Petite Noir: The Genre Defying Debut of the Year
I’m not ashamed to admit I was slightly disappointed that I missed my chance to meet Petite Noir in person. After browsing through countless galleries and recaps of this year’s AfroPunk Festival, Noir was one of the most visually arresting, and dashingly photogenic, performers of the weekend. I settled for a conversation via Skype, where I woke extra-early to virtually meet him from his current residence in Cape Town, South Africa.
Attractiveness aside, Petite Noir (alias Yannick Ilunga), has kickstarted a firestorm of musical debate over his debut album, La Vie Est Belle/Life Is Beautiful. In the globalized world of today, music critics have been scrambling for a term to box in the Belgian-born, half-Angolese, half-Congolese, South African raised musician. Does one classify it as world music if it’s far more in line with something by the Pet Shop Boys or Depeche Mode than Fela Kuti?
Labels aside, Noir’s debut is just plain good. It’s a fizzly set of funky, electro-pop that doesn’t offer a wasted moment. Not to mention it’s cheeky; one song summons the spirit of George Michael‘s ‘Freedom ’90’, another restructures the chorus of a Grease showtune. Milk’s Jake Boyer sat down with Noir, an ocean away from each other, to discuss the debate around his ‘labels,’ his not so subtle 80’s influence, and the vulnerability to be found in nudity.
Tell me a little bit about your musical background, I’m really curious as to how you became the musician that you are today.
Well, I don’t know. For some reason when I was a kid, I was always really drawn to instruments, guitars and stuff, and I didn’t know why. I was into things that made music. In my family too, everyone loved music. We used to watch music videos together back in that time…like Michael Jackson music videos for their first time on TV. So everyone used to do that when I was younger. So the music was always around, especially with religion, Christianity and stuff.
When I first heard your album it reminded me a lot of different 80’s music. Is that something you were trying to go for? Did you listen to a lot of 80’s music growing up, or is that just your organic sound?
No, I think that’s just the nature of the song. It’s a level of maturity that people don’t really have anymore. Because so many people are just stuck in the pop vibes. Pop music ruins the way you listen to music sometimes, because it’s always just keeping up with the trends. Nothing is concrete. So it catches you, and then it lets you go, and then it catches you, and you don’t really have time to find out what you actually like. So that happens to a lot of people. And people say all types of things; some people can hear the African music in it, those are the people who are like ‘let’s talk about African music.’ Some people say that it sounds like something from the UK.
It’s interesting because I’ve read so many reviews of your album that have said things like “He’s making music that doesn’t sound like African music!” Does that offend you in any way?
What do they know about African music? They aren’t even African.
You don’t need to prove to people that you’re African, especially to people who, like, aren’t even African. I was born African so everything I do is African, whether it sounds like what you think conventional African music sounds like or not. I can do whatever I want to. It’s in my DNA, like I can’t escape it so I don’t need to prove it to anyone.
“I was born African so everything I do is African, whether it sounds like what you think conventional African music sounds like or not. I can do whatever I want to.”
Well I know as an artist you never want to reveal how you want people to feel, but is there a particular feeling or state of mind per se you were trying to invoke with this album?
Not really. It’s just about positivity, about feeling empowered. I try to do it from the mindset of someone who is confident and is like “you can’t fuck with me.” But that said, it’s also about personal pride. Well, not me in particular, as an individual. But when you listen to it I want you to feel empowered. But again, everyone takes it in differently.
Are you amused by how many different labels people try to give you? Or are you more annoyed and wish people would just take the music?
I mean, I’m like three years in and no one’s had a solid thing for me, y’know? But then the thing is I gave everyone the word—Noirian. And people still ask me for a label. But I mean it’s cool, I guess. Keep searching.
Is that how you got the name Petite Noir?
I don’t know, I was just chilling, making music. I didn’t have a name at the time. And then something just clicked in my brain, and I really like it y’know? It suited me. And everything was cool. And then I thought of the “noir” thing when I was like what can I call this music? I actually made this really crazy, low-fi EP at first, and then I put it out as “Petite Noir” and I meant it as a sort of, well, I never meant to show my face. That was the line. But then it evolved and progressed. I became more mature.
A lot of the imagery that’s come out with this album is very body focused. You’re not completely nude, but there’s this sense of physicality and eroticism. Is that something you tried to purposefully tried to convey?
No, I don’t think the body should be seen in that way. At my most raw, this is who I am. Minus all the clothes, all the stuff. And I think it’s more about letting go. The naked body is about letting go. This is me at my most vulnerable.
Interesting. Do you feel like you’re most vulnerable right now as an artist?
Yeah, I’m giving everything that I have. If you start sacrificing things to, like to make music, to get where you want, the more you put in…you know?
“The naked body is about letting go. This is me at my most vulnerable.”
I’m curious, because people have such warped perceptions of the continent of Africa, particularly people in this country, do you feel any kind of obligation to right that notion or is that not really a concern of yours?
Yeah, definitely. I will say that in the UK, people see different things. Some people have never been to Africa, and some people in Africa have never been to America. Actually, a lot of African people have never been to America. And, there are other ways I can show you Africa, and that’s through my music, and there are other ways that I can show you, like a way of making music. A new way of just creating something. And thus inspire you. By doing that its almost a cycle. I inspire you, you inspire me. Keep the career going. It’s like a pendulum.
What is an issue in the world that concerns you most?
I don’t know, man. I feel like the whole refugee situation is fucked up. The fucking government is putting them out there. That’s the undercurrent of the life in Europe, and in the UK. I think the government puts out a “no immigrants” sort of vibe. When I was there, I saw a banner that said why we want immigrants and why we don’t want immigrants. Like, why would you even put that there? I’m an immigrant! That’s crazy. How much longer is it gonna be until someone isn’t foreign to you? How long until you don’t think they’re foreign anymore? Especially with how long humans have been alive, we still haven’t been able to realize that there are other human beings in the world. But what can you do? You just have to pass it on. Educate each other.
Well I feel like you’ve seen quite a bit of the world at this point. Is there anywhere that you will never get tired of, if you could stay and live there?
There is. Definitely in Africa, 100%. One thing I also realize is that there isn’t a perfect place. There’s something missing in every place. I guess there’s a sense of home, if you’ve grown up somewhere. There just isn’t that perfect place. And I think with Cape Town, because I grew up in Cape Town, it fills that void. South Africa’s a great place, minus the rubbish and the racism and stuff which is completely just ruining society. Like, so many places in Africa are some of the most beautiful places in the world, but there’s always people trying to dig up diamonds and mass genocide, and it makes it just the ugliest place in the world.
When you think about the future of the planet, are you hopeful or are you not so hopeful?
I’m hopeful. Of course, man. That’s why I ascribe to that whole “life is beautiful,” man. You just need to look at what’s in front of you.
‘La Vie Est Belle/Life Is Beautiful’ is out now via Domino Records
Photos by Travys Owen