Fatu Gayflor was once the Whitney Houston of Liberia, a household name whose sensuous voice energized the West African nation and brought her hit records, concert tours, and fame.
She was so popular in the 1980s that she was known as Princess Gayflor, which became the title of her second album.
That was before the civil war, before the violence took away her homeland and her child and propelled her through three countries to a home in Willingboro.
Now, she performs at weddings and church services in the Philadelphia area, some world-music concerts, and weekend events for Liberian exile communities. During the week, she works as a caregiver in a group home.
It's not a sad story, Gayflor said. It's a happy story, a success story, a victory story. She survived the war. She has her music. And now, perhaps, a second act.
Gayflor and three other transplanted Liberian singers are the focus of a new documentary, Because of the War, produced by the Philadelphia Folklore Project and premiering at International House on Sunday. It shows how four artists, big stars in their homeland, turned themselves into the Liberian Women's Chorus for Change to help build safer, stronger, more resilient communities in the Philadelphia region.
Combining folk arts with social-justice activism, they use traditional music to inspire awareness about domestic abuse, gun violence, immigrant life and other concerns of the area's estimated 15,000 Liberians.
"I felt it was important for people to hear my story, and what I passed through as a person and as a singer," Gayflor, 53, said in an interview. "There are a lot of things that happened to us Liberians, that we want people to know."
By telling the world about the trials of Gayflor, Marie Nyenabo, Zaye Tete, and Tokay Tomah, the Folklore Project seeks to guide multiple generations of Liberians, and the broader public, to a fuller understanding of the roles artists can play in times of crisis. One goal is to screen the film for various constituencies – educators, police officers, government officials, social-service providers — to introduce them to Liberian culture and history.
"We're hoping to inspire conversations about the possibilities that arts bring to efforts to transform communities," said director Toni Shapiro-Phim, head of programs at the Folklore Project, which supports arts rooted in history and tradition. "And to shine a light on what immigrant artists have already done — and might yet do — to combat injustice."
Despite their musical success in Liberia, none of the four escaped the war unscarred, a duality at the heart of the film. They sang songs of peace in that country, and sing them now in this one.
"I overcome grief by singing, dancing," Zaye Tete said in an interview. "It makes me happy [and helps] to forget about the past."
For her, the past includes 13 years in four refugee camps — and the death of her 2-year-old son, Jesstee, the first of four children born to her in the camps.
The war, fought over ethnic and political hostilities, took place in two stages, from 1989 to 1996 and from 1999 to 2003, killing more than 250,000 and displacing more than 1.3 million, according to the United Nations. Refugees landed in cities from New York to Los Angeles.
"Our hearts were broken by the Liberian civil war," Marie Nyenabo says in the film.
Census records say Philadelphia is home to about 3,500 Liberians, but suggest the figure could be much higher. People who work in the community estimate the regional total at 10,000 to 15,000, noting the stretch of homes, restaurants and shops that form a "Little Monrovia" — a reference to the Liberian capital — in parts of West and Southwest Philadelphia and in Upper Darby.
Many of those immigrants suffered wartime physical and mental trauma, then the dissonance of being resettled in a new country, and specifically in poorer neighborhoods. More Liberians fled to the Philadelphia area in 2014 and 2015 amid the deadly Ebola epidemic in Africa.
Today, more than 2,000 Liberians across America face the prospect of being sent back, as the Trump administration moves to revoke a special provision of immigration law called Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. Nationwide, TPS allows 320,000 people from 10 countries to live and work here until it becomes safe for them to return home.
Some people have stayed for decades as dangerous conditions persist in their native lands. But the TPS designations for Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea were removed in May, the widespread transmission of the Ebola virus having ended. People in the local Liberian community say they don't know what will happen.
Gayflor spent almost a decade as a refugee in Ivory Coast and in Guinea, coming to Philadelphia in 1998. She was born in Kakata, in northwest Liberia, began singing as a child, and at 12 was recruited by the Liberian National Cultural Troupe, according to the Liberian Journal newspaper. Upon the release of her first album, she was nicknamed "The Golden Voice of Liberia."
When the war erupted, Gayflor happened to be out of the country, at a recording session in Ivory Coast. She had left her 2-year-old son, Mohammed, in the care of family members, but in the terror and confusion of the fighting, the child was lost.
Even now, she nurses a hope that her son is alive, that someday he will find her, tap her on the shoulder.
It's the kind of loss, she said, that drives her to perform for others, to perhaps lighten their burdens and make them see that others stand with them.
"What resonated for me with these women was their individual courage, along with their individual artistry," Shapiro-Phim said. "Art can be a potent moral force. People make assumptions about others based on skin color, accent, profession, neighborhood. But you never know who is standing next to you. There are heroes in our midst."