Sunday Times


There’s no place for stale con­cep­tions of African­ness on Petite Noir’s new al­bum, writes Yolisa Mkele

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The re­turn of Petite Noir

For a melanin-wealthy per­son, grow­ing up with “pe­cu­liar” mu­si­cal pro­cliv­i­ties was a con­tentious is­sue. If your CD and cas­sette col­lec­tion didn’t con­form to what was gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be ap­pro­pri­ate “black” mu­sic then chances are you weren’t go­ing to be singing Björk’s lat­est al­bum in the pres­ence of your TKZeelov­ing friends be­cause that was white mu­sic and white mu­sic was weird.

To­day that logic may sound ab­surd but there was some­thing to it. The thing about al­ter­na­tive mu­sic styles a decade or two back is that a lot of their cre­ators were whiter than the ghost of Gwyneth Pal­trow and that made them dif­fi­cult for many peo­ple to re­late to.

Ac­cord­ing to Cape-raised Con­golese mu­si­cian Petite Noir, aka Yan­nick Ilunga, those days are dead and buried — and his lat­est vis­ual al­bum, La

Mai­son Noir: the Gift and the Curse, is proof of that. “It ac­tu­ally just clicked for me this month that this is the first gen­er­a­tion in a long time where I don’t have to be in­flu­enced by white mu­si­cians to make in­die mu­sic. There are now a whole lot of artists, es­pe­cially mak­ing in­die mu­sic, that it feels like we are start­ing to see proper rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” says Noir, who stum­bled across this re­al­i­sa­tion af­ter notic­ing that no-one on his Ap­ple Mu­sic and Spo­tify playlists was white.

“Ob­vi­ously grow­ing up there were a few black in­die artists but the ma­jor­ity were white. And yes, those white artists were in­flu­enced by black peo­ple, but as a kid you didn’t re­ally pay at­ten­tion to that,” he says.

Through a move­ment he calls noirwave, Ilunga has spent his ca­reer con­tribut­ing to the in­creas­ing di­ver­sity in the in­die mu­sic sphere.

Noirwave was ini­tially a term he and his wife, Rochelle “Rharha” Nem­b­hard, coined to de­scribe their sonic and vis­ual aes­thetic, but it has since grown into an over­ar­ch­ing phi­los­o­phy geared at re­defin­ing stale con­cep­tions of African­ness.

His lat­est body of work, cre­ated in con­junc­tion with Nem­b­hard, is prob­a­bly his most am­bi­tious at­tempt at show­cas­ing black cre­ativ­ity to date.

Shot in the caramel ex­panses of the Namib desert, La Mai­son Noir: the Gift and the Curse leans heav­ily on Con­golese mythol­ogy to tell a story of death, over­com­ing and re­birth in a way that will send tit­il­lat­ing shiv­ers down the spines of peo­ple who en­joy us­ing the term “African aes­thetic”.

Us­ing bil­low­ing, brightly coloured fab­rics, mil­i­tant im­agery and African iconog­ra­phy, Ilunga and Nem­b­hard have man­aged to cre­ate a 20minute ex­hi­bi­tion that, while os­ten­si­bly pre­ten­tious, doesn’t leave you rolling your eyes.

“We de­cided to do a vis­ual al­bum be­cause it is able to com­mu­ni­cate so much more, es­pe­cially as it re­lates to noirwave. Mu­sic just isn’t enough nowa­days, you sort of have to have that vis­ual as­pect now too,” says Ilunga.

“It was also an op­por­tu­nity for Rochelle to show what she was ca­pa­ble of. It was also a chance to show peo­ple our sto­ries in a way that they haven’t seen it be­fore,” he says.

Mu­si­cally the al­bum also feels very dif­fer­ent to Petite Noir’s pre­vi­ous al­bums, The King of Anx­i­ety and La Vie est Belle. Where they were mood­ier, La

Mai­son Noir feels more up­lift­ing, like the kind of thing a for­ward-think­ing brand might use to be more re­lat­able to “afrol­en­ni­als”. This is not a knock.

The lead sin­gle, Blame Fire, is catchier than the Span­ish flu and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing vi­su­als are de­void of the type of corny pan­der­ing that brands seem to en­joy so much. That said, this al­bum is prob­a­bly much eas­ier to di­gest for main­stream au­di­ences. Con­trary to what many mu­sic snobs will tell you, this is a good thing.

“The goal with noirwave is to make it pop cul­ture, be­cause pop can be any­thing. I know that I’m not a typ­i­cal pop artist but I ap­proach my mu­sic in a pop sense so that the sound can even­tu­ally be­come the new pop mu­sic,” says Ilunga.

In this day and age the idea of hav­ing “pe­cu­liar” mu­sic tastes is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly asinine. Thanks to stream­ing, peo­ple don’t have to own a vin­tage pair of Doc Martens or know the lo­ca­tion of some su­per-se­cret un­der­ground record store in order to have ac­cess to an eclec­tic range of sounds.

This has given artists like Petite Noir space to breathe and cre­ate mu­sic that prob­a­bly would not have seen the light of day in a by­gone era.

The by-prod­uct of this in­creased free­dom is projects like La Mai­son Noir: The Gift and The

Curse, a de­light­fully palat­able piece of ev­i­dence that in­die mu­sic can be as black as the cast of a Tyler Perry movie, sans the bad stereo­types.

La Mai­son Noir: The Gift and the Curse launches on Oc­to­ber 5

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