Posted by: sean | April 18, 2008

The Akonalypse

(Note: I’m trying to keep this blog linear, but I had to skip to this recent story.  More from Harper in the next post.)

There are two rival cell phone companies in Liberia, Cellcom and Lonestar.  Lonestar has been the dominant force, but Cellcom pulled the marketing ploy of all marketing ploys and decided to sponsor a concert by Akon, the Senegalese-born grammy-nominated rap artist.  Akon is a sort of deity in Liberia.  For weeks, Monrovia has been plastered with Akon Live! billboards and getting a ticket has mildly resembled a scene from Willy Wonka (they have been priced out of most people’s reach – $20 and up).  There has been a contagious buzz about his arrival, about the concert, about how the world will be a better place once people see Akon with their own eyes. 

The day of the concert, Akon was traveling from his hotel and was waving out his hummer window with his (Cellcom? Has to be) cell phone.  Someone wasn’t thinking clearly and stole the phone from his hands.  That someone was taken away and beaten/killed by the mob.  I know this, because everyone in town knew this by about 5pm.  Akon is deity. 

Most expats bought VIP tickets for $40 dollars, but I, along with three other guys, opted for $20 dollar tickets that would place us among the true Akon faithful.  Looking back, this is at once one of the silliest things I’ve done and one of the smartest. 

John, a guy from Georgia Tech who is living in a spare room here, gave his driver a ticket to the concert and appointed him Chief of Expat Evacuation.  When things look like they might get crazy, you let us know, right?  The driver agreed and we set off in his inconspicuous car (sadly not a Tercel), since this was no occasion to be seen in a huge NGO truck.  The road to the stadium was packed.  People running along the street, the one-lane road had become three.  I think it was then that we began to realize what we were in for.  Our jocular banter suddenly turned serious:

We definitely need to leave before the last song. 

Do we have an exit strategy?

If shit hits the fan, we meet at the gas station in Congo Town, about a mile away. 

We arrived at the stadium around 6pm and saw a sea of humanity pressed against the gates.  The Liberian National Police were out in force, as were Nigerian UN peacekeepers.  It was a surreal feeling to walk into a concert where the guards had AK47s.  There is no way they can control all these people!  We pushed through the ticket-less crowd to the main gate, a sort of white guy bubble, squeezed through a crack created by two peacekeepers and found ourselves on the grounds surrounding the stadium.

After consulting our tickets to find our seats – “Around the stadium” – we set off to claim a spot.  Our section was raucous and we couldn’t help but stand out.  John stood up with everyone to dance along to the pre-concert mix and was instantly drawing laughs and cheers from an entire side of the stadium.  They noticed him dancing before even I did – and I was sitting next to him…  Note to the Mexican Wave Guy: If you really crave attention, go dance among Liberians at an Akon concert.  We talked with the people around us, made friends, things were going swimmingly.  Then it got dark. 

As the sun set, I noticed a group about five rows behind us at the top of the stadium peering over the edge at the people outside.  One of the guys I was with went up to look over and saw Pandemonium.  Liberians without tickets had climbed over the outside fence and were sprinting madly around the grounds.  The police caught some and gave them a friendly whack with their batons.  I think it was then that we began to get a more concrete idea of what we were in for. 

Whoa! Over there! Look!

On the opposite side of the stadium, people began bursting through.  Hundreds of people.  We watched them hop fences and make there way to our section, where they hoped to blend in with ticket holders.  Our section became cramped and more raucous.  We abandoned our seats and stood at the top of the stadium, so that we could keep tabs on what was happening both outside and inside, thus staying true to our motto: semper expat, semper vigilant.  To our right was a huge gate, maybe 15 feet high, with barbed wire on it.  The gate separated our section from the VIP section – where random people had been telling us to go for a while – You are VIPs, you are over there!  As our section reached capacity, people started to climb the fence, sliding through snarled coils of barbed wire.

We should leave.

Chief of Expat Evacuation what do you think?

This is crazy.

Sage analysis, Chief of Expat Evacuation…  With the mass of people in the rows below us, leaving seemed logistically impossible.  A fight between ticket holders and the free riders, which would spark rioting, seemed imminent, but thankfully Akon’s hummer pulled into the stadium before fists flew.  Akon! In the flesh! A tiny blurred dot a hundred yards away!  People went INSANE.  We went INSANE – it was contagious.  A man in a mohawk and a kilt came on stage to get people pumped for some Akon aktion (surely the easiest job on the planet).  Akon’s hummer, flanked by two rows of police, pulled up to the middle of the field.  Wild, wild cheering.  He took the stage, began the show.  The atmosphere was incredible.

Then, after the first song, Akon said the stupidest thing.  He said something that no one, ever, should say to a mass of people who had recently lived with civil war for 14 years and who think you are a deity.

Yeah, yeah. Liberia!!!  Why are you in the stands? They don’t know who I am. I want everyone down here by the stage! Yeah!

Stupid. Man.

Maybe he was oblivious to the fact that his hummer had to push through a sea of people to get in the stadium.  Maybe he didn’t notice that the fence between the stands and the field was covered with the kind of barbed wire that would make barbed wire think twice about climbing over.  Maybe he didn’t extend that observation and realize that the barbed wire was there for a reason.  The four white guys at the top of the stadium exchanged looks.


We need to leave.

And then the sea of humanity climbed the barbed wire, jumped down fifteen feet to the grass and ran to Akon.

The concert lasted for another half-a-song.  The lighting rig fell as people climbed it, the jumbotron feed went blank, the sound system went in and out, and Akon started screaming, “I need to move!”  To his credit, Akon belatedly realized the situation and shouted into the mic.  Everyone! Let’s tell the police that this is a peaceful concert! There will be no violence tonight!  I don’t want to see any sticks!  The sound system cut out as people stormed the stage.  The police flanked Akon and escorted him back to his hummer.  He sped around the stadium three times with a police mini-bus at full tilt behind him, then left. 

We need to leave now.

As we pushed our way to the exit, past UN peacekeepers and a mob of Liberians still trying to get in the stadium, someone on the PA kept screaming, “UN, get the people off the field! UN, get the people off the field!”  We were lucky to get to our car without incident.

Talking with a colleague later, he hung his head.  Liberians can’t handle it. For years under Taylor, at these kind of events, we were orderly because we had to be orderly.  It was a shame; the Akon concert presented a chance for Liberia to demonstrate that it was ready for Akon-level visits, that it could handle serious event planning and massive coordination.  Shame on Cellcom for testing the limits so soon, some said.

Later that night, over some mighty fine chicken wings, we asked our Chief of Expat Evacuation what he made of the situation.  He was beaming.  When Bush came, I saw him with my bare eye.  Now, Akon come, I see him with my bare eye.  Imagine!   Chief of Expat Evacuation had the kind of wonder in his eyes that is too often missing in the world.  Maybe Cellcom had done the right thing bringing Akon here before Liberia could handle it.  Maybe a failed concert in Liberia isn’t such a bad thing after all.

(Some video from the concert, courtesy of John)


  1. I am laughing – I went to two crazy concerts in Liberia during Taylor’s time – at one I stood in line with others as the police were beating us with sticks. I was the only white woman in line and they were having their fun!!!!! I went to Brenda Fosse’s concert when she mocked the liberians for calling her ugly and hardly sang. She was very drunk and later died of a drug overdose.

    Liberia! I love that crazy place. I have tons of stories from living there now for several years.

    Akon must have been out of his mind…..a good friend wrote me what happened. She was in your section too. I agree that in Taylor’s time life was much more organized in Liberia – by force – and not so many armed robbers…..I often wonder what the UN is really up to there….hahahaha. Making a good living as you will no doubt see.

    Keep the stories coming!

  2. Three questions:

    1. NOT a Tercel???
    2. Do you attend stadium events without violence/hand breaking??
    3. Why don’t you have a book deal??

    Great stuff. Thanks.

  3. I agree with Sarah: you should defo have a book deal. You tell this story in such a funny way, yet there’s so many things about it that highlight more serious – and sad – issues (e.g., that white=VIP). I mean, Frost could use Akonalypse as a seminar title.
    Good stuff, your writing.

  4. PS I’ve been thinking about this some more… If I do agree to name the next offspring Sean, then when you are a rich and famous author, will you leave him/her a small fortune in your will?
    This is the dealbreaker, man.

  5. I mentioned this in my email to you, but I’m wondering what else Akon went through on his world tour, given that he had to come back to Manila because the first time he was here there was an attempted coup and the imposed curfew cut off his performance- though that whole incident seems like nothing compared with hummers + crowds + charging the stage

    Loved this post.

  6. […] Beautiful Game After surviving the Akonalypse you tend to think that you have a certain prowess, a deft ability to navigate poorly managed mass […]

  7. […] On one hand, I felt a sort of personal triumph that I had so meticulously done exactly what was needed to conclude a blog about Liberia, but as I neared the end of the process I began to feel a heavy heart.   On the other hand, I knew that the end was near.  I felt like a kamikaze pilot checking his fuel gauge.  Or like an audience member at an Akon concert. […]

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