Akon in Liberia

People rushing the fieldSenegalese rapper Akon came to Monrovia today for a concert. Akon is by far the most popular musician in the country. You can’t go 100 feet without hearing one of his songs being blasted at a bar, music shop, or out of

someone’s car. Akon would be to Liberia what the Beatles were to America at the height of their popularity. Akon was brought to Monrovia by Cellcom, Liberia’s 2nd largest GSM company. Lately Cellcom has been running a large PR campaign to brand themselves as the Liberian phone company.

In the morning Akon drove around Monrovia and toured several places. At one point he was waving to people out of his car window. Rumor has it that someone ran up and grabbed his cell phone. The thief was then beat to death by the mob. I’ve also heard that the thief was merely hauled off by the 40 police officers assigned to Akon, though either way he probably got beat.

The cheapest ticket for the concert was $20USD. This puts the show far out of the reach of the average Liberian. VIP tickets went for $100USD. On the one hand, everyone in Monrovia wanted to see this concert; on the other, only 3,000 of the 1 million people living in Monrovia can afford it. So we were all curious to see how packed it would be. Had the tickets been $5 a pop the whole town would be there.

At 6:00pm Tom Smyth (visiting PhD student from Georgia Tech here to help with the GTV project), Sean Macleay (Carter Center), Mike Albert (Right to Play), Sando (Liberian friend and driver), and I headed out for the show. In our pockets we had $20 tickets and nothing else. After our last theft incident, we decided to pack light. Mike and I put our SIM cards in cheap phones and left our nice phones at home. Traveling without a phone is as bad of an idea as traveling with a fancy one. Tom left his phone at home, but brought his digital camera. Thanks to him we have photo and video footage of this event.

We showed up to Samuel K. Doe (who names a stadium after a cruel dictoator?) stadium a little after 6:00. The opening acts were supposed to come on at 6:00, but didn’t come on till 7:00. Even in the states I can’t think of a concert that started on time so I didn’t mind. We mingled with our fellow concert goers and talked about how crazy it might get. It was kinda weird to look out over the crowd and think this is the entire Liberian middle class that’s under the age of 45. I couldn’t imagine having a similar realization anywhere else. The stadium was probably about a 10th full. Two sections of $20 seats were filled and the $100 seats were pretty filled but that was about it. I think they would have made a lot more money had they sold $5 seats to 10X more people. There was no seating on the field. A barbed wire fence separated the stadium seating from the field. The stage was in the middle of the field.

The first couple of opening acts were alright. They lip synced to their songs, which seems to be kind of common here. But they were well choreographed and fun to watch. It was cool to watch the crowd get into the songs. Mike and I danced along to the songs once or twice and everyone cheered for the white man.

As it grew dark we walked to the top of the stadium and looked out over the wall that separated the stadium from the rest of Monrovia. People were pressed up against it looking in. Every so often someone would hop over and make a run for it. It was like watching a levy that was about to be overwhelmed, with each little wave lapping over the edge. Once a jumper had crossed the wall the Liberian National Police (LNP) were in hot pursuit. It was like watching a scene out of a movie, one jumper 10 feet in front of 3 cops, the cops holding their caps on their heads as they ran with a Billy club in their other hand. Once the police apprehended their man they gave him a few cracks on the head with the club to let him know trespassing was not allowed. Some guys fell when they were being chased and received a few kicks as well.

There were also a handful of armed Nigerian UN peacekeepers at the stadium. It was nice to know the good guys had guns. Occasionally, one of the peacekeepers would join in to chase down a jumper. I was just thankful they didn’t use them for target practice.

When Akon’s motorcade pulled up the crowd outside the stadium went nuts. He couldn’t get into the stadium because the mob was in the way of all the vehicles. The police had to form a human chain before his car and the bus of police officers could get in.

As soon as Akon made it into the stadium the chaos started. First the jumpers started pouring over the walls. The police were now focused on Akon so there was no one to stop them. All at once we saw people pouring through gate 10 in the stadium like ants coming out of their hill. Gate 10 was to the back of the stage, so these people quickly came our way. At this point we were standing at the back of the stadium. Tons of people went past us with no wrist band, a clear indication that they were jumpers. They went straight for the area around with VIP section. This area was fenced off with barbed wire. This barely slowed them down, they just kept going over. After about 20 minutes the stadium had gone from a 10th full to a 4th full.

Akon’s DJ came up to get the crowd pumped. At this point you could hear that one of the speakers had started to crack. Not what you want at a rap concert. The DJ had a mohawk and wore a skirt, or maybe a kilt.

Finally Akon arrived. The crowd cheered and we were all very excited. He opened up with one of his newer songs that I had never heard before. At the end of the song he said, “Man this ain’t right. They got my people 100 yards away. Ya’ll need to be down here.” We looked all looked at each other in shock. Why would he say that? Instantly the people poured onto the field from the VIP area. We suspect that, that was part of the plan to reward the people from dropping $100. But then everyone else came onto the field, barbed wire or not. Then Akon said, “We’re going to take over this stadium.” I was thinking, “Does he not know that this is a post-conflict country full of ex-combatants, not LA. They really will seize control of the stadium.” People just kept coming onto the field. First the lights went out. Someone probably tripped over the power cord. Then the camera feed to the jumbotron (that’s right they have a jumbotron in Liberia) went out. People started climbing on the lighting towers and then sure enough, one fell over, no doubt injuring people. After 2 minutes the audio went out, never to come back on. The show was over. Akon stayed on stage for a while, but after a 5 minutes his Hummer pulled up and sped away. At this point we decide to leave just in case there were some bitter feelings.

We left as fast as we could and stopped at a local night spot for some drinks and food. On the one hand I had a blast. It was so high energy and exciting to be in such a volatile situation. Thankfully it never blew-up. I saw some crazy stuff and we all had lots to talk about. But I was also really sad. This was so big for Liberia. A big American super star had come to their country, and in less than 10 minutes it was ruined. I’m sure a lot of people were really upset that they didn’t get their money’s worth. I imagine the sponsors, the police, UNMIL, and the government weren’t too happy either. What Liberian organization is going to put on something like this again? What artist wants to perform for such a crowd? I really hope that this doesn’t tarnish Liberia’s appeal to international figures. The country needs more positive reinforcement like this. Hopefully despite this incident, it’ll still come.

John
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