MONROVIA, Liberia—Jonathan Koffa, known to his fans as Takun J, wore fake diamond earrings and a rhinestone-studded D&G necklace that was missing most of its bling. One day in March, he and several other Liberian rappers gathered around a plastic table next to a blazing strip of asphalt in downtown Monrovia. Only a flimsy umbrella separated us from the punishing midday sun, and the musicians sweated into their do-rags.
They were members of L.I.B. Records, one of Liberia's most popular rap outfits, which is not a record label in the traditional sense but a group of like-minded artists who sometimes perform together. Unlike the American rappers they admired—50 Cent, DMX, Jay-Z—their lives lacked any hint of glamour. Most were in their 20s and lived at home. They walked everywhere, because in Liberia, even a rapper with three simultaneous radio hits couldn't afford a bicycle. On nights when he ran out of food, Takun J told me that he ate hot cereal with sugar before bed, just to have something in his stomach.
In economic terms, they had a lot in common with almost everyone else in their country, where 80 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day, and the unemployment rate hovers around 85 percent. They also shared an experiential bond with the earliest practitioners of American hip-hop, who rapped about urban poverty, violence, and desperation because they had lived it."You know how it was like around '92, '93 in the States, around Tribe Called Quest, there wasn't no money in the game," said Buckay Bantoe, an L.I.B. rapper who wore a Rastafarian knit cap over his dreadlocks. "But say like around '96, '97, when Puff Daddy, certain people started comin' in … the game took a turn. That's how it's going to be here. That's how I see it. It's going to take off."
Like their American contemporaries, the L.I.B. rappers grew up on Big Daddy Kane and "Rapper's Delight" and graduated to the Wu-Tang Clan and the Roots. During Liberia's 14-year civil war, they fled the country or hid in their homes to avoid being killed or conscripted by rival factions. Now, they are trying to create a uniquely Liberian musical genre in a place where no one seems able to agree on the definition of a national culture. It's hard to go anywhere in Liberia without hearing music—church choirs belting out gospel songs, rocked-up spirituals blasting from big outdoor speakers, or tinny radios playing reggae—but most of it isn't Liberian. Artists from Ghana and Senegal are popular, and kids wear T-shirts emblazoned with the faces of Eminem and Tupac Shakur.
The L.I.B. rappers call their music "hip-co," the "co" being short for "colloqua." This is the Liberian vernacular, broken American English with bits of indigenous tongues thrown in. It's the language of the street, and Takun J and the other L.I.B. rappers choose subjects that resonate with ordinary people. "If we see politicians doing crooked stuff, we going to speak about it," Bantoe said. "We not going to let nobody stop us from speaking truth in our music."
Takun J is 26, idealistic, and earnest. He sees music as a way of countering injustice because, he told me, "The musician is also a politician." When we spoke, he was working on a single about police corruption. In Monrovia, poorly paid traffic cops routinely stop drivers for imaginary violations and demand bribes. The song went, in part:
Policeman coming, the policeman running
The policeman can take sides when he see money …
The policeman not fair, policeman not right
Policeman judge your case, brother you'll be scared!
The song includes a plea to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to crack down on corruption or face public outrage. Even though he believes his songs can alter the status quo, he alludes to another widely held view:
Policeman not shamed, policeman can't change
Oh when you look at him, tell me how he will change? ...
Tell me now my people, tell me who we will trust—
The police that we got, that doing that kind of stuff?
Takun J and the other L.I.B. rappers have plenty of listeners, but they're not making money. There is only one distributor for full-length albums in Liberia, they told me, and whenever they have enough material for a CD, they sell the songs, rights and all, for several-thousand dollars. They don't have much negotiating power, because the distributor is the only game in town. "It's like we in slavery," Bantoe said. "We working hard, and he just buying it for little or nothing."
They make a little money playing live, but sometimes money is not the point. I watched them perform for free one afternoon on a beach in Monrovia. The sky was silvery, and dozens of boys stood knee-deep in the water, laughing and splashing each other with giant plumes of white spray. The L.I.B. rappers launched into a song about a pretty girl whose number they wanted, and a crowd of teenagers quickly formed around them, pressing uncomfortably close. They listened intently and a little desperately, like people who suspect that it may be a long time before such pure enjoyment comes their way again.