When genre-crossing South African singer Petite Noir (aka Yannick Illunga) uploaded a photo to Facebook in March 2014 of himself and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) in the studio together, questions started being asked. What was Def doing? Five years ago, the Black Star member and GOOD Music affiliate moved to Cape Town and started to be fascinated by the sounds and rhythms of the city. So it made perfect sense to link with Petite Noir, one of the city’s most forward thinking singer-songwriters, whose 2013 tracks like “Noirse” and “Till We Ghosts” recalled the knocked-together vocals of artists like Kwes and King Krule, but also drew on the loose rhythms of South Africa’s musical heritage. We met them at a Cape Town studio one evening to find exactly what kind of Noirwave they were cooking up.
How did you guys first meet?
Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def): I remember seeing (Petite) Noir sing and I was like, ‘Wow!’ It struck a chord. I really wanted to work with this guy. I found out he was Cape Town-based through Abdi Hussein – a fellow Brooklynite who I’ve known for many years. So it was really quite natural. Yannick asked me if I wanted to do something on (forthcoming album) Ghosts so he came to the studio and played some of his songs. A lot of the tracks really stuck out, it was incredible. I did a couple of rough sketches on a track and when I came back the following day to check it out I was actually really, really proud of it.
In South Africa right now there are certain local artists and bands that are being recognised and promoted overseas more than they are locally. What’s your take on that?
Yasiin Bey: I think you can find parallels with that and what is currently happening in the States with hip hop. There’s a much more vibrant and robust market internationally than what it’s like in the States, even though that might not be the prevailing notion. Many people may believe the strongest market for hip hop is in America, but, from my experience at least, it’s much more diverse and open in Asia and Europe and in Africa. You can also find parallels with the early 20th Century jazz. Even today the international market for jazz is much more robust than the market in the place where it was born and developed.
Is there such a thing as a South African sound?
Petite Noir: The South African sound is kwaito.
Yasiin Bey: I don’t think that there’s necessarily one sound of Africa. Consider the Blk Jks and The Brother Moves On, those that are into Marimba music and the whole devotional gospel sound like St Vincent and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. You’ll find similarities between Congolese music and Senegalese music. There are musical principles and approaches that you’ll find applied in different ways throughout the continent. I find South Africa to be specifically diverse – I mean Dirty Paraffin and Blk Jks are worlds apart in terms of coming from the same sort of place. The sound is developing and maturing as much as the country is. That’s one of the more appealing aspects to life here, to our social reality. Everything is still in a stage of development; nothing is quite set in stone in a society that is redeveloping and re-establishing itself. There’s a lot of room for positive growth. There are challenges too but I’m much more encouraged than I am pessimistic when I think about life in Africa. I think its future is much brighter than its past.
Considering your involvement with theatre and acting – from your early school days to your experience in the film industry – do you think you might get involved in more than music whilst staying here?
Yasiin Bey: Sure, there’s quite a vibrant, theatrical community here. There’s a lot going on in the city and I think it’s only going to develop and evolve. When I see what’s happening across the world – in fashion, design, culture, music or visual arts – I definitely see South Africa as a very dynamic community. The kind of dynamism that happens during times when people may feel isolated, and so they start to cultivate their own thing. Some people might look at it as isolation, I look at it as a type of positive solitude. People are aware of what’s going on out in the world, but they’re acting locally; they’re not focused on how the rest of the world is going to perceive them. When you see guys like Smiso from Dirty Paraffin rhyming in vernac or in their native languages, it’s very specific. But I think that’s the rule of good art – when you’re very specific, you end up being universal too. It takes courage to do that and confidence.
You’ve described Noirwave as ‘African influences-meets New Wave, but more than just music – it’s art in general’. Could you elaborate on this?
Petite Noir: Music is spiritual and people find freedom in it. It touches the mind, body and soul. Noirwave is a culture, a lifestyle: drone life. It is going to be the new pop culture. Soon Beyoncé, Future and all these people are going to be singing to Noirwave shuffles.
And in terms of Noirwave being a part of a broader African aesthetic?
Petite Noir: I don't need to prove to people that I am African or scream it out loud. People feel it. Being genuine is a feeling. You can’t create music and tell yourself, ‘I’m making hip hop only.’ Then you’ve got it all wrong. Making music should be a release of energy. You shouldn't be able to know what is coming out; it should just come out automatically. Genuine music lasts. A lot of pop music is not genuine and that’s why so many pop artists come and go. Music can take you on an emotional roller coaster, like some kind of Disneyland in the bold and beautiful shit.