This time, no guns, no ammunition / they hear about The Hague so they’re / taking precautions. This is not the music of reconciliation, but of assertion.

The song is a scathing indictment of the political elite, and it’s not coy—it samples an extended clip from the current president’s campaign speech. The lyrics articulate a common complaint in Liberia: that the people in power now are the same people who led the country into war two decades ago. In Soul Fresh’s rendition, returning exiles are coming with money, coming with car/ coming back to the land that they destroyed before. The song depicts a cycle of deceit and corruption where—to invert the old saying—politics is war by other means. This time, no guns, no ammunition / they hear about The Hague so they’re / taking precautions. This is not the music of reconciliation, but of assertion: we deserve better, we demand better. In a society where former warlords enjoy ambassadorships and cushy ministry jobs, hipco says out loud what everybody’s thinking.

This assertiveness comes with risks. Police arrested and beat one of the genre’s stars, Takun J, over a 2007 hit that criticized police corruption. Hipco’s independence is also threatened in more subtle ways: few artists are financially independent, and Liberia’s patronage system reaches into every corner of society. And yet, somehow, the genre is growing. Five years ago, Liberia’s radio stations played almost exclusively American and Nigerian hits. Today, foreign artists still dominate—but Liberians suffering through epic traffic jams can at least occasionally tap their fingers to the rhythm of local voices. As for Takun J, he went back to performing the day he was released from custody—sporting a black eye and bloody shirt at that evening’s concert. Today, he’s as much a star as ever.

It’s that fierce vitality that makes hipco so compelling. These rappers and producers are creating something, thumbing their noses at the ruined bridges and rusted factories that litter Liberia’s countryside. Their music gives me something to weigh against my memories of the looted museum—a reminder that art can survive in the most improbable circumstances. Hipco hit its stride in the late 1990s, just as it became clear that the 1997 “peace” was no peace at all. It grew up at a time when rival warlords were tearing the country apart and it continues to grow now, in spite of poverty and occasional violence. That resilience points to a striking paradox: that even as Liberia’s troubles have ravaged the country’s artistic community, the conflict has also reinforced art’s value. The emotional and moral devastation of mass violence has invited Liberians to reimagine their world, to craft a more just society from the materials at hand.

Hipco has taken up that challenge. Its lyrics pinpoint the country’s current problems, and its fizzing energy celebrates just how much Liberians have already survived: A lot of war stories / but you still made it here. / And if you can make it here / Then you can make it anywhere. Liberian rapper Cypha da King is channeling Jay-Z and Frank Sinatra, but the sentiment applies better to Monrovia than it ever did to New York—and describes Liberia’s music as well as its people. Hipco grows from a world that is harsh and unforgiving at times, and yet it’s brilliantly, aggressively alive.

Jess Engebretson is a radio producer in Charlottesville, Virginia. She lived in Liberia on and off between 2009 and 2011.

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One comment for Jess Engebretson: Hipco—the Living Art of Liberia

  1. Comment by Josh on February 14, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    Great article! One interesting note, Prince Johnson is STILL a senator from Nimba County. One correction, Liberian English is certainly not spoken by many across the country. It’s only spoken by those that have been to school, which remains few in much of Liberia. There’s 30+ languages, and it really is a dividing factor, keeping the masses from actively participating in their government.

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