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charlotte adigéry is the future

March 4, 2020
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Charlotte Adigéry is a woman and a duo. Let’s start with the woman. Born in Belgium to parents from Guadeloupe and Martinique, 29-year-old Charlotte Adigéry has the unique experience of being a woman of African descent living in the city of Ghent, a small town that is a hotbed of cultural activity — and also pretty much homogeneously white. Charlotte’s atypical experience, coupled with her extraordinary singing and songwriting talents, led Adigery to play in numerous bands in her teens and early 20s before striking out in her own under the moniker Wwwater. The music was the disruptive and deeply-personal post-punk that she couldn’t make when she was part of a group.

Through the brothers David and Stephen Dewaele (aka Belgian electronic-music royalty, Soulwax), Charlotte met her creative match in Boris Zeebroek (aka Bolis Pupul). Bolis, the son of a famed Belgian comedian/cartoonist and a mother from Hong Kong, became fast friends with Charlotte. The pair vibed over their common outsider experiences and their passion for music in Soulwax’s studio, and on hours-long drives to gigs. This is when Charlotte Adigéry became a pair: Charlotte on vocals and Bolis on beats. Well, that’s something of an oversimplification, because theirs is a collaboration on which the lines between songwriter and producer blur. Their studio sessions usually begin with the kind of conversations that close friends have with one another, starting out on a surface level, but going deep, exploring emotions, irreverent humor and tender moments of mutual understanding. No matter how they arrive there, the end result is always catharsis and, of course, a song.

At first blush, Charlotte Adigéry seems to make a techno-inflected alt-pop that inspires movement through repetition, syncopation, and fast tempos. But when you listen more closely and decode what’s going on, you’ll hear songs that are refreshingly original in both approach and subject matter. “Paténipat,” the duo’s pulsing, breakout hit from 2018 isn’t just catchy bit of foreign language gibberish — it’s also a clever nod to Adigéry’s Afro-Caribbean roots. “Zandoli,” the song’s subject and title of their 2019 EP, is the name of a lizard in the Caribbean sister islands Charlotte’s parents hail from. The song’s Creole chorus (“zandoli pa té ni pat”) is borrowed from a folk song about the legless lizard. Embraced by forward-thinking DJs internationally, the song about a gecko with no legs with a rhythm informed by gwo ka, became a footwork-inspiring international dance hit — before ending up on a trailer for HBO’s The New Pope.

In February, Charlotte and Bolis made their New York City debut, selling out Nublu 151 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Looking at out at the packed room Adigéry burst into tears before she sang her first song. After composing herself and thanking the audience, she and Pupul launched into a raucous set that saw both of them dancing, vamping, joking, and working the crowd into a frenzy. It felt less like a performance and more like a historical happening. Afterward, concert-goers mobbed the side of the stage to buy merch and heap praise on Adigéry.

Days before the show, AFROPUNK sat down with Adigéry and Bolis Pupul at our Brooklyn offices to talk about inspiration, identity, and the new album they’re cooking up for release in the fall.

One thing I like about your music is that it defies easy categorization. Talk about how you two arrived at the unique sound that you have.

Bolis Pupul: It’s not something we do on purpose. It just kind of happens. At the same time, we are aware of the fact that we don’t want to sound like something else. Whenever we feel like the song is sounding too much like specific artists or a  specific genre, we take it somewhere totally different, so it doesn’t end up being like what our first inspiration was. We also use a lot of analog gear, and tweak the sounds. We try to add something that we like or something exciting — some distortion, some flangers, a chorus, some delay, some strings. We make music the way a child comes up with good ideas. Like, I can play a line on a synth, just a melody, and it can be abstract, but then Charlotte can sing something over it that brings it all together, and that makes it more digestible. Then we add some drums.

Charlotte Adigéry: We never really pinpoint what we want to do [before we do it]. It’s all about playfulness in the studio — and zero intentions, other than just making something. We try to keep like that child-like playfulness. Yeah, that’s super important. We want to honor the people we are fans of, who inspired us, but we wanna do our own thing. When you’re really doing you, it’s gonna be unique. But I think it takes courage to not do the imitation thing, and I think we’re courageous in a way.

I found out about your music via party DJs I know, and I think they gravitated to it because it’s so danceable. Is it your intention to make music that inspires movement?

CA: I love dance. I love to dance. I love dance because to me it’s like the purest form of meditation, and it’s effortless meditation. I’m forgetting myself when I’m on stage.

BP: It’s actually pure mindfulness.

CA: We never really decided consciously to do music that’s danceable. It’s just something like, when you make a track and it enters your body and you start to dance, you know, “OK, we’re good.”

Yeah, dancing becomes the focal point of your attention when you’re doing it. You could sit around and think about all the troubles of your day and all this stuff going on in the world, but when you’re in the midst of an experience — like dancing or practicing yoga — you’re focused on what’s happening in the now. Like you said, it’s pure mindfulness.

CA: It’s not ignoring [your troubles]. It’s just acknowledging that they’re just that. Even when you, when you erase these thoughts, the essence of life is still there. You don’t have to constantly identify with your thoughts and with the concepts of your mind — that you can do without them, but it’s hard. Music, to me, is a tool to do that, to get there.

This conversation is definitely making me think about “Yin-Yang Self Meditation.” When I heard that song — I don’t even know if I should call it a song.

BP: It’s not very poppy! [Laughs].


I was like, “What the fuck is this?! She made a guide for meditation?” I listened to it more closely and it was very relatable, because it’s not just a high-minded concept song — “this is how you meditate, this is how you should be peaceful” — but one that lets people into your inner thoughts, your inner dialogue, and some of their scarier parts. Tell me about what inspired that song and why you did it. 

CA: We decided to do it because we knew that even if it’s not a pop song and not a lot of people will hear it, it’s [sense] going to make sense now and even in 10 years or 20 years because it’s universal. It’s something that everybody could relate to if they took the time to listen to it.

That’s what really grabbed me about the track. In the U.S., the practices of meditation and mindfulness are mainstream culture now. You hear conversations about meditation in the public sphere, but it’s often removed from the everyday experience of a Black person or person of color. Charlotte, you talk about how people interact with you in certain spaces and the things that go on in your head in those instances and I’ve never really heard people make those thoughts of violation or alienation explicit before. For instance, you talk about your neighbor who’s racist and you have a debate in your head where you’re like “Fuck him!” or “Maybe I should be kind to this pathetic person?” That piece was extremely relatable for me. It speaks to this kind of internal dialogue that’s never really heard in songs. 

CA: It’s really moving to me, and it’s kind of intense, to be in this space talking to a person of color. We have a lot in common with our backgrounds, and to be talking to you and hearing you say you can relate to that — and to that [anecdote about] a racist neighbor — it’s intense and moving to me because in Belgium, there’s not a lot of people with other backgrounds who talk about this stuff. Oftentimes we have to defend or explain our struggles and our pain, and it really moves me to be talking about it. I can’t really explain it, but yeah, there’s a deeper understanding.

Being a person of color in Europe is like having a double or even triple identity: you have your ethnicity or your parents’ ethnicity, you have your race, skin color, all this other stuff. And then you have your Belgian nationality. What is the experience of being a person of color in Belgium like? I’ve lived in a neighborhood where I was one of the only Black people there, and you feel this alienation. I can only imagine what growing up in a place like that is like.

BP: I think in my case there was another element that made it more complex. My dad was famous in Belgium. Everybody knew him at the time I was a teenager, so I was always the “son of Kamagurka.” In that way, I already felt special, or sometimes treated differently by people. But then there was the fact that I was half-Chinese and I look different. Of course, I had children making fun of me because I was Chinese — and they would say things like “Chinese people, they smell!” They would call me “lumpia”— just really racist. I remember my dad was like, “whenever they say something racist, you have the right to hit them.” [Laughs]

That’s good parenting! [Laughs] Charlotte what’s Black woman’s experience in Ghent like?

CA: I’m getting angry at the thought of it.  When I was small, a lot of people didn’t even know where Martinique was. So they were like, “Where in Africa would that be?”

Because in Europe they think everybody’s from Africa.

CA: And then if you would say, “I’m as African as African-American people are African.” They’d say, “Yeah, it’s all the same.” Like I had friends telling me that! Our heritage is African, but we been through a lot. And we created another culture that’s African, and also sadly, the culture of our oppressors and colonizers. They presume you are from Congo because Belgium colonized Congo. They fucked it up and they still don’t apologize. There’s still a big statue of the king [Leopold II].

BP: He killed more Congolese than Hitler killed Jewish people.

Yeah, straight-up genocide.

CA: And that brings me to another thing. If, as a Black person, you express being hurt about something that’s racist, Belgian people are like,”Yes, but I didn’t mean it like that.” Or “when I say the N-word, I don’t mean it that way, so lighten up.” That’s the thing — they think their opinion is still more important than my feelings.

In America, we have a culture that’s become critical of the bullshit and people who studied the bullshit for so long because we have a very direct history with slavery. People are starting to acknowledge and admit that slavery is foundational to this country. If you live in a place like Europe, especially in places like Belgium where there’s no large or cohesive Black or Afro-Caribbean community, is it harder to push against the racism? It seems to become a different kind of racism, that’s no less insidious, like feeling a thousand little cuts instead of a single stab.

CA: We still have to fight things that I think you guys here overcame for [us] like it’s, it’s way more like we couldn’t even talk about colorism. People don’t even know what that is there. We’re still fighting this old tradition like Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas…

BP: It’s still a discussion!

CA: People still touch my hair [without permission]!

How is the new album you’re working on shaping up in comparison to the EPs? Where are you going with it sonically? What are some things that have been in your minds in terms of the subject matter?

BP: I think on a sonic level we kind of picked up every left from on the Zandoli EP. At the same time, it’s evolved a bit like this. For me, it sounds logical, like a…

CA: …a new chapter in the book maybe?

BP: Yeah. There are some danceable tracks. There’s also a lot of melody, a lot of harmony, songs with a twist, songs that just go straight on. I think the subjects we’re touching on are, kind of like we did on the EP. But I think with the album it sounds more cohesive than the EP, because you have more time, more songs and it’s still very varied.

And there’s still going to be that element of storytelling we heard on songs like “B B C” and “Cursed and Cussed” right?

CA: Yeah. Something we picked up from both EPs, this way we love observing situations and people and telling our story through our eyes. That’s something we always did and we realized after the second EP like, “Oh, we do that a lot.” We are these two flies on the wall. So that’s what we wanted to do — tell our stories through our eyes, with our profile.