Prayer And Protest: Petite Noir Interviewed

Talking faith, metal and creative freedom with the Congolese-Belgian musician...

On the inaugural track ‘777’ from new album ‘MotherFather’, Petite Noir lays down the arc of his redemption story. Screaming “fire in my soul” over a discordant mesh of drums and guitar, the Congolese-Belgian musician, born Yannick Ilunga, consecrates a divine moment with an earthly descent into an unknowing abyss.

Recorded internationally, ‘MotherFather’ soundtracks a period of personal upheaval and cultural synthesis for Petite Noir, who seeks dominion over the chaos of his own warped identity. The core entreaty at the heart of the album is how one breaks free from conditioning to seek their own path. Through ‘MotherFather’, Petite Noir examines the “messiah complex”, and the lifelong dichotomy between organised religion and private faith; he probes the banality of modern, transactional relationships, and the legacy of tradition and trauma passed on by parents to their children.

On 2018’s La Maison Noir’, Petite Noir first expressed the dual sides to his sound: afro-pop and punk, a collision of styles he termed ‘Noirwave. On ‘MotherFather’, his fidelity to those musical touchstones has never been stronger. Moving between harsh metal abrasions, trance-like rituals, and songs of praise, Petite Noir builds upon his original blueprint in more transgressive ways. Pushing his existential crises into darker, grungier terrains, ‘MotherFather’ strips away the artifice for something purer.

In conversation with Clash, Petite Noir shares how feeling unmoored in his personal life lit the spark of fire and fury on his latest musical experiment.

Before we talk your new album, I want to establish who you were before you became Petite Noir. There’s a keen diasporic influence in your work, and the Congolese side is a focal part. How would you define this culture clash of sounds and styles?

I was born in Brussels to Congolese parents, and we moved to South Africa when I was really young. My parents were heavily involved in the politics of Congo, and they moved in upwardly mobile social circles. They would host gatherings and parties at home, and would play traditional Congolese music. As I grew up, I was raised on MTV, and then in high school I was into metal which greatly influenced my sound today. I’ve always been drawn to this mixture of African music and metal, and what happens when those two worlds combine.

Now, you move between London and Paris. For you, what are the biggest cultural differences or differences in lifestyle?

Currently, I’m based in London more because that’s where the label and creative hub is, but I do go to Paris to record and create. They are different: Paris is more together and community-centred, London is more each person to their own. The way Paris is set up makes people come together; it’s more self-contained and smaller than London. This is just my own observation, but I find Londoners are more about their work and showing off their work.


Self-serving. London is all about work, Paris is a bit more relaxed.

France is in the midst of unabating civil unrest and there’s a real reckoning with establishment power…

I’m not in too deep with French politics, but the latest protests are about changes to the retirement age. It’s a very strange time. I’m invested in the ways people galvanise around an issue or an injustice. Both France and UK are demonising the most vulnerable people, they invoke the progress of race to try and control us all.

Control and subjugation surfaces on your new album ‘MotherFather’, which comes five years after the release of ‘The Black House’. This period in between was marked by personal and professional upheaval. What were you dealing with?

I was going through massive changes and transformations; things were being replaced and I was growing. I went through a separation and as I’ve said before, my Dad is involved in politics and there were coups. Also, Covid changed everything because it delayed the release. I’ve been sitting with this material for a while.

What does the title ‘MotherFather’ connote? How does it capture the themes explored on the album?

It’s a personal album drawing on legacy, what’s inherited and the duality of expression; the feminine and masculine elements of God and faith; seeking help and nurturing wisdom; God and parents.

‘MotherFather’ was recorded in Paris, London, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Los Angeles. Talk me through the unique experience of recording an international record informed by all of these places...

Generally, I’m always looking to venture out and explore a new sound. That means travelling. I’m sensitive to energy shifts, and I need to be in the right space to make something new and novel. My whole life has been informed by travel. This album reflects that journey; the roots being African, but with shades of punk and pop coming through.

I do hear a distinct Britpop edge to your work, with Radiohead coming through and of course new wave. Break down the musical stimuli on ‘MotherFather’, and how you expanded on the ‘Noirwave’ style you popularised?

I think the first track ‘777’ represents the entire record – it’s my metal moment. It transitions into ‘Blurry’ which goes deeper and darker, and then it takes you out.

It’s a striking way to open the record…

Well, the first album had a similar intro. I wanted to start with a bang, with these heavy guitars which set the tone for the whole thing. ‘777’ is a tribal song at its core, and it’s an ode to prayer circles. Imagine being in Africa in a circle, the drums are playing, and they’re repetitive and ritualistic. You’re put in a trance. I see similarities between Afro genres and metal; I’m probably the only who sees the link. I have a very clear picture in my mind and I’m still exploring it myself. Think of it as a score to Wild Wild Country, this idea of being in Church – a metal Church or The Church of Rock. It’s all in the guitar; aggressive and abrasive. It’s a feeling.

You touch on the dichotomy between insular faith and organised religion on this album. Where are you in your journey with faith?

My focus currently is on my relationship with God more so than organised religion. I have my own relationship with faith. You do need something to anchor you and God is that anchor for me. I’m not into the quest for perfection, and every deed being judged. I’m into living your life in the best way possible, with everything you have at your disposal. Some days your purpose is to tell someone to fuck off!

A highlight is the penultimate track ‘Love And War’; from the simple melodic line, your modulated voice and the programmed drums. It’s a plaintive moment where you’re quite exposed…

Love is casualty; love is being in peril. I was going through a period in a relationship where it was feeling very heavy and tumultuous. If you listen to ‘Numbers’ and compare it to ‘Love And War’, you’ll see the different dynamics of love I’m exploring. ‘Love And War’ explains what happens in that unhealthy period. I’m just glad I’m out of it.

‘MotherFather’ feels like it could be a companion piece to ‘The Black House’…

Yes, but I’m a lot purer with what I want musically on ‘MotherFather’. It’s a more precise process now. Before I used to water myself down a bit and make myself a bit more palatable. Now, I’m not scared. I want to be seen more clearly now as an artist. There’s less frills and distraction this time round.

The visuals – the artwork and the video for ‘Blurry’ – incorporate these stark silhouettes in black and white. What did you want to draw out with the iconography?

With the imagery I wanted to represent being naked and bare but also allude to the rebirth that occurs after turmoil. There are no gimmicks; I’m stripping everything down to the core. With the album cover I wanted to show rebirth. I wanted to show my heart to the world, that I’m not going to sacrifice myself anymore.

‘MotherFather’ explores liminal spaces between sounds and spheres of influence. Is that something you want listeners to pick up on? You as an artist, formless and limitless

Exactly. I want them to feel free and open. I want to open people’s minds. There’s no limit to what black artists can do; just look at Steve Lacy and Yves Tumor. We do rock, and have been doing rock for years. Things don’t have to be limited and grouped into genres and there is so much possibility when you’re free. I think we live in a time where there’s more freedom to express yourself, especially as black artists. I don’t feel so alone.

I want to end on a piece of personal wisdom or a principle you want to impart and share with your listeners through your music

I want them to examine the relationship they have with God or whatever entity they feel is bigger than then. When you find it you’ll know and it will humble and ground you.

‘MotherFather’ is out now.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photo Credit: Lucie Rox

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