Wiefueh Sayeh leans in from the back seat of the car: "You're familiar with the phrase den of lions? D-E-N of L-I-O-N-S?" He spells out the words, partly because his thick accent and rapid-fire delivery often border on the incomprehensible, and partly because he likes to give his comments a certain dramatic flair. He shouts out the punch line over the UB40 beat from the tinny car-stereo speakers: "We, my friend, are headed to the den of Liberians." His companion--we'll call him Marvin--laughs heartily and turns up the volume as the tape reaches a favorite cut. Reggae can never be too loud, he says.
Sayeh is the cutup, Marvin the straight man. They're both exiles from Liberia, living together in a house in north Minneapolis; Marvin requested that his real name be withheld, for fear that becoming a public figure in the U.S. would provoke repercussions for his family back home.
The car pulls up in front of the aforementioned den. It's Pepperoni's, an unassuming corner bar at 36th and Penn Avenue North owned by Taweh Anderson, like Marvin and Sayeh an exile from the West African republic of Liberia. On this Friday night at 9:45, the joint sports the look of your basic neighborhood bar--women with fading perms and old duffers in baseball caps clustered along a gorgeous old horseshoe-shaped bar.
But soon after the clock ticks past ten, the mix changes. Young men and women wander in wearing hip eyeglasses, baggy jeans, suede jackets. Bob Marley blares from the jukebox; friends greet each other with what they call the Liberian handshake, an easy clasp that ends with a quick finger snap. A few people head to the back room and return with paper plates of Liberian barbecue.
As Sayeh and Marvin trek back for the food, the faces of some of the younger men light up. They recognize Marvin. He was a musician, radio host, and full-blown celebrity in Liberia. Which means that he's a celebrity in the Twin Cities. The Brooklyn Park-based Liberian Business and Trade Organization, which promotes investment in and trade with the old country, estimates that between 15,000 and 18,000 Liberians have settled in Minnesota since the start of an on-again-off-again civil war that has ravaged their home country since 1989. Most live in north Minneapolis and the neighboring suburbs, such as Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. George Smart, one of the principals in the organization, says that people often seem shocked by those numbers: "Our community is almost as big as the Somalis'," he notes. "But maybe we blend in more because we speak English as a native language."
"In terms of active communities, I think you have Rhode Island, Atlanta, and Minneapolis," confirms Gabriel Fernandez, Liberia's deputy ambassador to the United States. "Their talents keep the issues of Liberia alive."
At Pepperoni's, Marvin's talents are legend. He played music in Liberia for nearly two decades, starting at the age of 13, when he won a school talent contest by singing a Jimmy Cliff song. His band, the Music Messiahs, is often called "the number one Afro-rock band of Liberia." On tour the group shared the stage with big names such as the Eurythmics.
In 1991 Marvin's fame grew as he started work at Radio Monrovia, the oldest private radio station in Liberia's capital city. He served as a soccer commentator, producer, and host of several prominent shows, including Society and You, Issues in the Press, and the Pidgin Language Program. That last one, Marvin's brainchild, had the largest listening audience in Liberian radio. "Pidgin--colloquial English where we cut words short--gets across to a broader section of society [than] formal English," he explains. "When I spoke Pidgin, I spoke directly to the people. We took up the program as a responsibility to the people, to reinterpret what was going on in our country."
In a city at war, his independent voice became well-known, says Joyce Weah, a 25-year-old Pepperoni's patron. "You have to know [Marvin] if you live in Monrovia."
Marvin says he was lured to Minnesota by a friend who spoke highly of the place. He arrived in February, and by July he was serving as emcee at the Liberian Independence Day celebration held at Hamline University (and featuring a Miss Liberia contest). At functions and in private, he makes a point of reminding fellow Liberians of home: He can rattle off the latest headlines and soccer scores from Monrovia at the drop of a hat, and even his key ring sports a mini Liberian flag.
The flag looks remarkably close to the one waving outside the White House: red and white stripes, a big white star on a blue field in the upper left-hand corner. It was deliberately styled after Old Glory back in 1847, when Liberia was founded by freed slaves who had emigrated to Africa. The settlers named their republic's capital for U.S. President James Monroe and adopted near-carbon copies of the U.S. Constitution and Pledge of Allegiance. But they nixed the voice-straining "Star-Spangled Banner" in favor of what musician Marvin calls "the world's most beautiful anthem," "All Hail, Liberia, Hail." And they adjusted the holidays: "Our Thanksgiving is the second Thursday in November," Sayeh explains. "Our Flag Day is August 24, and our Independence Day is July 26. We moved them a bit to separate them from the memory of slavery."