Photo courtesy of LM Chabot
In Montreal, land of unmitigated hockey worship, Habs defenceman P.K. Subban is a household name. But there’s another P.K. rapidly gaining traction, propped up by a growing legion of fans looking to establish their “P.K. Nation.” Pierre Kwenders, a 29-year-old Congolese-Canadian musician known for his electrifying live performances and a heady pastiche of Afrobeat, moody electro and Congolese rumba, is one of 2014’s major revelations on the Canadian indie circuit.
By all accounts a postmodern pop star, this polyglot performer sings in five languages (French, English, Lingala, Chinoba and Kikongo), taps into a rich heritage of festive music-making—from Congolese legend Papa Wemba to "King of Pop" Michael Jackson—and draws from a long lineage of brazen fashion cues. In late October, he released his kaleidoscopic debut album, Le Dernier Empereur Bantou, the title a nod to Sub-Saharan Africa’s Bantu kingdom from the 14th and 15th centuries, one of the continent’s most glorious, pre-colonization periods. And while the soulful artist has yet to return to the motherland since immigrating to Montreal at 16, he has boldly pegged himself “the spokesman of modern Africa.” Just don’t call his jams "world music."
“I have nothing against the term world music,” a disarmingly humble Kwenders (real name José Louis Modabi) explains when we meet at Montreal’s Café Aunja, on the heels of his recent Juno Award nomination for…World Music Album of the Year. “There was a time when classifying artists in such a way made sense. But those days are over.” Kwenders acknowledges the wealth of great musicians that came out of that era—people like Youssou N’Dour, Angélique Kidjo and Salif Kéita —but argues that our globalized appetites for music consumption have rendered labels such as “world music” pretty reductive and frankly obsolete.
“It has become a catch-all term, and that’s what I don’t like. If Chris Brown, Beyoncé or Kanye West sang on one of my beats, no one would be calling it world music. But because I sing in five different languages, people make that knee-jerk association. I mean, what I make is electronic music with certain Afro influences. But if you listen to Beyoncé or Stromae, you’ll find Afro sounds. With time, I think people will come to realize that putting these barriers up is unnecessary.”
Kwenders’s rapid ascent on the local music scene can be traced back to a spur-of-the-moment teenage decision to join Cœur des Anges, a Catholic-Congolese community choir in Montreal’s Cartierville area. “I told them I only sang in the shower, but they egged me on and the rest is history, I guess!” Through his manager, Kwenders was acquainted with Alexandre Bilodeau, the crackerjack producer who devised the chiac-inflected electro-hop sound of Acadian rap act Radio Radio. Bilodeau and Kwenders instantly hit it off, producing jams and releasing mixtapes under the soul-hop banner of dIFa (“doing it for art”) with their friend Poncho French, before Kwenders went on to release a string of EPs with Bilodeau. The biggest take-away from his rapid creative rollout? The unexpected critical enthusiasm for his fresh sound. “People were saying things that I hadn’t even thought about, Kwenders recalls about his Whiskey & Tea and African Dream EPs. “The whole mix of electronic music and rumba people were pointing out had never even crossed my mind. After repeatedly hearing it, you start to think, ‘hey, maybe there’s some truth to that?’”
While Kwenders’ sound feels unquestionably Western-attuned, his writing and production are also indivisible from the syncopated rhythms of the Congolese rumba. He considers himself indebted to the greats—Koffi Olomidé, Franco Luambo, Papa Wemba, Tabu Ley Rochereau—and recognizes how his own parents trained his musical ear practically from the womb. “I grew up in a family of music lovers. My mother always loved to dance and my uncles were once musicians, too. I loved music but never thought I’d seriously pursue it. I wanted to be a journalist, a banker, a writer… In many ways, I still want to be all those things, but I now find myself making music.”
The stage name Pierre Kwenders is, in fact, a tribute to his late, maternal grandfather, whom Modabi never got to know. But his legacy and passion for art transcended multiple generations. “My grandfather owned many bookstores in Kinshasa, and people in the neighbourhood knew him well,” recalls Modabi. “Growing up, people would recognize my cousins and I simply because we were his grandchildren. He had a love for culture, and I think it rubbed off on a lot of people in my family.”
In true cross-cultural fashion, Kwenders is also unequivocal about his Western influences, which begin with his worshipping at the altar of Beyoncé. “Over the past year, I’ve discovered the extent to which I…love Beyoncé,” the bespectacled singer says with a smirk. “I really liked Destiny’s Child, but the song "Flawless" [featuring prominent Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie] just left me…speechless. I basically played it non-stop for five solid months. Let’s give credit where it’s due: the girl has crazy talent.”
And just as Queen Bey has always understood the importance of honing a powerful, eye-popping image, Kwenders has already crafted a striking artist persona. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that image-building is a front-line preoccupation among the Congolese creative class. “Just think of sapologie, or SAPE (short for Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance), a Congolese invention through and through,” mentions Kwenders. If you haven’t come across the sapologie scene, brush up on its hyper-saturated magic via Solange’s “Losing You” music video—a celestial, multi-hued homage to the Congo’s sartorial elegance.
At Kwenders’ album launch last fall, the artist capitalized on his growing fan base to produce hundreds of miniature “PK Nation” flags, which were feverishly waved around the room as he commanded the crowd in his emperor-like getup. “I’ve always found that many former presidents of Africa, even if they were dictators who committed atrocious crimes, always projected a certain aura of class through their sartorial choices,” he says, explaining how he zeroed in on his magisterial look. “Think of Kadhafi, for instance: a terrible dictator who stole his country. But you pore over photos of the guy at international conferences, and you can’t deny the man had style. He dressed traditionally but in a very dapper way. It was the same with [former president of Zaïre, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo] Mobutu. He represented the culture of his country. He didn’t invent the leopard-skin toque; it’s the country’s emblem, so it was a no-brainer. I wanted something that represented where I came from.”
Of course, Kwenders stresses that the Mobutu nod is done with tongue partly planted in cheek, given that he’s drawing from the photo archives of a former dictator. “I do it in good humour, if I can say such a thing. I’m not looking to make any grandiose political statement.” Still, on Le Dernier Empereur Bantou, Kwenders doesn’t shy away from sharing his take of dire political crises affecting his homeland. On "Kuna Na Goma" he talks of the ongoing conflict for coltan, a precious metal found in abundance in eastern Congo, and of the horrific rape of women that occurs in the region. Another song, "Cadavere", touches on themes of war and child soldiers. “But I talk about these things because they affect me, not because I want to be a political artist,” suggests Kwenders. “Some people can do that extremely well, and that’s their right, but I prefer to give myself the freedom to talk about anything – it can be love, happiness, or peace.”
Ultimately, instead of framing African themes through the classic famine-war-and-AIDS narrative prevalent in much of the Western world, Kwenders’ music and lyrics aim to spark an interest in the continent’s pre-colonial glory days. “The continent had a long history before the colonizers showed up at our doorstep and divided the African map into the countries we know of today.” Kwenders belongs to a generation of young Africans living in the diaspora who wish to expand Westerners’ appreciation of the continent. “We want Africa to evolve, to assert itself on the international stage, and it’s young people like us, who live abroad, who are in a good position to help move things forward. I am proud to consider myself among its many ambassadors.”
Pierre Kwenders upcoming tour dates:
Toronto: February 6 at Harbourfront Centre
Ottawa: February 12 at National Arts Centre
Michael-Oliver Harding is a culture writer living in Montreal - @olivermtl