Nkisi The NON Worldwide co-founder talks gabber, doomcore, and the meaning of her chosen handle

Alongside Chino Amobi and Angel-Ho, Nkisi is a co-founder of NON Worldwide, an initiative whose raison d’etre is described as “a collective of African artists and of the diaspora, using sound as their primary medium, to articulate the visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society, and in turn distribute power.” In this spirit, the SHAPE affiliate’s ethos and music (including her DJ Kitoko project) are imbued with a certain punk sensibility along with a political pushback against conformity. Buoyant yet emotionally charged, her sound hovers between dream and the dance floor. Her releases have appeared on Doomcore Records and MW Records Norway, with her latest project being a massive three-part NON compilation, whose first installment can be found here.

We caught up with Nkisi after her gig at the legendary Smartbar in Chicago while she was staying at Vassar College in New York.

With NON, you navigate between underground clubs and institutions like universities and museums, among others.

Working with NON, it has been important for me to think about how sound becomes a way to exchange information — also because of my own research about sound and music. It’s a way to communicate information with others. The exchange of information happening in this field right now is amazing.

Could you talk about your own sound research?

I’m really into psychoacoustics. I’m also interested in the possibilities of rhythm — going from one rhythm to another while I play. And I’m also really interested in bringing other systems of thought into my work: right now it’s ancient Kongo cosmology.

Do you consciously work with psychoacoustics while producing music?

A big part of my music-making process involves listening to it and testing it on my body. I’m really interested in how the body can be affected by music and sound. I also love seeing sound as a temporal and spatial element, a trigger of memory or space. The beauty of music is that it’s like liquid architecture, you can create landscapes, travel through different places, etc. I think sound is also like a public space. There are a lot of sounds we can all directly connect to. You can share a lot in happiness, but you can share more in darkness. I’ve always been more interested in the latter. When I meet new people and we start talking, as soon as you go deeper and talk about each other’s experiences, you realize that you really connect through the experiences that weren’t nice. And you can also do this with music.

Nkisi also means spirit, or object that is inhabited by a spirit.

It has a lot of layers of meaning. In the Western context, it would mean a sculpture, statue or object — a power object such as the ones you find in institutions like the British Museum or the African Museum in Belgium. A different layer of meaning would also be sacred medicine, which is a direct translation of nkisi. I’m also doing more research around this beautiful Afro-Latin religion based in Cuba called Palo Mayombe, which uses Nkisis. This religion has roots in the Kongo religion, which existed in the context of displacement and slavery. Slaves were not supposed to speak their own language. A lot of the direct exports of this culture that came from the Trans-Atlantic slavery basically brought all these words and concepts of religion.

Palo Mayombe is mostly seen as a drum religion, as the drums were really important and they use the same language and meaning of the Kongolese words. I know some of these words through my mother tongue. Sometimes when I’m looking for inspiration, or I feel I’m at a dead end, I just take Nkisi and do more research and there’s always something new that comes and impresses me. It’s been a really nice journey to have this dynamic conversation of what Nkisi actually is.

And there’s also the other side — you grew up in Belgium, which is renowned for its eclectic music scene. You also released a record on Doomcore Records, in 2015.

I’ve always been into music. My musical journey has been a reflection of the place where I find myself in my life. I grew up in a small town called Leuven in Belgium. When I was young, I was into gabber but I always felt that it was not really expected from me. Now when I think about it, I feel sad that I felt so self conscious about being into this music. But it has always been there. I also had a very strong reaction to the music I heard at home — the Congolese guitar riff, for instance. I feel there’s a connection — like rhythm or psychoacoustics — in all those music styles that might seem very contradictory at first.

The doomcore period was a very interesting time for me. Gabber can be very carnivalesque and jokey, and I’m more into the darker, deeper, and emotional side of any kind of music. A friend of mine from Leuven lent me this amazing Frenchcore compilation and I was in awe. I started to do more research about doomcore and got totally into it also because of the energy. It’s an aggressive energy, but it’s more of a refusal of wanting to conform. It’s not a refusal of living, it’s rather about not being afraid of dying. Being in the shadow, and not looking for light.

Strategically, it was also a really good way to get into music because I’d never felt very confident being in music. I used to play in a funk band — and obviously being a woman, a black woman — you’re pushed to the forefront as a singer. It had never crossed my mind that I’d make or produce music, especially dark electronic music. I was really impressed that there wasn’t any particular visual representation on the Doomcore Records releases, too. Doomcore Records as a label inspired me and gave me confidence to be dark in my music. Making music is also a way to process my frustrations. At the same time, when I started, I was researching the possibilities of the internet. I was making music in an online music-making app called Audiotool. I was forcing myself to get my music up on Soundcloud, to get it out there. It was very liberating. I learned a lot about the music I wanted to make.

This was also the time that you established NON with Chino Amobi and Angel-Ho.

NON has given me a lot of confidence and support. The music exists in a message that has always been there. Before NON, I had to make my music make sense, whereas now I feel I don’t have to explain myself in that way. It makes sense in the bigger context of NON.

This collective vision probably emboldened you to express yourself individually as well.

With NON, there’s a core idea even if I don’t know where we’re going. I’m also interested in our dynamic as a collective. Everyone does their own stuff, but we’re also not trying to fix ourselves in one thing. We improvise. Improvisation can disrupt much more. Even in your non-conformity, you’re not conforming.

Since NON was established, have you noticed any changes in some of the issues you talk about?

Change is a long-term process. But even just the fact that people understand that we’re here to stay, and that we’ve managed to take our own space, has been very important for us. I’m inspired when I meet other artists and see how they operate. I’m also interested in the economic power behind it. When I’m curating a festival, I can put together a lineup of ‘underrepresented’ artists and make sure everyone gets paid. I would love to see change, but I don’t know how far we can go only in the music industry or the digital realm. There are broader ideas of how we as humans can live in this world. My concern is: if things are always going to be like this, is this a trend linked to capitalist acceleration or is this something that’s here to stay? And even then, only visibility — being visible, having music out there — is not enough.

It’s also not easy to make systemic change only with music and art.

I always think about how to do politics outside of politics. We as artists have cultural power. The power is in how I would deal with that personally, the references that I’m putting into my work or using in interviews. Power also comes in being able to inspire others to feel comfortable to do the same. What I can do is to propose an alternative. We’ve managed to do this without having a third party helping us. With music, it’s beautiful that you can bring all these references from a lot of other places. I’m really into the idea of bringing other institutions into an institution.

Do you think it’s possible to avoid the institutional context as an artist these days?

Maybe it used to be the case when things were a bit more localised. But not for me personally. Also because of the context I grew up in — always being an outsider — a lot of energy has gone into this dynamic of being accepted or not. I have a lot of respect for people who actually can avoid institutions. I’m also into the idea of intruding in a way, bringing in data that’s not pre-assumed, which can shuffle the whole thing around and re-route ideas. I also work like this in music, redirecting how a track is supposed to sound.

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