One of the most contentious debates amongst Africans is the question of ‘blackness.’ How ‘black’ you are transcends the colour of your skin and speaks to experience – the ‘Black’ experience.
By Alex Gwaze, Social Documentarian
There is no debate about what constitutes the black experience: hardship, tradition, race, culture, food, and language are all common attributes. These traits have to be present for you to pull out the ‘race card’ with confidence. But what if all these features are evident yet your ‘blackness’ is still being called into question? You are left with no other option but to redefine yourself to your inquisitors. “I consider myself to be an African person … All these forms of separating us is just a European system. It’s not our system.[i]”
Who is Yannick Ilunga?
Yannick Ilunga is an African musician who fell ‘off the tree’ and started talking black, ‘new black wave’ to be exact; in an upside down Africa. His ‘noirwave’ movement has traveled beyond the cape shores – where it was 1st conceived – and it is now being affectionately nurtured in Europe and America. Ilunga initially coined the term ‘noirwave’ to describe his sound, but it “was always meant to include clothing, art, photography, music and all types of things … It is about turning the Africa we know “upside down and bringing people a new black.[ii]”
The New Black:
So what exactly does this new black look like and why does Africa have to be turned upside down? These are some of the questions that scudded through my mind as I considered what tree did this brother fall from. Yannick Ilunga was born in Belgium to a Congolese father and an Angolan mother. His family moved to South Africa when he was about 3, 4 years old. Music was very much a part of his upbringing. Ilunga candidly shares that his parents “liked to dance to music from all over Africa … I went in every other direction, then came back to traditional sounds.[iii]” Tradition is a key element of solidifying one’s ‘realness,’ without it you are immediately ostracized from the community on the charge of disloyalty. This is why being Afri-can is a prerequisite of the ‘Noirwave’ movement but its function is not that of separation rather relation.
The new black is rooted in African traditions, but not defined by it. Being genuine is more important – real recognize real. “I don’t need to prove to people that I am African or scream it out loud. People feel it. Being genuine is a feeling.[iv]” Africans are chasing international recognition in a never-ending ‘1st world – 3rd world game of thrones.’ They are essentially still being measured, graded and awarded by the outside and neglecting their immediate audience – themselves. The new black utilizes the rich history inherited from the shared African experience to define themselves. “Noirwave is about being yourself and combining all of your influences, which sounds super simple and clichéd but most people find that really difficult.[v]”
Watch Petite Noir’s introspective visual album, which journeys through the formative stages of artist Yannick Ilunga’s life with reference to the four elements of fire, earth, water and air:
As a musician, Yannick began his music career as one half of the electropop outfit Popskarr with producer/DJ Terrence Pearce before going solo as Petite Noir. Petite Noir’s music is a reflection of Yannick himself, ‘a little black.’ His music seems to be in a state of turbulence between darkness and light; sentimental, reflective, phrenetic and hypnotic – yet it has a taste of the familiar groovy African backdrop – it’s somewhere between “808s & Heartbreak” and Joy Division. Yannick cites Kanye West as a pivotal influence in defining his aspirations. “He was a black guy doing whatever he wanted to do, and he was of my time[vi].” Yannick’s unique sound has led to collaborations with international acts like Mr black on both sides, Yasiin Bey (a.k.a Mos Def), American cosmopolite Solange Knowles, and New York based UK conceptual artist Lina Viktor.
Ilunga is also part of the creative collective Drone Society with designer Rochelle Nembhard,[vii] stylist Zandi and photographer, Jordan Lee Nembhard. Rochelle Nembhard (a.k.a Rha Rha) is the creative director of the Drone Society and her “jewelry creations have been featured in videos by Azealia Banks and FKA Twigs. She is a highly sought-after stylist and has been profiled in i-D, Vice, and Logo magazines.[viii]” According to Rha Rha, the aim of the collective is “to maintain individuality in our different art forms … to straight out copy will not maintain individuality … We don’t need replicas, we’re not about that. That’s not drone … we need that diversity desperately[ix].”
Ilunga has released several videos over the past decade, three of which stand out for me. ‘Best’ of his debut album ‘La Vie Est Belle / Life is Beautiful’ directed by Travys Owen, – ‘Chess’ and ’The Fall’ both taken of his ‘King of Anxiety EP.’ ‘Chess’ is directed by Cieron Magat and influenced by Ghanaian artist Philip Kwame Apagya – and ‘The Fall’ is influenced by Marina Abramovic and directed by Rochelle Nembhard, who also features in the video. These three videos highlight exactly what the ‘new black’ looks like – different, and what an ‘upside down Africa’ looks like – new. These ‘new blacks’ are forming new tribes comprised of individuals with genuine identities based on their own definitions, interests, passions, aspirations and lifestyle choices – not popular culture.
Watch Petite Noir’s Best music video:
Rharha sums up the ‘new black wave’ as individuals that do not rely on obvious western tropes but build their “own ideal, own culture- not just tune into MTV and live through someone else’s.[x]” Companies build their brand’s popularity on the backs of ‘unique’ individuals; unfortunately being different and novel in Africa is seen as a rejection of one’s culture and tradition in favour of western ideals. The problem is not the desire to be on a par with the best international acts, but the loss of one’s sense of self that is ushered in by equivalence. Therefore, the new wave of Africans are aware of their history in the world but choose not to be defined by it — not just to the world but to themselves. While it is important to imprint the African standard in the hearts and minds of all ignorant foreigners, being defined by one’s geographic location is not a true reflection of oneself. The ‘I’m black therefore I’m not white’ idiom is a useful form of outward identification, but it says very little about who you really are. Africa is not a country, it is a community. A community that is not developing, rising or awakening from some deep slumber, it is happening and it’s happening right now! You have to be marked present to experience it.
Watch Petite Noir live in Dijon, France:
“I told my worship pastor, ‘I think I’m going to stop worship practice and start working on my music’. And she said that if I left the church, I wouldn’t come back … And she was right. I’m not regular anymore.[xi]”
[vii] Rharha Nembhard is also Yannick Ilunga’s girlfriend.
**nb**The featured image is taken from :https://www.musicinafrica.net/node/24599