Laura Lindegaard was in Liberia for RAPOLITICS. Read her blog about krump, hipco and Liberia’s youth. The sound of heavy breathing and feet rhythmically stomping the floor hit me from across the room. I’m looking at Abraham Vahn through my camera. He is 21 years old and a krump dancer. The only sound I hear is the heavy breathing, the sneakers as they stomp the floor and the sounds of a body making aggressive movements. It looks almost as if he is fighting an invisible enemy. The hip hop beats that would normally accompany the dance only play in his headphones. It gives an almost poetic feel to the moment as I capture the movements of krump in a house in the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia.
I’m in Liberia with RAPOLITICS to find two dancers who will go to Denmark in September 2012 to conduct a number of workshops with Danish youths. Abraham Vahn is one of the two dancers. Through the RAPOLITICS youth project “Exaggerate”, funded by the Danish Center for Culture & Development (DCCD), the Liberian dancers will teach Danish students about krump and tell them about life as a youth in Liberia.
Krump emerged as a hip hop dance form in the ghettos of Los Angeles, USA, in the beginning of the 00’s by young Afro-Americans. The main inspiration came from “clowning”, another dance style from LA created by Tommy the Clown, but while clowning is playful and teasing, krump got a distinctly more aggressive and expressive feel to it. Krump became a form of expression that was not merely a dance form but also a lifestyle, presenting itself as a faith based art form. Krump stands for Kingdom Radically Uplifted Mighty Praise and draws on inspiration from the bodily possessions churchgoers experience in the Afro-American church where body shaking and cramps show as the physical manifestation of possessions by the Holy Spirit. However, even though Liberia is a highly religious country and religion plays a major role in everyday life, there is no immediate connection between the church and the great popularity krump has gained in Liberia.
In 2009 some young guys from J.J .Roberts High School in Monrovia stumbled upon some krump videos on Youtube. They liked the style and started practicing. Hip hop dance was gaining popularity in the capital, but it took another few years before krump and hip hop dance really took off. Today most school kids in Monrovia know krump, who the best dancers and dance crews are and where and when the next show or competition is taking place. Which is practically every week. Recently a TV show similar to X-Factor, but with hip hop dancers, started on national TV and another reality TV show about dancers is in the making.
In a country like Liberia where the luxury of having a hobby is reserved the few, dancing and particularly hip hop dance and krump is a way of expression that allows for the average (often poor) youths to show off their skills, gain popularity, express themselves creatively and form friendships as they join dance groups. Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world. From 1989-2003 the country was torn apart by horrendous civil wars that killed 250.000 people and had 1 million fleeing to the neighboring countries. In a country with only 3,4 million citizens, everyone was affected. The physical infrastructure was destroyed, but also social norms, culture and creativity suffered.
Liberia is facing an interesting yet difficult time. It has been eight years of reconstruction, yet the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) still has 8,000 peacekeepers stationed in the country and there is no prospect of an early withdrawal. One of the greatest problems Liberia is facing is the extremely high unemployment rate, which particularly hits the youth, who cannot find work and therefore can’t gain independence from their families. The frustration of the youth who don’t feel that they are being heard is in itself a threat to a permanent stability.
However, young people of today’s Liberia are the first (post-war) generation whose teenage years were not lost in the civil war. And they are now in a position to create and define their own culture where the fast spread of access to mobile phones and (a still very slow) Internet play a major role. One of the things the youths are defining themselves through is hip hop dance. Another thing is hipco music. Hipco is the Liberian version of hip hop music. The -co stands for colloquial – everyday Liberian English. The lyrics reflect the everyday problems Liberians experience; from police harassment to the love of chicken soup or relationship issues and the hipco rappers are seen as local heroes who publicly express life as young people in this small West African nation experience it. Hipco plays an important part in giving the youth a voice in the public debate. In 2007 one of the most famous hipco artists, Takun J, was arrested and beaten by the police for a song about police bribery. Since then, the musicians have gained more freedom of speech as they have the support of the people and particularly of the youth, who is the majority of the population. Music plays a role in exploring the limits to freedom of expression and plays an important role in keeping the discussion of censorship and free artistic expression alive in the fragile democracy.
Even though there is a long way to go, both hipco and krump are cultural contemporary expressions that are instrumental in shaping post-conflict Liberia in a positive and necessary direction. There is a great need for attention and support to the creative expressions of the youth in Liberia.
RAPOLITICS’ krump project is a small but significant contribution to the dance scene in Liberia. Almost no adults, and even less so foreigners, have yet paid attention to the interests and artistic talents of the youth. Because of the lack of financial output one can gain through arts in Liberia, creative expressions are not encouraged by the older generation. By providing young dancers with the opportunity to go to Denmark, not only the ones going but also other skillful dancers step up their game in order to change their future opportunities for the better. Abraham Vahn told me that the salary from the workshops in Denmark will pay his enrolment and student fee at the University in Liberia. Dance is his passion, but he knows the importance of education.
Laura Lindegaard holds a Master’s degree in Cross Cultural Studies from the University of Copenhagen. She wrote her Master’s thesis on youth and performativity in post-conflict Liberia. Since 2010 she has lived in Liberia on/off for a total of 10 months interning for an NGO, conducting empirical research for her master’s thesis and working on a documentary.