"You can imagine how theatrical our house was, there were colorful costumes everywhere," says Milandou Badila via FaceTime. He's relaxing at a friend's apartment ahead of a Redbull Music Academy performance in Montreal. Badila, who goes by the stage name Young Paris, enjoyed a childhood that spanned three continents and was shaped by constant exposure to the arts. His father, who passed away in 2011, was a dancer, choreographer and musician as well as the co-founder of the National Ballet of Congo, the country's first internationally recognized dance troupe. The ballet's formation came at a critical point in Congo's history and helped create a sense of unity in the country during the tumultuous time of independence in the 1960s. Paris's mother was equally immersed in the creative scene; she worked as a playwright and professional dancer. The latter career choice led her to become acquainted with Paris's father. "She was invited to dance at my father's studio [in Paris]. Long story short, they fell in love and had seven kids. He had three before he met her so I have 10 siblings in total," Paris shares.
When the rapper was around seven the family moved from Paris to upstate New York. Still, the change in environment did little to uproot Badila's familial ties to Congo, where his mother and father would take him to visit between return trips to Paris. This cross-cultural range of experiences soon influenced Badila's taste in music. As an artist, his interest in divergent genres creates a unique soundscape that blends tropes of traditional hip-hop and trap with EDM, afrobeat and afrohouse.
"I was involved with a lot of different music styles, " Badila explains. "I grew up with a lot of traditional African music from Salif Keita to Papa Wemba, so most of my young life was African music. Then, growing up in America, I became interested in hip-hop, I wanted to rap like other kids. As I got older I started going to festivals and I'd hear EDM and trap so I just started mixing all of those different sounds. Now seeing what's happening with afrobeat it's created another lane for me because my music already has a lot of those elements."
In this last year alone global megastars like Drake have turned an eye to the African continent, tapping artists such as Wizkid for chart-topping features. As a result, a new permutation of African-influenced American hip-hop is emerging. It creates a prime opportunity for someone like Paris, whose first-generation experiences position him in the crosshairs of two cultures. He has essentially emerged as a human bridge between traditional hip-hop and the music of the African continent. Following in the footsteps of his mother and father, Paris has created a platform that uses popular culture and performance as a tool for injecting African histories into Western conversations. In 2016, he released the African Vogue EP, which spawned its own hashtag on Twitter specifically dedicated to highlighting the accomplishments of the black diaspora.
We chatted with Paris about activism, his music and fashion sense, and why he wants to bring Africa to the world.
Favorite brands or designers?
I really like Dent de Man. Yohji Yamamoto is brilliant, I love how he does the active meets couture meets fitness thing. I love all of Alexander McQueen's stuff and KTZ. Fear of God is nice, too, and OFF-WHITE.
How do you accessorize?
My whole style is a traditional-meets-contemporary mix. Basically everything about me, from my music to my style, reflects that outlook on life. For jewelry I like to wear gold: gold rings, gold watches - I usually have my bottom grill in, too. I also like to add some super traditional aspects to my look, like a camel bone bracelet or a cowrie shell bracelet.
How did the signature face paint come about?
My father co-founded the first national ballet in Congo. They would use different ways to embellish their faces to accent their beauty. Outside of that people wore different colors for a lot of reasons. It's a long, detailed story but more or less people wore white for those who passed; I lost my father in 2011. He gave me the markings I wear when I was about three. It's called a marque de famille which means mark of family. It's usually given by an elder or a notable person in the community. My father gave me this mark because he was a big performer and notable person in his time.
All of my siblings have their own markings so you'll find pictures of me as a little baby with my maquillage on. Usually you see the colors when we perform as a family because we still have a family-based drum troupe where we teach African music, dance and drum. We wear red for the blood of our people, yellow for the sun that provides us energy and green for the land that gives us our food. Again, the white is for those we have lost and since I lost my father I've been wearing the white to carry on his tradition. Living in the world we are today everything has become so dissociated from our connection with Africa. I want to keep Africa in the conversation so I'll be at a super high-end party with my paint and people are like, "oh it's cool." In its own way that's a reminder of what I'm trying to bring to the table, and also hopefully inspires people to get a little closer to their connection to Africa.
Tell me more about the #AfricanVogue movement. What does it mean to you?
African Vogue is a way of saying Africans need to be a part of the conversation because they are instrumental in creating the things we consume. Obviously when people think about Vogue they think of a pinnacle platform for fashion. I say African Vogue as a way of saying Africans are also at the root of what makes Vogue.
There are so many beautiful ideas in art, design and fashion that come from the continent. On the other end, musically, vogueing (the dance) is a way of strutting your stuff and using your best moves. So when I use the hashtag it's a way of creating that one Africa conversation - it's me saying look how Africans are constantly strutting how genius their talents are. I made a project around it and the whole vibe was just showing my range of sound and showing different ways to compile African music with pop music or EDM or hip-hop. Obviously using the hashtag is to invite people to enter the conversation.
Until recently it felt like there are very few people boasting their pride in being African in popular culture. You see it more now and I hope I played a role in that. Even being black in America people often feel like they have to put aside some of their blackness to conform to this very Eurocentric mindset. African Vogue is a way of taking pride in who you are.
How did your childhood influence your music?
I was born in Paris because my father had a dance studio there back when he was performing and touring. I actually got the name Young Paris when I was in college because girls couldn't pronounce my real name. I come from a very big, arts-loving family so you see that translated into my music. I try to bring an element of drama to my performances whether a stage plot is involved or a certain mood is there. During performances we also dress in our regalia and wear our paint.
You're often described as an activist as equally as a musician. Why do the two make sense for you?
Once you're "woke" it's part of your nature to further the dialogue. Whatever conversation you have, whether it be behind the scenes or in front of a camera, there's a certain level of intuitiveness that comes with that level of education. Obviously being an African man in America is activism. You have to go outside and be a black man every day and that's just dealing with the world. A lot of the music industry is still very white so you can come in and kiss ass or you can come in and say I'm fucking talented and you have to accept me.
So I guess I just made it part of my mission to use my education to create important conversations. I try to be clever about how I do it so I try to slide in important points under the guise of pop culture. I know it's not always cool to talk about activism or to have uncomfortable conversations. Thats why I'm always in my paint, even if I'm out at a Harper's Bazaar party or something I'll have paint on my face because it starts a dialogue. It says there's a proudly African man here, that in itself is a piece of activism and I don't even have to say anything. So, yes it's about finding different ways to marry activism with pop culture.
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