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Cameroon’s Sabrina takes on identity in ‘Sabrigang’

A name like Lil Dicky, for instance, hints at self-deprecation; Wizkid connotes precocious youth. Music fans, however, also participate in this identity-making ritual, hence the abundance of demonyms in the music scenes both in Nigeria and elsewhere: the Ravens (for Rema‘s fans), the Outsiders (Burna Boy‘s), and the Barbz (Nicki Minaj’s). This gives fans a stronger sense of connection to their favourite artists. Sabrina aims for this precisely in her latest single, Sabrigang.

She characterises her self-styled demonym as being all-round cool. Belonging to the Sabrigang means that you drip with “swag,” that your “designer no be counterfeit,” and that you “no dey carry last,” boastful claims she asserts in English, French and Nigerian pidgin, amid an anthemic Amapiano-fest created by Eno On The Track.

Born Wamba Kuegou Sabrina, the 21-year-old was raised in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. She has been signed to Afrobit Productions since 2019, but her big break came two years later when she collaborated with Koffi Olomidé on the Makossa-style Abele. Rendered entirely in French, it’s indecipherable to Anglophone speakers, but its unmistakable tone of joviality breaks language barriers. The song introduced Sabrina to new audiences in West and Central Africa but also holds a personal significance.

As a child, she idolised the Congolese soukous artist whose songs ruled airwaves across the continent in the 1990s and early aughts. Thus, during recording sessions, she was both nervous and starstruck with her childhood hero sitting only a hair away. “I didn’t know if I was allowed to touch him,” she tells me. Noticing her unease, however, the older artist offered reassurances.

Olomidé is but one of Sabrina’s heroes, with her personal pantheon comprising Beyoncé, Angélique Kidjo, Eminem, Fally Ipupa, Tiwa Savage, and her compatriot Charlotte Dipanda. But closest to her heart is Yemi Alade, the Nigerian pop star who emerged in 2013 with Johnny, a livewire continental hit about a philandering man, and has since built a reputation as one of the continent’s most prominent Pan-African matriarchs. But it is the Nigerian’s kineticism, rather than her Pan-Africanism, that enchants the Cameroonian. “Yemi is always joyful and brings that side of herself to the stage,” Sabrina says.

Last year, her fangirling transcended words when it worked itself into a rhythm: she released a song that takes not only the title of Alade’s breakout single but also its subject of infidelity. Borrowing some of its lyrics, it centres the same tone of despair: as in Alade’s version, the titular Johnny, with his lascivious streak, is the nightmare of most women. Sabrina’s impassioned singing finds an apt complement in a mid-tempo beat produced by Eno On The Track.

Alade, however, isn’t Sabrina’s only Nigerian obsession. She has avowed her wish to work with Asake and Tiwa Savage, while making no secret of her admiration for Burna Boy. Her On The Low, released earlier this year, is titled after his 2019 single. Both songs, however, are a world apart: where Burna Boy’s props up sexual desire, Sabrina’s has a quasi-spiritual tilt.

“On the low,” a Nigerian slang referring to a secret affair, means different things to both artists: Burna Boy wants to get with a girl secretly; Sabrina brags about the “plenty blessings” she receives on the low. She starts off with French before slipping into English, while occasionally flaunting her knowledge of Nigerian slang: “Many plenty vibes dey flow/ e dey restrict their airflow,” a reference to a phrase popularised by Davido.

In her love for Alade and Burna Boy, and her use of Nigerian pop culture argot, a pattern reveals itself: Sabrina courts the Nigerian market. The reason is not far-fetched: that’s where the money is. This February, her Nigeria-philia brought her to Lagos, where she attended the Soundcity MVP Awards Festival.

She comes off as an artist who understands how crucial identity is to cultivating star power. Not only does she give one to her budding fanbase, she assumes new ones in order to reach more audiences, choosing recently, for instance, to sing more in English than French to court Anglophone music fans.

We see in many of her songs this fluidity of identity. She is boastful in Sabrigang, vulnerable in Johnny, hedonistic in Five Star, and standoffish in No Time. Perhaps more is to come in her forthcoming debut album.

“I’ll be releasing my album soon. I’m currently working on it. I will also be doing a concert this December with my fans to end the year, and I’ll keep on bringing good melodies.”

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