Though he was given a mid-afternoon slot at the festival, and though he was performing to an audience that largely didn’t know his work, Ilunga immediately commanded the crowd: initially, even, in absentia. His band opened with Life Is Beautiful‘s menacing and beguiling intro while he waited offstage — an assured move for an artist only about to drop his debut album. As he moved through his album’s harsher beginnings, he made way to the ebullient “MDR” — whose chorus couples the innocence of Grease with the declaration, “I’ll love you till the motherfucking very end.” With the optimism of this song, it seemed he’d swayed listeners beyond mere curiosity: it’s impossible not to get caught up in his choruses. “I love this because a lot of the South African music I hear is kwaito, and this was back to rock, back to singing,” an audience member told me between songs.
Afropunk has evolved from its early days as the subject of a cult documentary into a series of festivals, and ultimately into a widely known movement. Meanwhile, noirwave, Ilunga is hoping, will evolve from a sound to “a lifestyle and a mentality.” His burgeoning self-made genre parallels Afropunk, as it takes from a (slightly later) musical movement — new wave — that, even at its most radical, happened to be extremely white. Countering the hermetical tendency to condemn any form of appropriation, noirwave offers up a necessary alternative. “I’m not going to be like, ‘You can’t play my music,’ because music doesn’t have any color. It doesn’t come out of your skin, it comes out of something deeper than that,” he says.
Instead, Ilunga seems interested in countering the flow of appropriation from black artists to white artists that’s so often seen black creativity marginalized. While Ilunga was still working on La Vie Est Belle/Life Is Beautiful, he’d told the Guardian that his new work was focusing on “putting out all the frustration that’s been creeping up on [him], the craziness of being a black dude.” Now, he tells me, “Black people are sort of forced to let go of what they make because they are constantly put into a corner and being forced to invent and create new things to get out of that corner. Which is initially what noirwave was. Being an artist is one of those ways, and music is a weapon to get yourself out of all kinds of situations.”
While Ilunga innovated the noirwave sound based on the subconscious influences of the places that have built him (he explains that he never even writes up his music, he just “freestyles, and that’s how [he] knows what’s in [his] brain at the time”), his girlfriend, Rochelle Nembhard, is largely responsible for visualizing the noirwave style. The two have been dating for over half a decade, though much of it was long distance, with Nembhard having lived in Thailand. She appears both in Ilunga’s lyrics and in his videos — in the song “Chess,” he dives from falsetto into his Roland Orzabal earthquake of a voice and back, playing both masculine and feminine roles to dramatize either end of a Skype fight they’d had.
He refers to himself and Nembhard as having a “John and Yoko thing… we’ve been working together artistically since we started dating seven years ago.” Together, they’ve both mined the very personal aspects of their relationship and honed the visual sensibilities of noirwave. Nembhard appeared with Ilunga and co-directed the video for “The Fall,” which they based on Marina Abramovic reuniting with her lover after 22 years — in a static gaze — during The Artist Is Present. “It’s intended as a raw and transparent look into what we do to each other in relationships, setting aside the fakeness and pretense that we shroud ourselves in,” Ilunga said, on the video’s release.
Nembhard art directed the breathtaking video for “Best,” which Ilunga tells me is “noirwave in itself, man. One hundred percent noirwave. It’s probably the most noirwave thing I’ve done.” Nembhart said of the video, “I wanted to break all boundaries in how we portrayed [Africa] and her people. The video showcases the beauty of the continent, the richness in her landscapes, the sacredness of her culture, the immense diversity of her tribes.” For “Best,” Ilunga was covered in body paint by artist Lina Iris Viktor — who’s documented the “chemistry and dynamism” of Ilunga and Nembhard’s partnership with her living-sculptural visuals. In “Best,” Ilunga is made to look like he’s carved from malachite; the stone is mined in Congo, and is said to represent “transformation.”
Ilunga, while soft-spoken and even a little shy, expresses an optimistic confidence that would seem hyperbolic for someone so early in his career, except that everything he speaks confidently of does now seem attainable. At one point, he told Dazed, “Soon Beyoncé, Future and all these people are going to be singing to noirwave shuffles”; given his connection to Solange, that may, indeed, already be the case. “With noirwave, if one day it does become some sort of capitalist pop-cultural thing, that’s cool and that’s fine,” he says. “That’s just the way it is.” The transformation embodied in the image of the malachite-sculpted musician doesn’t seem to be just about personal metamorphoses, but rather about a global shift — and one where globalization means Africanization just as much as it does Westernization.
Ilunga recently said to Fader that “the whole world feels like home” to him. Based on the notion that music that is as much African as it is anything else could be a central force in global music — as opposed to one that’s erased by virtue of influencing “whiter” music — Petite Noir’s work is breaking through the “rubbish” of age-old cultural trends and finding that its home could, likewise, be everywhere.