Sierra Leone's politically minded pop star captures his country's ear

Emmerson Bockarie says he doesn't want to go into politics. But his songs have a powerful effect in a country where opposition politics is weak and literacy is low.

Ryan Brown
A billboard featuring Sierra Leone musician Emmerson in an advertisement. Emmerson is making waves in his country for criticizing the government in his music.

When singer Emmerson Bockarie swaggered on stage on a recent evening here, the crowd in front of him seemed to twinkle – hundreds of tiny flames flickering on and off in the balmy darkness. This crowd wasn’t waving lighters or glowing blue cellphones, though, but matches, which flamed and fizzled in rapid bursts so that the venue appeared lit by strobe light.

A similar scene greets Emmerson, as he is widely known, nearly everywhere he goes these days in Sierra Leone, a nod to his latest hit single, “Munku Boss Pan Matches,” a 15-minute Calypso-infused hip-hop track that thumps from taxis and tea shops, corner stores and the rickety boats carrying fishermen into Freetown’s turquoise harbor.

The title, loosely translated from Krio, means “a fool with matches” – the West African cousin of the proverbial bull in a china shop. The fool, in this case, is President Ernest Bai Koroma. When you give him matches, at least according to Emmerson, the whole country burns.

“They used to call us the Athens of West Africa,” he raps, a nod to the country’s storied history as a center of global black intellectual culture. “Well, not anymore.”

The popularity of “Matches,” which meanders through a laundry list of social problems – corruption, bad sanitation, poor electricity supply, unemployment, swindled Ebola aid money – isn’t hard to place. Sierra Leone is poor, its government unreliable and inefficient. 

And in a country where literacy is low but more than 85 percent of people listen regularly to the radio, politically-minded pop stars like Emmerson have an outsized influence in guiding public conversations.

“Our political opposition is weak, and many feel that Emmerson does a better job than them at speaking out for the masses,” says DJ Bass, né Mamajah Jalloh, a popular Freetown late night radio host. “I wouldn’t say the government fears him, but they are concerned his music has the ability to make a change here.” 

And with good reason. Emmerson’s initial rise to fame a decade ago was fueled by none other than Mr. Koroma himself. Then the opposition candidate for president in the 2007 election, Koroma frequently played Emmerson’s “Borbor Belleh” (big belly man) – a tune about politicians who got fat off their ill-gotten riches – at his rallies to energize the crowds.

In at least a few countries with strong musical cultures and weak opposition politics, politically minded artists have successfully made the cross-over from pop star to president. In 2011, Haiti elected Michel Martelly, better known to many of his fans by his stage name, “Sweet Micky,” as president, and Andry Rajoelina, president of Madagascar from 2009 to 2014, originally developed a public profile as one of the country’s top DJs.

In Sierra Leone, politicians' continued insistence that Emmerson has no potential political influence reads much like a fear that he does.

"Our people [party members] are the ones selling music CDs. We will not sell his music and we will not buy it, just wait and see," Jarrah Kawusu Konte, a spokesman for the presidency, said in April, according to a local news source.

For his part, Emmerson says he isn’t interested in pursuing elected office.

“We are not politicians but to some extent we get involved with the political systems,” he told a Sierra Leonean newspaper last month. But ousting a political party, he said, wasn’t his decision to make. “That’s the decision of the people. All I am doing here is make sure I tell the people … exactly what’s going on in the country.” 

That independent streak is also useful for selling records. The title of Emmerson’s most recent album – which dangles from the hands of teenage hawkers on nearly every street corner in the capital, Freetown – is Survivor, an allusion to his inability to be bought by political interests, Mr. Jalloh says. In early May, government withdrew permission for Emmerson to hold a concert at the country’s largest stadium in Freetown, according to local news sources. When it refused to give a concrete reason for the decision, it only fueled speculation that there was political opposition to his performance. 

“We love him because he praised Koroma once, but now he sings against him because he sees what he has become,” says Joseph Beneton, who runs a small convenience store near Kailahun’s central mosque. Shouting over the thundering bass of “Matches,” he says that he has been a fan for more than a decade, he says, and values his ability to put a finger on the pulse of Sierra Leonean politics. “He’s exposing what’s happening, what others don’t want to talk about.”

There is no shortage of enthusiasm for Emmerson in Kailahun, a quiet district capital in Sierra Leone’s rugged green east, and long a stronghold of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). On the evening of his concert in early May, thousands packed into the local stadium, paying 10,000 Leones (about $1.60) to see their idol in person.

For a town that spent more than a year in a kind of suspended animation as a result of Ebola – with schools, businesses, and public transportation almost entirely shut down – the energy was particularly electric. Friends danced with their hands clasped as teenage couples cuddled on parked motorbikes and hawkers carried charred chicken kebabs and sweating bottles of Coke through the packed crowd. 

For 17-year-old Hawa Kamara, Emmerson’s coming to Kailahun marked a return to normalcy after months of hiding and waiting. “Life only really restarted this year,” she says. 

As for Emmerson, she says his music was an accurate reflection of the Sierra Leone she lived in.

“When the government does well, I’m sure he’ll talk about it,” she says. “But it hasn’t happened yet.”

• Ryan Lenora Brown’s reporting in Sierra Leone was supported by the International Reporting Project. Silas Gbandia contributed reporting. 

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