Singer and musician Lapiro de Mbanga from Cameroon – the “unceremonial sheriff of the backyards” – has died, 56 years old.
Lapiro de Mbanga was a musical “freedom fighter” who articulated the daily injustices he witnessed in his songs – and was punished hard for his right to express them.
On 16 March 2014, Lapiro de Mbanga died of cancer in USA, the country which gave him asylum in 2012 at a time when he had to leave Cameroon under dramatic circumstances.
“Authorities in Cameroon continued to harass and threaten Lapiro even after he was released. He needed to get out of the country, and we needed to find an urgent solution,” told Freemuse Director Ole Reitov. With the help of Freedom Now, Lapiro was given refugee asylum in the United States.
“Lapiro said that Freemuse ‘saved his life’. He often told us that he ‘was ready to die’, but we never felt we were ready to loose him,” said Ole Reitov. “His songs will never die. He will always be remembered as ‘the people’s voice’ against corruption and power abuse.”
A few hours after his death, newspapers in Cameroon described his death as “a huge loss to Cameroonian music.”
» Journalist Daniel Brown has kindly shared this audio file – a recording of a 17-minute interview he did with Lapiro de Mbanga in Montreuil in June 2013: Audio file
» Read Daniel Brown’s Lapiro moves on to the other side
Three years in prison
Freemuse in collaboration with International Pen started campaigning for the release of Lapiro in 2008, but on 9 September 2009, Lapiro was sentenced three years imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of 280 million CFA francs (640,000 US dollars) as compensation for damage caused during riots where protesters had taken to the streets, angered by high living costs and a constitutional change that would allow the country’s president to stay in power indefinitely.
Lapiro’s crime allegedly was that amid nationwide strikes and mass demonstrations in 2008, he had composed and recorded the song ‘Constitution Constipée’, (Constipated Constitution), in which he describes the country’s president, Paul Biya, as “caught in the trap of networks that oblige him to stay in power even though he is tired.” The song became an unofficial anthem of the protests, and Lapiro was arrested and charged of inciting youth unrest.
“My struggle has always been to denounce inequalities, and danger is part of that mission,” said Lapiro de Mbanga when he was interviewed in 2010 during his unfair imprisonment where he shared a cell with 50 other prisoners.
Left: Ole Reitov and Marie Korpe from Freemuse received the Freedom to Create Prize on behalf of Lapiro who was
in prison. Right: The award is handed over to Lapiro in Cameroon by Martin Buch Larsen from Freemuse.
Lapiro’s wife Louisette is seen at the right.
In 2009, Freemuse nominated Lapiro for the Freedom to Create Award, and in November 2009 at a ceremony in London, Freemuse received the award on the behalf of Lapiro – ‘The Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist Prize’. The jury panel, which included renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim, argued that “his songs constitute a cultural megaphone by which the disenfranchised and politically endangered can vicariously exercise free speech.”
The news was conveyed to Lapiro in his prison cell in Cameroon a few hours before the prize ceremony took place at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in attendance of international luminaries such as the celebrated Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Time Out founder Tony Elliot and Human rights activist Bianca Jagger.
A month later, Lapiro contracted typhoid fever and nearly died of that disorder and respiratory complications. In addition to Freemuse’s world-wide campaign for his release, Mondomix compiled a CD in support of Lapiro and campaigned actively in France for his release, the U.S.-based lawyers’ organization Freedom Now monitored Mbanga’s case throughout his incarceration, and in April 2010, the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN also launched a campaign to help win Mbanga’s freedom.
In 2011, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared that Mbanga’s arrest was an infringement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. He was released from prison on 8 April 2011, one day before the official end of his sentence.
Long list of biting texts
Already one year leater, Lapiro surprised the Cameroon government with the release of yet another anti-Biya music album calling on the president to resign, ‘Demissionnez’.
In September 2012, Mbanga, his wife, and three of their children left Cameroon for the United States, where they had been granted asylum after receiving threats on this life. His exile was described by one newspaper as a major loss for the Cameroonian music scene.
Lapiro de Mbanga – his real name was Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger – composed and recorded what Index on Censorship has described as “a long list of biting texts on the socio-economic realities in his beleaguered country.”
His hit songs during the 1980s and 1990s were regularly censored by the Cameroonian government, and he was seen as a spokesman for the youth of his country, using the power of popular music to campaign for social reforms in his native Cameroon during three decades.
Since 2010, a book detailing Mbanga’s trial and the reasons for his exile (Cabale Politico-Judiciaire Ou La Mort Programmée D’Un Combatant De La Liberté) has been said to be “due for release soon”.
Cameroon has still not paid compensation to Lapiro and his family.
The first interview with musician Lapiro de Mbanga after he was released from prison after three years imprisonment. Recorded on 8 May 2011 and posted on youtube.com.
» Read more on: www.freemuse.org/archives/5009
25 November 2009:
Lapiro de Mbanga wins global award
One song — three years imprisonment. Global award to the singer that the President of Cameroon fears for voicing peoples frustrations. Imprisoned musician Lapiro de Mbango is the 2009-winner of the ‘Freedom to Create’ Imprisoned Artist Prize.
» MP3s on Amazon: www.amazon.com/Lapiro-De-Mbanga
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BBC News – 17 March 2014:
Lapiro de Mbanga: Cameroon protest singer dies
One of Cameroon’s best-known singers, who spent three years in jail for his role in anti-government protests, has died in exile in the US.
Cameroon national press
After Lapiro’s death, many reactions were registered in the Cameroon national press.
Here are some of them selected by Jane Bell
Josua Osiho, SDF Parliamentarian
“I am sad. I knew he was sick but I also knew that he will overcome the sickness. Lapiro was someone who contributed a lot on the political and cultural landscape of Cameroon. I am very sad. His departure is certainly the end of on era. I hope his children will overcome this trial.”
Barrister Rene Manfo, Lapiro’s Lawyer
“He used to tell me that if he did not go to prison, he would not have this sickness that has killed him. He felt very disappointed and was very offended when he was chained with Paul Eric Kingue (another prisoner) and trailed through Nkongsamba like a brigand. Too many thinks that lead him to hate his country, reason why he has refused that his corps be brought back to Cameroon. Lapiro was a man thirsty by justice. He was courageous as depicted in his slogan while in jail: “2011 is tomorrow”. Meaning that the sentence will still expire and he will speak forth. For him till his death, he was jailed arbitrarily.”
Adala Gildo, Artist
“I salute this great guitarist I met in the 1980’s. Lapiro de Mbanga was a popular artist, very commited. He was a bit iconoclastic, but it was his style to tease the power. He was not hesitant to criticize the members of the government. I think he has touched his generation”.
Tamne Pius, Musician
“It is a hero that has just fallen. It is thanks to Lapiro that Mbanga’s town is known today. As every man, Lapiro had his passion, his convictions and contradictions. Concerning his death, my wish is that his detractors and admirers notice that he was a patriot who wanted to see an honest and prosperous Cameroon.”
Marcel Nzepa, Lapiro’s friend
I am in pain. When I accompanied Lapiro to the airport when he left Cameroon to USA, he told me: “It will be difficult for me to come back alive”. When he reached the United States, he told me he feel better. He even sent me some pictures. The last time I spoke to him on phone, he told me he was very sick and even asked me to pray for him. On the 31st December 2013, he sent me an SMS saying: “My son, I imagine what you are enduring there. I spend my time between house and hospital”. Lapiro was such a committed artist and just for that, his death is not a surprise to me. I am only surprised that it comes so early.”