Lous and the Yakuza: "There’s this big contrast between what I had to be and who I really was"
From fleeing war at the age of four, to fulfilling her dreams of becoming a storyteller, meet the rising Congolese-Belgian artist Lous and the Yakuza.
Lous and the Yakuza’s story originally appeared in Up + Rising, a celebration of extraordinary Black voices, and is the first chapter of i-D's 40th anniversary issue (1980-2020).
i-D chronicled over 100 activists and artists, musicians and writers, photographers and creatives, in Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapolis, LA, London, New York, Paris and Toronto.
Within a record-breaking one minute of pleasantries, Lous and I are already talking about the injustices of colonialism. “Since when do people ever talk about Africa?” she asks sarcastically. We jumped from polite small talk about the ‘new normal’ of our post-Covid world into the depths of Western disregard for the continent in 60 seconds flat and it’s a promising first sign.
The Belgium-via-Rwanda-and-Congo artist known as Lous and the Yakuza – née Marie-Pierra Kakoma – is at home in Brussels. She’s spent the morning getting tested for Covid-19 after her sister tested positive. Even through a computer screen she’s beyond striking: hair slicked back, airpods in, smiling widely. She’s the opposite of what one might suspect given the darkly potent visuals for the singles “Dilemme”, “Tout Est Gore” and “Solo”, that have helped catapult her to public consciousness over the last twelve months.
Just last night, she’d been live on Instagram with a few friends and laughs as I admit to watching: “Ahhh, so you saw my drunk ass yesterday?” Even while enjoying herself, the Francophone singer, rapper, writer and model was switching seamlessly between her mellifluous French and perfect English, spoken effortlessly with a Franco-American lilt. Fan comments straddled both languages too, with the occasional request for Italian or Spanish, which she doesn’t speak... yet.
Her current language tally is at an impressive five – English, French, Dutch, Kiswahili and Kinyarwanda – and she’s currently learning Japanese and Spanish. “I think I’m funniest in English? But I make more mistakes and I have this weird accent. In Kiswahili I’m more goofy because it’s the language I associate with my family. When I’m speaking Dutch I’m extra serious! Like, I don’t know how to make a joke for shit in Dutch,” she says. Of Kinyarwanda, she explains how she “had to learn that because it was a new country when I came home.” And of course, she also speaks French: “That’s just more me as a whole because that’s the language I am the best at.”
There’s an inherent cosmopolitanism to Lous’ presence that’s part of her globe-spanning appeal. Even those with minimal knowledge of her lyrical content have grasped onto something profound in her art. “All my comments on social media are like ‘I don’t understand shit but I feel this’,” she laughs. “For me, it’s a blessing. What I’ve understood from this whole experience is that music has no barriers, it’s about feeling emotion.”
Her own name is a microcosm of that same cultural amalgamation: ‘Lous’ as an anagram for ‘soul’, set with the intention of keeping her spiritually grounded; while ‘Yakuza’ is taken from the Japanese word for ‘outcast’ or ‘loser’. “I’ve been a fan of Japanese culture my whole life, the discipline and creativity and the duality between the conservative ideology going on and the more progressive culture. And I could relate because Africa is kind of the same to me. There’s this big contrast between what I had to be and who I really was.”
The band-like name is purposefully all-encompassing however: “I didn’t want all the credit to be on just me. Music is never me alone.” And throughout our chat, whether it’s her Spanish producer El Guincho (also producer of Rosalia’s breakthrough album El Mal Querer); her all-black video cast including autistic British dancer Kaner Flex; or her catalogue of collaborators – Hamza from France, Ponko from Belgium, Tha Supreme and Mara Sattei from Italy – Lous refers to her boundless artistic community as her Yakuza. “Yakuza are the Japanese mafia, but they actually don’t like to be called that, they don’t call themselves that. I want to make a point that it comes from there, I’m not taking credit. But I also want to help give this word another meaning.”
Lous goes on to clarify that, “it is still also ‘Lous’, I’m still there”. As if anticipating my next question, she continues: “My presence is important too because there’s like, white man, white woman, Black man...” She’s gesturing a descending pecking order with her hands and pauses to reach for the floor. Now out of camera shot, she narrates “and then the darker it gets, that’s how I am, at the bottom, because I’m so fucking Black”. Chuckling to herself unphased, she bounces back to an upright position and concludes, “so I’m like, we need that too”.
And it’s true. As we enter new phases of representation for Black and Brown people in the mainstream media, issues of colourism and dark-skinned erasure are still rife, even taking into account all the strides we’re making. Save for a few names in the fashion industry, it is still noticeably rare to see a woman of Lous’ complexion openly celebrated or centred, even within images of Blackness. “I represent a lot for Black women,” she acknowledges. “Like, there’s not many women of my complexion in music. We see a lot of Jorja Smiths, Rihannas and Beyoncés... but how many Normanis?”
In this sense, Lous is aware of a pressure as a symbol of dark-skinned Black femininity, not reluctantly but not deliberately either. “I actually didn’t want to put my Black face in videos in the beginning,” she says. “I just wanted to completely not be there.” For someone so dizzyingly charismatic and who is also objectively and refreshingly stunning, it’s hard to fathom an alternate reality in which she isn’t at the centre of her own message. It’s equally maddening to try and grapple with the realities that might lead to that hesitation in the first place. Luckily, she decided against it. “The only thing that made me change my mind was the representation,” she admits. “I don’t wanna be anybody’s example – because I’m still a fucked up person,” she says. “But I still want to represent that Blackness. Because just the fact that I exist is already an act of activism.”
While her strength of character is infectious and enticing, it’s also become completely second nature to her by this point. Her music encapsulates a lot of difficult subjects and hardships, some of which are inspired by her own story, but even that has never scared her. “When I write the saddest song the process still makes me so happy,” Lous says.
It’s a self-love rhetoric that doesn’t grate in the way that others sometimes do when preached by beautiful people. Instead, it’s an ethos that simply refuses to give weight to the opinions of others at the expense of one’s own self-worth: a self-contained survival tactic in a world that can be cruel. “I get up every single morning and I say to myself: ‘I’m blessed to be alive, thank you. It’s a good day. I love myself.’”
Lous speaks in a way that makes you believe that anything is possible. And from fleeing war at the age of four, to growing up in Rwanda and writing feverishly throughout her childhood, to now fulfilling her dreams of becoming a storyteller on a global stage and confidently defying societal pressures, she stands tall as evidence of her own theory and makes you believe it too. Even as a child, she had a defiant self-belief. “I started writing books and songs simultaneously and the first story I wrote as a child, I finished it and went into the living room and was like, ahem! Excuse me!” She rolls her eyes at herself and giggles. “I’m such a pain in the ass but I was always showing off, because I wanted to share my joy.”
She tells me excitedly about her plans for the rest of the day: “The only thing I have to do is go to a small café with this that I just bought...” Hurrying across the room, she rifles briefly before returning with a brand-spanking new notebook in tow, shaking it in front of the camera: “It’s so beautiful!” She makes sure to schedule her ‘little café moments’ and houses maybe a hundred notebooks that she’s kept since the age of seven. When I ask if she’d ever consider trying a new literary format, she replies proudly that she’s “actually written three books and seven short stories…” In fact, just four days ago she was approached by an editor: “She was like ‘I heard your lyrics and I kind of feel like you could write fiction.... I know it’s weird!’ And I was like, ‘girl, not even. ‘cause a bitch did already!’”
Currently, all the existent drafts are written in French but Lous reassures me that she’ll make sure it’s available in English too if she ever publishes, cackling hoarsely as she takes a drag of her cigarette and adds, “if I get famous that is!”
Photography Joshua Woods.
Styling Dan Sablon.
Hair Yann Turchit at Bryant Artists using Mizani.
Make-up Aurore Gibrien at Bryant Artists using Dior.
Styling assistance Charly Ferrante.
Production Clémentine Tatin.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.
Casting assistance Alexandra Antonova.