Ride the noir wave with Petite Noir's new visual album

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The grand master: Petite Noir and Rharha tell a tale of fire, rage and resilience that unfolds in the Namibian desert. Pictures: Red Bull Content Pool/Tyrone Bradley
The grand master: Petite Noir and Rharha tell a tale of fire, rage and resilience that unfolds in the Namibian desert. Pictures: Red Bull Content Pool/Tyrone Bradley

Petite Noir, the king of thumpy, serene synth, has quietly unleashed his second full-length project, an album called La Maison Noir (Black House) with an accompanying film titled The Gift & The Curse. The images were created by his art director and collaborator Rochelle “Rharha” Nembhard, who he’s worked with for quite some time in a creative collaboration that was forged by love.

Their tale of fire, rage and resilience unfolds in the Namibian desert with each song making up a chapter in a story. The story is that of struggle, death and, ultimately, a rebirth and new beginning for Petite Noir and the idea of noir wave.

Kala-Birth

Song: Blame Fire

The film opens with the talented Mr Noir and his dancers dressed in scarlet robes in the middle of the desert. They partake in a ritual of song and dance, where the sonorous lead vocals glide over Blame Fire’s edgy pop instrumental that rises and cascades artfully.

“The album is the story of my life, put in a way that anyone can understand it,” says the artist with the 80s tinge. “It’s about overcoming and staying positive, which I’ve packaged into my personal experiences.”

His chants summon the fires of change and rebirth, and, at the end of this segment, he stands encircled by flames, guitar at the ready. The film that took Rharha two years to mould into this entrancing exhibition of artistry makes use of dancers who are beautifully dressed as warriors in androgynous attire. They run up a hill, some holding torches representing a militant approach to seeking the freedoms black people still crave. Petite Noir sings about his father being a politician and his mother having “super vision” – a surgical demonstration of the use of double entendre.

“I used different producers this time around. The last one was a little more poppy than this, and hip-hop was definitely an influence. I love drums, man.”

Takula-Life

Song: F.F.Y.F (Pow) featuring Rharha

The imagery remains simple and stirring throughout. On this track, he immerses himself in a more playful and dancey sound while he addresses the oppression of women and how fire should be fought with fire. This, I would say, is one of the few necessary records I’ve heard this year.

He juxtaposes the gravity of the issue with a hip beat, which could easily distract those of us who hear music, but don’t listen. There’s no mistaking the visual message as the women in this scene are dressed like they’re in the army, singing “Pow pow pow”, mimicking the sound of a gun – militant and left with no option but to arm themselves for protection against men.

Rharha explains: “Music is wasted on visuals that depict all this booty and getting drunk. You know, all this mind-numbing s**t. If we can have music and visuals that can bring consciousness, we hopefully can become what we see.”

Luvemba-Death

Song: Hanoii featuring Rharha

Walking with his dancers, the singer proclaims: “We have come from a nightmare into a dream world.”

In a short sentence, he summarises the plight of youngsters while a dancer dressed in blue appears to reiterate his words in a solo routine. Something about this part of the video reminds me of those church congregants you see in the city who gather under a tree or on a hill. The style of the video balances itself very carefully, ensuring it stays fresh even though some of the imagery has been constructed in ways we’ve seen before. Riky Rick’s documentary Exodus comes to mind, but La Maison Noir doesn’t fall into the trap of predictability.

It has the all-too-familiar drone shot, but instead of having the drone start at a low position and shoot upwards and away from the subject, Rharha cleverly keeps it still, showing Petite and his disciples walking into a rundown building, which reminded me a bit of a temple or, perhaps, a black house.

Mussoni-Rebirth

Song: Beach featuring Danny Brown and Nukubi Nukubi

Clad in white robes, our deep-voiced antihero is reborn within his art and comes across as less vulnerable and deadly certain. He walks at the head of a line of his dancers or followers, moving towards the noir wave. They find an oasis in this arid setting and they rejoice at its cooling sight. They run in and frolic, at which point Petite Noir gives way to veteran US rapper Danny Brown, whose eccentric flow prances obediently on the jumpy drums in a perfect harmony, fitting the style and audio terrain of noir wave.

Petite Noir says: “I was on his previous album, and we linked up. He’s really smart and cool to hang with.”

The two exchanged songs and the outcome is top-tier music that isn’t presented in a pretentious way. It wasn’t about a US feature, “it was like he was visiting my world, which I think was good for him, too”.

The architects of the black wave

I meet Petite Noir and Rharha at Red Bull in Sandton, their auras shrouded in mystery. The very relaxed pair give way to one another beautifully in conversation, at times finishing each other’s sentences and refining the other’s thoughts.

Rharha explains that the film’s title references the black experience: “The gift and curse that it is to be black.”

We chat about the naming of things and Petite Noir says: “I just started making what I wanted to and gave it a name after that. I also didn’t want people to tell me what it is.”

Noir wave, much to its creator’s dismay, has been labelled as Afrofuturism.

The astute film maker and empress of the drone says: “White people can have varied terms for the different things they do. We’re just blanketed as Afrofuturism; just the one thing.”

Petite Noir chimes in: “Also, this idea of everything being in the future ... noir wave is now. It’s something solid that is a combination of everything, old and new.”

Rharha aimed to conjure a visual world to accompany this sound without barriers or confines. What they have created together truly feels like a wave of limitless possibility peeking at the viewer through a veil of history, pain and perseverance.

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