The Afro Soul Siren Who Can Do Everything – Rolling Stone

Libianca may have fooled some of us into fandom. Her incredible talent as a pristine vocalist is the real thing, though. Born Libianca Kenzonkinboum Fonji, her exceptional control over her instrument was developed over more than ten years of training, seven years as a professional musician, and a season on The Voice, where, in 2021, she was coached by Blake Shelton (who she chose over Ariana Grande, John Legend, and Kelly Clarkson). 

However, when the 22-year-old sang her latest single, “People,” into a suspended mic hung over a honey-brown backdrop, across the internet, it looked like she was flexing her muscle in a Colors video, reminiscent the Oxlade performance that helped make his song “Ku Lo Sa” a worldwide hit. It circulated on Twitter without the parody disclaimer that she included on Instagram and TikTok. “£100 to the first person that can give me the full version of this 😭 ,” someone wrote while sharing the video. “Why do afro beat Colors [sic] sessions bang so much 😭😭😭.” The footprint of that December tweet can’t be compared to her impact across platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, though: “People” has amassed over 50 million streams since then. She dropped an official video for the song this week.

“People” is a unique take on the blend of R&B and Afrobeats that artists like Tiwa Savage, Tems, and Ayra Starr have popularized in the mainstream. Libianca takes the casual earnestness of the genre and runs with it. She tells Rolling Stone that she wrote the song about feeling invisible in the middle of a gathering, after dipping off to her home studio as her mental health was deteriorating. “I was hosting a Friendsgiving at my house, and eventually, I wasn’t feeling the vibes,” Libianca explains over Zoom from one of the two studios in her Minneapolis home. “I went to the bathroom, I cried, tried to pull myself together, and then I came back downstairs. And everyone’s like, ‘Oh, Libby, you want to take a shot of this Casa[migos]?’”

Here, Libianca dishes details about her rare psychological condition, her tenure on NBC’s flagship singing competition, her upbringing between Minnesota and Cameroon, and more.

Where are you from? Where are you based?
I’m from Minnesota. I was born here. I moved to Cameroon when I was four with my brother and then moved back here at 13. So I’ve been here for almost ten years.

Your family’s from Cameroon?
Yes ma’am.

Tell me about your journey in music; when you started, why you started, how you started.
I started off just singing and just loving to sing. I remember my first babysitter. I was around five or six or something in Cameroon. She would be walking around and cleaning the house, and she would start singing. I just felt something whenever she sang, and I was like, “I want to be able to feel that way on my own.” So I just sang from there. Then I started writing songs around the ages of 10, 11. By the time I moved over to America, I kept writing songs, kept singing. I got involved in choir, pretty much anything music-related in school. Then I signed a local record deal when I was 15 or 16 for about a year. That was cool. I learned a lot about engineering, recording, and that’s when I decided that I wanted to be able to mix my own vocals. I want to be able to engineer myself in a studio and all that good stuff. And so I learned how to do it as the years went by. 

How good of an engineer do you feel like you are?
I would say just good enough for me. It’s not really a passion of mine, so I wouldn’t necessarily want to do it for other people unless I don’t have a choice, then that’s fine. But I just do what I need to do to make my process smoother. So, judging myself one through 10, as far as engineering, I’ll give it a solid 9.5.

Can you tell me about your experience on The Voice, maybe in a way you haven’t before?
I remember being so anxious and thinking about how I was going to sing in front of these celebrities. And then when I came out on the stage for my blind audition and the cheers, they turned around or whatever, I looked at them, and I was like, “Oh, you guys are just regular people. There’s nothing for me to be scared about.” I remember that.

And I always had my Afrobeats playlist; Afro-soul on go. So backstage, that’s just what I would be doing. I also isolated myself a lot because I usually don’t do well with meeting new people, especially when it’s a lot of them. And then we’re contestants, we’re competing. I don’t know why I should be talking to anyone here: that’s the mentality I came in with. But as time went on, I opened up more and I made some good friends along the way. That was really good.

I learned a lot about myself. I learned that there’s a lot more in me than I know, and I just have to channel it. I just have to push myself a little bit sometimes.

Blake Shelton was your coach. You said you listened to a lot of Afro-soul. Your voice comes across as very soulful. Your inclination seems soulful. Not to say that there’s not soul in country, of course, but thinking of John Legend, Ariana, Kelly — those seem like people that would better align with you. What was your perspective on that, on being coached by someone who does the furthest thing from what you do?
I had prayed a lot prior to even sending in my open call and all throughout the season. When it came to picking judges, I didn’t want to leave that just all up to me, so prayed about it. I was like, “God, just lead me to make the right decision because I want to be able to last a while on this show. Not only that, but to just have the opportunity to show myself in the most authentic way I can during my stay.”

When I went up there, just all that was ringing through my head was Blake Shelton. I was like, “I’ll go with him.” The reasoning that was behind that as well was because he… It’s because we were so different, which means that I would have a wider lane, better choices of songs, and an opportunity to last longer. Because on Ariana’s team, you’ve got the belters, and they hit all the high notes. I’m a pretty low girl. I’m an alto, sometimes a tenor. At the end of the day, the crowd loves the high notes. They love all that good stuff. I would’ve gotten eliminated so quick. So I went over to where I knew that I was going to last long.

How do you think about your voice, and how have you come to develop the voice that you have?
Man, I think my voice is a very beautiful gift that God gave me, that has helped me deal with my emotions. There’s so many times where I just didn’t know how to use my words and all I would do is sing. So I definitely really appreciate my vocal cords. Love them so much. And as far as training my vocals over the years, I had a few vocal coaches. So I had one, she was an old lady, Mrs. Tunsin. This is when I was in middle school, early high school. And then late high school years, I had another vocal coach at my church. And so as time went on, I honestly just kept everything that they taught me in a file in my head. I was like, honestly, it doesn’t really matter. All I need to do is enjoy myself. I just need to feel what I’m singing. And when it came time for The Voice, it was like, okay, now we have to go more on the technical side and stuff like that. So it’s all in my head, it’s just I choose when I want to use it.

How did your family, particularly your immediate family, receive your dreams of being a singer?
My dad was protective and supportive, as well as my mom. She paid for all my voice lessons and my guitar lessons. And my dad actually managed me for a little bit, but sometimes family and business don’t work. Everyone was supportive as far as my immediate family.

Being African as well, I know there’s that stereotype that our families expect us to become either lawyers, doctors, or engineers. What about your extended family? And were you a part of African communities in Minnesota?
In Cameroon, no one knew that I could sing; absolutely nobody except for my friends in boarding school. I just hid it because I was very shy and very anxious. So, it was a no for me. But coming over to America and being open to the new things that were going on over here…there is a Cameroonian community, and I appreciate them so much because they were so supportive. I had dropped an EP when I was 16 years old and they all showed up to the party. It was a huge thing. They farotée’d me a lot of money, like putting money on someone when they’re performing. I mean, I made $5,000 that night.

Tell me about the origins of “People.” Where did that song come from? How was it made?
I had recorded that song during a time where I was at a low. So I have Cyclothymia, which it’s a mood disorder. So you have your highs and you have your lows. It’s not necessarily manic, it’s not too severe, but the lows just suck. So I was going through that at the time. And I was just like, I don’t know how much of this I can take. It’s getting ridiculous. I was really struggling. Depressive symptoms, harmful thoughts, just trying to push myself through. During a Friendsgiving I was hosting a Friendsgiving at my house, eventually, I was like…I wasn’t feeling the vibes. I went to the bathroom, I cried, tried to pull myself together, and then I came back downstairs. And everyone’s like, “Oh, Libby, you want to take a shot of this Casa?”

I’m like, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” So I take the shot. And then I’m just like, okay, you know what? This is not doing it for me. Prior to that day, we had went out a few times and I noticed that I was drinking way more than I usually do. I never felt anything that I didn’t like. I was feeling just jolly, and so I just kept drinking more. So after I took that shot downstairs, I was like, all right, I got to go. So I just left. No one noticed that I left. I just left. I went upstairs to one of the studios and I was like, I have to record something, because it’s been two days since I’ve posted on social media and I need to get some content done.

I was not feeling like doing it at all, because I was like, I don’t feel like doing anything. I just want to just sit here, sit in my room and cry and just cry all night. So I sat and I started looking for beats. I went on YouTube, and that’s when I found the instrumental by Mage the Producer. And I was like, hmm, something about this is hitting. I’m just filling this, so let’s see what comes out. And I transported it into Logic and I just started recording. I closed my eyes and it just came out really. I didn’t necessarily write it. It was exactly how I was feeling.

Did anything change from that version to the final?
I never intended for the very first part of the song, “I’ve been drinking more alcohol” to be the actual hook. It was supposed to be just that verse, but everyone loved that specific part so much and I was like, “Well, we might as well make it a hook.”

When I listened to your cover of Billie Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted,” I noticed that you don’t sound like that at all on “People.” It seems like you can manipulate your voice in different ways depending on the song or situation.
Yeah, pretty much. I can do a lot of things. I have a lot of different genres in my vault and it’s I was very confused as to where I should go because if I can do so many things, then where is my actual lane? Over the years I was just trying to mix it all into one. Let’s just figure out a way. But I can manipulate my vocals to do whatever I want them to do really.

How would you describe the lane that you’re in right now, with the understanding that it may not be forever?
Right now I am heavy in the R&B/Afro mixture. Just taking my R&B voice, mixing that with the Afro and just making it into whatever I want it to be. Mixing up the melodies and the languages, just having fun with that.

When you were younger, who were you into?
When I was growing up, there was Keyshia Cole, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Beyoncé, Shakira. For some reason, in the house I was growing up in Cameroon, all that was played was R&B. So it was R&B, R&B, through and through. And then now… Man. I love SiR. SiR is one of my favorites. I love Chronixx. He’s amazing. Still love Chris Brown, ’cause come on. I love me some SZA. I love me some Doja Cat. I love Masego. Rema. I love me some Burna Boy too. And Ladipoe. I love me some Ladipoe.

Earlier, you mentioned that you were like, “Oh, I haven’t posted content in two days.” I hear a lot from artists about the fight to stay in people’s orbit, to stay on their mind, to stay on their phones. What does the social media grind mean and feel like to you?
Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I don’t. At the end of the day, I have to do it because that is the line of work that I have chosen. There’s no other way that I can stay relevant — or at least grow in my career from where I’m at right now — without being in people’s faces. If I were to go off of social media for a month, there’s a lot of things that would go down. My engagement would go down, and we need engagement because that’s how it transfers over to streams, views, and all of that good stuff. So social media is a very, very, very important thing to stay on top of. I have to be persistent ’cause at the end of the day, it’s the end goal that’s on my mind, rather than how I feel about it in the moment.

By the way, why do you have a Ghanaian flag in the background?
That is my best friend’s. So I live with him. He’s also my manager, by the way. His name is M3TRO and he’s Ghanaian. When we moved in together, he always had that flag in his place that he used to live at by himself, so he brought it in and put it on the wall in one of the studios. I’m still working on getting my Cameroonian flag to put in the other studio.

Why do you have two studios?
Because we run a creative agency, a development agency really, for creatives. It’s called West Side Creative Agency. So we have a lot of creatives on our team. There’s videography, photography, there’s other artists as well that are phenomenal. And there’s engineers. M3TRO is an engineer as well. A lot of us, actually, all of us, we do more than one thing, so that’s really good. We just provide the resources for each other and critique each other. When it comes to growing the craft, this is the space where they can all come to and we can be at as well, where you don’t have to pay a shit ton of money for a studio session or anything like that. We’re family here. So you come in, you work on your craft, do what you need to do, go on about your business. If you need visuals, you’ve got visuals already, we can get it done. So things like that. It’s a one-stop shop for outside clientele.

Do you ever see a point where your primary work is not being an artist?
Yeah, it’d be a long time from now. I’ll probably change routes and go over into writing. I can definitely see myself being an author of some sort someday.


Cool. Fiction or nonfiction?

And what’s next for you now?
More music and shows and just, yeah, that pretty much sums it up. But also just challenging myself more, diving into self-discovery and putting all of that in the music. The goal is to keep making music that helps people heal and discover themselves, and also not be ashamed of being themselves. So as long as I do that this year, I’m all right.

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