Libianca will always remember last year’s Friendsgiving — after all, she ran to the bathroom sobbing in the middle of it.
The former contestant on The Voice had recently quit her job as an independent living skills worker, and had been questioning her future as a professional singer. She was no longer interested in covering already established hits; she wanted to create a life-changing one of her own.
“I was talking to God, [thinking], ‘This life is so hard.’ I don’t know what the next step is, but I was working, working, and working, and not seeing anything in return,” she recalls over Zoom.
But the Friendsgiving breakdown left her inspired, and later in November, the embattled singer — who has been diagnosed with cyclothymia, a rare mood disorder that can cause extreme emotional highs and lows — chose to detail her pain through songwriting. She went on YouTube and found a beat that captured her discomfort, then recorded on Apple’s Logic Pro. Within a day, what began as a therapy session formed the foundation for “People,” the 22-year-old R&B-Afrobeats artist’s breakout hit and long-awaited ticket to stardom.
Born in Minnesota, Libianca Kenzonkinboum Fonji moved to Cameroon with her family when she was 4. There, she drew inspiration from her first babysitter, who enjoyed singing while cleaning around the house. Their relationship sparked Libianca’s initial love for singing, and by the age of 10, she began writing her own songs.
At 13, she moved back to Minnesota and joined a local choir, learning how to engineer, record and mix her vocals soon after. By her late teens, she was covering songs like SZA’s “Good Days” and Billie Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted,” the latter of which she also performed on The Voice in 2021.
Though she was ultimately eliminated after making the show’s top 20, her departure was soon followed by a string of independent one-off releases, including her cover of “Everything I Wanted” at the end of 2021 and a spin on Doja Cat’s “Woman” the following spring.
Yet the original single “People” is the one that cut through — and is a shining example of how sourcing your pain can have impactful results. While the track bursts with Afrobeats flavor, poignant lyrics like the opening line “I’ve been drinking more alcohol for the past five days/Did you check on me? Now, did you look for me?” ground the song while addressing the impact of substance abuse on mental health.
Libianca played the song for her manager M3tro, whom she met five years ago during her time as a student at the University of Minnesota (the two creatives became fast friends, and eventually roommates). And while he raved about the record, he instantly became concerned while listening to the lyrics. “Once she played the song, I asked her, ‘I know something’s going on, but what’s up?’ ” M3tro remembers. “That’s when I was like, ‘I really have to pay more attention.’ ”
Several days after writing and recording the breakthrough hit, Libianca posted a teaser clip on TikTok in which she was holding a bottle of wine as a snippet of the song played in the background. According to M3tro, within 30 minutes of uploading the clip, likes and comments started flooding her notifications. “Waking up the next morning to so many people feeling so connected to the song [was special],” Libianca says. “I saw families sending me videos of their babies singing the song, and [had] women messaging me about the sh-t that they go through in their homes and how this song needs to drop ASAP because it’s calling to their hearts.”
To date, the viral clip has compiled more than 4.8 million views on TikTok. Less than a week after the initial post, she upped the ante with a live rendition of the track in front of a simple color backdrop. The DIY clip has since earned 1.3 million views on Instagram and 2.5 million on TikTok.
The buzz surrounding the unreleased track soon caught the attention of acclaimed U.K. producer Jae5, who quickly reached out in hopes of signing Libianca to his 5K Records label, and did so last December — just one month after her memorable Friendsgiving. Once the deal was done, Jae quickly mixed the record and helped with the song’s final arrangement before its official release on Dec. 6.
“When it comes to music, that man is my big brother for life,” says M3tro of Jae5. “Not only is he that, but he’s also humble and genuine. He comes in like, ‘How can the music be the best way it needs to be?’ And we applaud him for that.”
“People” debuted on the Billboard U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart in mid-December — where it has held at a No. 2 high since January — and has 288.7 million official on-demand global streams through March 30, according to Luminate. The song also became Libianca’s first entry on the Billboard Global 200 and Billboard Global Excl U.S. charts. And in March, she dropped multiple remixes to maximize the crossover momentum, including one with fellow Afrobeats stars Omah Lay and Ayra Starr and another with Irish singer-songwriter Cian Ducrot.
“We were very particular about who else was gonna hop on this song, because the message is very crystal-clear,” says Libianca. “[‘People’] is very vulnerable, and anyone that comes on there has to be vulnerable as well in their own way.”
Libianca says that her next single, due later this month, will be about “a bunch of real sh-t we don’t like to talk about.” An EP will soon follow. “It doesn’t have to be sad, per se, but if it’s not something I can feel, I’m not gon’ release it,” she explains. “I want every single one of my songs to be an experience rather than just doing what I need to do to get the next check.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 1, 2023, issue of Billboard.