Singer Libianca on the pressure to take sides in Cameroon war

Despite having lived in the United States for most of her life, Libianca is unmistakably proud of her Cameroonian heritage.

On Facebook, Libianca’s bio proudly proclaims “IT’S LIBIANCA FROM BAMENDA”. The words are a nod to her family’s home city and the place where she spent roughly six years of her childhood.

Many of Libianca’s fans in Cameroon love seeing their country showcased on the world stage – they have been flooding the singer’s social media comments with the national flag and the abbreviation “CM”.

But not everyone from the Central African nation feels this way. Last month, the musician announced she was postponing her North American tour because she had received death threats for performing with a Cameroonian flag.

The threats, more than 50 of them, had been sent by rebels who want English-speaking parts of Cameroon, like Bamenda, to become an independent state.

“They were sent all over social media… there was a lot in my management email,” the singer, full name Libianca Kenzonkinboum Fonji, tells the BBC.

“Some pretty horrific ones and some that threw in insults threatening me to never step foot in Cameroon or they would kill me on-site.”

The separatists interpreted Libianca’s waving of the Cameroon flag as a show of support for President Paul Biya, one of the longest-serving leaders in Africa.

For over six years, separatist fighters have fought a gruelling war against the authorities, dominated by the French-speaking majority.

They have felt marginalised for decades and oppose what they see as attempts by Mr Biya’s government to force them to give up their way of life, including their language, history, education and legal systems.

When announcing the postponement of her tour, Libianca told her 500,000 Instagram followers that she faced a “relentless pressure to take sides” in a war she “hates”.

“There’s always a side to be on and I’m just not on either,” she tells the BBC.

“Because both of them include violence and I’m not about violence, I’m about love.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that both separatists and government supporters seek Libianca’s backing – she is one of the few Cameroonians with reach beyond the nation and its diaspora.

In 2021, before the success of People, Libianca appeared on The Voice US. She impressed judges with a soulful rendition of SZA’s Good Days and made it to the live shows before being voted out.

Then People – a candid look at Libianca’s experience of the mood disorder cyclothymia – went viral on TikTok. After it was released as an official single, People became Spotify’s fifth most streamed Afrobeats track of 2023 and Libianca made history as the first Cameroonian to break the UK Top 10.

She has since performed at Coachella, won the BET Best International New Act award and her first EP, Walk Away, featured international stars like Chloe Bailey and Oxlade.

Libianca refuses to use this platform to “take sides”, but this decision should not be mistaken for indifference. In her most recent song God’s People, she belts out: “So we steal from the poor and ravishing the blood of the people.”

The “we” in question is both sides – the government and separatist fighters, Libianca explains. She adds that profits from the song that would normally go to her will instead be donated to organisations assisting war victims on the ground.

Libianca moved from St Paul, Minnesota to Bamenda when she was four – her mother was grappling with immigration issues and decided to leave before she was deported.

Libianca has fond memories of Bamenda.

“I remember always singing, being the one to sing the hymns in chapel,” she says.

“I remember writing songs in boarding school… I remember just being joyful, man. Just being a kid, really.”

The once-thriving city is now at the heart of the current war – residents report the frequent killing of civilians and fighters from both sides. They also speak of bombings, shootings, arsons and weekly lockdowns imposed by the separatists.

“[Bamenda] is basically in ashes… there is nothing there,” Libianca laments.

“I got to have an environment that was healthy and vibrant. I got to be a kid, run around and not worry about my safety.

“There are kids who are there right now that are in that age group that lost their whole families, and a lot that also died as well.”

While the war remains on her mind, Libianca is keen to move on from the death threats she received – and was always clear that she was determined to go ahead with the tour, at a later date.

She is currently preparing for a string of European concerts, which will kick off at the end of May and last week, she announced new dates for her North American tour, starting in August.

“I’m excited to just bring some love and serenade people’s souls,” she says.

And although Cameroon’s conflict continues to rumble on, Libianca believes there are grounds for optimism in her beloved country.

“There’s a lot for us to free ourselves from,” she acknowledges.

“But I believe that even if we have 100 people out of the whole country that are like me and are determined to make things work, we can do it together. We can come back from it.” – BBC

By Wedaeli Chibelushi

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