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Savour the sacred soundscapes of NKISI

The multi-disciplinary artist practices collective meditation and healing through music.

 

Photography by Nadine Ijewere, styling by Nicco Torelli

Healing through music is a long-standing tradition, and it’s not often that you come across a kindred spirit that truly gets under your skin and let’s your flow loose. NKISI is exactly one of those spirits. Why? That’s still a question mark, since the Congolese producer and DJ is as far removed from traditional perception of sound as one can imagine. Her use of the ancient African drum ritualizes a sense of togetherness, yet NKISI’s blend of stomping doomcore and techno introduces possibilities for realities yet to be uncovered. Her music navigates two cultural worlds—that of her home country of Congo, but also Belgium, where she grew up—which hints at why the artist seems drawn to the spaces in between; an embrace of her ancestry and newfound sound waves.”It was really important to create Afro-centric electronic music, because African music was always viewed from one perspective but never imagined as experimental.”

We last saw NKISI perform at FIBER x The Rest is Noise over a month ago, but our body memory is still soaked in the boundless potential that lies within the artist. That’s why we sat down with the source herself, for a chat on reclaiming, meditating, and, ultimately, healing.

Raziyah: “NKISI” means sacred medicine. How did you come up with this name and what does it mean to you? How does the meaning of the word translate through your music?

NKISI: When I had just started, I wanted to choose a moniker that was connected to myself, but also distanced enough so that it would force me to constantly dig deeper and gain new references towards that chosen name. What attracted me to NKISI is the meaning in my mother tongue: sacred medicine. The word also refers to statues that were used for protection in the Kingdom of Kongo. They’d be covered in nails, each statue representing a person in the village, making the Nkisi the collective body of that village. In Western anthropology or ethnography, these statues were seen as evil dark witchcraft, but things are not as simple as either bad or good in Congolese religion. A curse sent your way could be a good thing. After the Atlantic Slave trade, the most important component that stayed in Bakongo religion is the fact that it is a drum religion and that’s the medium for how most knowledge is transmitted. Also, in a Diasporan context, growing up in Belgium, Nkisis are always portrayed in these big national museums; it’s funny (and sad) to realize that most powerful Nkisis are not even on the continent anymore. Regardless, I try to visit them whenever I get the chance.

R: And you have to pay to see them! 

N: Exactly, it’s so crazy. Especially with my own personal history; having moved from my country of origin. 

R: How did growing up as a Diasporan child inspire you and your art, especially knowing the recent history between Belgium and the Congo’s?

N: There have always been good and bad parts. It has all shaped me into who I am today. What I think is most important is that this position gave me enough detachment from the status quo to be able to always question everything. I’ve learned to see the strength in existing in the shadow, being overlooked and feeling invisible, to use that as a force and not be afraid of disturbing the peace, because I was never a part of that peace to begin with. It took me a long time to see the positive side of being in the in-between space; growing up somewhere your whole life, but being treated like a stranger and also not feeling fully connected to your place of origin, since you didn’t grow up there. In my work, I like to give room for that in-between space, to look at the entanglements of different types of music and how they have the same energy. I also show that these entanglements might not be as separated as the status quo might imply they are. Things that may seem like total opposites have much more in common than you might initially think.

R: It’s beautiful that you took those experiences and transformed them in this way; wanting others to have that same experience in a collective way.

N: Yes, since what saved me throughout my life were people showing me things that I was also experiencing. It made living through everything alone not feel so alone. Hopelessness comes from the idea that no one shares what you go through, but I think we share much more in our darker sides of our emotional life than we do in our happier side. We only celebrate when there’s something to be happy about, but what about coming together when you actually don’t feel good and need to be with people? That’s why in the dimensions of my melodies I’m literally pouring out my darkness and hope, which is why I think my music might connect to people since they feel how I felt when making it. [Laughs]

R: You were talking about how an audience contributes to what a good set is and to the atmosphere during that set. How do you feel about the club scene here in Europe? Do you feel like the crowd here really feels what you intend to portray?

N: There are definitely different ways of clubbing all over the world. In certain places, it feels more radical to be on the dancefloor. Going out or playing in certain places just has a different energy. For example, when the government is not really open for clubbing scenes in the country the energy feels more radical.

R: Could you elaborate on that?

N: I think we’re really privileged in places like Amsterdam or London, where clubbing is just part of the culture. We’re allowed to have dance music, as it already came from a place where being on the dancefloor was such a radical and beautiful expression of collectivity. Because of those initiators of radicalism, we are now able to have such free dancefloors in our cities. I honestly think that’s why I love electronic music so much. It’s the possibility to create another version of the reality that we know (of); along with the ability to create a future or context, which doesn’t exist yet through mixing different existing sounds that maybe no one would’ve ever thought could work together. This creation can maybe even give hope to a new possible future for us all to live in. When I play live especially, I get this beautiful opportunity to really see people go off in this world I create collectively with the people on the dancefloor. It just gives me so much joy to think that this little moment of shared hope can perhaps truly happen someday.

R: I’ve never heard such a beautiful verbal expression on the essence of raving. Outside of that, humans, of course, have this innate reaction to repetitive percussion sounds, just like the African drums in most drum cultures, as it imitates the heartbeat of the mother in the womb. Every person in that room is moving to that sound… It’s like a collective meditation.

N: Exactly. After a while, it even comes to a point where all those people share the same heartbeat since your heart becomes synchronized to the music. This is exactly what I look for in my music, electronic music especially. I always have to think, “Should I do this ritual and bring it back?”

R: Could you clarify where you would bring it back to?

N: Back to the African drum. Back to the drum rituals we react so heavily to. Back to these rituals of collectivity and our essence as humans. Because I think it’s needed. I know that I need it, and I know that when I was younger I had so many epiphanies on the dancefloor. We felt this new reality, which wasn’t the current ‘outside’ reality we had to live in, but rather one we created ourselves. A moment to fully indulge in and to just let go. I’ve had so many moments where I just literally felt myself changing, breaking out of my old shell and opening up as a person. I’m actually really happy I also had enough experience on the other side, on the dancefloor, so now I know what I would want to hear in a DJ from a dancer’s perspective.

Photography by Curtly Thomas

R: I really love how you reclaim and reinvent electronic music like that. You related techno music to tribal rituals, but how did you navigate through seeing this relation? Since in current times, the relation and origin of techno music is often forgotten or even ignored and erased.

N: Well, I‘ve definitely been through it! When you’re a teenager, in the context of identity, you have to deal with how people view you versus what you feel identified with. For example, I remember for me it was really, really hard to deal with being into hip-hop, which is something expected by others, and at the same time having an interest in gabber or trance. In a weird way, I was so self-conscious about showing that side of myself to certain people. I couldn’t show it. It can be important to show the identity of something, but that works with the rule of exclusion. So, to put one identity upfront, in terms of a type of music, is to deny everyone else that contributed to its development and even to its creation. This is also my issue with having fixed identities of music genres since it just suddenly excludes groups of people due to that particular genre’s rebranding.

R: You founded NON WORLDWIDE, which is a collective of African and African Diaspora musicians. What prompted the project, and why did you feel this was necessary for the current environment of the (European) music industry?

N: I met Chino Amobi around December in 2014 and he introduced me to Angel Ho. We formed a Facebook group where we discussed our lives, aspirations, ambitions, dreams, music career, and what we thought was fucked up in this world. Chino is from Nigerian heritage and living in America; Angel Ho is based in South Africa, and I’m a Congolese living in Europe. So what came out was that we had lots of similarities in things that we wanted to change, because we found out that there were a lot of similarities in our experiences in this world. Angel Ho was essential to this process due to her impact of actually being on the continent and her perspective as a trans-identifying person. She connected us to amazing black artists in South Africa and said no to whoever wanted to define us, because we could define ourselves purely by existing. We’re all kids that grew up on the Internet, so we built this network of NON-artists who felt connected to the concept. Although I’m not very active in NON anymore, I just love to see that a lot of the artists that started with us are kind of big now. That strong circle of connectivity and inspiration was so needed in a time when we had to create a space for ourselves to exist in. It’s also nice that it wasn’t just us three talking shit about the world.

 

R: I can only imagine the power, resilience and inspiration young creatives must feel when they are finally connected and freed from their solitude. How would you best describe the mantra of this collective, and what is it that made this way of existing unique? 

N: As an entity, we were radical not just in a way that’s reactive and defensive, but also to fight the beast head-on. Sometimes it’s not about getting a seat at the table, but rather just go and make your own table! As an artist, it’s already hard enough, but as QTBPOC, we were just tired of having to explain to people why we also deserve a seat at the table. At the time, there was this idea of Afro-centric music being categorized as ‘cultural world music’. It was hard to imagine Africa and technology together except for Afrofuturism; which was always some utopia for some distant future, but never the Now. That’s why, for me, it was really important to create Afro-centric electronic music, because African music was always viewed from one perspective but never imagined as experimental.

Photography by Susu Laroche

Words by Raziyah Heath

 

Special thanks to FIBER and The Rest is Noise