Christelle Oyiri (aka DJ CrystallMess) writes about her journey to document a piece of black French culture that is in danger of being lost
“I met Christelle Oyiri a few years ago in a nightclub in Paris, where she was DJing under the moniker CrystallMess. Christelle is a writer, producer, and DJ. She's smart as hell and fun as hell. She's written pieces for the Guardian on French colonial revisionism, DJed at Berghain, and created sound design pieces for fashion houses Kenzo and Paco Rabanne, all while educating us all about Afrofuturism and the political nature of dance music. Enjoy this piece she has written on ‘Logobi’, and follow her here” – Mykki Blanco, guest editor of Dazed, August 2018
Last month, France sealed their second World Cup triumph with a 4-2 win over Croatia. More than the win itself, I was intrigued by the soundtrack of this long-awaited victory: defender Presnel Kimpembe provided the ultimate playlist and party vibes, and videos of the whole team dancing non-stop and singing along to “Seka Seka” by Maréchal DJ and songs by DJ Caloudji went viral immediately. These names might not ring a bell to many in the English-speaking world, but to see west African music (not coming from Ghana or Nigeria) getting a mainstream stage was incredible. Many French west Africans felt seen.
Both Maréchal and Caloudji made coupé-décalé, a music genre from then war-torn Ivory Coast (my father’s homeland), where it gained prominence in the early 00s, and then turned into a lifestyle and social phenomenon in the African clubs of Paris.
As much as this viral football moment appeared to be very candid and casual, the contagious energy of the players dancing in the video reminded me of the logobi era. Stemming from coupé-décalé itself, logobi is a dance coming from the streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. From the art of miming wearing handcuffs to imitating bird flu symptoms, the dance moves are always playful.
In an astonishing turn of events in the late 2000s-early 2010s, this dance went from being an Ivorian local dance to a working class black French youth phenomenon in Paris banlieues. Dancers would form crews and perform in subways stations, in malls or simply outside. Sonically too, logobi was a hybrid – a fusion between the frenetic tecktonik/hard-tech Belgian sound and the hard-hitting coupé-décalé. For the first time, black French youth had a sound of its own, a regional club genre just like Dembow to black Dominicans, or grime to the black British community.
As a black femme DJ and producer born and raised in France, I have always wondered about the erasure of black French contribution to music. This unresolved question lead me to produce Collective Amnesia: In Memory Of Logobi – a multi-disciplinary performance combining DJing, film and 3D, as a remembrance of the gestures of France’s black youth.
Indeed, beyond dance and music, logobi produced a DIY digital ecosystem, language, and even its own social media called “info-cybers”. Info-cybers were mainly databases compiling logobi tracks and dancers’ profiles, as well as the community of cute boys and girls that were logobi-adjacent. I was deeply interested in the resourcefulness of banlieue kids who used technology as a fortress, well before the era of social media. A known website like Niggaz With Enjaillement, which showcases daily viral African dance videos, comes directly from this era. (The term enjaillement itself comes from Ivorian dialect nouchi, and means “having fun”). Though rappers like MHD or Niska, as well as underground electronic artist like NON WORLDWIDE's Nkisi, regularly take cues from logobi, and though tributes are sprinkled on tracks and mixes from time to time, the movement never gained the recognition it deserved.
“Dancers were forming crews, performing loudly, taking up space in subways, public railway stations... These acts of African joy were radical”
In 2016, I first decided to write an article on logobi – but despite my research, and knowledge of many people who had participated in the movement, I gathered very few testimonies and when I did, they were tinged with shame. This grey area didn’t stop me from pursuing my research, and I drew conclusions from this deafening silence. A question was raised: Why had nothing been ever written on this subject? Why were people shying away from answering questions that weren’t harmful? Logobi was stigmatised, not only by the outsiders, but also by its main protagonists themselves.
I designed my visual essay to highlight the importance of this cultural moment. Indeed, logobi was the celebration of an uninhibited Africanness in the very sacred French public space. Dancers were forming crews, performing loudly, taking up space in subways, public railway stations. They were creating a club ethos, when clubs were rejecting them and youth centres were either impoverished or closing down due to austerity. These acts of African joy were radical in a country where colourblindness and assimilationism are institutionalised (for example: the ban of the word “race”, no commemoration of black history, anti-racist organisations not being led by any people of colour). While France has the biggest black population in Europe, that population’s contribution to French music is rarely recognised besides rap. The absence of black people from the great French club culture narrative is never discussed.
In creating Collective Amnesia: In Memory Of Logobi, I was heavily inspired by the work of DJ Spooky and his performance Rebirth Of A Nation – a live remix of Birth Of Nation by D.W Griffith (1915). His experimental use of DJing as a tool to showcase new narratives definitely inspired my work. On the other hand, my thoughts on logobi as the first black French sonic hybridity were fostered by reading the writings of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, a diverse group of thinkers who experimented in conceptual production by welding together a wide variety of sources, and who find a singular resonance in the intersection between rave culture, black American/black British-Jamaican sounds, Afrofuturism, and accelerationism.
As interesting as that postmodernist approach was, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of black French music in the conversation, and the lack of contextualisation of French music and identity in general. Collective Amnesia aims to explore these subjects while using a fictional story: a young woman (French R&B artist Helma Mayissa) loses her memory and finds cues from her past thanks to art, sorcery, music and a crucial friendship with a young immigrant (artist Saray Escoto). Collective Amnesia is part of a broader movement of the rehabilitation of black French narratives: I’m thinking about initiatives like Atoubaa, an art and film platform centered mainly on black French womanhood, as well as Black Film Critic Syllabus, an online group and archive dedicated to black cinema and created by Fanta Sylla. There’s even Afrocyberfeminisms. a six month cycle of performances and talks curated by Oulimata Gueye at La Gaité Lyrique. Moreover, nights like La Créole (a caribbean LGBTQI monthly night where you can hear Martinique dancehall as well as Detroit techno and ballroom beats), while labels like Boukan Records are shifting the conversation about diversity in the Paris club scene.
“We refuse amnesia as a method.” This was said by Aimé Césaire in Discourse on Colonialism (1956). Being black, and being black French in particular, forces you to be your own archivist; to seek out history, even ultra-contemporary history. I refuse to allow it to be wiped out from the collective memory.