Petite Noir is anything but a run-of-the-mill artist. It’s not just the swarming electronics and deep baritone vocal which conjure up this notion - his perspective, outlook, creative processes and background all play a part in the forthcoming debut album ‘Life is Beautiful/La Vie Est Belle’.
Born Yannick Illunga, he is a native of different corners of the world. His family were constantly travelling during his upbringing. This peripatetic mentality has continued into his adulthood, as he spends his time between Cape Town, New York City, London and Congo. This is reflected in his genre and culture-spanning work; it is also this factor that makes his music unique .
At the age of twenty-five, he harnesses youthful energy but delivers it with the conviction of someone much wiser. His debut album is a tightly-knit combination of different ideas, just about glued together.
Things have been on the up since the release of ‘The King of Anxiety’ back in January - now he’s boasting a more optimistic title, ‘Life Is Beautiful’. “It’s quite a positive album, it’s not a negative one,” he assures, “it’s a lot bolder. It’s about seeing the positivity in the negativity – it’s about seeing the light in the dark.”
The title is shared with a Congolese film which the debut LP references throughout. “It’s more reflective in the positive arc of the movie. The story is almost the same – it’s about a guy who comes from a little village and comes to the big city.” Of course, many Western artists have looked towards Africa for influences, namely Damon Albarn’s African Express, Paul Simon on ‘Graceland’, even Kendrick Lamar visited Africa whilst recording ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. “I think it’s positive when people look out of their own countries especially those in America and the UK.” The power and distinct quality of Illunga’s music sprouts from the mixture of his African roots with his Western influence, Kanye West’s ‘808s and Heartbreaks’ initially turned him on to electronic music.
“I think music was never meant to be for one person”, says Illunga, “it’s for everyone to share – it’s collaboration, I don’t really write the music with anyone but it’s still collaboration because someone else has done something similar. It’s progressed through our time.”
The album was written and recorded in different parts of the world, which saw him connecting his roots and influences physically as well as in the music. “I wrote the album in South Africa, then recorded and re-recorded everything in London, the studios and people are very artistic in the capital,” he explains. “Giving the music a different environment changes it. I think some ideas wouldn’t have happened in South Africa, I’ve had both environments affect my music.
"[The album is] about seeing the positivity in the negativity – it’s about seeing the light in the dark.'
— Yannick Ilunga
Illunga describes his own “Noirwave” as the “new African aesthetic”. “It’s very rooted but at the same time it’s just about having a free mind, and not closing your mind off to any type of music. It’s about freeing yourself and not just listening to one kind of music.” This is spread all across the LP from the battle-cry spurts of brass on the intense ‘Best’ to the rolling rhythms and building synths of the epic ‘Just Breathe’. The whole thing is hard to pin down, yet cohesive.
It is clear that Illunga considers every aspect which surrounds his music very carefully, from artwork and videos to fashion. Alongside his music, he is part of a creative collective called The Drone Society. “We each do different things, I make music, Rochelle (Nembhard) does visuals and writing, whilst Jordan (Lee) does the business side of things. Rochelle and Jordan started it. We also make clothing and brought out a jewellery line. Together, we collaborate,” he says. “It’s moving forward.”
Nembhard has become Petite Noir’s main creative director and collaborated with artist Lina Viktor on the striking artwork accompanying the LP, “Rochelle has been working on the direction, and has been working to create a whole new and original look for the project. She knew Lina Viktor and they got it together then we shot it in London.”
“The artwork means a lot of things to different people, for me personally it carries that image of sacrifice,” Illunga suggests. “Malachite is the green stone at the bottom which is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a stone which represents leadership and protection, having me on top of that stone is almost like martyrdom in a way.” Nembhard’s influence is also seen in the cinematic video for ‘Best’ which sees the cover come to life.
‘Chess’ is the only song on ‘Life Is Beautiful’ which has featured on a previous release, but amongst the collection of beautifully crafted new songs, it acts as the most suitable closer to the record and brings things full circle. “It’s been the most successful song, and it just made sense to bring it across to this collection because it’s a real special song, people get attached to that song – it’s for everyone.
Currently, there’s no room for rest in Petite Noir’s schedule - after a short stay in America, he’s returning to the drawing board in London, “I want to start recording for the next project, I don’t really know what it’s going to be yet.” If anything, uncertainty is good to someone like Illunga - he’s giving himself room to breathe and play but one thing is crystal clear - “Noirwave” is on the move.
Petite Noir’s new album ‘Life is Beautiful/La Vie Est Belle’ will be released on 11th September via Double Six.