Petite Noir

A conversation with Noirwave artist Yannick Ilunga

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

At the centre of the honey-coloured limestone of the Cape Town City Hall is the great auditorium, which houses an organ made from mahogany, teak and pine, boasting 3165 pipes varying from 10 metres to 20 millimetres. It’s a magnificent instrument, with every graduation of tone, from the softest stop to the most powerful tuba – all under the most perfect control.

Looking out at this artistic and mechanical triumph is a figure dressed in black adidas Stan Smiths, black trousers and a black Fred Perry polo shirt buttoned to the top. Draped over the seat next to him is a black leather jacket, below which sits a black notebook and a pair of black sunglasses. 

At six-foot something and as dark as his DRC and Angolan heritage would suggest, 25-year old Yannick Ilunga strikes an imposing figure. When the artist, who performs as Petite Noir, begins to speak in his mellifluous monotone, a deeply sonorous baritone – a voice that flows like dark chocolate where he d-r-a-g-s out his words in a way that’s as comfortable and chill as he is – well, he’s even more captivating. Add to this a softness and humility that belies the fact that he’s the darling of periodicals Dazed, I-D and Fader, and has also been celebrated on Pitchfork. He's collaborated with the likes of Solange and Mos Def, not to mention the European tours and his debut album, La Vie Est Belle, through UK label Domino. When you consider all this – being able to have a casual chat with the artist is surreal, to say the least.   

So this will be your first time playing in Cape Town as Petite Noir?

Yeah, I’m excited, it feels good man. I think it’s the right time, the right venue and I got a good band. There’s more groove here. Tshepang Ramoba from Blk Jks, the drummer, and the bassist, Meggan Diedericks – she’s really good – and the guitarist, Andre Geldenhuys plays with Spoek. I got a backing singer, Bonnie, and Thor is doing percussion and trumpets and stuff. I’m really excited.

It’s a bit of a shame that our artists need to be celebrated overseas first before we give them our support.

We live in a society that’s so influenced by two places. All our influences have to go up, to the UK and the US, before they come back down to us. Our satellite is in the UK and America. It’s just the way that our brains are taught to think. And we need to undo that brainwashing.

Is that what you’re doing with Noirwave?

Noirwave is here to empower. From my personal perspective, being an African person, I make things portraying being African in a better way than how the world is portraying us as at the moment. I’m an African person and I would like to empower my black people. My African people. Free your mind. Be yourself. But that’s not where it ends. It’s music at the end of the day.

What’s the musical side?

It’s a sound that I was trying to build. Music never dies. It just carries on. Artists come and go or pass away, but their music carries on. Our responsibility as artists is to make sure that the music progresses. Noirwave is my contribution to the progression of music.

What I love about your singing voice is that it’s so natural and honest.

It’s a gift that was given to me. We all have our gifts and because mine is music it doesn’t make me more important than the next person just because a few people enjoy my gift. Noirwave isn’t my own. It’s a stamp in the progression of movement. Music has never died. People have had the exact same mentality. It’s the same thing. It might sound different. People didn’t say, "I want to make it sound like this." They couldn’t. They’re just doing what they know and I’m just doing what I know. I’m not trying to make something sound like something else. It’s just coming straight from my brain and I don’t think about it. I’m just doing it– singing how I know how to sing. Making music how I know how to make music. I’ve stopped playing other peoples music and just do my own stuff. Even today I can’t play someone else’s stuff. But with having all those different influences it helped me to create my own way of playing. And I think that’s how instruments should be. Because why learn an instrument just to play how other people play?

You have quite a nomadic background. What did this do for your music and do you consider playing here as coming home?

At this point I consider the world home. Home is where the heart is. And my heart is in a lot of different places right now. I’m always travelling. Always all over. And I don’t want to ever think that Cape Town is the end-all, or where my parents are from, or where I was born. You can’t let a passport define who you are.

What passport do you actually have?

I’ve got a South African passport. It’s not that difficult to travel on. Get a visa and go, type-of-thing.

Why wouldn’t you use your Belgian one, surely it would make things a bit easier?

Well the situation was a bit different back in those days, especially with our family situation and my dad being in exile and everything. So I wasn’t able to get a Belgian passport. But that hasn’t stopped me from travelling or from doing what I love doing. Passports are so, like, it’s all in the mind, you know? Like I can’t let a book define where I’m going or want to go. Or what I want to do. And luckily I have the record label that helps with all that stuff. So I get around pretty easily.

You’re close to Yassin Bey, how did his deportation affect you?

Yeah I guess Yassin Bey is on the same vibe, too. He’s a man of the world, you know? But unfortunately the world’s a bit messed up right now. Well it has been since its existence, I guess. It’s just unfortunate that people think that way, especially here. Dehumanising him and making him out to be a criminal. This guy who came all the way from America back to Africa and now we’re treating him like a criminal?

Do you think his treatment would’ve been different if he was still Mos Def, rapper and actor, instead of Yassin Bey, Muslim and activist?

Of course it has everything to do with him being how he is now.  He’s actually the real deal. Releasing things like Black on Both Sides, doing the whole Guantanamo Bay thing. Those things make people angry, because what they’re doing is illegal and they want to keep that stuff under wraps. He’s actually an activist and these are the things that activists go through. And it’s not even about being an activist, it’s just standing for what you believe in. And he’s actually right, you know? What he’s saying is just and fair and the world isn’t right and the world isn’t fair. It’s not even about ending racism or ending whatever. It’s about the difference that you make in your lifetime.

Will Noirwave ever grow from a cultural, artistic thing into a political thing?

My dad was in politics and that made me grow up hating politics. We tend to get mixed up with politics and humanity. Because politics is rubbish. We don’t need politics. Politics causes politics. We’ve never been able to really live freely. So we don’t really know how much responsibility it takes to live freely. If democracy was really a working thing, which I believe it’s not, and it’s meant to be the people deciding, whatever, but it’s never really worked. So where are people going with all this? We’re controlled and told what to believe and we’re told what to think and there has got to be a better way. The world keeps repeating itself.

But if democracy isn’t the answer, what is?

Who knows what the right way is? There must be a fair way to rule something. You know, in Africa, the family structure was never a hierarchy. It was always like a straight line, because everyone is equal. Patriarchy is a new thing now, but back in the day it was linear. This cab driver was actually telling me how back in the day everyone used to work and it wasn’t about the male being the breadwinner and there was no role bigger than another role. But we, with our craziness, we think that the male is more important than the female in the relationship, or is the breadwinner, meanwhile…

Is this something all your travelling has done for you, exposed you to different ideas and different ways of doing things?

It’s all about the way you look at it. Having travelled so much has affected my sense of reality – especially touring now. It’s almost like you’re looking at the world from the outside. London’s not that big , it’s smaller than Cape Town. You  can actually drive to France in, like, how many hours, you know? And then how long does it take to drive to, like, just to Joburg, you know? So it’s all about how you look at it. Some people think that London is the biggest city in the world. Where it’s not. It just has big buildings. The whole of Western Europe can fit in the DRC. So our minds can be as big as the DRC or as small as London. It’s all about the way you look at it, man.

How do you perceive fame?

I still get surprised when people come to my shows. When I do something and someone reacts. I still get mad surprised. But until I walk in the street and people go crazy it won’t really affect me. The only people who know me are the fans. People who like the music. I’m not a product. And that’s what they try and turn you into. A product. Everything is a f**king target market. You watch TV and it’s aimed at capturing this type of person. There’s like levels to shit. This thing is for this kind of person. That thing is for that kind of person. Why can’t things just be for everyone?

Has it been tough having a label’s input into what you do?

In 2014 I wrote an album and the label said, "Nah, it’s not going to work out." So I said, "cool," because that was still the beginning of being signed for me and I saw it as a challenge. Like, shit, this is real now, this isn’t me just sitting in a room anymore. So I went and wrote 40 new songs and they took the five best tracks and the old stuff and made an EP, The King of Anxiety. That pushed me as an artist, I really respect their opinion, but sometimes I’m like, "Guys, it’s 2016, this isn’t The Stones in 1965," and sometimes they work that way. But at the same time I sort of understand, how they don’t want it to become an internet vibe, here today gone tomorrow… A lot of things get lost on the internet. What’s that expression about old dogs?

Is that why you have stuff like Drone Society?

That’s me and my friends and my girlfriend. We’ve been really good friends for, like, seven years. We just have a really easy work relationship. Things come naturally and you can see that with whatever we do. There’s that connection. It’s really powerful. So it was normal. Even though we’re in different places, the connection is still there.

Your girl is an equally creative being, would you consider yourselves a power couple?

Don’t sell me as that. That’s a product. We’re so much more than a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship. It’s like, so much greater than that. We’re almost like soulmates. We are. Even greater than that. I work mostly with my girlfriend now and she does the creative direction. She’s like next level – the most creative person I’ve ever met in my life.

Explain that term ‘product’?

Barbie was probably a real person once and they turned that person into a product. A$AP Ferg is the rap version of that. Where they took a real person and have turned him into a product. That thing with the album cover, it’s crazy man. I’ve been influenced so much to get where I am, I think I just know how to channel that in a way that’s better. You can get really deep into it, though. Like, just look at the label he’s signed to. Those guys make TVs and other electronic appliances. Obviously art won’t be the aim. The art must come first. I could never make an entire album talking about hos and bitches and drugs and shit. And I do enjoy that kind of music – don’t get me wrong. All I listen to is rap, but there’s a filter. I don’t listen to trash. Don’t get hip-hop and rap and stuff mixed up with trash. Because that’s just been turned into a product. And the product is trash. A lot of what you see on TV and hear on the radio is trash – low frequency shit. We’re being desensitized to so much shit.

Do you still believe in God?

I have a relationship with God and that’s all that matters. I’ve been through it all. Church bands and metal bands. I don’t see them as opposites. They were like Christian metal bands in the church, it’s just about how you want to approach it. You’re either giving off low frequencies or you’re giving off more positive vibes. I’m glad I went through all of that, because I’ve been able to find a music style, and a guitar-playing style, while playing all of that stuff.  But church was getting me all frustrated and angry and I stopped focusing on God and became part of a system. People will go and hand out bread to the poor and then dust off their hands and be happy with their community service for the week. Where if you read in the bible Jesus hung out with prostitutes. I’m not saying it like that, you know, but He hung out with the lowest of the low in society, where the church has a bit of a complex now where it thinks it’s higher than everything. Keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor. But I love God and without him none of this would’ve happened. Spiritually I’m way better now than what I was back then. It was a bit of a front. Now I do it on God’s terms. Not on people's terms. Because people’s terms are bullshit. I just don’t like the church system. And they told me that if I leave I’m never going to come back. And, you know, I never went back.

You can get Petite Noir’s EP, The King of Anxiety, and debut album La Vie Est Belle by clicking the links.