By Nvasekie N. Konneh
There are many newspapers in Liberia. On any given day, their coverages will include general news, politics, sports, health, etc. With the exception of one newspaper, Daily Observer, Liberian newspapers don’t cover the local art scene or to be specific, the local music scenes. Even though besides politic and sports, many of the papers have “entertainment pages,” it is the stories about foreign artists that fill those pages. In these entertainment pages, you may come across stories about J-Z or Beyoncé, Timaya or Two-Face or artists from anywhere in Europe, Africa or USA. One or two newspapers have stood out in terms of maintaining regular entertainment columns about the local music scenes. These are Daily Observer and Frontpage Africa. However, one can say that for Daily Observer now than for Frontpage Africa. Years ago, Frontpage Africa carried a piece of weekly Liberian entertainment news that focused on the local music scene but in the past few years, it has ceded that territory to Daily Observer which has continued to carry arts and culture news in a column known as Lib Life. Under this column, various segments of arts and cultures are covered regularly. These run from poetry to short stories and news about the local music scene. In my study of Liberian media for more than a decade, this is my observation. As I travel to Liberia from my base in the USA frequently, I have often wondered why this is so. I have visited some newspaper offices over the years with the question, why you don’t cover the local music scene and the answer has always been “no interest.” No interest could mean either the newspapers are not interested or the artists are not engaging the media.
Recently I asked Bai Best, the managing editor of the Daily Observer the following questions: why the Liberian media does not cover the Local music scene, even though many of them have “entertainment columns” which are filled with news about foreign artists? Is it fair to say that Liberian artists don’t engage the media as much as they should do? Since your paper carries a regular column on arts and culture, do you have to go looking for them, or do they approach you with stories about their works?
According to Bai Best, even though his paper carries regular columns on the local music scene, most of the time they have to “chase them for their own good.” He went on to say, “It’s not so much they don’t know because we have been at it for over a decade (since 2005) and they have seen the impact on their careers both locally or internationally. But they need to take their career seriously than the publishers. Otherwise, no matter what we do for them, they will never achieve the potential we see in them.”
A long-time journalist and editor of several newspapers prior to his travel to the US where he’s now hosting daily online shows, Gibson Jerue said that when it comes to arts and culture, Liberian journalists are either not interested or don’t have the skills to write entertainment stories. According to him, when he served as editor of the Analyst and Public Agenda newspapers, respectively, he used to carry columns on entertainment. “That was because I was curious and interested in that kind of news. I engaged some artists and interviewed them.” Gibson went on to say that Liberian readers are not interested in the newspapers if the headlines are not sensational political stories about politicians and government officials. In his opinion, “Most Liberians don’t read to be informed or entertained about other developments in the country other than politic. Without the sensational political headlines, your papers will come back to the office all the time.” He said that if the editors and publishers are broadminded and curious about other aspects of Liberian life, “they will diversify the contents of their news coverages.”
This reminds me of my own efforts of trying to fill the void with a newspaper focused on arts, culture, and tourism. It was called The Uptown Review. I discussed the idea with some friends that since Liberian newspapers are only interested in covering politic, I would start a paper that will cover other things such as arts and culture, whereby we could feature articles about Liberian music, literature, fashion, cuisine, etc. What I heard from many friends I consulted was that “such will not work here if you don’t carry political news.” I was advised to contact politicians who could sponsor the publication. I didn’t listen. I went ahead with the publication but after several months of no advertising dollars coming, I had to close because I couldn’t afford the printing cost and staff salaries.
Since I have gotten the perspectives of two journalists on the issue, I wanted to know from the artists’ own perspectives. I sent questions to several Liberian artists and promoters but only one got back to me with a response. He’s Robert Black Diamond, a diaspora based Liberia musician, producer, and promoter. According to him, from his perspective, “there is a disconnect between the artists and the media.” He said, “One major factor is that the media institutions’ expectation of artists to pay money for coverage which many struggling artists can’t afford.” Another factor, according to him, is the “identity crisis.” He said the Liberian media will rather promote artists from other countries than their own Liberian artists. When I asked him the question as to whether the Liberian artist engage the media through their own PR efforts of trying to get their stories out there, he went on to say, “I do agree that the artists have to do more in engaging the media but again when they do, especially if you are an artist from oversea, the expectation is that you have plenty money to spend on feature articles, but while they expect the Liberian artists to pay for coverages in their newspaper pages, they do free publicity for foreign-based artists who they don’t know and will never pay them any money.”
In places where artists are backed by a management team of producers, promoters, or publicists, artists are front and center of news, either print or electronic. That’s why we encounter stories of artists based in foreign countries. Liberian journalists and their editors will copy and paste these stories to fill their spaces rather than making the painstaking efforts to go chase after musicians who themselves have not shown any interest in engaging the media. Unlike many countries where music is a serious business, music in Liberia is more or less like individual efforts whereby the artists are not even aware that they could use the media to spread their news to their fans. When I put this question to Black Diamond, here is what he has to say, “I will admit that Liberian artists don’t have publicist or media strategies to engage the general Liberian audience, especially their fans. Unfortunately, the way the entertainment industry is set up in our country, a lot of artists don’t think those things are important due to lack of interest in their crafts by their own people.” He went on further to say, “Until we can regain our identity, believe in ourselves and support our own artistic efforts despite all our shortcomings, we will always be behind other artists from other places.”
While the newspapers show no interest in covering the Liberia music scene, one would expect the electronic media, especially the radio and TV, to be different since music plays a large part in what goes on on radio and TV. Radio can’t be all talks all the time. Music is played frequently but the question is, what kind of music the stations are playing? From time in memorial, foreign music is the main staple on Liberia radio stations. In 2011 while still publishing the Uptown Review, I went around interviewing program hosts on various radio stations as to why they were not playing Liberian music. The overwhelming responses from them were that the quality of Liberian music was very poor and not airworthy. Fast forward to 2018; things are changing in terms of airplay Liberian music is enjoying. The quality of the music has improved significantly, and radio stations are playing Liberian music now than before but still not to the same level as foreign music.
About the Author:
Nvasekie Konneh a Liberian writer and author of three books, “Going to War for America,” The Land of My Father’s Birth,” and “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Together,” a collection of poems and essays. He is a contributing writer to the on-line Liberian literary magazine. He also contributes articles on African arts, cultures, and politics to several newspapers in Liberia as well as in the US, including Black Star News in New York City. In 2014, he produced two parts documentary on ethnic and cultural diversity in Liberia which has had rave reviews on Youtube as well as on local television stations in Liberia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org