When Jordan and I arrive Saturday night at Aces, taxis and okadas (West African term for motorbikes) begin to pull up with people streaming into the club. Like New York, when the weekend comes, people in Freetown are ready to go out. The club scene is much different, however. In many ways going out in Freetown, compared to New York, is much more innocent and enjoyable. It’s more of a community affair and there’s less wrangling and flexing over job title, who you know, money, or status. All of that would get in the way of the dancing and fun.
Most of the clubs in Freetown are located on an Atlantic Ocean strip of beach called Lumley. Aces is here, the space partly covered and part open air with a humid ocean breeze. Reviewing the crowd, there’s quite a generational mix in varied dress, from younger patrons doing their best to look like the American rappers and ladies in traditional West African garb. There’s an “African Idol” type custom at many venues to showcase amateur talent at some point during the night, such as dancers and drummers, comedians, or aspiring hip hop artists. And the biggest difference between going out in New York and Freetown is people’s completely festive attitude and lack of any hesitation to dance and move anywhere in the club, whenever they feel it.
With my Yankees hat
donned, I begin my set, playing it safe: newer hip hop and R&B that I am sure the crowd will recognize. The largest response comes from the youngest people, many of whom seem to know all the lyrics, and they give me waves of approval. This is only a small portion of the club, however. Wall to wall, bar to bar, the place is packed and I can see people are looking for something more. So I drop an old dancehall classic, one that I’d heard for the first time years earlier, right there in Freetown, “Murder She Wrote,” by Chaka Demus and Pliers. Boom! Swiftly the entire club starts to commit and the floor fills. After a short stroll through old and new dancehall classics, I mix a safe grouping of hip hop, R&B, and soul classics. I then set myself up to take a chance on my best bet on African music, a large portion of it Nigerian.
A lot has happened in the African music industry within the last three years. Popular African music, its production and organization, is little like the U.S. and can be incredibly difficult to track as an outsider. If you look for pan-African charts like Billboard, or an organized hit-making structure like the U.S., it hasn’t really existed. There are some African musicians, like Youssou N’Dour, who have broken through on the world music scene, but most of the industry has been small and localized to each country. In the past and to some extent today, in order to know what people are listening to, you have to show up in major capitals, go to the clubs, learn of artists through word-of-mouth, and listen to what is being played over and over in taxis, busses, restaurants and homes.
MTV Africa, and the Nigerian music industry in particular, have started to change that. The first MTV Africa Music Awards took place in 2008, with concerts featuring nominees in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Lagos, and Kinshasa. Nigerians dominated the awards, filling many of the nomination slots and taking six of ten top prizes. This has led to incredible pan-African exposure for a new generation of Nigerian artists churning out hit after hit. These include 2Face, 9Ice, P-Square, J Martins, Timaya, and D’banj. Even visiting East Africa, one starts to hear Nigerian hits being played alongside local artists.
I drop P-Square’s romantic classic, “No One Like You,” continuing to D’banj’s, “Fall in Love.” The dance floor is now packed. I notice some pleasantly surprised looks as Bai announces it’s still me mixing, the non-African from New York. I continue the set with Olu Maintain’s “Yahoozee,” Bigiano’s “Shayo,” J. Martin’s “Good or Bad(Owey)” and now the entire club is moving. It’s close to 2 a.m. I am relieved that I appear to have pulled this off and am looking to quit while ahead. Bai gives me one more song and I conclude with an old Kanda Bongo Man soukous favorite, a song I picked up in the same country, then at war, so many years ago. A member of one of the night’s live acts asks me, “How is it you know all that African music?” My response, “It’s Obama’s America. You just never know.”
My set is complete. DJ Bai gives me a nod of recognition, “Great job,” and I fade back into the club with Jordan. For several more hours, Bai keeps the place rocking. Wherever they are, on the main floor, at the bar, on the terrace, people dance. As a special guest, I am pulled center floor African-style several times by the crowd and by the end of the night, I’ve danced so much I am drenched in sweat. There are local expressions for Sierra Leoneans permanently residing in country and those living abroad visiting home: HBs (Home Basers) for those who reside and JCs (Just Comes) for those visiting. One JC who’s been living in the U.S. tells me, “Be careful. I have this problem when I come home. It’s much more fun to go out here. When you get back you may never want to go out in New York again.”
About the author: Jake Bright (shown at left in Sierra Leone in the 1990s) is a writer and DJ in New York. Portions of this piece first ran on Afropop Worldwide.