“In Freetown’s rubbish-strewn slums, where sick children defecate in sewers by potholed streets, music blaring from shops and taxis tells Sierra Leone’s youth that politicians have failed their war-ravaged country.” This quote, stated by journalist Katrina Manson Reuters after visiting Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, outlines the effect music has had on politics in Sierra Leone. In a country remembered for a brutal eleven year war, the youth in Sierra Leone have long withstood political turmoil, destruction of their communities, and violence through their hip-hop music.
African historian M. Diouf describes young people in sub-Saharan Africa as, “emerging as one of the central concerns of African Studies. Located at the heart of both analytical apparatuses and political action, they also have become a preoccupation of politicians, social workers, and communities in Africa.” The youth in Africa is seen as the future and are encouraged to participate in civil society. However, this ‘youth bulge,’ a surge in the population, is also seen by some as a cause of conflict and a potentially dangerous segment of the population.
Sierra Leone is no exception to this phenomenon.The western world remembers Sierra Leone’s civil war by blood diamonds, amputations, and the use of child soldiers. It is often characterized as a ‘crisis of youth’ because of the large part the younger population played in the war. These children for years were oppressed under lack of education and occupational opportunities. The war was purely a vehicle in which they were able to fight back against this, sometimes even against their fellow poor and oppressed Sierra Leoneans.
The word youth in itself can mean different things in depending on the context. In the context of this paper, it can be most accurately described by “anyone who has not been given what they should in life.” Rather than attaching an age bracket onto the concept, for there can be youths as old as thirty-five, it is marginalized young group of people. Generally, in West Africa, the word “youth” contains a political connotation. For the most part, they are considered the ones who critique those in power, the “elders,” who are the opposite of youth.
The brutal eleven year Sierra Leone civil war began in March 1991 when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attempted to overthrow successive governments. The brutal war fought between RUF and the Sierra Leone Army caused the death of over 50,000 people and displaced of over one million people. Through a series of agreements between the United Nations, RUF, and the Sierra Leone government, the violent war was brought to an end by newly installed President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 2002.
Many of the child soldiers who fought in the war volunteered to do so. Their reasoning for doing so ranges from wanting revenge on the soldiers for killing their parents to destruction of their environment. Peters and Richards, two journalists who interviewed an eighteen year old who joined the Sierra Leone army at age thirteen, following an invasion of his village by RUF, which killed his brother, destroyed his home and community, bringing an end to his education found that the child said, “I tried to join the army as a matter of revenging. I wanted to revenge my people” Also found in that book, a child spoke out saying they wanted to “defend my motherland.” Even female combatants, who were often used as sex slaves or wives at young ages, joined the army as a way to “defend my country.” Still others joined as a way to safeguard their survival in the long term for the commodities they were offered in the short term. In general, child soldiers were volunteers who were fighting for their country, and their hip-hop music reflects these desires.
The conflict between the youth and elders is something that is deep rooted in Sierra Leone’s history dating back to colonial Freetown. In describing colonial life of Freetown in the early fifties, hip-hop artist, Banton says in Ambas Geda: “As the old folks envy the geda, Let them just go on envying!/ I’ve been done a bad turn, why?/ Though not knowing me, they’ve/ Done me a bad turn, why ?/ The old folks have nothing but bad turns/ Up their sleeves. Hear me, Allah!” This proves the deep-rooted issues facing the generational divide between the youth and the elders in Sierra Leone, and this opposition carried into the early nineties and into the twenty-first century through the youth music during the civil war.
Youth music in Sierra Leone relies on the modern capabilities of producing and distributing music. When recalling her time spent in Sierra Leone in the late eighties, author Susan Shepler states that “[when she first arrived] there was almost no locally produced music available for purchase.” She further discusses that the music was mostly about dancing and partying, with very little reference to anything political in their then one-party state. However this changed near the end of the civil war in the late 1990’s when there was more music produced in the Krio, the Sierra Leone lingua franca. A South African music producer, Jimmy B., set up a production company in Sierra Leone capital Freetown where he trained young artists in using modern technologies. The industry that grew from this is what has allowed the youth to become politically active in the post-war period. The music produced has grown exponentially, to the point that now one will exclusively hear Krio lyrics in dance clubs, taxis, and parties (Shepler). Author Zubairu Wai, in his book Elections and the Challenges of Democratization in Sierra Leone, concurs that, “Perhaps the most significant way in which the youths contributed to democratic awakening in Sierra Leone was through music.”
The first set of lyrics to be discussed are lyrics which are clearly political, but are not in favor of any political party. Contrary to the other lyrics that will be discussed, a majority of them are anti-political party and campaigning. In the 2008 African Affairs journal, Maya M. Christensen and Matas Utas discuss that among the ex-combatants they they studied, the most common reaction to politics was mistrust. For example, in their native Krio language, Pupa Baha’s says in his song, “Di tall wan na squirrel/Di short wan na arata/Di bump wan na grohn pig/Na insai dis wi granat fam/Na de squirrel, grohn pig, and arata wan can siddon.” These lyrics can be translated into, “The tall one’s a squirrel/The short one’s a rat/The fat one’s a guinea pig/It’s in this our peanut farm/That’s where the squirrel, guinea pig, and rat want to stay.” These comical lyrics may seem to have no meaning but they are a critique of the corrupt politicians.
The artist are comparing electing a corrupt politician to guard their natural resources to a electing a rodent to look after one’s peanut farm. The song continues with even more explicit lyrics, in Krio, “Eh bo, duya, leh den lef wi/Leh den go siddon saful/Leh den no torment wi – O/Right now man den no gladi – O/So leh den push na kohna/Wit dis den bohku campaign.” which translates to, “Hey man, please let them leave us alone/They should go sit down quietly/They should not torment us/Right now, people aren’t happy/So let them move to the side/With all their campaigning.” The next set of lyrics is blatantly political, and is sung by a historically political artist. His first release was a song titled ‘Borbor Beleh,’ which translates to ‘belly boy,’ which is an attack on the corrupt officials. His next song, ‘Tu fut arata,’ translates to ‘two-footed rat,’ yet another attack on the corrupted officials who are often referred to as rats. He is often thought of as one of the first youths to stand up to elders. In fact, in one of his songs, he includes a deep voice at the conclusion of the song saying, “Emerson, lefh” which translates to “Emerson, cut it out!” This line is particularly effective because it not only shows the success of the youth music but the dismissiveness of the elders. It illustrates the success of music as an avenue for the youth in Sierra Leone to express their disappointment and call for change of the government.
While some lyrics can be identified as a-political without being in favor of a specific party, there are other lyrics which can be considered in favor of a certain political party. To understand the references, one must be familiar with the background of political parties in Sierra Leone. Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was elected in 1996 as a part of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLLP), a center party, however considered more right-wing than its opposing party the All People’s Congress. Kabbah remained in power despite being ousted by numerous coups and reinstated through military and international interventions. The song ‘Now di Pa de pack for go,’ released in 2007 leading up to the 2007 elections, sung by a young band called the Jungle Leaders contains lyrics which directly call for a change in the government, in reference to their current president Kabbah.
The original lyrics in Krio are, “Now di Pa de pack for go/Udat now get for mek Salone?/Well, di Pa de pack for go/Of course e don du in yon.” These lyrics translate in English to, “Now the Pa(president) is packing to go/Who now will fix Sierra Leone?/Well, the Pa is packing to go/Of course, he’s done his own part.” The Jungle Leaders are clearly criticising Kabbah, and asking who will fix their failing country. They go on to say in reference to Kabbah, “Some people say you tried, some people say you failed, some people say you should have done more.” The lyrics continue with, “We really need a savior who will let us tell poverty ‘bye bye’.” These lyrics outline what the priorities should be for the new president, starting with improving youth employment, education, and electricity provision. They ask each candidate in the coming election for their priorities, calling each party by name. In this upbeat song, they also call for support of democracy and free speech for the youth.
While this song called out parties by name without holding a bias to any party. The lyrics in ‘Ejectment Notice’ performed by Innocent, translated from Krio say “These ones [the SLLP], we’re giving them notice/If we don’t give them notice, we won’t get peace/Why can’t you understand ‘STOP?!’/We’ve talked ’til you act, like you’re deaf/We’ll cut your big bellies with a knife/Poof Man we want you to go away.” These lyrics, paired with the intense, frustrated rap coupled with strong beats effectively allow the listener to feel the call for change. These lyrics are particularly important due to their violent threats, something that is not common in these songs performed by the youth. They are so frustrated with their current regime that they are even willing to threaten cutting the ‘big bellies,’ a reference to corruption of the politicians. Once again, the music industry offers a place in which this mobilized generation can express their distrust, frustration, and call for a change whether they stand on one side of the political spectrum or neither.
Not all of the songs performed by the youth in Sierra Leone are explicitly political, some are avenues in which the artists can express their struggles in living an impoverished life, mainly in Freetown. Emerson, once again uses his platform to highlight the struggles of living in such an impoverished country. His song ”Bohboh Pain,’ which literally translates to ‘Pain Boy,’ provides a detailed description of his impoverished life. He addresses the low-quality food they are forced to eat, costs associated with school, the struggles with transport, and poverty. Despite all this, he is resilient, claiming, “God didn’t design us to be poor, one day we’ll be great.” The same voice of the elder used in his other songs appears in this, saying, ‘leh we bia, ya’ (‘let’s be patient, OK ?’). The hip-hop scene provides a place in which the youth can speak out on their lives, in a genre that is mostly thought of to be liked by the younger generation. These children are using their platform to mobilize each other, and express their hardships in a collective manner.
The 2007 election was won by the APC candidate, Ernest Bai Koroma. While it is impossible to say whether the music directly caused a change in the outcome of the election. It can be said that it described the political situation accurately. Sierra Leoneans have survived brutal civil wars, military coups, election turnovers, and poverty. The youth were able to use hip-hop as a platform to express their concerns, frustrations, and call for a change. The voice of ‘youth man dem’ is now a loudly represented portion of the music industry, and has allowed younger generations to become more politically active. The youth have used hip-hop music as a tool for withstanding life in a country which is falling apart.