Rewriting the Liberian Narrative: New Initiative Eyes Development Through Cultural Expression


Monrovia – When American country singer JP Harris touches down in Monrovia this week, hopes are high that the visit could help trigger renewed interest in traditional and modern Hipco music.

Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]

Harris is coming to town to help launch À Dyà Zù-Zù (We Bring the Heat), an organization for development through cultural expression looking to help rewrite the emerging narratives of Liberia’s socio-economic and political challenges.

À Dyà Zù-Zù is a local phrase for “we bring the heat,” and is meant to symbolize that this is a movement to bring hope and inspiration to the Liberian people and engage them in the economic development and growth of their nation through traditional cultural expressions. 

Formed in late 2018, following a series of discussions surrounding the significant challenges that musicians, artists, writers, creatives, and everyday people face in Liberia, founder Courtney Renken says the ultimate goal is to demonstrate the potential that preserving and promoting traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) has for improving the social and economic development of Liberia. 

Says Renken: “The World Intellectual Property Organization defines TCEs as “music, dance, art, designs, names, signs and symbols, performances, ceremonies, architectural forms, handicrafts and narratives, or many other artistic or cultural expressions.” We also hope it will give Liberians the opportunity to restore pride in their cultural identity, create a space in which people can heal from past national traumas, and give Liberians the opportunity to rewrite the narrative about their nation, its people, and its culture.”

Renken first brought the idea of the organization to Bennie Johnson about working with Harris in developing a recording project with Liberian musicians and develop an exchange and mentorship program. 

In a matter of weeks, some veteran Liberian musical and cultural icons – Tonieh Williams, Zack Roberts, James Varney Dwalu, and Alakai Williams were on board. 

Although they were very interested in the project, Renken says it was clear from the beginning that the task ahead was very challenging, that many in the creative and cultural industry were struggling to stay afloat. “Particularly that there is a lack of infrastructure that supports cultural expressions and the inability for artists and cultural leaders to make a living off their exceptional talents due to a lack of intellectual property rights protection and the other economic realities of Liberia. Soon enough, Kekura Kamara, AB Swaray, James Koko Chea, Bendu Kaizolu joined and the organization was legally formed as À Dyà Zù-Zù, a non-profit organization, to address the systemic challenges that prevent cultural preservation and promote the creative industry within Liberia and abroad,” Renken says.

Renken says while the organization was formed with the understanding that preserving Liberian culture is essential to its progress, it is clear that the lack of infrastructure was a challenge. “We have to first understand what exactly that is and how to articulate it, both to themselves and to the world. 

Because, Renken says, the infrastructure does not exist in Liberia and it is difficult for Liberians to express their culture and many fears that it is being lost to the influence of other cultures. 

The initial founders of À Dyà Zù-Zù have spent most of their lives engaged in preserving traditional Liberian culture and music and believe it is important to protect and promote Liberian sounds. The current market in Liberia is highly influenced by what is popular on the global market which leaves little room for the various traditional artists or even other Liberian sounds such as HipCo. In the coming year and years, we intend to focus much more broadly on music and other cultural expressions, especially with what is popular with the younger generation. This could include anything from film, comedy, fashion, artisanry, etc. The objective is to bridge the new with the old, remind Liberia where it came from so it knows exactly where it is going.

Renken says bringing Harris on board was key. “He is a very good friend of mine and a successful musician based in Nashville, Tennessee. After a meeting we had in late 2018, he proposed visiting Liberia and possibly, working with Liberian musicians on various music projects including recording and international tours. Because of his strong connections to the music industry in the US and his passion for intellectual property rights, the À Dyà Zù-Zù team quickly took to him. He is also on the board of directors. JP will be in Liberia working with our team next week to begin the planning process for an international record focused on Liberian music and sounds, both traditional and modern.”

Renken says Harris, working as the group’s US program manager, will work to engage the music sector in the Liberian project and organization. 

While the initial idea had been to focus on traditional artist, Renken says, organizers are also looking to lure Liberia’s emerging Hipco artists to the project. “We have been very focused on establishing À Dyà Zù-Zù as a legal entity in Liberia, building partnerships with the Ministry of Information, and organizing our official launch on May 11. After the launch, our plan is to begin engaging the younger generation artists, including Hipco, and appropriate organizations like the Music Union to better understand the challenges that these artists face in promoting their music. Our intention is that our work to address the policies, economics, education, lack of infrastructure around this industry will benefit everyone. Hipco is very much so a cultural phenomenon and tells a story about the Liberia of today. We look forward to working with these artists in the coming months, years, decades.”

Renken says the first show will be held at a pop-up location, focusing on fundraising for the organization as well as showcasing the rich cultural heritage of Liberia. “We wanted to do something unique and different for the audience to ensure that this is an evening that they would not forget. In fact, we intend to do ongoing performances like this at various locations throughout Monrovia and Liberia, always leaving a surprise factor for the audience and a desire for more. Each time, we expect to do something different and even more creative.”

Among the headliners are James Koko Chea, Bendu Kaizolu an award-winning singer and songwriter who performs in eight native languages and represents a wide range of Liberian cultural arts and dance. Bendu is the founder of the Ambassador’s Angels Dance Troupe and has recorded three albums.  Her most successful album was titled ‘Mu-Jer mu-jah (vai)’ meaning ‘Let’s Go Back Home’, calling Liberians to rebuild their country after the war.  Bendu participated in the disarmament process, calling on child soldiers and rebel groups to turn over their weapons for peace. Bendu has performed with some of this continent’s greatest legends such as Lucky Dube, Brenda Fasee, and Hugh Masekela. Bendu shares her knowledge and works to ensure cultural preservation by teaching school children about Liberian culture, art and music.

Mustapha ‘AB’ Swaray aka The African Teacher is a musician, songwriter, arranger, sound engineer and producer who has been a prominent feature on the Liberian and West African music scene since the 1990s.  In 1998 AB was spotted by Kekura Kamara who invited him to join his cultural troupe in Cote D’Ivoire.  While in Cote D’Ivoire AB performed with top groups and honed his musicianship while also attending workshops to build his skills in studio music production.  AB has produced top albums for Ivorian and Liberian artists with several of these becoming popular hits. AB’s self-produced album ‘Freedom’ was selected as the Best Reggae Album in 2009 during the African Cultural Alliance of North America festival. 

Nyan Dokpa also known as Nyan Dee ‘The Legend of Mano Music’ is a singer and songwriter from Nimba County who started his music career in Monrovia in 1985 when he formed the group ‘Music Makers.’  Their first hit song in 1987 ‘Tumba’ was produced and recorded by fellow À Dyà Zù-Zù member E. Tonieh Williams. In 1994, during Liberia’s civil war Nyan fled to Guinea, eventually returning to Liberia in 2005 to resettle in Nimba county where he continues to perform and record music including his most recent hit ‘Mandingo Drum’

Kekura Kamara One of Liberia’s cultural icons, Kekura Kamara is an artist, actor, writer and producer who has entertained and paid homage to his Liberian homeland for more than 30 years.  Kekura started his artistic career in the early 1970s as a student of dance and folk songs at the National Cultural Center in Kendeja, and in the 1970s toured internationally to showcase Liberian music and dance.  In 1988, Kekura created and starred in the televised drama series ‘Malawala Balawala’ which became Liberia’s most beloved TV show.  Kamara is the Executive Director of the Balawala International Foundation (BIF) which aims to promote traditional communication, human rights, education and democratic values through the performing arts. 

Hawa M. Vartiker has been singing and dancing since the age of 4, performing with the Senjeh Balleh Culture Troupe in Bomi County, moving on to perform with the Gbarnga Culture Troupe. Hawa was recruited by the Liberia National Cultural Troupe in 1997 where she performed for nine years. While with the national troupe, she also joined the Liberia Crusaders for Peace in 1998 to present as a singer and dancer. Hawa has recorded two albums, ‘Purchase’ and ‘Morale Man’.

Isaac ‘Zack’ Roberts is a pastor, author, singer, songwriter, producer, humanitarian and one of Liberia’s music legends with a career that was launched in the 1970s.  He was part of the music group ‘Liberian Dream’ which produced hits like “Welcome to Liberia” and was the lead singer and drummer for Liberia’s beloved group, ‘Zack and Geebah’, which revolutionized this country’s music industry in the mid-1980s. Zack has represented Liberia at international music festivals and, as part of ‘Zack and Geebah’, was a VIP performer at the re-opening of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.  Zack’s song-writing and performances are inspired by the struggles he has witnessed in Liberia and his messages aim to inspire love and the resilience of the Liberian people to stand together as one nation under god. Today, Zack continues to make music, provide mentorship to Liberia’s young musicians and he is resident pastor with the Strong Tower Assembly in Monrovia, Liberia.

JP Harris is a professional touring songwriter, singer, production and event director, and carpenter in the field of historic restoration. His music has been featured on National Public Radio (U.S.), Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price” (Sony Classic Pictures, 2012), as well as receiving praise from Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe, and Paste Magazine. JP has curated and produced events for the Newport Folk Festival and the Americana Music Association, in addition to curating artists for LR Baggs Acoustic Amplification. Harris has toured the US for over a decade, as well as numerous European tours and appearances. JP acts as an À Dyà Zù-Zù contact and liaison for US affairs.