Petite Noir breaks borders

Yannick Ilunga’s artistry refuses to be any one specific thing. In a 2015 interview with British magazine i-D, the artist, better known as Petite Noir, said that noirwave (as he calls his music and philosophy) is a convergence of seemingly diametrically opposed parts.

“Noirwave is about combining all of your influences. For me, it’s blending where I was born in Europe with my African heritage and ethnicity. I’m influenced by metal, scream, jazz, kizomba music … there’s no loyalty to any existing genre,” he told the magazine. “I feel at home all over the world.”

On previous material, such as his debut EP The King of Anxiety and his full-length debut La Vie Est Belle/Life is Beautiful, Ilunga took this philosophy to beautiful extremes. There were traces of Joy Division over distorted synthesizers, hauntingly reverberating vocals, Congolese- inspired guitar rhythms and live drums.

This makes sense.

Ilunga has often said that “the world is home” and that he’s rooted in no one place — he was born in Brussels to Angolan and Congolese parents but grew up in Cape Town. Viewed through this lens, his music is a larger metaphor for the immigrant experience and what it means to walk through the world with a hyphenated identity. And with the current worldwide anxiety about borders and belonging, his music seems to ask: Who gets to decide where anyone chooses to go?

His latest EP, La Maison Noir/The Black House, follows in this tradition. The five-track mini EP (due for release on October 5) features the haunting vocals, marching drum-lines and computerised synths that have become characteristic of his sound.

Blame Fire, the EP’s first single, is a personal journey into his life and experiences. With lyrics like: “Refugees on a mission/Don’t believe the television” and “Congolese kid with some big dreams, aim higher…”the song wears its politics on its sleeve and is one of his most personal to date.

“I started writing the EP in 2015 and it’s just sort of progressed as time went by,” explains Ilunga. “I started writing it in Cape Town but some parts were written in Australia, Thailand and Spain. Whenever I was travelling, I’d just try to take parts from my surroundings and put it into the music.”

Accompanying the EP is a visual album directed by Ilunga and his creative partner and wife Rochelle Nembhard. Presented in four parts, the visual album sees the birth, death and rebirth of Ilunga in a Namibian desert.

La Maison Noir/The Black House [the visual album] is a pilgrimage through Yannick’s life since he was an adolescent up to now. It’s basically about putting one step in front of the other. But it’s also a visual interpretation of what being black means to us,” Nembhard explains.

“While Yannick was working on the music, I was thinking how to add visuals that would correspond with it. We’ve been working together for close to eight years, so we both operate on the same frequency, but we’ve also had pretty similar upbringings.”

Nembhard was born in Britain to British/Jamaican parents and grew up in South Africa.

The 17-minute visual album, a collaboration with Red Bull Music, opens with Ilunga’s solitary figure walking across a vast desert. He then meets his younger self and tells him: “Your story, our story will become a map of those who rise.”

Blame Fire opens up the visuals, where Ilunga is joined by a group of people in red, running around the desert, setting fire to television sets. The scene ends with him in a classic rock ’nroll moment: playing a guitar in a circle of fire as the night sky begins to swallow his surroundings. Throughout the rest of the video, Ilunga travels around the desert in blue, white and earthy fabrics, each symbolising the elements.

The Kongo cosmogram is a recurring motif. The religious symbol —a circle divided into four parts —symbolises the physical and the spiritual world. At one point it appears as a tattoo on Ilunga’s hands.

“We used the Kongo cosmogram as the main narrative to tell the story. It’s a religious symbol from Congo that symbolises birth, life and the afterlife. We used the elements [fire, water and air]as a larger metaphor for how we react against some of the challenges we come across in life.”

The album ends with Ilunga dressed in white. Beach, featuring rapper Danny Brown, unfurls in the background and Ilunga’s body is submerged in water. The moment, signifying his rebirth, comes off as baptismal. Around him, his borderless utopia comes to life, featuring a cast of people of colour running, living, breathing and being.

This, he says, is ultimately what noirwave is about: “Standing on the shoulders of the diaspora, removing limits and rebelling against a world preoccupied with borders.”

“We’re also starting a festival called No Borders,” says Nembhard. “The first is later this year in London and it’s all about celebrating the diasporic creative experience. But other than that, we just want to keep creating this infinite world with no boundaries and no limits for anyone.”

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