Walk into Code: 146 on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll find it packed with Liberian locals and expats who go there to hear aspiring artists at the club’s popular open-mic night.
“Everybody was there to have a good time,” said the Nigerian-born photographer Yagazie Emezi, who found herself returning to the club time and again during a four-month trip to Liberia in the summer. “Regardless of what they were going through, people came to express the best versions of themselves, from their clothes to their performances. It didn’t really matter how much money they had.”
Though she checked out a variety of venues during her visit, including a more upscale nightclub, the Capital Room, the casual atmosphere and the constant stream of fresh talent drew her to Code: 146 most weekend nights.
Throughout the club, the bright green walls are decorated with the quotation “Keep Hipco Burning,” a nod to the country’s take on American rap, which is performed in Liberian pidgin English. The club’s founder, Jonathan Koffa, known as Takun J, is one of Liberia’s most prominent hipco artists and uses his music to advance social justice causes.
Takun J was among the few club owners in his country who kept their doors open during the height of the Ebola crisis in 2014, which left more than 4,800 Liberians dead. Residents of West Point, the country’s largest township, less than a 10-minute drive away, suffered the worst of the disease and were restricted under quarantine and an evening curfew.
Instead of shutting his doors, Takun J installed a permanent hand-washing station on the main floor, routinely cleaned the space with bleach and discouraged people from getting too close to each other.
Ms. Emezi, 28, said that it was hard to imagine that less than four years ago the country was under such dire conditions. During the open-mic performances, many of the artists made no mention of their county’s past struggles, but instead focused their lyrics on making money and rising above their circumstances. Even their clothing, which appeared to be inspired by 1990s American hip-hop fashion, had a lightness to it.
Many of the country’s upwardly mobile have strong ties to America and are educated abroad, often bringing back style trends when they return home. Known as Little America, Liberia’s relationship with the United States dates back to the 1800s, when freed American slaves were sent to settlements across West Africa. Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, was named after James Monroe, the American president.
Adrienne Tingba went to Code: 146 to discover new artists. After graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia, she returned home and now works as the executive assistant at the Liberia Coca-Cola Bottling Company. When Ms. Emezi met her, she was wearing a black leather miniskirt with a sparkled camisole tucked in, with her hair in a braided cornrow style with loosely curled ends.
Ms. Emezi also noticed references to the American flag on articles of clothing, including one attendee who wore an oversize leather jacket with a small flag patch adorning his sleeve.
“The people of Liberia know their history and remember their past,” Ms. Emezi said. “There is definitely a clear relationship between America and Liberia. Liberians take that influence and make it their own.”
Braids, hair extensions, trendy colors and dreadlocks were also worn by both the women and men Ms. Emezi met, including one clubgoer who layered short blond hair extensions with her natural black hair.
Rockstar, a popular Liberian choreographer and dancer, layered patterns and textures for his look. “Liberians are just stylish,” he told Ms. Emezi, right before another hipco artist took the stage. “We have a way of dressing to express ourselves.”
Unexpected details also caught Ms. Emezi’s attention, including one male performer who was wearing a red T-shirt with a watering flower pot, accented with a gold chain. She also noticed an older waitress at the club in brocade patterned pants that had Mickey Mouse’s likeness printed just below her kneecaps.
“There were these weird combinations of graphic pictures and patterns on the clothes, but you could tell people had thoughtfully considered their look,” Ms. Emezi said.
Some nights, Takun J, known for his shoulder-length dreadlocks, took to the mic himself and performed a few of his hits. One of his most recent songs, “They Lie to Us,” fuses a highly critical response to the Liberian government’s handling of the Ebola crisis with upbeat melodies. The song’s lyrics “you use us, and later on abuse us” are a commonly heard refrain in the streets in Monrovia.
“This is the place that I started and wanted to raise Liberia up as a nation,” he told Ms. Emezi one night after he performed. “I want to raise Liberia up through music.”