Sierra Leone Music: Getting Political but Failing to Modernize

By Ibrahim Sorious Samura

Music is a major business across the world. The art has attracted huge investment, made many musicians famous and turned them into millionaires and billionaires. African music has also made it big. It has reached the world’s ear.

African Music has evolved over the years. There are several music genres identical to certain countries, regions and cultures.  These music genres help build the identity or origin of the music. The rhythm, lyrics, sound and sometimes the accent or language are all unique features that help in the classification or origin of the music.

The music industries in many African countries have evolved over time. African music is as diverse as the topography of the land itself and comprises of literally thousands of different styles of music. African music has had a significant impact on modern music. However, the need for commercial success is beginning to have a negative impact on it.

There are a few African musicians who have acquired a great deal of wealth. They have become so popular, that you practically have to put down a ton of cash to invite them to grace your occasion. Internationally, they are fast becoming sought after names in the music and entertainment industry, eventually making the continent proud.

The trend has not been the same in Sierra Leone. As the 21st century offers unlimited sophisticated platforms for the development and growth of music through the use of technology and digitalization, how far has Sierra Leone benefited from these opportunities? Our budding music industry is faced with innumerable challenges. At present, Sierra Leone does not its own unique blend of music.

Gone are the days of Ebenezer Calendar’s maringa music, S. E. Rogie’s palm wine music and Docta Oloh’s gumbay and milo music. What we refer to as the contemporary Sierra Leone music today is a hybrid of several tunes. Sierra Leone music reigned in those days. There were very few foreign songs that dominated the Sierra Leone music scene. But we failed to develop and maintain the momentum.

Most of today’s stars focus on afro pop music which was popularized by Sierra Leonean lawyer and musician, Geraldo Pino, who famously influenced the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. When the Jimmy B and King Fisher came in the 1990s, they introduced a mixture of African rap music, pop and afro RnB. Nobody ventured in developing the milo jazz music which late Docta Oloh and others had pioneered. It died a natural death.

For a brief while, the late Ahmed Janka Nabay popularized bubu music. Then, the likes of Pupa Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew entered the scene around 2003 with a distinct music blend of hip hop, funk, dancehall and reggae. They are part of a growing international hip hop movement.

When hip hop and RnB started gaining popularity in Sierra Leone through the effort of artists like Kao Denero, K Man and others, we started trolling the old sound, referring to it as ‘Gbaingbainskay.’ Some of these artists traveled to Europe and America and settled there. The new artist couldn’t build on the sound they met and it faded out. During that period, the Nigerians and Ghanaians were developing their own music. They successfully re-tuned their old fashioned afro-beat and merged it with ours. What we have now is a hybrid of RnB, hip hop, ragga, pop, dancehall and more.

Now, Sierra Leone music cannot compete with other West African music. Foreign sounds totally dominate the Sierra Leone music market. They are more appealing to music lovers than what our artists do. This is a major challenge faced by the industry and has resulted in the decline of our music. The Nigerian and Ghanaian artists are the most sought after in Africa, with the South Africans and Tanzanians not far behind. Locally and internationally, Sierra Leonean artists struggle to break through and get big projects. It’s difficult to get a hit song from a Sierra Leonean artist as compared to the past.

Digitalization has also contributed to the proliferation of music. With the advent of computer, anyone can sit in a corner and produce music. Poor sounds are being released every day. Though digitalization helps in producing young talents, the quality of production has however not been maintained in Sierra Leone.

Another reason our artists are not yielding much success anymore is the lack of modern business mentality. Before the digital era, musicians were making huge sales. The analog system created little or no room for piracy. The Cassette Sellers Association (CSA) had a great deal with the artists but failed to move into digital market when other countries did so. Now that cassettes are no longer available, and the use of CDs is fast becoming obsolete, our artists are making little from records sales.

For instance, when the Nigerians realized that the world had moved from analog to digital, they immediately created online or digital marketing platforms for their music. They built huge social media channels, selling their music on iTunes and other digital markets. They are also earning money from their YouTube channels and other social media platforms. This they achieved with the help of bloggers, who on a daily basis feature them in their stories and increase their popularity on social media. Top Nigerian artists now have tens of millions of followings on social media platforms and have successfully increased their value and influence internationally.

In Sierra Leone, artists have not yet realized the importance of digital market and growth of social media platforms. Hence, they now have a limited source of earning. To date, the major revenue source is to sell gigs, which has proved unsuccessful. Many Sierra Leoneans are weary of attending shows, especially when their songs are not popular anymore. In recent years, the stadium has been empty for many shows.

One key area Sierra Leonean artists have not yet benefited from is endorsement. This remains a major source of earning for many African musicians.  This has to do with structures they have in place for that. There are also favorable policies and atmosphere that support this growth. In Sierra Leone, companies are merely giving our stars pittance in the name of sponsorships.

Poor quality production and packaging has greatly affected the growth of our artists. Paying topnotch music producers is a challenge, same as for producing quality videos. No one will take you seriously when you fail to produce quality. And this is where foreign music has thrived over the locals. Politics is a key player in the decline of our music. Musicians continue to meddle in politics in recent times. Most artists have subjected themselves to dictates the activities of political parties and politicians. This may have accounted for the prevailing divisions in the music industry. The fans are now promoting and following artists based on their political alignments. This is not helping a relatively small market like ours.

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