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The Congolese-Belgian artist discusses his many-tentacled, sartorially-rich approach to making music and film.

By Helen Jennings

Helen Jennings is the editorial director of Nataal, which is a global media platform celebrating global African creativity. Through its award-winning magazine and editorial website, Nataal is dedicated to supporting emerging talent and diverse storytelling.

Oct 12, 2020

Baloji is a polymath. An autodidact. An auteur. And most certainly, Baloji is one of a kind. For well over a decade, the artist has blurred boundaries and blown minds with his music and films that put the culture of his native Democratic Republic of the Congo within a global context that is both deeply personal and politically driven. Born in Lubumbashi, he grew up in Liege, Belgium with his father. He formed the successful Starflam hip hop crew in the late 1990s, but it was his debut solo album, 2008’s Hotel Impala, that truly began Baloji’s multidisciplinary odyssey into his heritage and African excellence. Followed by 2011’s Kinshasa Succursale and the EP 64 Bits & Malachite, his most recent album, 2018’s 137 Avenue Kaniama (named after his mother’s address in DRC) was a response to reconnecting with her after 25 years apart. 

Photo: Baloji by Mous Lamarabat

 He directly references his emotional search for her on the track La Derriere Pluie / Inconnue a Cette Adresse (The Last Rain / Unknown at This Address) while elsewhere on the record, he touches on everything from the resilience of the Congolese people in the face of the country’s infrastructural and governmental shortcomings through to the visceral realities of the immigrant experience as well as the aching beauty of love. The album‘s songs are not only sonically uncategorizable—fusing the traditions of Congolese soukous and rumba with French-spoken rap, psychedelic funk, afro trap and tropical house—they have also inspired him to make three multi-award-winning cinematic shorts. One such film, 2018’s Peau de Chagrin / Bleu de Nuit (Skin of Sorrow/Midnight Blue), conjures up a magical tableaux that draws on Congolese pygmy wedding tropes; another, 2019’s Kaniama Show spoofs a 1980s variety TV show aired live from an unnamed African nation amid a military coup; and the last film, 2019’s Zombies traverses the hair salons, dancefloors and sidewalks of Kinshasa to not only bring down a neo-colonial dictator, but also to confront our contemporary obsession with mobile phones.

More recently, Baloji made the film Never Look at the Sun, which uses choreography, costume and poetry to decry the use of skin lightening products and reaffirm the beauty of black skin, in association with Nowness, and has two more productions in the works.
His accomplished, internationally recognized output is dizzying in its rich visual metaphors, extravagant styling and dance-inducing soundtracks. But it’s Baloji’s exacting eye and sense of style that carries you through his heartfelt storytelling toward deep underlying messages. Here the artist discusses his aesthetic, passions and his ambitious upcoming projects. 

You are hands-on with everything you do, from producing music to writing, directing, styling and starring in your visual worlds. What drives you to do it all?

Budget! (Laughs) Because my projects never have a lot of money, I put what I have toward key roles and do as much of everything else myself. I’m raised with this DIY culture. But also, I find it extremely inspiring and stimulating to think of ideas and concepts as a whole piece. I have synesthesia (a neurological condition in which stimuli meant to enervate one sense, stimulates others to effects such as “hearing color” or “seeing sound”), so I associate music with visuals and colors and spaces. For me the frame is as important as who is in the frame, and how it is articulated.

Zombies is the last of the three films that accompanied your album, 137 Avenue Kaniama, bringing this major project to a close. What was your vision for this critically acclaimed short? 

It starts with clubbing and dancing and mobile phones but that’s just “click bait” to get people into my world quickly. Really the film is talking about Vincent Bolloré, who is the boss of Universal Music France, a label I was once signed to, which was one of the worst experiences of my life. The way he deals with African art is scary and disrespectful. In the film, he’s the guy who’s throwing money at people on the street and that I metaphorically kill at the end.

Photo: Still from Baloji's film Zombies by Kyle Weeks

Photo: Still from Baloji's film Zombies by Kyle Weeks

Photo: Still from Baloji's film Zombies by Kyle Weeks

We love the film’s elaborately dressed performers—the merman, the astronauts, you as a pineapple! What’s the story there?

There is an art collective in Kinshasa called Kongo Astronauts who I have been working with for a long time but all of the other characters were created for the film to form a circus parade. I wanted to give a Fellini-style atmosphere.

Your films are always sartorial feasts and you’ve collaborated with designers including Grace Wales Bonner, Komono, Simone Rocha and Raf Simons along the way. What does fashion bring to your work?

What I love about fashion is when it becomes empirical—an accumulation of knowledge that contains something for the purpose of the project. For Bleu de Nuit for example, I worked with some ethical fashion students in Antwerp who interpreted African fabrics with their own cultures and for my next project I’m working with young designers on creating a Congolese lace. So, of course fashion is very important but I use it as a vehicle to talk about different subject matters.

What influence do you think new African designers are having on the fashion industry?

Their work is important. Designers like Kenneth Ize are doing amazing work and pushing forward. They are going back to tradition and bringing it to the modern day without being disconnected to what’s happening in the fashion world.

Photo: Baloji by Mous Lamarabat

Where did your own style journey begin?

I come from a country where if your nails are clean and your shirt is clean, that is what makes you elegant. My dad was extremely elegant and very sharp. His hair was always fresh and he took care of himself. It proved to me that you don’t have to wear expensive clothes to be stylish.

Today your look often revolves around some formidable suiting.

I’ve been lucky to work with Belgian tailors Café Costume for the past 15 years. When I first met them I was in G-Star jeans and they showed me that a suit can change how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you. I’m not a fashion person but I am interested in trying new silhouettes and the more I work with them, the more secure I feel to try new things. I am now not ashamed to wear a dress. We have been working with 1980s zoot suits and Japanese-style pants with asymmetric cuts. I’ve also collaborated a lot with Art Comes First and appreciate the work of Ozwald Boateng and Thom Browne.

How do you feel about La Sape (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes), the league of designer-clad dandies from Brazzaville and Kinshasa who are often used to typify Congolese style?

I hate what the Sapeurs represent—they are selling a dream of glamor that is fake. They grab global attention because it flatters the European perspective on fashion and because they want to see Africans as colorful and smiling. But in truth they are only about 5,000 guys in a country of millions. They are also part of the problem I am seeing more and more on Instagram these days. All I see is us (Africans) just trying to show that we are cool. With the knowledge that we have, we must go deeper and be saying more than this. 

Do you feel that the issue is with waiting for external validation?

Yes. Take the movie Moonlight. The black community didn’t support it because they saw it as a queer film, until it won an Oscar—and then it was black enough. We need to confront these types of narratives. And why do we need Beyoncé to point out that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is amazing? Come on guys. I believe it strengthens her brand when she works with African artists and designers more than the other way around.

Tell us about your next short film, The Black Dahlia, which is due to shoot spring 2021.

It’s a very feminist film. If black, male heterosexuals don’t talk about intersectional feminism then nothing will change. It’s our responsibility to question the male gaze and the black male gaze, which is what drives the narrative of The Black Dahlia. I’ll be working with [British, Sierra Leone-born stylist] Ib Kamara, who is one of the most talented artists of our generation, and shooting in three locations in Europe but hoping to make it look like Africa!

“If black, male heterosexuals don’t talk about intersectional feminism then nothing will change. It’s our responsibility to question the male gaze and the black male gaze”

The importance of feminism must be heightened for you as a father to a daughter.

My daughter is 11 years old now and a big monster! I love teaching her, I love the whole thing. We recently had a chance to act together in the Flemish film Binti, which was an amazing experience for both of us.

Lastly, please tell us about your first full length film, Augure, currently in pre-production. This is your biggest project yet and a culmination of your hard work to date.

Augure is talking about sorcerers and the patriarchal society in DRC. It’s a drama and a satire but I’m also using magical realism. There are a lot of surreal moments and we’ll be shooting in both Lubumbashi and Kinshasa as if it’s the same place, which is like creating one city out of NYC and LA. My lead is a 65-year-old woman who is very strong and powerful. I’m also doing the soundtrack which comprises four EPs—one for each of the main characters. I hope to shoot the film next summer, have some fun with it and create a film that feels extremely free. 

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