Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars send message of freedom through uplifting music

UAA’s Juneteenth celebration commemorates the end of slavery in America. In honor of the event, The Refugee All Stars will perform on campus and tell their stories through music of the civil war in Sierra Leone that destroyed their homes. During their time in a refugee camp, the six musicians formed a musical group and later became the subjects of an award-winning documentary titled “The Refugee All Stars.” Their first album, “Living Like a Refugee,” demonstrates their bond during the civil war and sheds light on their own experiences through the freedom of music. Their music was also featured in the film “Blood Diamond.” The group has collaborated with band members of Aerosmith, and since then they’ve performed internationally. The Northern Light interviewed songwriter and band leader Reuben Koroma on June 7.

In the past, the Juneteenth celebration at UAA has been a reminder of America’s history of emancipation from slavery. How does your music reflect this idea of freedom?

I think this is the best situation for our music because our music talks about total freedom. As long as we are citizens of the world, we should be free in the world. I don’t think people can say that we are free when we always fear that war will break out tomorrow. Most of what we have created or offered to develop can be destroyed in just a minute. That is not freedom. Our minds should be free; we should not fear. There should be no fear in anyone’s mind.

Right now, what is freedom when global warming is threatening? Are we free when we think that a powerful nation will crush lives tomorrow? Are we free when leaders are making bitter arguments that tomorrow they will disagree? Total freedom is like a free mind, when you have no fear that anything will happen tomorrow.

What message do you want to convey with your music?

The message is that people should help to make this world a comfortable place. People should stop creating war that will make people think as if the world is not a good place to live. People should start thinking of peaceful solutions to things. War can never be a problem-solver. When you say coincidences of war, people see the danger behind it. They will straight away know it’s not good. Let’s think about all the better ways of living.

Your documentary touches on life in the refugee camps and follows the group’s musical career. In reference to the documentary, how do you think it portrays the band?

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The documentary is a door-opener to our progress. It tells an amazing story that will help people overcome obstacles and will really tell people about how horrible the coincidences of war are. I think the world should find ways that problems can be solved without wasting blood.

Can you describe how your sound has progressed from when you first started playing as a group to today?

This group has made a lot of progress. We have won many international awards, and we have been to many, many places. We have played international festivals that we were fortunate to meet with international people, like Aerosmith.

You’ve had hip-hop names such as Ice Cube interested in your music. How does having a rapper such as group member Black Nature (Alhaji Jeffrey Kamara) contribute to the group?

Black Nature adds the modern flavor into the group. He has been all over the world. The youth like hip-hop rap because of the modern flavor. Our music has become very popular and even in our own country. We’re really happy that Ice Cube has offered great assistance to us.

What is the status of musicians of popular music in Sierra Leone? What does it mean to be a musician in Sierra Leone?

Hip-hop music outweighs music among the youth. Among the adults, I think reggae music and African music are really loved by this class. Most of the musicians are locals trying to get down on the government, talking about corruption and many things. Most of them are really focused on their attention to criticize the government.

Why the upbeat rhythms when your lyrics speak of dire situations?

I always tell people sorrow cannot quench sorrow. We went through horrible things; I think that we should not use sad music to explain these things. It would be too much for people to understand. I just suggest, when making a sad message, making it in a happy mood will let people understand the sad story. It talks about sad suppression, but it invokes you to jump and dance, too.

Who do you see as your primary audience?

As of right now, a global audience. I was playing music to entertain the people around me, and the people around me were coincidentally (people of) Sierra Leone. I was playing music for my country people. I never expected to be loved by all people of the world. I don’t think people can get crazy over things that are not wise. I think people think that my music is inspirational, and has dynamic melody.

What is your reaction toward President Bush’s initiatives announced this past Tuesday in relation to Darfur?

To me, I think that the best thing is something that the world should do, not just President Bush. This is a concern for a world. I think that the world should care that lives are perishing and should have to stop. I just think that the best initiative should be to stop the genocide in Darfur.

What would be one or two themes you want the American audience to know or gain appreciation for?

The only thing I want the American audience to know is that they are human beings and should really care for the other human beings. Whatever evil is happening to the other person should be a concern to everybody. And if there is a way to help this situation (in Darfur), I think they should do that.

The Refugee All Stars will be performing at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium on June 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at or the Student Union Info Desk. Admission is free for UAA students with current ID, $20 for adults.