Beats, Rhymes and Ebola

From the Series: Ebola in Perspective

Photo by NIAID, licensed under CC BY.

If there was ever a barometer for the mood of the people towards a specific event, outbreak, or crisis in West Africa it would have to be popular music. The Mano River War in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Guinea was exemplary of this. During the war, music took on a central role as a form of expression, escape, information sharing, and political contestation for average people on the ground. The post-war period in Sierra Leone and Liberia especially saw short but intense music industry booms directly related to the nation-building process. A host of factors influences such creative booms in West Africa. Not only do social factors lend themselves to the need for the young and marginalized populations to express themselves but also the proliferation of recordings has been assisted by the advent of digital recording technology and digital distribution forms via the Internet and mobile phone technology. In the age of the mp3, broadband, Youtube, and Soundcloud, any outside observer can see the mood and opinions of local communities reflected in real time. In the case of Ebola, such real time transfer of information in the form of popular media is able to give outsiders a more in-depth perspective on the general population’s sensitization to and feelings about the disease, as well as giving locals an important platform to be heard from.

West Africa isn’t the only place where songs relevant to contemporary crises have emerged as regular cultural phenomena. Popular music all over the world has taken on the role of information dissemination within communities that mainstream media fails to cover. As Chuck D said in the 90s, “Rap is Black America’s CNN.” In the U.S. rap music often takes up the topic of the day, and especially when there is a national event the dedication song is a particularly prevalent topic choice. From Hurricane Katrina, to the election of Obama, to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Neither is Ebola the first disease to take center stage in popular music in this part of West Africa. The most notable example I can think of is DJ Lewis’s hit in the coupe decale style “Grippe Aviare,” which playfully mocked a disease that wasn’t really a threat to the local population. However the advent of Ebola in the region has taken a more somber tone. In following the crisis I have identified the emergence of three major song content categories for the Ebola event that emerge across national boundaries.

Perhaps the most well known content form coming out of the Mano River region is the sensitization/education song. I’ve noticed this form of the song in Ivory Coast, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The most famous, and perhaps most successful of these songs is Shadow’s song “Ebola Coming.” This tune was picked up in stories by NPR, The Guardian, and CNN via online media partner Vice News. Partly responsible for the emergence of these songs are NGOs who use such songs as a means to spread their own messages. This is a strategy they had figured out in Sierra Leone already, as NGOs were a major source of funding in the recording industry boom during the post-war period there. While Shadow’s effort was independent from any outside organization, when I met him in the Buduburamcamp in Ghana in 2011, he was already quite familiar with the genre.

The second type of song content form I have noticed is the memorial/dedication song. This song seems to have become most prominent in Sierra Leone, where several high profile and respected locals such as Dr. Sheik Umar Khan have succumbed to the disease. Besides wanting to memorialize their heroes fighting the disease on the front lines, I would suspect that the proliferation of the dedication song in Sierra Leone is also related to the fact that a large percentage of popular Sierra Leonean artists are currently located outside the country. They use the form as both a prayer of hope and a desire to send messages of care to friends and family back home. This is the case of Atlanta based Kao Denero, and San Francisco-based Black Nature. However, the fact that these artists are based abroad doesn’t detract from their popularity back home. Instead, it perhaps even adds to it.

The last general type of social awareness song in West Africa is the political song in the vein of Emmerson’s “Borbor Belle,” The Dream Team’s “One Man One Cup,” or Soul Fresh’s “They Coming Again.” Although it has yet to make an impact on the ground in a region still dealing with the reality of containing the disease, “White Ebola” a song by diaspora based Mr. Monrovia, AG Da Profit, and Daddy Cool sums up a general feeling of distrust that made the disease difficult to contain in the first place. During the beginning of the Ebola outbreak, across the region there was a lot of doubt among the general population as to whether the disease was even real or was being intentionally transmitted by foreigners. This skepticism is part of a general distrust of outsiders in this part of Africa that stems back through colonialism to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and perhaps even further. During the war years especially, distrust of a globally mobile class peaked when locals saw their own wealthy elite and foreign aid workers shuttled out of town as soon as trouble set in. The same phenomenon continues during the Ebola outbreak. The group behind “White Ebola” is diaspora based, which gives them a privileged distance to reflect on the injustice inherent in the unequal treatment of Africans during this crisis. However, as the disease continues on, and in the wake of health care workers' strikes, botched military quarantines, local doctors dying, and foreign ones surviving—and as a general feeling of abandonment sets in—this last form of song may become more and more present and popular across the region.