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