“With this album, I’m saying ‘welcome to my house’”. On call from London, Congolese born, SA raised Yannick Ilunga is describing the meaning behind the title of his new EP/Visual album. “The title La Maison Noir/The Black House is a play on the White House. In the same way that the White House is the center of how American politics dominates the world, we are saying this is what we do, who we are”.
At a time when an orange-tinted racist is sitting in the White House, whipping his braying hoard of followers into frenzied anti-immigrant hate, such a bold comparison from an African artist is an intensely political statement. The anthemic opening song “Blame Fire” crackles with a rebellious sprit of self-belief “refugees on a mission/don’t believe the television” and “we need to realise our skin is a blessing/fuck a curse”. The instantly iconic cover art, shot in a village outside Kinshasha, has him boldly facing the camera, spear in hand, dressed in a kingly outfit of blood red, complete with a magnificent veiled crown. Around him are arrayed the lush green of forest and the rich dirt of a pulsing river. The art also feels like a development of the aggressive cover image of the White House Kendrick Lamar used on To Pimp a Butterfly, reinterpreted from an African perspective.
Indeed, redefining the colour black is central to Petite Noir’s aesthetic project. The colonial gaze associated black with danger, chaos and death. With a musical and fashion style he has dubbed ‘noirwave’, Ilunga, working in tandem with the visual input of his creative partner and wife Rochelle “Rharha” Nembhard, is reclaiming black as a colour of power, elegance and mystery.
His early releases, culminating in the 2015 debut album La vie est belle/Life is Beautiful, had an especially gothic sense of darkness. The music took a clear inspiration from the theatrics of Joy Division, Depeche Mode and a teenage immersion in heavy metal, revived with a contemporary sensibility. The stabbing synthesisers of my favorite track Freedom, for example, could credibly double as a SA House instrumental. And its lavish artwork and videos vividly essayed an Afro- Futurist inspired aesthetic, several years before Black Panther made the term a global buzzword.
But while the last album felt like a Wagnerian storm of romantic dissolution, the new release sounds like the sun peaking over the dark clouds. The guitars feel liquid, the electronic aspects are warmer and his powerful baritone conveys a strident optimism. “This does feel like a brighter period of my life. I have a bit more momentum, more creativity. The production and writing felt more solid. I was able to take more time with it. It’s nice!”.
This expansive vision permeates La Maison Noir, a work suffused with elemental themes. “I was inspired by the ever flowing power of life. The album is inspired by birth, spirit, death. The full cycle of life”. This cosmic perspective is fully realised through the overwhelming short film which accompanies the mini-album. Shot in the harsh, but revealing, light of the Namibian desert, it sees Petite Noir, Rharha and impeccably styled extras journey through a beautiful landscape of rocks, ruins and ritual. “We wanted to use element symbols like water, air and fire”. The desert, after all, is where people go to raise higher powers. “The title ‘Blame Fire’ means giving thanks to God. If you look at the story of Moses, God revealed himself through fire. Powerful things are brought out through the elements”.
Featuring guest appearances by the likes of Danny Brown and Saul Williams, the new releases marks a huge step forward for Petite Noir, boldly announcing the global takeover of Noirwave. Along with artists like Young Fathers, with who he will soon be touring, he is keeping the indie spirit of dark romanticism alive, hungrily searching for new means of artistic and spiritual expression.
Photography: Jamal Nxedlana
Photographic Assistant: Stefan Kleinowitz