MONROVIA – The lyrics of ‘Coming Home’ and ‘Ma Susu’ – albums by the late Tecumsay Roberts – live on in the minds of many Liberians. An icon of the music scene when he was killed in 1990 at age 39, Roberts was bigger in Liberia than Michael Jackson.
Report by Mae Azango, [email protected]
Witnesses say Roberts was murdered in cold blood by General Samuel Varney in the Caldwell Base that was serving as headquarters of Prince Johnson’s Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia at the time. Johnson, now the senator for Nimba, was there. He told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he didn’t stop Varney killing Roberts because, he said, Roberts was gay.
Now 28 years after his death, his family and friends are calling for the establishment of a war crimes court so that Johnson can be held to account for his role in the killing. They missed a chance to see justice delivered to Varney who has died.
Colleagues in Liberia’s music industry will honor many Liberian musicians who died during the war at an awards ceremony in Monrovia this weekend. The legacy of Roberts, known to all as “TR”, soars above them according to former colleague Charles Snetter of Radio Monrovia.
“TR He was one of the greatest of his time, because he knew how to steal a show,” says Snetter. “He was a show man and when he got on the stage, the crowd went wide. I remembered “Coming Home” (the song) when he went to the US and appeared in the Apollo (theater in Harlem), which was a big boost for him and when he returned to Liberia, his “Ma Susu” song made a hit. Many Liberian artists wanted to be like him.”
Sandy Roberts, now 58, weeps as he tells of the night his older brother died. A musician too, Roberts consoles himself by singing his brother’s songs at entertainment centers around the country to keep his legacy alive.
The pair had been walking down the road to look for food when Prince Johnson’s convoy stopped on the road in front of them. Johnson said he liked Roberts’ music and told him to get in the car to come to the base to sing for the troops.
“I was frightened on that day when Johnson was waving his silver pistol in the air and ordering my brother to get into the vehicle. My brother almost wet his pants out of fear,” recalls Roberts. “TR told me he had to go along to get some food for the family and it would have been deadly to refuse Prince Johnson’s invitation. But I could see fear in my brother’s face when he left.”
“After two hours of waiting for my brother, I overheard some rebels saying they had just killed a Liberian musician named Tecumsay Roberts. I could not believe my ears because I could not understand why Prince Johnson would peacefully invite TR to his base and murdered him horribly?” he asked.
Roberts weeps bitterly as he recalls being told his brother’s body had been dumped in the river. “I went along the riverside to look for TR’s body but I did not see it.”
Roberts says his brother was the family’s breadwinner at the time. His death drove his mother to an early grave leaving six children behind. TR still comes to his brother in dreams. He feels his brother has something to say and his spirit is restless.
“TR’s spirit needs justice,” he says. “TR’s spirit needs an answer as to why was he taken peacefully and murdered horribly.”
“I looked out for Prince Johnson to one day come and say something to us regarding our brother’s death, but he has no remorse. I can forgive for the sake of reconciliation but without remorse, I can never forgive and forget,” says Roberts.
Johnson has repeatedly rejected any suggestion he should appear before a war crimes court claiming he was acting justly in defense of his people. “If you were to come to arrest me, I will fight you,” he said recently.
The Caldwell Base in now a chilling place. Locals show visiting reporters the executioner site over the St Paul River – a rusty steel platform where many victims met their deaths and their bodies were dumped into the river. In addition to Roberts, witnesses say Watta Allison, wife of former Defense Minister Gray D. Allison, was also killed here.
Bennie Sayee, commonly known as “Go So Come So” of the Armed Forces Band, is a resident here. He says Prince Johnson had a silver pistol that he used to shoot people before their bodies were thrown into the river.
Sayee, who was initially hesitant to speak about Prince Johnson murdering Roberts, confirmed that he heard at the time that it was Samuel Varney who killed Roberts, under the command of Johnson, because Varney claimed, Roberts was gay. Sayee knew Roberts personally having worked with him before.
“I felt so bad when I heard about TR’s death, that my whole heart spoil that day, because he was a good man,” he says. Sayee also wants justice. “I support a war crimes court so people can pay for what they did to our people. If they can start cutting Prince Johnson from the foot until they reach to his head, I will be too happy.” Sayee says Johnson also killed his brother. “The man damaged the country.”
Ernest Bruce, TR’s childhood friend and bandmate last saw TR in 1989 when the pair performed together at a Cuttington University benefit dinner held at the Ducor Palace Hotel in Monrovia.
Bruce breaks into the song “Ma Susu” as he remembers the night.
“What can I do without your love? How can I live without your love my lady? Lady Ma Susu. Lady Ma susu, matandawah. I love you babe.”
“We did the Ma susu song together,” Bruce remembers. “He sang the high tone and I sang the low tone.” He says Roberts’ death was a big loss for Liberia. “He was a friend who had the arts at heart that his memories still lives on in my mind.”
Rev. Emmanuel Bowier, former Information Minister, knew young Roberts in the 70s and 80s. As minister he interacted with Roberts often and says he was the icon of the young people and was a very good example of how a Liberian musician should be. His loss, and that of other musicians, should not go unpunished he says.
“I support a war crimes court in Liberia for TR and other Liberians artists like Robert Toe and Gedeh Rooster, who were also killed, to have justice,” Bowier says. “We cannot be behaving like nothing happened because history will judge us wrongly.”
Toney Kabedeh, former studio owner and producer and backing singer to Roberts, also supports a war crimes court for his dead friend to have justice.
“I support a war crimes court because TR and other musicians like Robert Toe and Gedeh Rooster did not deserve to be murdered by people parading themselves around here like good people. I regret TR’s death because he impacted my life when he took me to Abidjan in 1987 to perform with him, and that was how Kojo Samuels saw me performing and took me to Germany. So TR impacted me life greatly because it was through him, Kojo Samuels saw and took me to Germany. When I returned from Germany in 1988, I open one of Liberia’s biggest musical studios called Cross Atlantic.”
Sandy Roberts is pleased to see his brother honored at this weekend’s awards but he would like to see the remembrance go further with a memorial established to remind Liberians of TR and other fallen icons.
“My brother and I were inseparable. I cried when I heard of his death as if I was stabbed in the heart,” Roberts says. “I still cry every time I sing his songs because he was my only brother and my first and only role model. As Liberia’s first ambassador he was second to none and should be treated as one even in his death.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.