Bucky Raw, Takun J, and Liberia’s Hipco Scene

Will Hagle explores an intriguing genre of rap he first heard in an Uber.
By    August 2, 2019

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Will Hagle‘s got his passport stamped in places that probably aren’t legal.

Bucky Raw, the self-proclaimed “Trapco Chuck Norris,” is as complicated as the country where he was born. Raised in Liberia amidst the horrific, trauma-inducing civil war of the late 80s and early 90s, Bucky Raw escaped with his family to Philadelphia at age 9. Following the template Meek Mill and so many others from the city of brotherly love perfected, Bucky Raw honed his loud, brash, technically-sound rapping ability through battles and life on the streets. In 2017, after 25 years in the Liberian neighborhoods of Southwestern Philadelphia, Bucky was arrested on domestic abuse charges against the mother of his children. The government deported him back to his native Liberia in 2018, around the same time he put out his World Billboard charts-topping album CS2.

In the year since Bucky’s return to Liberia, he has become one of the West African nation’s biggest stars. I first heard him in an Uber, zooming through Los Angeles after a wedding at the literal opposite of the still-recovering-from-war, economically-ravaged Liberia: the Beverly Hills Country Club. The songs matched the late night, intoxicated mood perfectly. The artist sang in some sort of English-heavy patois, rapping in precise rhythm over reggaeton and grime-inspired beats. My driver informed me that we were listening to Bucky Raw, the “best rapper” from his home country.

Bucky Raw’s music expands upon the relatively new genre “Hipco,” a uniquely Liberian form of hip-hop that has given a collective voice to impoverished youth from the nation’s capital, Monrovia. The music has the unusual quality of being both politically-progressive and danceable. Undoubtedly inspired by Gucci Mane, Future, and other American rappers whose styles are more present in his sound than other Liberian rappers, Bucky Raw calls his subgenre “Trapco.”

Like Hipco artists, Bucky raps in the aforementioned patois, known locally as Kolokwa. It’s a constantly-evolving, primarily-oral dialect. Artists use it in their music intentionally as a way to both speak to each other in Liberia’s lingua franca, and to undercut the cultural authorities who tend to view it as lower class. English speakers will recognize the occasional phrase in CS2 or its predecessor, the also-good, 21-minute Country Soda. Much of the language in Bucky Raw’s music, however, is specific to the region where he now finds himself. His ultimate talent is being able to translate the emotions behind those words into something universally accessible, and to shine a light on the now-peaceful, steady, and rebuilding Liberian culture of which he and his peers appear so proud.

The preeminent Hipco artist, and individual most dedicated to promoting a new Liberian culture, is Takun J. Takun J, who features alongside Bucky Raw on CS2’s politically-conscious “Pro Poor Agenda,” founded the Monrovian music club Code 146. The club has become a go-to destination for Hipco artists and their fans. Takun J lives above it. It even became a safe haven during the Ebola outbreak. Takun J took extra precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus, installing hand washing stations and encouraging patrons not to get too close to one another. But the club remained open, and the music continued.

Although Hipco is indebted to American hip-hop and other outside influences such as the popular Nigerian music scene, Takun J views the genre as an essential vehicle to form a new national identity. For more than a century, Liberian culture has been inextricably tied to America. The country was founded by an organization called the American Colonization Society, as an African location for freed American slaves to return. The capital, Monrovia, is named after U.S. President James Monroe. White Americans ran the Liberian government for its first 25 years.

When Samuel Doe took over the government in a military coup, the US aided him because he proved to be an important capitalist ally against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. A civil war, not unlike the American Civil War 100+ years prior, broke out in opposition to Doe’s leadership. Child soldiers were employed to fight the battles of city-dwelling warlords. By age 9, Bucky Raw must have witnessed more mindless carnage than any American child stateside.

Liberia has its own tumultuous history, but also its own more optimistic present. Before former AC Milan soccer player George Weah took over in 2018, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served as president. As Africa’s first female president, Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting the peace that continues in Liberia today. Liberia remains one of the world’s most impoverished nations, but it is beginning to move beyond the periods of colonization and civil war that plagued the nation since its inception. Rather than relying on the American and Nigerian music that populated the airwaves for so many years, Hipco gives a new voice, in Liberian dialect, to the country’s downtrodden populace.

Driven by that loosely-defined mission, Hipco music tends to contain an undercurrent of rebelliousness that those in power perceive as a threat. While Bucky Raw’s music occasionally touches on hot-button subjects, Takun J’s music is inherently political. He even has a song called “They Lie To Us,” which has brought him intense scrutiny from corrupt government officials. Edwin Snowe, former Speaker of the House of Liberia, once infamously even pulled Takun J out of his car and punched him. Still, rapping in a dialect understood by most Liberians has helped push the relatively-unwritten tongue forward. The first book written in Kolokwa, featuring women writing about postwar Liberia, is scheduled to be released later this year.

The issue of the domestic abuse charges against Bucky Raw is—again, like Liberia itself—complex. His 2017 arrest called to question the relatively accepted culture of hitting women in Liberia and Liberian communities stateside, which was summarized more eloquently than I ever could in this article about Bucky’s charges. A quick perusal of Bucky’s Twitter seems to indicate he has a somewhat healthy relationship with the mother of his children and misses his kids greatly, although of course that doesn’t reveal anything about the charges against him.

He also has a line in his “Respect The Game” freestyle, conducted entirely in a super Philly-style American English, where he says, “Despite the love I have for my family, I hate this world / Verbal abuse from domestic violence like I hit my girl.” Takun J, by contrast, has been named Liberia’s Gender Based Violence Reduction Ambassador. For what it’s worth, it appears as if Bucky Raw has assumed responsibility for his actions and is trying his best to move forward. That’s not to say he should be granted a pass just because he’s a talented artist, but being deported to a country he hadn’t known since he was 9 years old, thousands of miles away from his children and friends, is certainly at least somewhat of a just punishment.

What could have signified the metaphorical or literal end of Bucky Raw’s personal life and career, however, has instead transformed him into a homegrown superstar. “Woomi” is a Boogie-like hit on par with “Oh My” in terms of both the way Bucky Raw raps on the song and the amount of supporters who showed up for the video. He’s decimated artistic opponents like Liberian artist Christoph with beef tracks like “Open Casket,” which brought a classic sense of American musical drama to the Liberian Hipco scene. He’s tweeted that his deportation has been a gift and a curse, estranging him from his American family and home while making him the Trapco legend he aspired to be.

Even in America, Bucky Raw’s music sounds urgent and important for these uncertain times. The songs on CS2 blend the best of American trap with the relentlessness of Philly street rap, plus grime rhyme styles, West African and reggaeton-inspired rhythms, and distinct Liberian phraseology. Self-released via “Child Soldier Entertainment,” CS2 is a thoroughly enjoyable body of work, paced well with upbeat, high tempo hits and the occasional slow jam. It’s the perfect introduction to a flawed yet hopeful man, who’s found himself back in a home country that could be described the same way.

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