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Lous and The Yakuza
Lous and The YakuzaCourtesy of Sony Music

The majesty and tragedy of Lous and The Yakuza’s music

The Belgian-Congolese musician’s songs are regal yet streetwise. She discusses her upbringing, and working on an album with Rosalía’s producer El Guincho

Lous and The Yakuza’s music feels majestic. The Brussels-based, Belgian-Congolese musician crafts songs that feel almost regal in their assuredness – melodic, plaintive delivery that sits artfully on top of storied, almost-classical sonics.

Tracks like “Dilemme” and “Tout est gore” are beautiful, intricate songs that thread together trap, pop, and something a little more elegant (you can tell her producer is Spain’s El Guincho, best known for his work on Rosalía’s “Malamente”). With her plaintive, melodic bars in French and English (she’s not ruling out Dutch in future, either), her slick and deft delivery is entrancing – and that’s without mentioning the resplendent music videos, set between opulent red and gold decor and the streets. The unifying factor across all her work is perhaps in how she luxuriates in an uncompromising blackness.

Lous has a symbol painted on her forehead; it’s something that adorns the musician’s artwork and visuals too – like the letter ‘Y’, with a dot in the middle, almost as if a stick person is holding its arms out to embrace. She explains that it’s a sign of acceptance. “I have to accept the things coming my way,” she says, exuding an animated, assured warmth. It’s London pre-lockdown, and we’re in a west London hotel bar drinking tea while she eats a steak. “If you’re just giving, then you get empty, because you’re not receiving anything.” Indeed, there’s a certain spirituality that is intrinsic to her work too. ‘Lous’ is ‘soul’ backwards, ‘Yakuza’ means ‘loser’ in Japanese, although it’s more commonly associated with organised crime in Japan. “My name literally means ‘spirit of the loser’,” she laughs.

She has faced trauma and hardship, perhaps most notably during childhood displacement to Belgium in the midst of the Second Congo War, and then again in moving to Rwanda a few years later in the aftermath of the genocide. In spite of this, there’s a powerful, fierce positivity to her still. With her El Guincho-produced debut album, Gore, set to drop this summer, I spoke to her about classical music, her disciplined approach to creating and the tragedy that has shaped her.

When did you start writing music? 

Lous and The Yakuza: I’ve been disciplined in my art for a long time. When I started writing, I was seven. I forced myself to write three stories a week, and I was really structured, because that was my way to see how much I improved. And it’s the same with songs – every month I was writing, like, a resumé of my month. Like, this month I wrote two songs, I wrote four songs that I didn’t finish, I wrote two first verses. So the first half of the page was what I did the whole month, and the other half was how I could better the things that I fucked up. It’s so weird when I think about it. Like, I was so creepy as a child; I was eight or nine doing that.

What was inspiring you to create so much at such a young age?

Lous and The Yakuza: I think a lot of tragedy. Also I was listening to a lot of European classical music because my dad was listening to a lot of Mozart, Chopin, Vivaldi, Beethoven. It’s crazy how classical music has no words, but even as a kid I understood the intention – I felt like it was speaking to me. So I was writing stories based on listening to classical music, which sounds really weird but to me that link is so clear. Classical music is like listening to a story the whole time.

How did you end up working with El Guincho?

Lous and The Yakuza: I actually saw this 30-second teaser of “Malamente”, advertising that Rosalía had new music. I saw it after I had been searching for a producer for six months – I didn’t feel comfortable with any of the people my label were showing me. But I literally heard the beat for ten seconds on that teaser, and I knew this was the guy. I was willing to do whatever the fuck it takes to work with him because I knew he would understand the vision. He made sense of hip hop and flamenco on “Malamente”, it was so clever. I wanted to do the same with classical music – I’m a super traditional singer-songwriter, but I wanted to mix it with heavy hip hop too, because that’s my culture from being in the ghettos. I wanted my music to be like both Kate Bush and J Cole.  And he understood that, he got back to me in like two days, and after recording two songs initially I was like, “Dude, you gotta do my whole album.”

From your videos, it’s clear that you’re very into the aesthetic side of things too. How did you decide who to collaborate with when creating visuals?

Lous and The Yakuza: So we’d had tons and tons of meetings searching for a director, and it was awful. Like with El Guincho on the album, I wanted to have just one person sort of following me through the process – so there could be a vision through all the videos for the first album. That was hard, until I found Wendy Morgan. A woman at Sony Entertainment France introduced me, and I really liked her vibe. For me, it’s really (about the) vibe. Sometimes you have the greatest people but then the energy’s not right. But Wendy was amazing.

So what were the important things to showcase visually?

Lous and The Yakuza: The foundation values that were important for me were showcasing the black community, showcasing the beauty of it. For me, it’s important to have a beautiful representation of a black woman – someone who’s not ashamed of her skin tone. I’ve never bleached my skin or shit like that. Everyone in Congo bleaches their skin still, because we are taught that our skin is not beautiful at all times. I’m already a confident person, but I wanted to be like, OK, here’s a black woman who feels herself without trying too much. Also, having a whole black cast was important to me, without it being like a statement for one video – because that’s going to be the statement for the whole album.

I know you moved back to Belgium a few years ago for the creative scene – but you also lived there briefly when you were younger. What took your family there when you were a kid?

Lous and The Yakuza: War. They were putting Rwandese people in jail back in 1998 in Congo. My mother unfortunately was taken away from us, and she was in jail for two months. My dad got her out, then she had one day to pack and leave. And that’s why she went to Belgium – it’s easier for a Congolese person to go to Belgium because they had previously colonised our countries, so the link is already there. So she went there in 1998 with my baby sister. And we couldn’t go with her – but I got there two years later, with the rest of my siblings, but my dad didn’t come. Eventually I understood my parents had my best interests at heart, but it was so confusing for me as a child.

“I don’t think that writing words makes the pain go away – that would be so nice, but it’s not the way it works, you know?” – Lous and The Yakuza

We don’t have to keep talking about this if you don’t want to, because I appreciate it must be hard. But I’m curious about what the initial transition was like for you moving? 

Lous and The Yakuza: So I was born in Congo, I stayed there for four years. And it was super nice, I was a super happy child – I’m still a super happy person, I’m always amazed by everything. Then we left because of the war, and my parents hid what was happening. They said we were going for a vacation, but you could feel they were so stressed. Then when we arrived in Belgium, and it was the ghetto of Brussels city. Our whole street was only immigrants everywhere, and it was a huge difference of... I don’t know if it’s the right word in English to say ‘caste’? In Congo we were rich, the house was huge like a fucking hotel. And then we came to Belgium in a tiny apartment and I was sharing a small room with my sisters. My mother wasn’t happy because she couldn’t be a doctor there, (even though) she had studied to be a doctor – I saw she was not happy but she was at least happy to get her children back. It was a weird time for me but I was still a happy, curious child, living my best life. Then in 2005 we went to Rwanda.

What was that like?

Lous and The Yakuza: It was a post-genocide country, genocide happened ten years earlier. There’s poor people everywhere, tons of orphaned children. I think one out of three people had either no arm or no leg, which was completely confusing for me as a child. All the family around me was so traumatized. They were explaining things to me really explicitly. I’m sorry to give you this image, but I remember I was nine and I asked the housekeeper, “What is genocide?”, ’cos I had no idea, and she said people were playing football with a baby’s head. I had nightmares about it for ten years after that one sentence. I imagined the whole thing because I was super young and couldn’t understand. It was a big trauma. But as I grew up I could see that everyone in Rwanda was so much in the effort of trying to work together to make it better again. 

Do you find that creating is a form of catharsis from that kind of trauma?

Lous and The Yakuza: I don’t think that writing words makes the pain go away – that would be so nice, but it’s not the way it works, you know? The album also has songs about rape, about prostitution, cancer, loneliness, dilemmas. I just hope that through listening to my album people feel some empathy, and feel a little more able to understand humanity without judging so quickly.