Bantu originally meant “people” in many African languages, but it did not take long before it assumed a different, almost derogatory meaning. Bantu, for instance, was the bureaucratic word used to label all South African blacks during the apartheid era.
Now a 29 years old Canadian-Congolese singer is trying – in his own way – to bring the old ‘bantu pride’ back. His name is José Louis Modabi, but he is better known as Pierre Kwenders – a name which he took from his grandfather – or even with the nickname which describes his ambition: “the last Bantu emperor”, Le Dernier Empereur Bantou.
The latter is also the title of his first album, which was released in October 2014, following a couple of promising EPs.
Even a quick listen to the eleven tracks of the album shows that Kwenders does not fall short of the ambitious goal he has set for himself: he can sing in five different languages (French, English, Lingala, Chinoba and Kikongo) and, as for his musical influences, they range from the obvious Congolese rumba and afrobeat to the less predictable progressive and electro. That is why many critics have labelled his work as another variation on world music.
However, there is nothing which the Congolese singer can disagree with more. “I have nothing against the term world music – he once explained – 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”, he added.
“What I make – he stated instead – 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”. It is not by chance that “the last Bantu Emperor” names Beyoncé when describing his own music: in fact, he has listed the US singer among his artistic influences. It may seem in many ways a strange choice, but “the girl has crazy talent”, Kwenders says, putting the former ‘Destiny’s Child’ lead singer on the same plane with African musical masters such as Tabu Ley ‘Rochereau’, Franco Luambo, Papa Wemba and the so called ‘white Zulu’ Johnny Clegg, or legends of international pop music like Michael Jackson.
This musical mix, also using Cajun rhythms (Mardi Gras), mythical characters (Popolipo), and childhood reminiscences (Ani Kuni), could easily be explained by the singer’s biography: born in Salongo, a neighbourhood of Kinshasa, he left Congo when he was 16 to join his mother in Montréal. Besides having lived almost half of his life out of Africa, he also had a quite unconventional musical education: in Canada he was recruited by a church choir despite having admitted his lack of singing experience.
Some years later, he added yet another ingredient to this rather uncommon mix, when meeting Radio Radio and the Posterz, the Canadian rap bands who, together with the Belgian-Congolese Baloji, feature in his album. Then, all was ready for the rise of the ‘Bantu emperor’, a figure which Kwenders has carefully built even with his rather bizarre stage costume. He wears a red jacket with braiding and epaulettes, horn-rimmed glasses and a leopard cap: an outfit that can easily remind one of Napoleon, but also of Mobutu, the former Zaïre (as Kwenders’s home country was known under his rule) dictator.
The impression is reinforced by the fact that one of the tracks in the album, Kuna na Goma, is introduced by a speech delivered by Mobutu himself on 24 April 1990. That was the day when the president finally authorized multi-partitism in the country and, Kwenders thinks, “one of his best speeches ever”. However, he clarifies “I do not have a political approach, I take from history for artistic purposes only”.
From this point of view, whether the multiple references to Mobutu point to his controversial “authenticity” campaign or not, has little importance. They are just another element in a project of which the artist himself wants to be only a part: “Le Dernier Empereur Bantou is a collective project of which I am simply the ambassador and not the conductor”, he explains. In this sense it even goes beyond the borders that scientists gave to the Bantu languages and peoples and embraces a whole continent raising the banner of unity: “My empire is open to all and has no borders”, says Kwenders, whose ambition is that of being considered “a 21st century Bantu, the spokesman of modern Africa”. (D.M.)