It’s been a busy day for Petite Noir. I’m his fourth interviewer for the day at Red Bull Studios in Cape Town. The day before, he had about six interviews, he says. He admits it’s overwhelming, but he loves it.
His upcoming performance at the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival (CTEMF) this weekend, which marks his first in the country, is the reason we all want a piece of him. He’s been performing around the world for the two years after signing with UK label, Domino Records, in 2013.
“I’m feeling excited and feeling nervous because I’m playing to people I know,” he tells me, as we sit inside one of the studios. “I’m so used to playing with an English band, but this will be a different vibe – people translate the music differently. It’s going to be crazy.” His band for the CTEMF consists of Andre Geldenhuys (guitar), Meggan Diedericks (bass) and Tshepang Ramoba (drums) from the BLK JKS.
This whole “being a big deal” thing is still new to Petite, but he’s embracing it. “All these doors have opened for me and I’m traveling all the time. I sort of feel like my purpose is meant to be fulfilled using music,” he says.
A few years ago, Petite was just another up-and-coming artist sending his music to blogs and hoping for the best. My first encounter with him was through Cape Town rap duo, Ill Skillz, off their Skillz That Pay Da Billz project. He sang the hook to “Unbreakable” under the moniker IAMWAVES.
It was nothing mind-blowing; looking back, he sounded like he was still finding himself. “Imagine I didn’t grow from that,” he chuckles and swings on his chair. “I’m on this journey to fulfill whatever my purpose is, through music. The Ill Skillz thing was another thing I encountered along the way and I just took it to the next level.”
Even as half of Popskarr – a duo he was part of earlier in his career, he wasn’t really sure what he was doing, he says. “It had potential and it was a good stepping stone. He (the other half of Popskarr) had a different style of production to mine. It was like two worlds merging. His influences are still in me and mine are still in him. I learnt a lot. At the time I was really experimenting with music.”
Working with Yasiin Bey
It’s December 2013 at Boaston Society concept shop, Cape Town, during a Yasiin Bey meet-and-greet session preceding his New Year’s Eve concert. A member of the audience asks the Brooklyn rapper who his favourite artists in South Africa are. Among Driemanskap, Christian Tiger School, Kanyi and more, he mentions Petite Noir.
I ask him about how that co-sign made him feel, “Along this journey, you meet these like-minded people and Yasiin was one of them. He’s more experienced than me and I’ve learnt a lot from him and I see why we met. It just makes sense why God placed him in my life. We are still friends today.”
Yasiin Bey appeared on the remix to Petite’s “Till We Ghosts” in 2014. Petite’s collaboration wish list is short and he goes through it with little enthusiasm: “Okmalumkoolkat. There’s this guy called Louise from Jo’burg, he’s pretty good. The Soil would be good, especially Samthing Soweto, I think he’s pretty cool. He’s amazing, man.”
In 2015, Petite released his debut album La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful after a 5-track EP The King of Anxiety. It’s near impossible to miss him on the internet. Reputable sites such as Pitchfork, Dazed and Confused, Okayafrica, The Fader, The Guardian and more, have only had great things to say about him and his self-created noir-wave genre.
His most memorable shows, he says, were in Lisbon, Germany and New York. “It’s always crazy when you go to a place where no one speaks your language – you can hardly communicate, but are well-received,” he says.
About his New York performance, at the Afropunk festival, he says. “It was amazing, it was the first ever festival I’ve ever performed in where it was just black people. The energy was crazy.” Travelling, he adds, makes you more tolerant. “[Traveling] opens your mind to so much. You, as a person, also change. You start to realise; I can’t judge other people. Everyone has a different way of living and I can’t just force my opinions.”
New album underway
He’s already working on his next album, but he’s using a different approach. “With this album I don’t want to work with a producer, I want to try and do it myself and get some friends to help with the music.”
Even though Petite is a new age artist, he still believes in physical instruments. His EP and album use a combination of both. A great example is the song “Chess”, where he uses programmed drums on the first half and then adds robust live drumming in the second half. His layered instrumentation is hard to analyse – it’s not simplistic but the guitars, synths and pads he stacks together, merge so well, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes.
Most listeners just focus on this ability to combine sounds and end up overlooking his lyrics. “I think my lyrics are just too positive,” he says with a wry smile. “If I was talking about something negative then people would definitely be going crazy.”
The lyrics are a good trade-off as the music can get eerily dark. “As dark as the album may sound,” he continues, “it’s quite a positive album. That’s what I stand for. It’s so easy to say negative things like ‘take your top off’ – that’s the easy way out, that’s the money way out, I’m not about that. It might take longer but I know I’m doing something good. When I die, it will last longer.”
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Image: Onele Liwani
Catch Petite Noir performing live for the first time in South Africa, at the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival on February 6. You can view the festival’s full line-up here.
*The headline of this article was edited from “Petite Noir’s been around the world, he’s back home for his first ever performance in SA”.