Yannick Ilunga, the Cape Town-raised singer and producer known as Petite Noir, sits in the passenger seat of a Hyundai sedan that’s parked about 50 paces from the South African shoreline. It’s 4PM on a Thursday in April, and a mid-tempo groove by the L.A. hip-hop experimenter OriJanus plays through the stereo while Ilunga, 24, takes a soft pull from a joint. He’s driven out here with his friend Tumi Matlala to get a breather from working at Matlala’s home studio.
Matlala, who engineers for area hip-hop musicians, says he likes coming out to the beach when he’s mixing tracks. Listening back to them through the car stereo lets him hear things with fresh ears. He asks if Yannick has a listening spot like that. “Not really—I usually mix as I go along,” Ilunga replies. “I want everything to sound full immediately. If I want reverb on the guitar I’ll put it there. It can make things really dense.”
For sure, on his breakout Domino Records EP, King of Anxiety, released earlier this year—and even more on his forthcoming full-length debut, La Vie Est Belle / Life is Beautiful—Ilunga packs in as much as he can. Waves of synthesizer mix with crumbly bass lines, tube-amp guitar lines, ominously layered vocals, and central African beats that blend computerized sounds with live drumming. His sound is luminous and tender—it shoots for the grandiose but remains intimate and believable. And it’s catching on: Ilunga has become a close collaborator with Cape Town-based MC Yasiin Bey (formerly the Brooklyn-based Mos Def); toured with singer and self-styled tastemaker Solange Knowles; and started to attract significant followings in various parts of the world.
“I want everything to sound full immediately.”—Petite Noir
Ilunga spent his earliest years in Europe and parts of West and Central Africa, then grew up in Cape Town and now lives mostly in London. “The whole world feels like home,” he says. “Before anything, there weren’t all these borders. And to me, wherever I am, I know who my family is. I know where I come from, I know where I wanna go.” Similarly, his music covers wide ground and blends its source material easily, from an almost bird’s-eye view.
Ilunga has a word for his style: noirwave. Sometimes he defines it simply as new wave with an African aesthetic—and okay, maybe some of his music sounds like Joy Division if William Onyeabor had replaced Ian Curtis. But he implies more: at a moment when African art and youth culture are starting to create a new level of buzz internationally, you probably can’t come with any assumptions about what that means.
“With noirwave, I’m challenging,” he says. “The way we’re trained to think is that everything that’s white is forward-thinking.” A lot of that has to do with white artists’ propensity to appropriate; since the birth of pop, and especially the British invasion in the States, notions of white genius have centered on artists integrating their influences into a personal composite. White stars are often celebrated primarily for rethinking and repurposing global materials (the most obvious example being Paul Simon’s work in South Africa). Conversely, black art is often hailed for its proximity to a taproot, especially where the African continent is concerned: purity, adherence, and a touch of the traditional earn points. Noirwave is Ilunga’s way of suggesting that today, as internet access spreads and America’s domination of global culture erodes, African artists are just as likely to look to other cultures for inspiration as anyone else. At a time when the internet has gotten very good at freaking out over the white gaze, noirwave is claiming space for the African gaze outward.
“There’s this whole generation of younger people who have grown up with African descent but [been raised] in a cross-section between European and African cultures,” says the artist Lina Viktor, a British visual artist who created the cover image for La Vie Est Belle. “The question is: How do you bridge those divides and create something that’s not the stereotypical or eroticized African identity? Yannick has grown up between all these places. So it’s impossible not to be influenced by all the things that are going on, and to create the amalgamation.”
“Noirwave is just about breaking boundaries,” says Rochelle Nembhard, an artist and designer who has been Ilunga’s girlfriend for the past five years. “It’s like a catch-all that you can classify so many things into, it’s just breaking boundaries all the time.” Will the term really catch on? It seems like a stretch. But then, assertiveness is kind of the point.
Among South Africa’s young artists, Petite Noir is one of the fastest rising. He toured briefly with Solange in 2013, and she included a version of his song “Noirse” on her Saint Heron compilation album. He and Yasiin Bey record often together, including on a mercurial remix of Ilunga’s “Till We Ghosts” that made a splash last year. On that track, Bey raps in sparse interjections over Ilunga’s rattling-tin guitar sound, ignoring any verse-chorus structure and finally rising into an pensive, awestruck croon.
These collaborations have earned Ilunga international attention, which explains Red Bull Studios letting him come by to use its downtown Cape Town recording facilities for free whenever he’s in town. He spent a day there in early April, making beats from scratch in a room full of friends. At a little over six feet, Ilunga’s usually the tallest guy in the room, and often the quietest—but his quietly searching eyes brighten up when he’s in a room full of instruments, sparking him into action. Dressed in solid blue Adidas, black t-shirt and fitted gray sweatpants, with a gold chain and black Lacoste cap on his head, Ilunga glided around the room in a rolling office chair, playing some bass guitar, tapping out a brittle melody on synthesizer, recording a friend’s declarative trumpet line.
For a couple hours the looming beat loop overtook the room; its subtly shifting bass line offered a sense of momentum and intrigue, spreading positive energy underneath. Ilunga’s big, enveloping voice can invoke the stoic fatalism of British acts like Morrissey or Echo & the Bunnymen, but it has an almost effeminate quality of its own. His massive and layered compositions complement earnest and direct lyrics, giving them a sense of everyday heroism.
Ilunga was born in Belgium in 1990 to an aristocratic Congolese dad and an Angolan mom. They moved around, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Ivory Coast and then, when Ilunga was six, to a newly democratic South Africa. He grew up in Cape Town’s largely white Sea Point neighborhood, with its spectacular hilltop homes and resplendent view of the Atlantic. His was among the only black families around, and he sometimes got confused stares when leaving his own house. Today, he says, there are still restaurants in the neighborhood that shut down when the African National Congress political party—which is supported by most black South Africans—holds rallies nearby.
As a teenager, Ilunga used to spend hours playing guitar in front of the mirror in his room, headphones plugged into amp. He was into Joy Division, Gore, and Congolese legend Tabu Ley Rochereau. He played music and sang in church, and joined a handful of bands—including Fallen Within, a hardcore punk outfit, and a group led by Spoek Mathambo, the Soweto MC who calls his music “Township Tech.” When Ilunga heard Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak he became enchanted. He started making music on the computer, and eventually co-founded the chillwave duo POPSKARR. Ultimately he decided to strike out alone, and dreamt up the stage name Petite Noir. “It’s a ‘little black,’” he says, laughing. “It’s in-your-face. People don’t really know how to deal, but that’s the whole point.”
“How do you bridge those divides and create something that’s not the stereotypical or eroticized African identity?”—Lina Viktor
Ilunga’s parents pushed him hard to succeed in school, and he enrolled in a university program to study advertising. But he dropped out after a year and a half, and in 2013 Domino signed him. By that time he’d been dating Nembhard for two years. They’ve been long-distance since the beginning, but over countless Skype conversations they have developed a close artistic partnership. Nembhard, who’s British-Jamaican, says she encouraged Ilunga to think about his work more politically, and he helped her broaden her music tastes. They’ve staked out a lot of shared terrain, and now co-lead a loose art collective called Drone Society.
One night in April they were conference calling—he from Cape Town, she from Thailand, where she’s in grad school for communication arts—with Ilunga’s management and some reps from a major fashion company. The company expressed interest in using a Petite Noir track for their latest ad campaign. Ilunga suggested using Nembhard’s visuals along with it, but the fashion brand wasn’t quite ready to commit to the duo’s full vision—yet, at least.
While there’s still some way to go, taking their aesthetic into a major commercial realm is all part of Ilunga and Nembhard’s plan—as well as a gamble. “I hope they really understand the noirwave vibe,” he says, sounding reticent when he gets off the call.
“When people see African, its Kente cloth and it has to look ‘African.’ So with “The Fall” video, we were trying to bring it into a sci-fi setting. It’s breaking all boundaries.”—Rochelle Nembhard
When we catch up later on, Nembhard explains her take on where their careers are headed. “What we’re trying to do with noirwave is to take it into high art now,” she says. To her, noirwave is an example of African artists claiming a broad artistic palette—and it can also be a way of bringing black artists into the establishment. “I don’t feel like there’s enough of that—high conceptual art. You know how when people see African, its Kente cloth and it has to look 'African'—it’s too much. So with the new video, we were trying to bring it into a sci-fi setting. It’s breaking all boundaries. And with influence from people you’d never expect.”
She’s referring to the video for “The Fall,” King of Anxiety’s most memorable and affecting track. In the clip, Ilunga and Nembhard reappropriate Marina Abramovic’s famous “The Artist Is Present” performance, enacting the traumas of a relationship while Ilunga croons a moody pledge over airy synth and gentle percussion.
In the year-and-a-half that passed between the 2012 recording of King of Anxiety and the making of his debut album, La Vie Est Belle, Ilunga’s sound palette widened. Where his head is at now is a thicker, more deeply saturated rhythm sound with layers of live drumming. Sometimes he lets go of electronic programming altogether.
After our smoke break by the coast on that breezy April afternoon, Ilunga heads back into the studio to play me some clips from La Vie Est Belle, which is due in September. Though the version I’m hearing isn’t fully mastered yet, it fills the room with a viscous, liquid sound. Luminescent synths give color to danceable, thumping beats, and ambient natural sounds gurgle beneath mountaintop vocals. The rawness of the drums carries into the greater aesthetic—Ilunga’s main conflict, between boyish observation and sage-like awareness, becomes existential. His voice is simultaneously shy and authoritative, baritone and slightly feminine.
Around 5:30PM, Ilunga announces that he’s too stoned and tired to go to a listening party at Red Bull Studios for his friend, Uno July, one-half of the local hip-hop group Ill Skillz. But he rallies and a half-hour later his tall frame is sliding through the building’s glass front doorway. It’s a small room, full despite a crowd of just 25 people. But it’s the right 25: young artists, musicians, designers, bloggers—the people making the new South African scene. Their t-shirts and Tumblrs spill with imagery: Sun Ra, sangomas, contemporary visual art. Nestled in the back in his black cap and sweats, Ilunga has a subtly commanding presence. He’s part of the crowd, but he stands apart, representing only himself.