Singing to Stop the Fighting in Sierra Leone

  • Share
  • Read Later
Glenna Gordon for TIME

A recording session at Body Guard, a music studio in Freetown, Sierra Leone

On a gray and rainy Saturday, five young men are gathered at the Body Guard music studio in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital. The modest one-story building has only two rooms and no sign out front. Inside, the walls are lined with a velveteen fabric, the floor is covered in shag carpeting and there's minimal sound equipment — just a dated computer, two keyboards, a microphone and a mixing desk. The men are recording a track called "One Love," as King Fisher, the studio's founder and father figure to all the musicians who pass through it, sits at the computer. The vocalist sings, "Somebody help me/ Somebody tell me/ Why we keep on fighting?" When the chorus comes along, the whole group joins in, dancing around the small room and singing a tune of peace, development and change.

Just a few years ago, five young men in a room in Sierra Leone would have meant trouble. It was men in their teens and their 20s — but also, tragically, children even younger — who made up the Revolutionary United Front, a ragtag armed militia supported by Liberia's President Charles Taylor (now on trial for war crimes at the Hague) that devastated the country during an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002. Everywhere they went they left a calling card of chopped-off limbs, raped women and senseless bloodshed. Tens of thousands were killed and a third of Sierra Leone's 6 million people were displaced.

Today, Freetown is making a slow recovery. Although the war is over, many of the problems associated with it are not. Ex-combatants, a large number of whom were forced to fight against their will, have not been fully reintegrated into society or accepted by their families. The extreme poverty and frequent conflict that made Sierra Leone susceptible to fighting remain. Communities still remember individual wrongdoings, and true reconciliation — somewhere between forgiving and forgetting — has not yet been achieved.

Thankfully, there are people like Body Guard Studio's King Fisher, whose real name is Emrys Savage, working toward peace — and doing it with music. "When you go to a club and the music says, 'Go down, go down,' people go down," says Aruna Hakim Dumbuya, a.k.a. Wahid, one of the musicians at Body Guard on the rainy Saturday. "And when the music says, 'Come up,' they come up. If you say 'Make peace,' people will make peace."

Sierra Leone has always had a very strong musical tradition. It was one of the first places Western explorers and traders landed in the region in the middle of the 15th century and quickly became an outpost for Portuguese and Italian contingents. Later, the British sent freed slaves captured in transit to Sierra Leone. The variety of influences — from different parts of Africa and Europe — created a unique Sierra Leonean sound.

Now a handful of artists are utilizing music's important social role to sing about postwar reconciliation. Songs of peace regularly drift out of Body Guard Studio and are sometimes heard on the radio. Musicians often also spread their message to the countryside through a United Nations development program called Peace Tours, which takes groups of artists and singers to rural areas to talk about peacemaking.

Fisher's politics, and guidance, appeal to all the young men who go to Body Guard. None were left untouched by the civil war and all appreciate the studio as an outlet. During the fighting, says Fisher, "all the progress young people should have been making they couldn't because nothing was working."

Shine Da God Son, one of Fisher's protégés, was one such young person. When Fisher met Shine (real name Abdul Malakhi Kamara), he wanted to be a musician, but also a gangster. He had lost his father during the war, and was hanging out with a bad crowd who settled their problems with violence. "You can't work with me with that kind of attitude," Fisher told him. Shine cleaned up his act and has since produced three albums with several hit songs — including one called "No More Beatin', No More Dissin'" — and is working on his fourth.

Shine talks too quickly, as if he's the only person in West Africa who is in a hurry. He wants to be famous — but he also wants more. He wants to see Sierra Leone move toward peace and development. Fisher believes the path to reconciliation is for young men like Shine to lay down their weapons and pick up microphones. "Even [during the war] the rebels put down their guns when the music came on," he says. "The military and the rebels danced together, and when they're dancing, they don't have to fight."

Fisher says Sierra Leoneans need to forgive each other and hold the people who caused the most harm accountable. Many of the songs that come out of the two small rooms at Body Guard Studio are about corruption and greedy politicians — some of the biggest obstacles to true development. In Freetown, there are signs of progress. The city has a relatively functional municipal electricity grid, cheap and easy public transportation, and a budding democratic government. But, as the song "One Love" recognizes, Sierra Leone still has a long way to go before the animosity that enabled war to sweep over a divided society subsides and true reconciliation happens.

After the group at Body Guard is done mixing "One Love," Fisher plays some old hits over the sound system. When the popular song "Arrata and Squirrel," which compares politicians to vermin, starts pumping out of the speakers, the power goes out. The music stops and everything is dark. But Shine and the others keep singing.