Liberian Independence, Staten Island Style

Image credit Glenna Gordon.

This past Spring I wrote an article for the Red Bull Music Academy about the music and nightlife communities clustered around African neighborhoods in New York. A key motivation behind writing that article was to bring some visibility to the many diverse communities of African immigrants within the city that aren’t always visible to the average New Yorker. It never fails to surprise me that when I take a trip uptown or to my favorite African eatery, I come across an advertisement for an African event or concert by a famous African artist plastered on the walls that never received mention in the big New York entertainment publications, African or otherwise. I used the opportunity to write the article to do a general overview of the city, but since space wouldn’t allow me to go into too much detail about specific neighborhoods in that single article, I wanted to write a few blog posts to highlight some of the individuals I met while researching and shooting photographs for the story. Since today, July 26th, is Liberia’s Independence day, there’s no better place to start than Staten Island.

Staten Island is the borough least known by the general population of New York. Tourists take advantage of the free ferry to catch glimpses of downtown Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, but rarely venture past the port. However Staten Island, home to an amazingly diverse array of people from Mexico to Sri Lanka to Russia, is interesting enough on its own. West Africans, especially Liberians, make up a significant population of this diverse community. Staten Island’s Park Hill neighborhood is popularly known as Little Liberia, and the story of this amazing mini-Monrovia has been chronicled by several very talented people throughout the years. As someone who is familiar with the contemporary Liberian music industry, and interested in local music scenes in general, I was keen to find out what music was being made there, and what connections Staten Island musicians have back to home.

One surprising thing that I found is that Staten Island is an essential underground tour stop for African entertainers in New York. Sierra Leonean artists like Shady Baby have performed there, as well as Ghanian actors, and Liberian artists from around the United States. YOK 7, a rapper I met and hung out with in Freetown will be performing there this August 11th. Park Hill, the neighborhood that happens to have been the birthplace of the Wu Tang Clan, is also the home of a collection of Liberian rappers such as the 23 year-old Trigg.

I was introduced to Liberian rappers on Staten Island after Glenna Gordon put me in touch with Musa, a photographer and music producer who lives in Park Hill. The day I ventured out to meet Musa, he took me up on the roof of the Park Hill building complex where he was doing a photo shoot with a couple of local groups (not the below video, but similar).

I have to admit I was a little disappointed, because music they shared with me seemed to have very little of the specifically Liberian identity I had come to know and was excited about in the Hipco and Gbema I knew from Monrovia. But this reaction, a common judgement aimed at immigrant youth of all backgrounds, would be reconciled after my next visit (and after a little philosophical self-reckoning).

On the day I brought the Red Bull photographer to Staten Island, Musa introduced us to Trigg. The young rapper posed for pictures around the neighborhood as he traded a mix of African-American vernacular and Liberian English with passers by. We could tell that he was well regarded in the community, and the familiarity of everyone around almost gave the very concrete jungle-like complex the feel of a rural town. We talked with Trigg and Musa a lot about the shape of the local industry and their connections back home. After getting further insight on the dynamics of the local scene, I couldn’t help but notice some interesting parallels in the local politics of both Staten Island and Monrovia. I listened while Trigg commented on the lack of respect Park Hill rappers get in their own community, and about how rappers from Philadelphia would come in and get preferential bookings at community shows. This is a phenomenon I would hear about regularly in Liberia in regards to artists from outside the country.

We topped off our visit with a lunch of palm butter soup courtesy of Trigg’s mother. While we ate, we sat and listened to a generation of Liberian youth raised in America, politic in Liberian English about life in Staten Island. I couldn’t help but marvel at the dual nature of the immigrant experience. Many of them longed to visit home, a place many of them left as babies, but were very much engaged in a contemporary Liberian society that exists on this side of the ocean. This Liberian society is intimately intertwined with African-American culture – underscored by Liberia’s complicated history with the United States. At any given moment you can hear a group of Liberian youth comment in Liberian English on everything from French Montana to Trayvon Martin. I don’t want to romanticize Park Hill too much, it isn’t a neighborhood without its problems. However, it really is the perfect place to escape to when longing for a little taste of Liberia and New York. I’m sure today there will be quite a party going on.

To get deeper sense of the Park Hill neighborhood, I recommend picking up Jonny Steinberg’s book Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City. Also, check out more of Glenna Gordon’s extensive work photographing life in Staten Island.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.