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Baloji - Bleu still
Still from “Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit”

Baloji’s vibrant new video looks at Congolese pygmy wedding traditions

The Congolese-Belgian artist talks his ‘Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit’ music video and shares behind-the-scenes photos by Kristin-Lee Moolman

“I see music in colours,” Baloji says, a sentiment slowly rolling out between pensive pauses. The Congolese-born, Belgium-based artist has just walked off a plane in Tokyo after a long intercontinental flight. “I have synesthesia, so whatever I do I see colours and atmosphere. It’s obsessive.”

Baloji’s upbringing spanned continents and cultures, he speaks multiple languages, and he jams handfuls of genres together into a single pure moment. Even discussing the name of his new song – “Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit”, taken from his upcoming album 137 Avenue Kaniama – reveals layers of meaning tied to colour: “Bleu de Nuit” translates, in one sense, to “Midnight Blue”, but Baloji’s interpretation of it has a more tangled meaning.

The song’s accompanying video is saturated with thick buttery colour, from the vibrant vegetal installations of DRC Pygmy communities to bodies entwined in the glowing dusk. Paired with photos by acclaimed South African artist Kristin-Lee Moolman, Baloji’s directorial zeal is just as compelling as his limber flow. His French verses pepper the beat, shading emotion with a captivating hue. Every syllable stretches from sound to colour to texture, all within moments. Here, Baloji’s candour is as crushing as it is consuming.

We spoke with the rapper about creating something new out of traditional Congolese music and modern Belgian styles and the suffocating feeling of unrequited love.

Your career has involved a lot of intense artistic collaboration – as proven by the long list of people you worked with in the end credits of your new video.

Baloji: Yes, definitely. For example, the collaboration with Kris (Kristin-Lee Moolman) is special. We’ve been working together for the last three years, and we keep challenging each other. Kris and I shot two things together in 2014, and one of the projects was groundbreaking for her because we showed the gay community of Kinshasa. That’s when she changed her approach to photographs drastically. So then we went to Lusanga in June to shoot the album cover. We did some amazing work, and at that moment, we had the idea that this place was so special, so unique, that it would be super crazy to just go there again and make a film.

How does this video fit into your vision for where you’re taking your music?

Baloji: The video is really an extension of the album cover. It’s based on Congolese wedding tradition where a couple stands in front of a vegetal installation, a Pygmy tradition. It’s a place where you stand and receive presents from family and friends. Some of the most common presents you receive are plastic flowers, plastic bags of rice, or even a goat. And then if you stand there on your own, it means something happened – your partner changed their mind or something went wrong.

“The video is... based on Congolese wedding tradition, where a couple stands in front of a vegetal installation, a Pygmy tradition. It’s a place where you stand and receive presents from family and friends” – Baloji

Pygmy installations are quite extraordinary, offering a backdrop from which to build a world. How did you arrive at the intersection of marriage, ritual, and separation?

Baloji: It’s about the absence, the missing one, and how the missing one can be extremely present still. There’s also something very sexual there, trying to find love in a more sexual way. There is an Italian director from the 70s called (Michelangelo) Antonioni who really inspired me. He has this movie in which this woman just waits, and it’s a three-minute scene of her just waiting. That was one of the key influences for this project. And then there’s the second narrative where the couple is more in love and bound to each other. I’m playing with these two levels, and then it comes to a head with the installation burning.

And does that tie into the title of the song?

Baloji: Yes, it’s called ‘Bleu de Nuit’, or ‘Midnight Blue’... But it’s not really ‘Midnight Blue’. ‘Bleu de Nuit’ is technically a night bruise… You say a ‘hickey’? But that doesn’t sound that romantic or cool in English for some reason. A bruise in French is also a bleu, for when your skin turns blue. And then ‘Peau de Chagrin’ is when there is nothing left.

How important is authenticity for you?

Baloji: We have multiple identities. We can be so many things at the same time, and that’s something I’m fighting with a lot. I present my work with that angle; I’m not only one-dimensional. Especially with African people and artists coming from hip hop.

It takes a lot of talent, inspiration, and curiosity for an artist to bring together this beautiful bag of modern life, heritage, and lyrical ease. What drew you to rap in the first place?

Baloji: Rap is my only truth. And if I try to copy Travi$ Scott or Young Thug, I’m just going to be second or third because all I’m going to do is wait to see what they’re doing. I’d rather make something that sounds like me. I’m 36 years old, Congolese, inspired by Congolese music but based in Belgium, which is a place full of electronic music. To put it in an English perspective, it’s kind of like a Liverpool scene: industrial. Even if you don’t listen to it, it’s everywhere around you. That feeling is felt in the shot where the young girl’s head is between the small boats. She really had to put her head under the water. I loved that shot.

Me too. It shows how love can be suffocating and silencing at the same time.  

Baloji: That’s really the main idea. And there was also another scene where we both were standing there waiting and being bored. I’ve never been married, but it’s a mixture of three types of relationship: being with the wrong person, falling in love with the wrong person, and also trying to find – or avoid – love in a sexual relationship. The song touches on the complexity of the emotions that come in sexual relationships when only one of the two people are in love.

And the line, ‘Why don’t you let yourself be loved? Why do you take back what’s given to you?’

Baloji: I was told that often. That’s why I put the kung fu in, for example. One of my girlfriends was telling me about this word that I love: reciprocity. Actually, it comes from a Lauryn Hill song. I started listening to that song a lot, and she sang, ‘Loving you is like a battle.’ So that’s why I wanted to play with kung fu as an answer to waiting with the priest and the couple married: at the same time you have the fight. I was like, ‘Fuck, that feels so right.’

Which filmmakers inspire you?

Baloji: The directors for Good Time, the Safdie brothers. I really like what they’re doing; I’m a big fan. They play with natural light. My close friend, a DOP who taught me everything, Nicolas Karakatsanis – he’s a Belgian guy, and was the DOP on I, Tonya. I was third or fifth assistant, just around watching him do his magic. I was also really inspired recently by The Florida Project. Everything is really well thought out and very low budget, all structured and super prepared. I learned that when you don’t have money you can’t try too many things; you just have to be ready on the set.

We shot this film of mine in three days with absolutely zero budget. I know it looks very expensive, but… (laughs) Once I told everyone there was no money, they were thankfully still so excited about the project. Everything is handmade. We did some ethnic clothing and I fell in love with three pieces: the one that you see in front of the white cube, the orange one, and the character that looks like a tree. We worked with this great artist for the mask, Damselfrau. She is also working with Björk, and she’s amazing.

“I made this record as if it was the last, and that gave me all the freedom, which is the best thing on earth” – Baloji

Tell me a little bit more about bringing Klody Ndongala onboard for lead vocals.

Baloji: Yes, Klody Ndongala! He’s 60-something, but sings like an angel. His voice is outstanding. He used to sing with Papa Wemba, this Congolese singer. He’s been in Belgium for the last 25 years, and sadly nobody has really cared about his work. So I invited him on my record for three songs.

It’s something very specific to the Congolese sound that men like to sing with falsetto.

Baloji: And that’s not really true in any other type of music. It’s very hard. Congolese is a culture based on singing like this for men. It’s extremely vulnerable. It’s almost cheesy, but if it’s controlled and you’re singing something that’s relevant, it changes everything. That’s why I wrote the lyrics for him as well, to make sure that it was challenging.

Do each of your albums describe a phase in your life? On your new record 137 Avenue Kaniama, you sound almost fearless and determined.

Baloji: Yes! Yes! Yes! Finally. It’s a phase and a feeling at least. I can relate to what you’re saying. I made this record as if it was the last, and that gave me all the freedom, which is the best thing on earth. I was thinking, ‘Whatever happens, let’s just do me.’ I didn’t try to fit in to anything, or answer to anyone, or make sure that a radio station will play it. ‘Do you.’

I remember listening to Blonde by Frank Ocean; I think it’s one of the most important records for me from the past years. I remember thinking, ‘What! This dude has no drums? There is no polytrack, there is no 808. Wow, this is challenging.’ But I’m not comparing myself to Frank Ocean, eh? I’m just saying it’s good to be doing something where you don’t think about the sound of the moment, and you do what you want to do.

Where did the name 137 Avenue Kaniama come from?

Baloji: It’s me being playful for some shitty reason. It was inspired by me reconnecting with my mum after 25 years. She sent me this letter, and I went searching for her address. I couldn’t find it and the street looked like a dead-end, so I asked for directions. I was told, ‘You just have to keep going!’ That stuck in my mind. It was so strong, and became the foundation for my album. So then I walked for five minutes and the street was getting smaller and smaller until I found the right number, 137.

Have you shared your new music with her?

Baloji: No, no, not yet. I don’t know. I made another record for her which came out already but she didn’t care. I actually talk about this on this new album. I gave her my record and she said, ‘It’s nice, but when I ask you to get in touch with me it’s to take care of me and the family financially.’ And that’s why maybe I chose this title, for being naïve. As someone from the diaspora, I really don’t understand the African way, but I feel it.  

Baloji releases his new album 137 Avenue Kaniama on March 23