Noirwave king Yannick Ilunga is here to make you feel so bad it’s good
“If I could design any outfit it would be something to make me like a ghost,” muses Yannick Ilunga aka Petite Noir. “Like a veil or table cloth that goes all over my body to the floor. So nothing is peeking out.” While this may sound like everyone’s go-to Halloween costume, for this 24-year-old artist this is no trick or treat. In fact it harks back to his debut single, 2012’s Till We Ghosts, which introduced us to the melancholic sound he calls Noirwave. As much a music genre as a way of life, his African-infused reinvention of new wave is here to haunt us in a painfully good way.
Ilunga was born in Brussels to an Angolan mother and Congolese father, whose political career put the family into exile from DRC. They relocated to Cape Town when he was a young boy where the family grew up. Apartheid had just ended and xenophobia ran high. “I didn’t live in the townships, fortunately. But I went to an all-black Catholic school run on the British educational system. It was a brainwash. It’s only now that it’s beginning to hit me that everything I was taught was about white people.”
He played guitar in his church choir and had an early passion for heavy metal but by 16 he started making electronica. He found early favour as part of the duo Popskarr with Terrence Pearce (the two were introduced by Spoek Mathambo) and went solo in 2012. He was duly snapped up by Domino’s Double Six imprint and has been on discerning radars ever since. He’s smashed it at SXSW and Meltdown, supported Solange Knowles in New York and featured on her St Heron label compilation. He was also hailed by Dazed&Confused as 'the most beguiling young voice.'
“Noirwave is everything. It’s music from around the world.”
And then there’s the little matter of his collaboration with Yasiin Bey (better known as Mos Def). “We met in Cape Town. He was cool. We made some music. We still speak,” he says matter-of-factly about laying down tracks with one of his icons. Talking to Ilunga you get a sense that nothing outwardly ruffles him - his veil remains in tact. His voice has a calm, low resonance. On record it transports you from soothing baritone to quivering falsetto as he delivers brutally honest tales over sparse, polyrhythmic beats, post punk guitars and spikey synths. The messages are bleak yet the mood remains mellow.
His five-track The King Of Anxiety EP came out earlier this year and includes a remix of Till We Ghosts featuring Bey alongside the sonic break up of Chess and sensual healing of Come Inside. “It’s about overcoming anxiety, being the champion of it,” he explains of the disquieting title. “This record is a rebirth - a brand new vibe. It’s angrier, deeper, more political.” So noirwave starts here? “Noirwave is everything. It’s music from around the world.” Drawing as much on rumba and kizomba as on Joy Division and Kanye West, noirwave even has its own flag (blue for life, black for Africa, red for blood and a triangle representing unity).
Petite Noir, Down
This is the beginning of a movement that also takes in fashion and creative direction in the guise of the Drone Society, a collective he heads up with girlfriend, designer and stylist Rochelle Nembhard. The pair direct and star in his latest video for EP track The Fall, inspired by Marina Abramovic’s 2010 MOMA performance piece The Artist Is Present. Wearing white, the couple ricochet between staring longingly into each other’s eyes and slapping each other in the face.
Ilunga is currently living in London where he recently finished up his album La Vie Est Belle/Life is Beautiful, due out 9 September, and has dropped two new songs Down (the video for which was shot in DRC) and the rousing anthem Best. He's also hitting the European and US festival circuit this summer. But he still stays tuned into South Africa. “There are people doing good things but there’s room for growth. It’s finding its own identity and finally opening up,” he says sagely, as much about the local music scene as himself. “It’s about learning, going to extremes, and realising that what you have at home is more valuable that what everyone else is doing. You always come back to that.”