When the scrawny country lad from the village of Nine Mile and his friends formed their band which they called The Wailers, no one could have envisioned that they would spark a global musical revolution with their patois-laced music from their small island country of Jamaica. But as the saying goes, the rest is history. That scrawny lad, Bob Marley, would become one of the world’s most renowned superstars, transforming reggae music and Jamaican culture into a global phenomenon.
Mr. Smith too is scrawny, and his music too is laced with a kind of patois locally referred to as “Liberian English”; and he too is driven to take his country’s music to the world stage, but it seems that’s where the similarities end.
Born Rokenzy G. Smith on March 28, 1978 in the small West African nation of Liberia, a country where the smoldering embers of war are yet to be completely extinguished, it is hard not to feel that Mr. Smith faces an even greater uphill challenge as he struggles to ply his musical skills in his poverty-stricken nation with a fledgling music industry, which is only beginning to claw out of its morass of extinction after experiencing a debilitating dormancy during the country’s 14 year civil war.
But Mr. Smith doesn’t seem deterred. As a matter of fact, he believes it is only a matter of time before the world begins to take notice of him and the fledgling Liberian music scene. After experiencing displacement and hunger during the Liberian Civil War as a 12 year old and then living as a refugee in other West African countries, it seems like his ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel even when the odds are stacked up against him has been forged through the crucible of his life’s turbulent experiences.
“During the civil war, as my family moved around squatting from place to place in search of safety and food, there were times when we had nothing to eat and I vividly remember at one point when we had to drink Lipton tea all day, because we had nothing else to eat,” Mr. Smith remembered.
Becoming a Refugee
After the capture and brutal torture and death of the sitting Liberian President, Samuel Doe, on September 9th, 1990, at the hands of Prince Johnson, one of Liberia’s infamous warlords, who was videotaped drinking Budweiser as he spat orders to his men to cut off President Doe’s ears, Mr. Smith’s family decided it was time to leave the country.
Around the end of that month, the West African Peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, which had entered the country about a month earlier to end the wanton death and carnage which had become the hallmark of the Liberian Civil War, made a ship available to evacuate stranded foreign nationals and Liberians to neighboring countries. Mr. Smith and his family were among the lucky few who boarded the ship and were transported to Nigeria as their nation disintegrated into a bloodbath.
As a refugee in Nigeria, Mr. Smith would complete his high school after which, rather than going to college, he decided to pursue a career as a footballer. As his budding football career took off, Mr. Smith also began to make forays into music.
“I was living in Dubai then and I used to go to the mall and sometimes spend a few hundred dollars purchasing CDs from artists such as Akon, Kanye West, 50 Cents and Fabolous. And the more I engrossed myself with music, the more it seemed the spirit of music took over me, after which, I fully committed myself to a career as a musician,” Mr. Smith intimated.
Getting His Hustle On In the Music Game
Mr. Smith would then return to Africa in 2004 and settle in Ghana, where he joined two other friends to form a group called The Exilers. After releasing their first album entitled: Back from Exile in January 2005, Mr. Smith returned to Liberia for the first time after 15 years to promote the album. Having left Liberia at the age of 12, Mr. Smith was appalled by the deplorable conditions of the country’s war-ravaged infrastructure and even more, by the devastating state of the nation’s people, especially the youths.
…the struggle to forge a viable music career in post-war Liberia is not for the faint at heart. But Mr. Smith sees himself, not unlike young American hip hop artists like P Diddy, 50 Cents and Jay Z, who before the fame and fortune, also experienced innumerable hardships…
Now, more determined to use his music as a soothing balm to alleviate the pervasive trauma of his country’s youths, and notwithstanding the subsequent breakup of The Exilers, Mr. Smith resolved to pursue an international solo career which took him to Manila, Philippines where he would start recording his first professional solo album, which was entitled: I’m An African. Even though the album was not completed, Mr. Smith moved to China to ply his skills there, but after a few months, he returned to Ghana where he completed his first solo album. Then in 2007, he again returned to Liberia to launch his album, at which time, Mr. Smith said he was “shown so much love” by the Liberian public that he decided it was time to commit himself to contributing to the revival of the Liberian music industry.
Returning Home to Revive Liberian Music
Still traveling back and forth, it was not until 2010, after the death of his father, George R. Smith, who had been one of his main supporters in his music endeavors that he finally decided to return to Liberia to help resuscitate the Liberian music industry. Since his return, Mr. Smith has worked with other Liberian artists to help improve the quality of Liberian music. And, together with 9 other artists, Mr. Smith did a remix of the title song on his upcoming album, What’s Up, What’s Up My Man which became a hit on the streets and received abundant airtime on the radio.
That notwithstanding, the struggle to forge a viable music career in post-war Liberia is not for the faint at heart. But Mr. Smith sees himself, not unlike young American hip hop artists like P Diddy, 50 Cents and Jay Z, who before the fame and fortune, also experienced innumerable hardships but stayed the course in pursuit of their passion for music. And so, despite the plethora of daunting hurdles which Liberian hip hop artists face, Mr. Smith forges along, hoping against hope, that somewhere down the line, his musical journey too will share parallels to those successful American hip hop artists.
And, now, with his own one-hour radio program called Hello Liberia on King’s FM where he plays only Liberian music, and the imminent release of his second solo album, which is punctuated with blazing hot tracks like “Hood,” “Bush Lover,” and “I’m Nice” laced together with pulsating staccato beats and a defiantly effervescent lyrical delivery notwithstanding all the challenges, Mr. Smith might just be on the cusp of something big.
Not unlike the scrawny lad from Nine Mile who would revolutionize his country’s music, Mr. Smith believes he too could spark a Liberian music revolution.