MONROVIA, Liberia—Jonathan Koffa, known to his fans as Takun J, wore fake diamond earrings and a rhinestone-studded D&G necklace that was missing most of its bling. One day in March, he and several other Liberian rappers gathered around a plastic table next to a blazing strip of asphalt in downtown Monrovia. Only a flimsy umbrella separated us from the punishing midday sun, and the musicians sweated into their do-rags.

They were members of L.I.B. Records, one of Liberia’s most popular rap outfits, which is not a record label in the traditional sense but a group of like-minded artists who sometimes perform together. Unlike the American rappers they admired—50 Cent, DMX, Jay-Z—their lives lacked any hint of glamour. Most were in their 20s and lived at home. They walked everywhere, because in Liberia, even a rapper with three simultaneous radio hits couldn’t afford a bicycle. On nights when he ran out of food, Takun J told me that he ate hot cereal with sugar before bed, just to have something in his stomach.

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