interview: for south african noirwave pioneer petite noir, individuality is “always the key”

December 26, 2017
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It takes a special kind of musician to pioneer an entire musical genre. But for Petite Noir, it’s all just a part of the process.

Born Yannick Ilunga, Petite Noir first made waves with his 2015 debut The King of Anxiety and La vie est belle / Life Is Beautiful—literally. He dubs his sound ‘Noirwave’, a compelling blend of hip-hop, punk, and rock influences which he told Fader challenges “the way we’re trained to think is that everything that’s white is forward-thinking.”

It’s this sound that caught the ear of Solange, who tapped him to join her on tour that year, and Yasin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def), who collaborated on Noir’s remix of “Till We Ghosts”. It’s a sound that holds individuality and innovation above all else, the same drives the artist says are necessary, particularly for Black artists in today’s age.

AFROPUNK caught up with the 27-year-old South African rising star just ahead of his performance at our Johannesburgh festival. A warm but direct man of never too many words, Noir explained his beginnings and influences, what individuality means to him, and what’s on the horizon of what is sure to be a promising and long-lasting career.

AFROPUNK: Let’s start from the beginning. What drew you to music, and what are some of your influences?

Petite Noir: Growing up, I was always into music. For some reason I was always fascinated by it. It was always around me. I happened to come from a family that was into things like art—my brothers and sisters were into things like art and music. I also just found out my mom’s grandfather was also a musician, so I guess it’s sort of in the blood.

I guess hip-hop is one of my influences, but there are way more other influences than just that. Growing up I got into hip-hop from the media, but I also tap into a lot of other things—like punk and electronic music.

But the whole concept of Noirwave is similar to hip-hop in that it’s a culture and mindset, and has an ideology behind it.

AP: Tell me more about Noirwave. What does it mean?

PN: You’re trained to work for the white person. That’s what education teaches you from a young age, if you’re a Black person or person of color. So, growing up, all the big positions are white, all the things that sell are white, all the things that are forward thinking are white.

For example, you’ll have rock music that stems from blues, but the face of rock today is the white face. So Noirwave is a reclamation—reclaiming the music, reclaiming the land… Or not reclaiming, more like taking the face away, rewriting the narrative. I called it that after my stage name.

AP: Speaking of your stage name, why something that translates to “Little Black”? At over six feet, you’re a pretty towering guy in person.

PN: The whole name was basically just to fuck with people, just to mess with people, especially with the spelling. It was to say, ‘I like the name, and I can do whatever I want to do’ (laughs).

This generation doesn’t invent as much, especially within the arts. In music, people aren’t willing to invent because labels and brands won’t buy into it. But that’s the key. So that was the whole thing behind the name, reinventing how you think about those words. Because I’m not ‘little Black’ but I am (laughs again).

AP: Do you think this commitment to invention is especially important for Black artists?

PN: (Black artists) should never be afraid of innovating. It’s easier and you get more money when you sort of get told what to do. But I do think that some people are just meant to innovate. And also not everyone is going to be able to innovate. But you should never be afraid of it.

AP: How do you combat pressures to conform when you are creating?

PN: When I’m asked to do something, as long as it’s done my way, then I’m fine with it. That’s the key, individuality. If you’re given a trap beat, something you’re not used to being on, just approaching it as yourself is always the key (to rejecting conformity).

AP: After your first album, you were noticed by both Solange and Yasiin Bey. How did that change the direction of your music career?

PN: During that whole period, I had only released one album, and that was two years ago, so the way people interacted with the music was amazing. And people are still interacting with that music, it’s my greeting from place to place.

It started in South Africa, but now West Africa and Eastern Europe might be picking it up, so it was able to travel around the world.

AP: You’ve also traveled through the world. Your father is Congolese and your mother is Angolan, they moved from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Ivory Coast and then to South Africa when you were six. Now you are largely based in London. How has moving through the world changed your approach to music?

The thing with traveling, you’re gaining first hand knowledge by interacting with people, and you learn so much about the culture of a place just by spending a bit of time somewhere else. And I’ve managed to put those experiences in my music.

I never just put off things just because I feel like it’s not part of my ‘culture,’ so I just constantly learn and learn and learn, and figure out something new to do with that.

(Through the years) I’ve just evolved. And as I evolve as a person I just hope that I become a better person and that my music will become better.

AP: You have worked extensively with your wife and creative partner Rochelle Nembhard over the years. What’s it like mixing professional and personal relationships?

It’s been great. We’ve been working together for about 8 years. If (a joint project) works out then it’s great, but if it doesn’t, it doesn’t because we are able to see each other as individuals. Not everyone gets the ability to work together, and it works for us.

I can’t really say there haven’t been any bad times (laughs), but it’s great, and I’m fortunate. We’re constantly working on stuff, on shoots everyday, so it’s like second nature.

Directed by Yannick Ilunga and Rochelle Nembhard


AP: What’s next?

I’m working on a new EP for next year which is almost ready. Working on an album, a movie—a short film—produced with a few people. I’m doing a few features. Next year is going to be a big year, for sure.

We’re also working on a comic that will come out next year with the EP.

AP: Have you worked in film before?

No, Rochelle is more of the visual person. We’ve been wanting to make a movie for a long time, and now we’re making one. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but we’re keeping a positive attitude about it. We can’t share details yet, but it’s fiction—like “reality/fiction.”

AP: You and AFROPUNK go way back, so it’s fitting to have you at the festival.

I’ve known about AFROPUNK for a while now. They have always been a part of my music career, because back in the day I used to search for Black music that wasn’t typical, and AFROPUNK used to come up. It’s just an amazing movement.

I think I’m doing one new song, maybe. Maybe not because I haven’t really rehearsed it.

AP: Any last words you want to share?

Value individuality.