In most parts of the world, works of arts such as music, literature, or fashion are mediums through which people express and celebrate cultural and traditional values, and radio stations are very vital in the expression of cultures through music.
This is why when you travel to countries such as Guinea, Sierra Leone, or Ivory Coast and listen to their radio stations, the dominant songs on their airwaves are local; sometimes with occasional mix of foreign music. This is done with deliberate attempt to promote their own songs which is seen as vehicle for the promotion and preservation of their cultural heritage.
As for Liberia, it is the complete opposite, there, foreign music such as American, European, Ghanaian, or Nigerian dominates their airwaves and if you ever hear Liberian music, it’s only once in a blue moon. In some cases, according to many Liberian artists, they have to bribe the radio Djs.
This scenario gives birth to the question, “Why Liberian radio stations do not play Liberian music?” “Why even in Liberian clubs, birthday parties, wedding ceremonies, or any social occasion, Liberians don’t play and dance to Liberian music, rather, everything is dominated by foreign music?
In an attempt to find out why Liberian radio stations don’t patronize Liberian music, Nvasekie N. Konneh spoke to several local Disc Jockeys in and around Liberia’s main city, Monrovia.
Nvasekie N. Konneh, Monrovia: Our first stop was at King FM, which is owned by the soccer legend and now prominent political figure, George Weah. There we met Felecia Gbessioh, known by her listening audience as DJ Fezo. According to her, she is “the best radio DJ in the country.”
Not beating around the bush, we asked, “Why you don’t play Liberian music on your show?” Her blunt answer was, “Liberian music is not up to standard in term of sound quality, lyrics, and people who are used to listening to pleasant quality music think Liberian music is a mess.” She blames the “substandard recording studios” set up by people who want to “collect quick bucks and musicians who are hungry for fame and money and want their names out there by all means.”
In other words the owner of these substandard studios and artists don’t do their jobs professionally. DJ Fezo also thinks that Liberians don’t see music as worthy investment even though they jump head over head over foreign music on every occasion. The popular radio DJ said, “Whenever you play Liberian music on air, people will switch to other stations and you don’t want to disappoint your audience. You play what they want to hear.” When we asked whether it may be the case that Liberians are not proud of their cultures, she said, “This may be the case with some Liberians but I am proud to be a Liberian and I am proud of my culture.”
Our next stop was the newest radio station in town at the time, Hot FM. We talked to Ahmad Pabai, popularly known as DJ Black Shamar. He’s an old hand in the business. He has been through the club scene and MC-ing at programs such as weddings, and birthday parties. We put the question to him, “Why you don’t play Liberian music?” His answer was, “We play Liberian music but quality ones are few.”
Just like DJ Fezo from King FM who we spoke to earlier, he thinks “most Liberian music is not up to standard.” He added that DJs have to feel the music which he says is a “universal language.” He went on to say, “You have to feel the music; you have to feel it deep down your soul before you can let your audience listen to it.”
He said, “Our music should be a representation of our culture but we have to do it right so that it can truly represent us as a people. It has to be something that will make us feel that sense of cultural pride and get us dancing.”
If the music can’t do that, according to Black Shamar, you can’t blame the DJs or Liberian people for not patronizing garbage when there is quality music from other places. According to him, “even the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism is not doing anything to address the issue.”
Speaking further, he said, the cultural arm of the ministry of information should be separated from it so it can function as separate bureau that will dedicate more efforts and resources to the promotion of our cultural heritage through our music.” Before we left, DJ Shamar thanked us for stopping by and said he appreciated our visit and inquiry.
As we left Hot FM, our next stop was SKY FM which is managed by the famous Liberian radio personality, Martin Brown. There we met Shamell Tookie Knott who goes by the alias of “Lady Stable.” She refused to be called “DJ,” simply calling herself “broadcaster.”
According to her, she does not only play music, she also gives news and makes announcements. According to Lady Stable, “Here at Sky FM, we play good Liberian music. We play Liberian music that has class and meaning.”
She talked about her program, Afro-Dance Mix which plays African music and since Liberia is in Africa, “we play good Liberian music as part of the Afro-Dance Mix.” The blunt speaking Lady Stable thinks some Liberian artists are “not worth hearing.” Just like the other DJs we spoke to earlier, she thinks Liberian music recording studios and artists compromise quality music “for quick bucks and cheap popularity,” which robs them the success and respect the crave for in society. “If they fail to do good job, they cannot blame the people on the radio or the Liberian people for not supporting them.” She also think that since “most Liberians don’t speak their native dialect, we don’t look at music from cultural perspective and what we don’t have we fill the void with music from other places.”
She urged Liberian artists to go to school and educate themselves and be good will ambassadors for their country and national heritage. “They should learn to think before they write and sing,” she said. Lady Stable said she is proud of herself as Liberian and African but cannot compromise her taste for good music simply “because I am a Liberian.”
The verdict of the radio DJs at Truth FM, the nation’s most popular radio station owned by Musa Bility, President of the Liberian Football Association (LFA) was no different from what we heard from their counterparts at other radio stations. For Smith Toby and J. Korvah Beyan (JKB), it all has to do with low quality of Liberian music compared to foreign music. JKB divided Liberian music into two kinds-secular and gospel. While he thinks the problem with Liberian music is substandard quality, he said that Liberian gospel music has reached an acceptable level with Liberian audience.
According to him, “More Liberians feel better with Liberian gospel music than they do with the secular one.” That’s because according to him, “the quality of Liberian gospel music has improved considerably. As a result, it is now been played on air and the appreciation for it is great compared to secular Liberian music.”
He further said, that the Liberian music industry is “full of hustlers who want to make quick money.” For those people in a hurry to make quick money, “quality does not mean anything.” Without critically examining the music, they dump it in the market and expect that people will buy it “simply because it’s Liberian.”
Smith Toby agreed with his colleague, JKB that gospel music has an edge over secular music because the quality is better. He also emphasized the fact that the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism is not doing “what it supposes to do in term of promoting Liberian arts and culture as a whole.”
He also blames the music distributors who are mostly Indians and Lebanese and “are not interested in promoting Liberian music because piracy of foreign music… He said they are not doing enough in promoting Liberian music in general, even the gospel one. Smith mentioned that there used to be a program on Truth FM when it opened newly. This program used to run from 4 pm to 6 pm.
He said the program could not continue “because the distributors didn’t like to give out complimentary copies.” Without such support from the distributors, the program could not continue.
Our last stop the next morning was LBS (Liberia Broadcasting System), the government owned radio station. There we met Titus Kesseley, Director of Radio Programming. When we asked to speak to some of the DJs at the station, he said none was on hand during the morning hours.
He said they usually come between 2 pm to 3 pm. Since we were already with him, we decided to post our questions to him. What we heard from him was the repeat of what we heard from others before him.
Mr. Kesseley even put it more bluntly, “their lyric is not radio friendly.” He said before the war, things were much better with artists such as Zack and Gebah, Tecumseh Robert, Robert Toe, Fatu Gayflor and others. All these people, according to Kesseley, were doing well and Liberians were happy and supportive.
He said while living in Africa, “some Liberian artists want to sing like American.” These artist, according to Kesseley, are not well grounded in Liberian culture and tradition. As such, whatever they are doing does not appeal to Liberians.
Note: This article was originally published in Monrovia in the Uptown Reviews magazine in January 2011.The issue discussed here is of great importance to understanding the Liberian entertainment sector.
About the Author: Nvasekie Konneh is the author of the book, “The Land of My Father’s Birth,” a memoir of the Liberian civil war and “Going to War for America,” a collection of poems about his experience in the US Navy and the Liberian civil war. He can be reached at 267-407-5735 or Knvasekie@yahoo.com or Konnlove@aol.com