Music is universal. Our understanding of it goes beyond the barriers that typically make us different. All it asks of us is to feel it and let it take us to where we want to be. This sentiment is mostly true – until you factor in Cameroon, a bilingual and bicultural country with a minority Anglophone population. This group is caught up in a brutal crisis caused by what Anglophones perceive as more than half a century of marginalisation.

This year, Cameroon witnessed the 12th edition of the Canal 2’Or award ceremony, the country’s most prestigious honour that recognises contributions in the fields of music and cinema. Since its inception in 2004, Canal 2’Or has honoured artists for their contributions in entertainment. The problem is that, although couched in national terms, this honour has mainly recognised the works of Francophone artists. For the occasional nominations that Anglophones have received, they seem mainly salutary, like punctuation marks that help a sentence read better. As if to make this a happier scene, the award ceremony itself had a hosting format of three Francophone hosts and one Anglophone. (Why you would need three Francophone hosts is still puzzling.) It was a Francophone thing, and because Anglophones knew this, they paid very little attention to the event.

But we are in 2019 and Cameroon has shifted in form and morphed into a country with a sensitive skin, even if it still struggles to know what can cause an allergic reaction; what can stir the touchy feelings of discrimination and marginalisation. For almost three years the two English-speaking regions of the country have been caught up in the mayhem of protests. These were sparked by the abiding perception of domination that Anglophones have and the failure of the two successive Francophone-led regimes to uphold the terms of the agreement that reunited the two sides into a nation in 1961.

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Cameroonian Minister of Communication Rene Sadi with Cameroonian singer Daphné who won four awards at the Canal 2’Or Act’12, including the Best female artist award. Photo: Facebook/Canal2’Or

Among the complaints put forward by the Anglophones are the deployment of French-speaking teachers to teach English students, even though the teachers have no mastery of the English language nor of the distinct Anglophone educational system. Then there is the appointment of judges of the civil law system (the French legal system) to judge cases under the common law system (the Anglo-Saxon system) without mastery of the latter. In addition, there is the underrepresentation of Anglophones in government and state institutions. This trend permeated even the socio-cultural sphere, of which music and cinema where prime examples. Media itself is dominated by programmes in French, with no English subtitles or translations. It is a perfect picture of neglect and condescension.

However, in the last three years a strike action that began with socio-professional groups calling for redress to these issues morphed into a resurgence of demands from some Anglophones for outright secession. This has created a chilling scenario characterised by violent confrontations between government military forces and separatist militia, the disruption of economic activities, school boycotts and bans by separatists. Thousands of people have been internally displaced, thousands are refugees in neighbouring Nigeria and hundreds have been killed as a result of the violence.

The nominations were the most diverse in the history of the award, with Anglophones present in all categories, even dominating some.

Change filters through

But there is another noticeable aspect to this crisis. The rising consciousness and increased mainstreaming of the complaints of the English-speaking population have filtered into the media and entertainment space and is changing the way in which things are done. There is no better place to gauge this change than the nation’s leading award for entertainment, the Canal 2’Or, especially the 2019 edition. The award happens every two years, and in the past it has largely been dominated by French-speaking artists. This year, however, in the wake of the crisis, the award changed its red-carpet hosting format, with two of the three hosts being Anglophones. The event downsized its onstage hosts to three, with two Francophones (from the usual three) and one Anglophone. The nominations themselves were the most diverse in the history of the award, with Anglophones present in all categories, even dominating some. Noteworthy was the category of best video director, where only two directors were nominated, Nkeng Stephen and Adah Akenji, both of whom are Anglophone. The award night was a sweep for Anglophones, with multi-award winning artist Daphne winning four awards and breaking the record for the most awards previously held by Bikutsi singer Lady Ponce.

It is difficult to imagine that this would have happened without the ongoing protest in the English-speaking regions. In fact, while accepting her fourth award of the night, a perplexed Daphne confessed, in the presence of the country’s First Lady and an army of government officials, that she would have scoffed at anyone suggesting the possibility of an Anglophone winning the award for best female artist in Cameroon.

Canal 2’Or logo. The award has been hailed as the most important cultural event of Cameroon and sub-region Africa. Photo: Facebook/Canal2’Or

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Should Anglophones sing in French?

On the heels of the award, and among the many debates that sprung up afterwards, was the idea of the language used by the Anglophone artists who were nominated. This is a debate that has gone on for a long time. In the last five years, Anglophone artists have tended to make music dominated by the French language in order to appeal to Francophone audiences in the country. Artists who sing in English have rarely broken through to the Francophone audience. This is despite the popularity of Nigerian and Western music among Francophones. The separatists especially have been very outspoken about this, defining it as a form of betrayal of the Anglophone culture and identity and an acquiescence to their own victimisation. But there is a lot to unpack in this argument and a lot that goes unaddressed.

What was particularly wrong with music from Anglophone artists who sang in English? Generally, there has been a tendency to snub Anglophone music done in English as “reductive versions of Nigerian music”. Unless the music was done in the form of some identifiable tribal sound with a distinct folkloric voice, sound and attire, as in the case of Afoakom, an artist whose music is unmistakably reflective of the traditional composition of the people of the hilly grassland of the country, it was largely ignored. As it happens, Afoakom is the one Anglophone artist that has over the years received recognition for his art at the Canal 2’Or. This is a nod to his traditionally conscious artistry, not to his cross-cultural mainstream appeal or musical innovation, both of which, in his case, leaves much to be desired.

It is almost impossible to aspire to anything without mastering French.

In any case, even if privilege had nothing to do with it, it is inconceivable that Francophone artists would likewise sing in English. That does not happen. When they do, it is simply dropping a hurried catchphrase, not the elaborate French lyrical composition that Anglophone artists are known for. This is reflective too of what it means to survive in Cameroon as an Anglophone. It is almost impossible to aspire to anything without mastering French. It is a tool for survival—an important one; one that Anglophones across the board have come to terms with because institutions that are supposed to be largely bilingual do not even attempt to be, or they persuade only Anglophones to become bilingual.

What this new generation of Anglophone artists have done is master the game, learn the survival tricks and hone their craft. They have taken it urban, crashing through walls built and fortified by more than half a century of domination. But all this is been made visible only because at the nation’s centre, a flaming volcano, built by Anglophone angst, has burst open and everyone is feeling the heat.