The opening track on Yannick Ilunga’s new album as Petite Noir, La Vie Est Belle/Life Is Beautiful, is largely instrumental. But atop an aggressive, driving beat, it features one of the musician/producer’s friends speak-singing the optimistic title — as it appears, in both languages — while Ilunga’s nonverbal moans weave throughout the song. The track that follows, “Best,” is his angriest, providing him with a platform — especially when performed live — to revisit his youthful taste for metal and screamo.
But despite this, one of the first things Ilunga tells me about his album is that it’s “full of positivity.” As with his EP, The King of Anxiety (released in January), the positivity that’s to be found here endures through “all the rubbish.” His music is no optimistic bubble: it’s optimism fighting to exist, fighting the escalation of fear that parallels increasing knowledge and experience. “I think your mind is like a big portal, the bigger you become the bigger your portal becomes, and the more complications start to come inside the portal,” he says.
A pessimist might identify with that EP’s title, thinking it the self-portrait of a man so anxious as to embody anxiety’s superlative. But, Ilunga corrects, it’s actually about “overcoming your anxiety, being the king of your anxiety.” And just as someone might hear the declaration that “life is beautiful” in the intro to his new LP — dominated as it is by violent polyrhythms — as an enfeebled introduction to defeat, Ilunga says it’s all part of “a bigger idea of keeping positive.”
The drums may themselves be the sound of optimism — because optimism may sound like insurrection. “We all have problems, everyone is born, everyone dies and it’s the in-between… what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and it’s just about getting to the stronger part,” he says. There’s a vagueness to his spoken philosophies, but Ilunga’s ideas are often clarified in the details of his music. The title of the LP itself, it turns out, comes from the Congolese film of the same name, by Ngangura Mweze and Benoît Lamy, whose key theme is débrouillardise — surviving through very little, doing whatever’s necessary to overcome obstacles (it’s been jocularly referred to as part of the constitution of the former nation of Zaire). The movie sees an impoverished country musician traveling into the city to seek musical acclaim; interestingly, this doesn’t seem so much allegorical of Ilunga’s own life journey (which was far more privileged than the character’s), but rather that of African culture and music in a world that loves to take from it.
Along with inducing anxiety, the notion of being an ever-expanding “portal” pervades, and distinguishes, Ilunga’s music as Petite Noir. Being absorbent to and reflective of a vast agglomeration of cultural experiences in his 25 years has enabled him to convincingly espouse a new movement: “noirwave” — most simply put, the blending of new wave and trans-African influences. (The intro to his LP itself is titled “Intro Noirwave,” suggesting a statement of purpose.) While mobility seems to be a key defining factor in Ilunga’s life, his peripateticism has actually anchored him in a singular musical style — steady, grounded, yet reflective of a past of so much movement. He was born in Brussels to an Angolan mother and Congolese father, then, immediately following the lifting of apartheid, moved to the wealthy and theretofore white Cape Town suburb, Sea Point. Now, he lives in London.
His mobility stretches to his musical skills as well; before becoming Petite Noir, he was in an electro-pop band, Popskarr, and a metal band, Fallen Within — and before all that, he played guitar for his church band. And as a multi-instrumentalist, he says, “I never really thought that I couldn’t sing, I never really thought that I couldn’t play guitar. ‘Practice’ is just used to make you believe you can do things, until eventually your mind is like, ‘OK, I can do it.’ It’s like going to the gym — in the gym your trainer is saying, ‘You can do it! You can do it!’ You can actually do it. It’s all just about convincing you that you can. I think I can do anything musically.'”
He emphasizes that it’s not as though he went about his musically and geographically varied experiences carefully, cataloging fragments of styles, hoping one day to paste them together in song. “I think it’s all the subconscious, that’s where your hard drives are,” he says. “Your body is a hard drive. It’s what you’re surrounded by, what I’ve been surrounded by, and it comes out on the album.” With his transcontinental mobility, his life had always been steeped in multiculturalism, and what stands out most about his music is the effortlessness with which he blends cultures, evoking European forms — particularly bands like Tears for Fears, New Order, and The Cure — while challenging the musical Eurocentricity they spurred in their heyday, layering their sounds with influences from Fela Kuti to Tabu Ley to Yasiin Bey. (This was on Ilunga’s mind when he chose which producers he wanted to enlist as collaborators on La Vie Est Belle — he was attracted to Oli Bayston’s pop sensibilities, and Leon Brichard brought his knowledge of African music).
It is also in part for this reason that Ilunga’s music caught the attention of assorted black alternative scenes in the States. Solange’s curatorial network, Saint Heron, included his early track, “Noirse” on its lauded compilation album, and Ilunga was invited to open for Solange in New York in 2013. When I met up with him in New York, he was preparing for a set at the Afropunk Festival. He treated it as an honor, as Afropunk had been in the back of his mind since he was a teen. “When I was younger I was listening to music that wasn’t really conventional black music,” he said. “I used to google ‘Afro punk’ and ‘black punk’ to try and make myself feel better, and then ‘Afropunk’ used to come up all the time, and I was thinking ‘What is this thing?’ That’s why it’s exciting for me to play, because for me it was something I consider so relatable. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. The Internet was a place where I could find other kids like me who were into the same music as me.”
Though he was given a mid-afternoon slot at the festival, and though he was performing to an audience that largely didn’t know his work, Ilunga immediately commanded the crowd: initially, even, in absentia. His band opened with Life Is Beautiful‘s menacing and beguiling intro while he waited offstage — an assured move for an artist only about to drop his debut album. As he moved through his album’s harsher beginnings, he made way to the ebullient “MDR” — whose chorus couples the innocence of Grease with the declaration, “I’ll love you till the motherfucking very end.” With the optimism of this song, it seemed he’d swayed listeners beyond mere curiosity: it’s impossible not to get caught up in his choruses. “I love this because a lot of the South African music I hear is kwaito, and this was back to rock, back to singing,” an audience member told me between songs.
Afropunk has evolved from its early days as the subject of a cult documentary into a series of festivals, and ultimately into a widely known movement. Meanwhile, noirwave, Ilunga is hoping, will evolve from a sound to “a lifestyle and a mentality.” His burgeoning self-made genre parallels Afropunk, as it takes from a (slightly later) musical movement — new wave — that, even at its most radical, happened to be extremely white. Countering the hermetical tendency to condemn any form of appropriation, noirwave offers up a necessary alternative. “I’m not going to be like, ‘You can’t play my music,’ because music doesn’t have any color. It doesn’t come out of your skin, it comes out of something deeper than that,” he says.
Instead, Ilunga seems interested in countering the flow of appropriation from black artists to white artists that’s so often seen black creativity marginalized. While Ilunga was still working on La Vie Est Belle/Life Is Beautiful, he’d told the Guardian that his new work was focusing on “putting out all the frustration that’s been creeping up on [him], the craziness of being a black dude.” Now, he tells me, “Black people are sort of forced to let go of what they make because they are constantly put into a corner and being forced to invent and create new things to get out of that corner. Which is initially what noirwave was. Being an artist is one of those ways, and music is a weapon to get yourself out of all kinds of situations.”
While Ilunga innovated the noirwave sound based on the subconscious influences of the places that have built him (he explains that he never even writes up his music, he just “freestyles, and that’s how [he] knows what’s in [his] brain at the time”), his girlfriend, Rochelle Nembhard, is largely responsible for visualizing the noirwave style. The two have been dating for over half a decade, though much of it was long distance, with Nembhard having lived in Thailand. She appears both in Ilunga’s lyrics and in his videos — in the song “Chess,” he dives from falsetto into his Roland Orzabal earthquake of a voice and back, playing both masculine and feminine roles to dramatize either end of a Skype fight they’d had.
He refers to himself and Nembhard as having a “John and Yoko thing… we’ve been working together artistically since we started dating seven years ago.” Together, they’ve both mined the very personal aspects of their relationship and honed the visual sensibilities of noirwave. Nembhard appeared with Ilunga and co-directed the video for “The Fall,” which they based on Marina Abramovic reuniting with her lover after 22 years — in a static gaze — during The Artist Is Present. “It’s intended as a raw and transparent look into what we do to each other in relationships, setting aside the fakeness and pretense that we shroud ourselves in,” Ilunga said, on the video’s release.
Nembhard art directed the breathtaking video for “Best,” which Ilunga tells me is “noirwave in itself, man. One hundred percent noirwave. It’s probably the most noirwave thing I’ve done.” Nembhart said of the video, “I wanted to break all boundaries in how we portrayed [Africa] and her people. The video showcases the beauty of the continent, the richness in her landscapes, the sacredness of her culture, the immense diversity of her tribes.” For “Best,” Ilunga was covered in body paint by artist Lina Iris Viktor — who’s documented the “chemistry and dynamism” of Ilunga and Nembhard’s partnership with her living-sculptural visuals. In “Best,” Ilunga is made to look like he’s carved from malachite; the stone is mined in Congo, and is said to represent “transformation.”
Ilunga, while soft-spoken and even a little shy, expresses an optimistic confidence that would seem hyperbolic for someone so early in his career, except that everything he speaks confidently of does now seem attainable. At one point, he told Dazed, “Soon Beyoncé, Future and all these people are going to be singing to noirwave shuffles”; given his connection to Solange, that may, indeed, already be the case. “With noirwave, if one day it does become some sort of capitalist pop-cultural thing, that’s cool and that’s fine,” he says. “That’s just the way it is.” The transformation embodied in the image of the malachite-sculpted musician doesn’t seem to be just about personal metamorphoses, but rather about a global shift — and one where globalization means Africanization just as much as it does Westernization.
Ilunga recently said to Fader that “the whole world feels like home” to him. Based on the notion that music that is as much African as it is anything else could be a central force in global music — as opposed to one that’s erased by virtue of influencing “whiter” music — Petite Noir’s work is breaking through the “rubbish” of age-old cultural trends and finding that its home could, likewise, be everywhere.