Roc Nation Rapper Young Paris on Blending African Music, Hip-Hop & EDM: 'I Just Wanna See African Artists Winning'
On any other day, Young Paris (born Milandou Badila) would be decked out in full African garb with white tribal paint across his face to represent his Congolese roots and those of his father, a co-founder of the National Ballet of Congo.
"My father was a very primitive strong African man and just held onto his culture. He passed four or five years ago, so since then I just carry on the tradition," he said. "A lot of times I wear my maquillage, my paint, which is another just way of carrying on what he left us and that stems from back to the regions that represented the Congo." For his visit to Billboard, he opted for two small white dots underneath his left eye, blatant on his dark brown skin. "We wear white for those who we lost and recognizing that I’m a contemporary African-American so whether it’s fashion or music or art, I blend the traditional and the contemporary art together."
Look to his latest project African Vogue and the fusion of Afrobeats meets EDM and hip-hop sound like a musical passport (standouts include "No Chill," "Best of Me" and "Your Wine"). With his father embedded in ballet and his mother a playwright and dancer, YP split his childhood between Congo, Paris and New York. His stage name pays homage specifically to his birthplace, Paris, France. Beyond music, Young Paris inked a deal with Roc Nation (despite having not met the mogul-in-charge Jay Z yet) also wants to uplift the African culture in mainstream America with his multi-media company, Melanin.
Allow Young Paris to introduce himself in the Q&A below.
Let’s first start with just your background. You grew up in Africa but have roots in Paris. What did your parents do?
So my father co-founded the first national ballet and my mother danced in New York. They met in Paris and had 10 kids, hence Young Paris. So just going over the strong cultural background and the strong traditional elements in my art and how I just grew up as a child, very close family, just kind of translates to what I do now with music. Born in Paris, grew up in New York most of my life, Congo.
When did music become a career?
I was born into music, born into dance studios, always around drums and women dancing. I would say around 15 is when I was really starting to become a choreographer. I started dancing and teaching dance, and then eventually you know everyone in the 'hood [in New York] rapped. I just thought I was a nice rapper and I got encouraged by my peers so I just kind of started taking it serious.
I thought what I was doing was cool and I always tried to add a little African influence into my stuff but I would say I really captivated my sound at 21, 22 years old when I was like I need to start embellishing the African influence in my background ‘cause growing up a person of color, we have another sense of pressure of self-representation, self-identity and self-love. I grew up with a whole lot of love at home but the society around me was in many ways very closed-minded. It kind of stopped me from my potential when I was younger so the reason why I’m so much more aggressive now is because there was so much of that "can’t do" [attitude]. I just show that I could do so much more now and that I’m African.
What made you blend Afrobeats with electronic dance and hip-hop?
I think just the artists that I like following. Growing up, you either listen to hip-hop, rock, punk. I remember when it used to be like that was just your genre and then I remember always trying to show my boys indie-rock and blend genres and it was such a foreign mindset because it was just like hip-hop or nothing else. One of my brothers loved indie-rock, another one of my brothers loved electronic music so I was just exposed to that kind of sound in the household and just started really diving into different ways that they blend their sounds. A lot of times when I produce I start with the African drums and add different elements on top of it and there’d be times where you can add an indie-rock guitar pattern and it just blends. It really just came from the influence and the artists that I liked growing up.
Who were the artists you listened to?
Radiohead. I really was a David Guetta fan. He really introduced the whole pop, big house sound to me but I would actually give a lot of credit to the South African producers like Renato Xtrova, DJ Black Coffee. Fela [Kuti], who is like the God of Afrobeats. My father is a grand influence. Kaytranada, freaking Solange, Beyonce. I mean there’s so many.
You just dropped a project recently called African Vogue. What does the title mean?
African Vogue was my way of saying Africans need to be a part of the conversation and when you think of Vogue, you think of the pinnacle of fashion, like a fashion company or art. A lot of contemporary influence and pop influence comes from African ideas and there’s a lot of cultural and traditional things that we do back home then we see them being done in pop culture. A lot of times, people are in private conversation and will be like appropriation but creating African Vogue was to say Africans are Vogue. We create Vogue, we are that conversation and the flip on it is when you think of vogue and dancing. Obviously, there’s a strong dance element, it’s just a kind of a play on words. It’s my way of just saying Africans are strutting what we got.
What are your thoughts when you see huge artists like Drake using Afrobeats in their music?
It’s interesting, it’s a great dynamic. I’m actually more of a supporter of it than I’m against it. A lot of Africans will say that’s not the African sound ‘cause they're calling it Afrobeats. I like that he actually brought Wizkid on that track ["One Dance"] 'cause it does pay homage in a proper way but Drake’s at a pop level. It’s not gonna be as organic as you’d imagine it to be any way but I think for what he does and where he’s going with the sound, I respect it and I love the song. It also opens doors to a lot of other Afrobeat artists. It’s kind of like when Kanye West took Chief Keef’s "I Don’t Like" and then it just opened the door for Chicago rappers in a way. I look at it like that. I think it’s a good thing.
Who are some of the artists that you hope to collaborate with?
I would love to work with Pharrell. I’m doing something with Santigold soon actually. I just did some stuff with Tiwa Savage, Davido, I’m working with Davido soon, I’d love to do something with Wizkid. I think they would just know how to complement what I’m bringing to the table. Another guy is Kaytranada. I’ve known him for a couple of years. He lives in Montreal but his sound has all those elements that complement what I’m doing musically and even like Solange. I met her a couple of times. She’s amazing. M.I.A too.
You also have this media company called Melanin. What was the inspiration behind it?
Melanin developed from a hashtag #MelaninMonday that started a couple years ago and essentially was built around highlighting the beauty and excellence of people of color. I gained my popularity on Facebook highlighting black models. I would always say we need more diversity in fashion and I would pump up like the Ajak Dengs, Nykhor Pauls and the Mari Agorys, like all these beautiful black models. They would be in these very nice editorials but I didn’t see enough of them in pop culture and media so I would use my page to make them very popular.
Recently, I launched the website called melanated.com, which is activating the melanin and again, we’re just gonna tackle subjects with people of color. We’ll do interviews, we’ll tackle media of all sorts but again it’s built around people of color so just showing more of the highlights of the powerful steps that are being taken behind the scenes and from public figures of people of color who are making things happen in life.
What's next for you?
I’m back in the studio. African Vogue was a great way to introduce my sound and now, it’s really about making the quality of the sound stronger and tackling more visual content so I’ll be shooting a lot of videos. I just wanna see African artists winning. Davido just did a song with Tinashe, WizKid just did a song with Justine Skye. The sound is crossing over.
I think music is a very interesting place right now and it's getting back to the organic nature of just being who you are. All these artists are becoming popular off of being themselves. It’s just more about creativity so even a lot of guys that are trying now whether they rap or sing R&B. Most genres, it’s just more about your attitude or the swag. Even a lot of activism like Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a very good time for me to come in because I’m coming from a self-love perspective and I think there’s a lot of that happening right now.