Liberia’s most famous rapper runs for Congress

Videos recorded with iPad Air2 (and a Panasonic JVC) and published by FrontPageAfrica in August 2016.

MONROVIA, LIBERIA – The Hipco music stops but the microphone remains open at the downtown bar owned by Jonathan Koffa — aka Takun J. His electoral chances begin with a prayer on August 7.

“Everybody here got talent but everything is dying. People like to shift the blame onto the President but the representatives are there also. We got to stand for ourselves”- Jonathan Koffa, aka Takun J.

He approaches the microphone after a communal “amen” and begins with a DJ’s “one-two.” Dozens of friends and supporters want to know if he will run for a legislative seat representing central Monrovia.

The rapper gestures in rhythm with his words as he confirms the answer by lambasting the current state of Liberian politics, and whom he blames for unemployment, a poor economy and dashed hopes among some young people for a better life.

“Everybody here got talent but everything is dying. People like to shift the blame onto the President but the representatives are there also,” Koffa says. “We got to stand for ourselves.”

A certain form of self-reliance has been the message of Hipco since Liberians first began rapping in their colloquial. But the candidacy of the 36-year-old Koffa suggests that a younger generation who grew up during civil war wants to test whether rhythm and beats can remake government through idealistic calls from musicians, artists and actors for government transparency, social justice and economic development.

“I want for us to take this to another dimension,” Koffa told supporters. “I think we can conquer this battle.”

Celebrities have won elections before in Liberia and abroad, but Koffa faces barriers to replicating their success. He has fame, but no campaign manager. He advocates against corruption but lacks policy specifics. He says he must raise at least $100,000 to run a credible campaign and has to start from nothing.

But with a year to go before the election, a few dozen friends form a base of support with influence over young people throughout the country. Ten thousand votes can put a candidate in a strong position to win a legislative election in Montserrado County, according to 2011 results. But in order to do that, Koffa must organize.

His campaign depends on conventional grassroots tactics — street canvassing, small donations and populist energy, according to Koffa. Incumbent Acarous Gray did not receive mention by name at the August 7 meeting. But he should expect criticism on the campaign trail, Koffa said.

Gray could not be reached for comment by press time.

Famous friends amplify Koffa’s celebrity appeal while also attesting to his long residency in District Eight, which is bordered by Johnson Street on the west and Twelfth St. To the east. A lack of experience in elected office shouldn’t matter to voters even if political opponents might use it against Takun J, said Bernard Blue Benson — aka DJ Blue.

“Leadership is not education. Leadership is the love for your community,” he said at the Aug. 8 meeting.

The road to public life began more than a decade ago when the music career of Koffa began after he graduated from high school. His debut album The Time gained him fans in 2007 but also the ire of the Liberian National Police whom the music described as corrupt. Arrests and a beating followed, but Koffa continued performing as soon as he left jail.

The father of two ventured into humanitarian work while continuing to make music — sometimes at the same time. He became an honorary ambassador for the Ministry of Gender and Development in honor of a 2013 song that tells the story of an abused girl named Hawa. A personal blend of lyrics, beats and melody remains his chosen medium for combatting rape, violence against women and corruption.

But that will have to change in order for the same ideas to translate to the mundane language of governance and legislation. Supporters wonder whether a political campaign might change Koffa and jeopardize a moral clarity that comes with an outsider status. When the idea first emerged among a few confidantes, they treated it like a joke, according to Rabbie Nass, better known as Nasseman.

“We were all shocked,” he said of Koffa’s decision to run. “(But) whenever you see what a brother is trying to put his hand in — especially when it’s for positive change and a positive goal — you have to help him.”

Koffa has yet to file the official paperwork with the National Elections Commission or formally campaign. But with three-dozen supporters already behind him, he hopes that Hipco can bring the voices of his fans to the national capitol building.

The race for the Legislature has become a referendum on whether elected leaders recognize the concerns of young voters who feel ignored by government, said Koffa. A candidacy from the king of Hipco could show just how much power they might have, he added.

“If we take this opportunity, it will help us to know that at least tomorrow we know how far we are going in our entertainment world even our society our community,” said Koffa to supporters. “We will be able to hold people accountable.”