The necessary evolution of Petite Noir

It has been a year since Mr Yannick Ilunga – the Congolese Angolan musician fanatically known as Petite Noir – moved back to his childhood Cape Town after a whirlwind stint of dream gigs and stardom in London, gliding through plaudits from an impressive list of mainstream and independent media. His sound – a fluid mix of 80s synch pop and electronic dance, to afrobeat and others in between – has over a few years had the binary effect of adulation and misunderstanding. We caught up with him after one of his rehearsals for Afropunk on New Year’s Eve in Jozi, and a February and March 2018 stand at Cape Town’s picturesque Kirstenbosch. He skyped us at sunset on a weekday in mid December, meandering through Xenophobia, his short attention span, the media’s disingenuousness,  breaking up with his label, musical evolution and his slavery to social media. He started off by extolling the highs of performing at home.

“I love performing in Cape Town, I never know what to expect. A lot of my (previous) work was focused in the UK because my manager was there and I was working there. I am not used to it yet (being back). I split with my label last September and I was back (in Cape Town) in December. I had to refocus, see the next move. That next move was a rebirth, a brand new me. The music has changed and I’ve grown wiser. I am not making the same mistakes and I’m taking everything to the next level: bigger and faster, I am going into a serious space in terms of work and life, starting to get into a more structured approach to working and laying foundations so that it’s sustainable.

Mine is a confusing story to some, a lot of people don’t understand me, they don’t know what I am, especially foreign media. I have decided to be specific about who I am: I’m a Congolese person, my mom is from Angola, I was born in Brussels in exile. My brain has been programmed to think in a South African way: I went to school here, all my friends were from SA, I didn’t leave until I was 22, till I got signed. The way I saw life was in a very Capetonian way. My brain is in SA mode, my features are Central African, but my story is in all these places. Because of my genes, I have this added concept of life, after a certain age, (Cape Town/South Africa) doesn’t feel as welcoming. This means that growing up in SA, I didn’t get affected by Xenophobia, only after becoming an adult did it become real. There were people like me, from up North, who got attacked in Xenophobic situations. Ultimately, we are not meant to have borders, naturally we are meant to be roaming this area (Africa) freely.

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“I had to refocus, see the next move. That next move was a rebirth, a brand new me. The music has changed and I’ve grown wiser. I am not making the same mistakes and am taking everything to the next level: bigger and faster.”

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On some days I wake up and wonder why I’m doing this. You are on your journey and need to live in the moment and keep going. You need to appreciate your individuality. My music is constantly evolving and keeps getting better as I grow. The new music (being recorded) is different to the last album (La vie est belle / Life Is Beautiful, 2015). People need to follow the sound. It has always been about no boundaries, no genre. If it sounds like something I know, I change it. Nobody is inventing anything anymore, we are not trained to do that, so for me, creating is about going into a space in your mind that you have never been before. Nowadays you need to careful what you take in, there is a lot of really bad stuff out there destroying minds. 

In the past, you would hear there is a girl, she is beautiful, has a lovely, next level voice and goes on to become Whitney Houston. Nowadays, some guy will get into the studio, he looks wasted; 90% of it (what he produces) is autotune, makes a hit song and gets millions. The next guy comes, the message hasn’t changed for years, it’s still the same. They (record companies) sign more people to have shorter careers, so you can get a new person after that. They used to put in way more money into people – even though they screwed people back then – you wouldn’t have 100 Whitneys or Michael Jacksons.

 

Petite Noir performs at the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival in early 2017.

My attention span is terrible. I don’t watch TV, I’m a prisoner to my cellphone. I am a member of the church of Twitter. I used to be able to watch a whole music video and now I can’t. I am distracted, I’m programmed, it’s my morning hypnotism. I may shower, after a shower, I need to check Twitter again. I’m constantly bombarded by screens. It’s an assault of technology, its killing people out here!

There has been a lot of trial and error, but I remain resistant, insistent and persistent. I don’t think everyone can handle that mentally, not everyone can be a leader, and because I am musician and people are listening to my music and that comes with responsibility and the reality of flak as much as the good. You get a lot of hate from people who don’t understand you, even those close to you. In the beginning when my parents didn’t understand (the music thing), or others about splitting from my label or finding a new manager, I have been through so much, so much hate – the music, the aesthetic, good reviews with bad scores, all of it – I have to keep on pushing. That’s what happens with every story, some people just don’t want to understand.

Journalists need to get the story straight, sometimes. Journalists that work for bigger companies, need to write a specific amount of stories and sometimes the research is not enough. We didn’t even post about the wedding (recently, to artist, curator and his Creative Director/collaborator Ms. Rochelle Rharha Nembhard), people posted and they (journalists) started writing and a lot of the facts were wrongYou just have to go on living your life, and I am obsessed with learning about stuff: making clothes, new ideas, working on a music video concept, there is no free time to not create. But I wish I raced cars or something, or maybe I should get into photography.”

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As told to Mr Siphiwe Mpye. Edited for length and continuity. 

Feature image supplied. 

Petite Noir performs at the inaugural Afropunk Johannebsurg on New Year’s Eve (festival begins on December 30, 2017) at Constitution Hill, alongside Laura Mvula, King Tha vs Blkjks and others. Tickets available here .

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