Liberian Artists Are Fighting Ebola With Music

Courtesy of John W. Poole NPR
Courtesy of John W. Poole NPR

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa appears to be gradually slowing down in Liberia, and the spread of preventative education in that region has been instrumental in the positive change. Some of this education has come in the form of government-commissioned music about the disease, but unfortunately, those efforts were seeing the wrong kind of impact for some time. Now, Liberian DJs and musicians have been raising awareness by taking a different approach.

Since the beginning of the epidemic, radio stations in Liberia have been unloading countless public awareness songs about the disease. Prompted by the government and aid agencies, the underlying themes tended to paint a dark reality, in which there was no cure and no one should ever have physical contact. Though well intentioned, the songs ended up terrifying people.

The music may have done more than just cause public distress. Some locals feel it even caused the passing of Ebola to increase in the region. “It used to be a death sentence to people, so it scared people away,” said Elliott “The Milkman” Adekoya, a 31-year-old musician and disc jockey for Sky FM, one of Monrovia‘s most popular pop stations. “That’s how people started running away, from one community to another. And people saw it worse, like a curse.”

Adekoya explained that people eventually started to realize that it was possible to survive the disease. This made the downcast music even more damaging to the cause. This disparity inspired local musicians to take a more positive approach.

“The Ebola scenario is something that people don’t want to listen to anymore, because they’re so fed up, so sick of it,” he said. “If you’re making a song – an Ebola song that people gonna listen to now – it has to be danceable.”

Now, one of the most popular songs in Liberia is a refreshingly uplifting hit by F.A. and Soul Fresh called “Ebola is Real.” The song educates people on how to protect themselves from infection, while enforcing a courageous tone in the chorus. Adekoya says the lyrics “The thing, Ebola, now come / The thing now show face” have been especially empowering for young listeners.

“‘The thing now come, the thing now show face.’ That’s the thing that the children enjoy,” said Adekoya. “People go around, people be like ‘No shaking hands my man.’ In the Liberian way when they say, ‘The thing now come,’ it means the thing is here. Now we know it’s here and it has shown its face. So we all understand that’s in our midst now; we gotta be careful.”

The positive message is now spanning the genres, with pop, Afro-pop, R&B, and slow jams all taking on the difficult subject matter with an upbeat approach. Local DJs and musicians are also working on a new project called Save Liberia, which is reminiscent of the famous 1985 collaboration, We Are the World. Save Liberia will bring together 45 of Liberia’s top musicians to generate positive music about the fight against Ebola. “The Save Liberia project is the main thing I’m looking forward to,” says Adekoya. “I just want to see how it’s going to turn things around.”