We were only a couple hours from sunrise, but the shouting outside the compound wasn’t letting up. The first concert at Freetown’s National Stadium since the Ebola outbreak began had ended in a cloud of tear gas, and judging by the ongoing commotion in the street, gang members were still intercepting people on their way home.
Nine of us sat huddled in the back corner of a stranger’s property, out of view from the street. One person prayed in Arabic while another sat with his head in his hands muttering something about his “last night on Earth.” Ali just chain-smoked cigarettes.
“This fucking government,” one of them said abruptly. “Attacking innocent people for what, to send a message? For what?” Ali urged him to keep his voice down and he obeyed.
I tried to wrap my head around everything that had happened. The Dec. 12 Kao Denero concert could have been the best post-Ebola celebration yet. Instead here we sat, having been driven from the stadium by ruthless police, then chased through alleys by youths with machetes.
It’s no secret that Kao harbors negative feelings about Sierra Leone’s government – and vise versa – so there was immediate speculation the violence could have been politically motivated. The fact that the Red Flag Movement, the gang attacking people outside the stadium, had long voiced support for country’s ruling political party only inflamed our panic-ridden imaginations. Sierra Leone’s politicians, on both sides, have a long history of hiring youth gangs to commit acts of thuggery and intimidation against their rivals.
Someone was playing Kao Denero’s new single “Hakuna Matata” in the adjacent compound, a love song named for the Swahili phrase meaning “no worries.” As I looked off toward the smoke rising from the stadium, the irony was almost suffocating. We never got to hear him play it.
Kao Denero is one of the founding fathers of Sierra Leone’s emerging hip-hop scene. Although based in the United States since fleeing Sierra Leone’s civil war in the late 1990s, the self-proclaimed “King of Freetown” remains one of the country’s most prominent cultural icons.
That night at National Stadium was to mark the release of Kao’s new album, “Now or Never,” named with regard to the trouble he’s had playing Freetown over the last few years. His most recent attempt, a joint concert with Busy Signal in May 2014, was canceled the day before when the Jamaican dancehall artist, citing concerns from his doctor and management, decided the Ebola threat made traveling to Sierra Leone too risky. The year before that, another album release was canceled after violent fans robbed, looted and vandalized businesses along a pre-show parade route.
The “Now or “Never” release almost didn’t happen either. Kao was arrested and held without charge on his way back from an interview with Freetown’s Citizen Radio on Dec. 9th. He was eventually released after a large crowd gathered in front of the station demanding an explanation for his arrest. Police later said he had been driving with an expired license plate.
“We’ve needed this for a long time,” Ali said as we sat waiting for the show to begin. He had convinced me to come with him, saying I’d be missing something “truly Sierra Leonean” if I didn’t. I was feeling the hype though. Kao had been dominating every radio station. “Now or Never” posters were everywhere. Even the local cell phone networks were sending out reminders of the show daily, as if anyone could forget.
People stood all around us, some floating between groups, others drunkenly wandering. Vendors walked up and down the aisles selling drinks, food, weed (instead of “cold drinks, cold drinks,” they would call out, “highest grade, highest grade) and small fireworks. A vendor approached me asking if I wanted to buy some roman candles to celebrate the end of Ebola. I bought two.
Then a sound like a gunshot came from the stand next to us, stealing everyone’s attention. A grey cloud started to emerge from the bleachers. I didn’t realize what I was seeing until I heard a second noise and was immediately hit in the leg by a can of tear gas. My eyes started watering as soon as I looked down to see it. I turned and started running up the bleachers with everyone else.
I hopped the fence into the other section and found Ali coughing and wiping his eyes. We decided to move to the other side of the stadium to let the situation – whatever it was – cool off before we rejoined our friends. The show was about to start.
It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes into Kao’s performance before police were throwing cans again, this time in another section. People started leaving in droves, and Kao, trying to keep the energy alive, encouraged all this fans to come down from the stands and join him on the field. It almost felt like a real concert again, for a minute anyway.
Police descended on the crowd before the song ended, surrounding the stage from all sides and beating everyone who tried running away with switches and batons. Those who stayed were subjected to more tear gas. Kao pleaded for them to stop but the cycle repeated. The cops would back off, the crowd would slowly approach the stage, and the cops would dive in again. It was too much. Ali and I decided to take a walk outside.
We barely made it through the front gate before people began storming out behind us. Some officers stood at the top of the stadium shooting tear gas down onto those moving through the parking lot. We hurried towards the street.
I turned to get one last look at the stadium, the floodlights casting long shadows of those scrambling to get away from the approaching gas. If the police aggression had been a response to violent behavior from Kao’s fan base, I didn’t see it. But given Kao’s historical ties to Freetown street life, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Dis tracks and rivalries have been a constant backdrop to Kao’s musical celebrity and a long-time feud with fellow Sierra Leonean rapper L.A.J. had by the late 2000s entangled their musical identities with Freetown gang politics. An affection for Kao’s record label, Black Leo, was adopted by gangs from Freetown’s east side while L.A.J.’s Red Flag Movement became synonymous with those from the west. One wore blue and the other wore red. You know the story.
The beef was squashed in 2012 at a peace meeting brokered by President Ernest Bai Koroma, but by then each artist’s presumed political affiliation had become engraved in the collective identities of their gang-affiliated fans. L.A.J. was an outspoken supporter of Sierra Leone’s ruling party, the All People’s Congress, while Kao is said to identify with the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party. Their fan bases tend to fall along those lines as well.
I didn’t see red in the stadium, not until we were trying to find our way home. Large crowds stampeded down the main roads as those in the back shouted forward warnings of approaching police. Ali and I darted into a side street to avoid getting trampled. From there we changed streets whenever we saw a group running toward us.
We turned a corner into a seemingly empty alley, but without streetlights it was impossible to tell for sure. Voices in the darkness turned to shouting as a couple boys ran past us.
Three men in red shirts wielding machetes were sprinting toward us from the other side end of the alley. One was dragging his machete against the concrete as he ran, sending sparks into the air behind him.
“Raaaaaa,” they shouted, Red Flag’s identifying call. I’ve never run so fast in my life.
We spent another 10 minutes ducking through alleys before a man standing in front of his house signaled for us to come inside. It wasn’t until sunrise that we were able to convince a passing taxi to give us a ride back home.
The town’s ripe with rumors about what did and didn’t happen that night, who is and isn’t to blame. Kao accused the police of deliberately sabotaging the show via a Facebook statement issued the next day. The police haven’t issued any statement at all. The local media doesn’t know what to make of it.
Whether the events at National Stadium came as a result of gang rivalries or greater political tensions, one thing is apparent: Something’s happening in Sierra Leone and we might not have to wait until the next election to discover what it is.