Creative Sector Undermined

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Has President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf transformed the creative sector (music, movie, fine arts, etc)? That was her promise: To bring out a new era in the creative sector that would empower a new generation of people. These budding new artists would then utilize their talents and innovations for their own wellbeing while at the same time contributing to the growth of Liberia’s middleclass.

But in her recent annual message on the state of the republic, President Sirleaf may have proven critics’ arguments right – that she does not care about the creative sector – for failing to highlight the sector as she did all other sectors that have the propensity to contribute immensely to the economy, if prioritized.

Many critics have argued over the years that surely President Sirleaf is aware of the revenue that can be generated from the creative sector; but the President has decided to ignore calls from artists for investment in their sector.

Critics expressed disappointment that in all of President Sirleaf’s annual messages on the state of the republic, she failed to mention the sector, even in one paragraph, despite several of its members bringing accolades back to the country and gaining international recognition.

Liberia’s Kanvee Gaines Adams is an internationally recognized and award-winning gospel artist, and is the sole Liberian nominee for 2016 Kora Awards (the pan African equivalent of the Grammy).

Queen V won The Next Movie Star (2008). A winner of many accolades, Liberian-born Frank Artus was honored by the 5 Continents Awards as the Face of Africa and as a Humanitarian for 2015. Liberian Vice President Joseph Boakai was present at the ceremony, and an award was presented to the government of Liberia.

In the Nigeria-based reality series, “The Next Movie Star”, Liberia’s E. Owusu Dahnsaw won the ‘Most Photogenic Competitor’ award, the ‘Mr. Game Changer’ Award and came third place overall.

Critics pointed out that the creative sector was instrumental in helping Madam Sirleaf win both terms in office, and in the fight against the deadly Ebola virus. Liberian musicians, actors, cultural practitioners, producers, filmmakers and writers made their presence felt I the battle against Ebola with their various songs, short films, stories and drama presentations. “Ebola in Town” by Soul Fresh, F.A. and DenG was a hit, adding music to the warnings to the public about how to win the fight against the deadly virus. Arguably, without the creative sector, the fight against Ebola would have been even more of an uphill battle. As most skits and jingles were produced in Liberian parlance, otherwise known as “colloqua,” the messages were able to reach the masses both in Monrovia and in the hinterlands.

The Ebola symptoms’ mural opposite Sam’s Barbecue was done by Liberian Artists Together for Advancement (LATA). Flomo Theater also produced radio skits and did performances in different communities. Crusaders for Peace, led by Ambassador Julie Endee, also produced musical and theatrical performances.

The creative sector was instrumental in helping the President win both campaigns for the presidency. Most notable was Sundaygar Dearboy’s 2005 hit song, “Give us Hope, Ma Ellen”, a sampling of the original song, “Gimme Me Hope, JoAnna” by Eddy Grant; and a 2011 remake of the “Pressure” (Pressure Boys, Nigeria) song, for President Sirelaf’s second-term campaign.

The President has downplayed the sector regardless of the fact she herself is the owner of intellectual property. As the author of “This Child Will Be Great,” the President’s autobiography, she has not ventured to sell her book on the Liberian market, perhaps due to the risk of users photocopying without purchasing it. The book is only available for purchase overseas.

Local artists are facing the same intellectual property rights infringement problems here. Unfortunately, they are not able to market their music on www.amazon.com. Their music gets copied on the streets on USB drives for little or nothing since the government of Liberia, through the Ministry of

Commerce, refuses to utilize the available technology and enforce the relevant laws. As such, their works become more of a labor of love than a source of income. They are famous in name only, but have not much to show for it in terms generating wealth and improvement in their standards of living.

For them the big question now becomes, what can a president do to transform the creative sector? The copyright law has been repealed to meet international standards, and at some point in time her government allocated money in the budget for some creative sector organizations (collective societies).

In response to the her recent annual message on the state of the republic, three creative sector veterans talked to LIB Life about the President’s negligence of the creative sector.

Abraham Kallon is a veteran singer and a presidential aspirant for the Liberia Music Union.

“We have a president who herself is an artist (author) and is aware of the difficulties facing creative people, but opts to always sideline this sector. From the onset, some of us knew that the new era envisioned could not work, [and] the President for the past ten years has failed to include the creative sector in her annual speeches and give her government’s support. This definitely means that she cannot help.

“It is not about just repealing copyright laws and at one point allocating small budget for some collective society,” Kallon argued, “but helping to forge investments in the sector that can sustain the new era.

“Now it is just a simple ideal, if [the] vast majority of this young generation, who are talented and innovative people, have been invested in by President Sirleaf’s government, they could in return invest in the economy by opening businesses and employing people as well as extending help to families; thus the middle class will increase.

“This is totally frustrating, and the President has over the years failed to show some level of commitment to empower the creative sector, regardless who [they] are.”

Leslie Lumeh is an internationally known Liberian artist who has been profiled by CNN. He is also Executive Director of the Liberia Visual Arts Academy (LiVArts).

“That the President has disregarded the creative sector that could help to rescue the already struggling Liberian economy is not anything new,” Lumeh said. “And this is a clear indication from the President that creative people are not important in economic participation.

“For years, we have been calling on this government to prioritize this wonderful sector. Countless proposals have been sent to her office detailing how investment can be made in this sector and the amount of revenue it can generate for government. Yet she has not dreamed a single day of making any such investment.

“For renowned artists like me, we are aware that the Liberian leader will do absolutely noting to empower this creative sector until she leaves power, but this is also a warning sounded to [artists] not to use their talents to run campaigns for politicians.”

Henry Johnson is the Vice President for Administration of the Liberia Movie Union.

“Believe it or not, President Sirleaf does not care about the innovation and talents of young people,” Johnson said bluntly. “She reads the local dailies every time where we have constantly cried for investment [such as] public theaters [and other] creative avenues where the collective [creative] society can get loans to build modern studios, public galleries and other [creative industry support structures]. But still nothing has been done.

“To let you know that President Sirleaf does not care at all, the Liberianization Policy and the Small and Medium-Sized Business Act under her presidency did not regard [artists] as people engaged in business (business owners), and there is no clause in these two laws that calls for a certain amount of the government’s budget to be invested in the creative sector annually.

“Such a law that denies [creative] Liberians [opportunities] is totally disheartening; and if the President, who herself [has produced a book], can sit there without doing anything, means that creative people are doomed if [one] cannot fight for [one] self.

“If the creative sector was supported, it would not only increase Liberia’s middle class, but would be a part of Liberian diplomacy that could make us exceptional people [and] help control the influence of some damaging western culture.

“Today, our economy is struggling badly to the extent that ordinary citizens are the ones feeling the pain; but if this creative sector [had been] empowered long ago, things could have been different today.”

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