Lapiro De Mbanga, one of West Africa’s biggest names in music who fought against political corruption in Cameroon, died of cancer this month after living in exile in America the past two
In a country with one of the lowest working wages for its people; where homosexuality is illegal and a government which censors musicians and journalists for questioning its dictatorship rule, where does Cameroon’s future lie?
Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, who calls for peace in his latest song One Africa, said: “A song can get the message out there quicker than a political speech.” But it is the People’s Democratic Movement Party and Cameroon’s President since 1982, Paul Biya, who has censored musicians, jailed them and according to De Mbanga “tried to kill me twice” for messages in songs.
De Mbanga, who sang and rapped in pidgin – a mixture of English, French and local languages, has over 30 years of hits, which were regularly censored for their political themes. He gained millions of fans from a population frustrated and disenfranchised in their country.
It was 2008’s track Constitution Constipée (Constipated Constitution) that upset the powerful political party most. It criticised President Biya’s proposed constitutional amendment which would remove Cameroon’s two-term presidential limit, to allow Biya to stand for re-election.
Despite being banned by TV and radio, the song became an inspirational anthem among the student demographic who held protests pushing for reform. De Mbanga was blamed for his music influencing riots in which 40 people were killed and after an unfair trial he was jailed for three years.
The Danish-based NGO Freemuse (Freedom of Musical Expression) led an international campaign for De Mbanga’s release. In partnership with human rights activist Deeyah Khan and Grappa records, Freemuse released the album Listen to the Banned (2010) full of censored artists which featured Constitution Constipée. In an interview De Mbanga said: “If Freemuse hadn’t publicised my case worldwide, I’d have been dead long ago”.
Following his release from jail in 2011 De Mbanga produced more anti-Biya songs and in 2012 he received political asylum in the US.
A book De Mbanga began working on last year, The Planned Death of a Freedom Fighter, is set for release this year. Also due in 2014 is a film about the country’s censorship laws from exiled Cameroonian radio journalist Issa Nyaphaga. De Mbanga’s fight to expose corruption and speak up for the rights of the Cameroonian people lives on.