Audio

Petite Noir Is the King of Noirwave

On his new release, La Maison Noir, Petite Noir blends bombastic rhythms, surging melodies, and the style and substance of the DRC.

Petite Noir gained global notoriety by 2015 for his brilliant, shapeshifting pop debut La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful. The album was self-described by the artist, born Yannick Ilunga, as noirwave, a genre that extends beyond the music to embrace new concepts of freedom, power and African solidarity.

Three years later, Petite Noir has returned with a six-track EP and an accompanying four-track short film that delves considerably deeper into noirwave and his Congolese roots. The music of La Maison Noir / The Black House and its introspective 18-minute film explores ideas of gender, identity as a migrant, and political resistance.

A young Yannick Illunga and his family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo and went into exile after his father faced threats as a former minister of the DRC. They emigrated to Belgium and France before settling permanently in Cape Town.

It's clear from Petite Noir's distinct, genre-blurring noirwave aesthetic that he's absorbed influences on a global scale. His discography up until now showcases a thrilling range of left-field electronics, post-punk and alternative rock, all anchored to the more traditional African sounds of his childhood. Petite Noir is a truly cosmopolitan artist. But on La Maison Noir, moving to the foreground through its bombastic rhythms and surging melodies, the style and substance of Africa takes precedence.



Lead single "Blame Fire" is a polyrhythmic spree of focused aggression and optimistic jubilance, describing the origin tale of Petite Noir. "It is a [phrase] that I created to express the way one feels when you have been down for so long but the drive and fire is still inside of you," Petite Noir told The FADER. "You are thankful! It's all about channeling the revenge energy." During the "Blame Fire" portion of Petite Noir's La Maison Noir film, televisions and vintage cars are set ablaze to symbolize the destruction of the material world.

More than anything else Petite Noir has produced to date, this record is a genuine reflection of his ancestry, his reality and the new culture he's created. He acknowledges his identity and his past thoughtfully through both mediums of music and film. His wife Rochelle Nembhard, credited as Rha! Rha!, contributes background vocals to "F.F.Y.F. (POW)" and "Hanoii," but also serves as the creative director and primary collaborator behind the record's visual.

Shot in the dunes and deserts of Namibia, the gorgeous film heavily references the four-pronged Congolese cosmogram, signifying the four elements, the cycle of life, the cycle of a day and the division between the spiritual and physical worlds. Performance artist and musician Manthe Ribane stars in striking scenes where she implements striking choreography in various costumes to convey the struggle for women's rights. Similar themes of migration and resistance are echoed in the film–all issues impacting Africa in a considerable way.

While La Maison Noir is certainly his project that concentrates the most on DRC and the African continent, it it also might be his darkest. The pop-punk sounds and power chords of La Vie Est Belle are long gone. In their place are Danny Brown and Saul Williams features, track titles like "Blowing Up The Congo," more complex production styles and a gritty, punk integrity that closely resembles the feeling of protest music. That darkness, matched only by his rebellious spirit, is what sets Petite Noir apart from most of his contemporaries.

Music

6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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