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by World Music Network October 09, 2014


Liberian Musicians Fight Ebola With Songs

Music cannot heal Ebola. But it may be able to help stop the spread of the deadly virus.

In Liberia, aid organizations and local musicians are coming together to battle Ebola, transforming pop hooks into platforms for health advice.

“Wash your hands with soap, cook the food you eat,” suggest F.A., Soul Fresh, and DenG in their song, ‘Ebola is Real,’ the most popular of the Ebola-themed hit songs.

The song started as a collaboration between Adolphus Scott, a Liberian communication specialist for UNICEF, and a collection of popular Liberian DJs.

“If you want to send out a message really quick, it’s through the radio,” Scott told Q's Jian Ghomeshi. “The best way to do it is through an audio production.”

In a country where only 43 percent of the adult population is literate, songs publicize UNICEF’s message more effectively than flyers. The song’s tropical hip-hop beat also appeals to Liberia’s burgeoning youth population. According to a recent UNICEF study, almost half of the country is under 18.

Ebola spread quickly through the West African country partially because of cultural practices. Typical Liberian burial rituals include washing and kissing the dead, bringing the living in direct contact with the saliva, blood, and sweat of deceased and potentially transmitting the virus.

Posing more problems, many Liberians originally thought Ebola was a government conspiracy. Two civil wars between 1989 and 2003 contributed to political instability and distrust of the government, noted the Atlantic’s Uri Friedman. “Some see the country's anti-Ebola drive as a government conspiracy to secure foreign aid or marginalize certain sectors of society,” wrote Friedman.

DenG, for instance, admits that he did not originally believe in Ebola. “When I first heard of Ebola, just like the majority of Liberians, I believed it was a made-up conspiracy,' said DenG in an interview with the World Music Network. 'By the end of July, I was hearing of people dying ... dead bodies lying in the streets for days, I came to terms with reality and knew Ebola was real.'

Charles Yegba, another Liberian artist with a song about Ebola, did not initially believe in the virus. That all changed when he saw a crowd of people around a man who had collapsed with symptoms of Ebola on the streets of Monrovia.

“At that moment, I started to believe,” Yegba told a reporter from the World Health Organization. Though this range of Ebola pop has spread new information, some songs also reinforce popular misconceptions.

“No touching. No eating something!”

That’s the vague warning of Shadow and D-12’s immensely popular ‘Ebola in Town.’ The duo recently won four categories at the Liberia Music Awards in Atlanta for the song.

There’s no question about the song’s popularity. But are they sending the right message? Or rather, is the message specific enough to make a positive impact?

'The artists have good intentions,” Scott told Q. “The clearly defined messages that are approved by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, UNICEF, CDC, WHO… these approved messages [are] what we want to send out and nothing outside of the key document.”

While the lyrics differ from the message officials want to send, some might find hope in the health-conscious dance ‘Ebola in Town’ has inspired.

Just three days after its release, Liberians created a dance to accompany ‘Ebola in Town,’ reported NPR. Dancers imitate kissing from a distance, a sign of adaptation in a country known for intimate greetings.

In a time of death and despair, it’s a good thing people are even dancing.

That’s one thing music is always good for.

Lead photo courtesy of UNICEF Liberia/2014/Ahmed Jallanzo