opinionBy Anne Mireille Nzouankeu
Yaoundé — His virulent lyrics denounce the evils of the nation and make Valsero the voice of Cameroonian youth. But it's this very outspokenness that compels public media to ban his songs.
Stop it, President. This is what you have done. Yes, Insha'Allah [God willing], I swear someone will replace you. The people can't take it anymore; the youth are fed up. We also want to taste success or else we kick you out.
So go the lyrics of 'Lettre au président' ('Letter to the President'). The 34-year-old musician behind them is Gaston Abé, more commonly known by his artist name: General Valsero.
Valsero is an anagram of Serval, the name of one of his favourite childhood comic book heroes. Clearly, youth is not something Abé has left behind.
"In writing this letter to the President," he explains, "I wanted to portray the real situation youth in Cameroon face. There are double standards between youth projects as they are announced and their actual implementation. And so, I figured that if I myself gave a report on the government's activities, it would be more credible than one received from some ministers."
'This country kills youth'
At the end of the day, Abé faces the same difficulties as his fellow Cameroonians. Though in 2000 he completed a technical degree in telecommunications at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Postes du Cameroun, he could not find a job in his field of studies. Then again, this may have been a blessing in disguise.
A natural entertainer, he ended up hosting music shows on the local radio stations Magic FM, Radio Siantou and Satellite FM. It was while working in radio that he revived his passion for rap, something he had abandoned after high school.
In 2002, he wrote the track 'Ce pays tue les jeunes' ('This country kills youth'). The early reflection of his frustrations strongly denounces the ills plaguing Cameroonian society. Topics that come under fire include unemployment, corruption, nepotism, influence peddling and the older generation's monopoly of power.
It wasn't long until the track 'Ne me parlez plus de ce pays' ('Don't talk to me anymore about that country') came to life. That was followed by his album 'Politikement instable' ('Politically unstable'), on which the rapper directly addresses the President of the Republic and holds him accountable.
"I had become politically unstable," explains Abé. "I could not identify with the policies implemented by the government. There is a high unemployment rate among the youth. Meanwhile, power is being confiscated by the elders who hold more than one position at the same time. I was also talking about political instability because we live in a country where policies are not thought through and do not lead to development. They ultimately lead to nepotism and influence peddling."
Many young Cameroonians can relate to Valsero
Many young Cameroonians can relate to Valsero. "I admire his ability to say openly what many are thinking but do not dare to say, for fear of repression," says a young student, identified here as J.-M. T. "His ability to say, for example, that Cameroon's problem is Paul Biya, who has controlled the Presidency for 30 years. He is destroying the youth and he must go."
According to Abé: "The problem in Cameroon is not the people around the President, it is the President himself. He does not have constructive policies. He is the main problem in Cameroon."
Saying that the President is a bad leader is considered an "insult to a head of state" and carries a prison sentence. Yet, Valsero insists.
"The key to a free Cameroon is to fire the President," he says. "But it's complicated for us because the President is determined to die in power. He does not plan to leave. It is important that we find a way to force him out. But for that, the youth need to be more election-minded. We need to vote."
The price of free speech
In Cameroon, freedom of speech comes at a cost. Although Abé has not been arrested - yet - his work is censored.
"The album 'Liberté pour l'Afrique' ('Freedom for Africa'), for instance, was banned from release in Cameroon," he explains."That's what happens when one lives in a dictatorship. Dictators like to keep you in starvation mode so that intellectual matters do not affect or interest you."
General Valsero tracks are not aired on public radio or TV. Concert organizers are reluctant to invite the young artist to perform. His albums are mostly available outside the country and online. But these blockades do not discourage him.
In fact, Abé is preparing for the imminent release of an even more virulent album. Once again, it will challenge the President, though its other message is even more timely: encouraging young people to vote in next year's parliamentary elections.