Back in October, Nkisi, ANGEL-HO and Rabit sat down with Truants’ Tayyab Amin to discuss ‘Decolonised Dancefloors: Race, Identity & The Global Underground’. The aim of the panel was to explore how the artists’ works and collaborations relate to these issues, whilst shedding light on and introducing their approaches to music. Nkisi is known for her intense blends channeling Congolese roots with her love of doomcore, whilst ANGEL-HO deals a hand of visceral, voguish shards. Along with Chino Amobi, they co-founded NON Records. Rabit’s tainted, broken chrome productions have made frequent appearances in our Functions of the Now mix series tracklists, and he recently started Halcyon Veil. Below is a transcription of the discussion, edited for readability. Many thanks to Repeater Books for presenting the panel, Unsound for hosting it, and to the artists for their involvement.
Nkisi: Hello. So my name is Melika. I am diaspora from Congo but grew up in Belgium. I’m an artist, I make music under the name Nkisi.
Rabit: My name’s Eric, I produce under the name Rabit. I DJ, produce and also have a record label. One of the things we released earlier this year in partnership with NON is the release from Angelo. That’s about it.
ANGEL-HO: Hi, I’m Angelo, known as ANGEL-HO. I’m a performance artist, working with sound.
Tayyab: I think a good place to start, as Eric mentioned, is NON, which is a collective/label. We’ve got two of the co-founders here in Melika and ANGEL-HO. Would like to start by telling us what NON is all about?
ANGEL-HO: We started having this conversation about race, identity and being diasporic, and also being within [other countries] – South Africa for me, and discussing our experiences. It kinda spread to the colonial history we all shared, that we’re all conditioned by. NON is escaping those, or just being disruptive within the colonial vernacular of sound.
Nkisi: Also what’s really important for me, personally, definitely with NON is just that it is not a platform that tries to be a part of society that maybe doesn’t really want us. It’s more making its own platform, its own world and its own state. Instead of trying to be a part of something, we’re basically making our own.
Tayyab: You just mentioned society that doesn’t want “us”, “us” in reference to African and Afro-diasporic peoples. When did you start to notice that that was the case in the world and in creative industries?
Nkisi: I think I’ve always noticed this, just because of my background, growing up in Belgium – obviously the colonial history. And just it’s always been there, that I was a stranger or that I was an outsider. I don’t think it was something like, “Oh, I’m in the creative industry and now, oh shit, I’m an outsider, people are not really including me,” it has been part of my experience of always being the outsider. I don’t really think it was just linked to the creative industry, my whole experience as a human being, it’s been a part of it since being a kid.
Tayyab: ANGEL-HO, have you felt the same alienation in Cape Town?
ANGEL-HO: Yeah, definitely. For me, it started with education. We have to understand that in South Africa, race is constructed in three categories (not like in America where it’s just black and white): There’s black, white and coloured. We all speak differently, have our own terms. Going to primary school for me – and all these institutions – I remember this one vivid moment when my teacher told me for a whole week that I had to speak properly. That was the first moment that I was like, “I’m not supposed to be here.” I didn’t feel comfortable in that situation. I’m still kind of dealing with that today.
Tayyab: So when it came to forming NON, how did that come around? Were you forming relationships in person, online or in new spaces where you found people that were on the same wavelength as you?
ANGEL-HO: Chino and I were chatting for a long time. We were just messaging each other on the internet. We had a lot in common with our experiences with race in different locations. We were venting to each other, just talking it out. We decided to share our dialogue with our music, with each other. It wasn’t so spontaneous but it felt like we needed to stand in solidarity with each other, even though we’re not from the same country or location.
Tayyab: It’s interesting – well, I say “interesting” – it’s scary how the same oppressive structures manifest themselves globally, but that is one of colonisation, which personally I feel we’re not really through yet. Melika, in what ways does NON Records discuss the current climate socioculturally?
Nkisi: For me, like I said earlier, just by making a platform for us where we don’t feel we need to assimilate to a status quo, or try to be accepted by the status quo. In my past work, I’ve always had a lot of problems with dealing with trying to explain what I was actually talking about. Now, with NON, I don’t feel I have to explain anything anymore, the frame is there, everything’s there. I can basically focus on doing the real work. I think it’s much more giving that support for [we] who actually want to do something in our own ways about situations of people that are like us.
Tayyab: It’s interesting to look at how collectives form. Just to switch topics for a second, Eric, you co-released ANGEL-HO’s Ascension EP this year as part of your Halcyon Veil imprint, alongside NON Records. I know you’ve previously developed relationships with Lotic and Logos – Lotic has stylistic similarities with Arca in some of the work they’re doing, Arca mastered the Ascension EP. How do these networks form geographically and online?
Rabit: I first started talking to Lotic in 2011, 2012, when he was still in Texas. We kinda both didn’t make anything good, we made music but we were still learning. We started working together in terms of friends sharing music, roughly in the same network but he has his own thing, you know what I mean? As far as how Arca came about for mastering Angelo’s EP, it just seemed right. When you have an unspoken connection and you don’t really need to elaborate certain things, I just assumed that if I asked him he would be into doing it. He’s not a mastering engineer and he’d already heard some ANGEL-HO music and I guess there are some similarities, so he was like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll do it.” So it wasn’t really a lot of planning, and I think that’s something a lot of people feel as an impediment in why they don’t start things. But I feel like the best collaborations and ideas just come about very casually. Trading stories of what happened to you here, there.
Rabit: Communicating with people from different backgrounds, different places, just kind of all working towards the same goal. I don’t know really what that goal is, but…
Tayyab: How did you and ANGEL-HO start working together and communicating around music?
Rabit: I don’t remember. Do you?
ANGEL-HO: Nah. We just kinda started talking.
Tayyab: It’s interesting to me how natural this all seems, you find people around you that are similar. While NON is set out with an agenda, these agendas are just part of who you are I guess in existing in a space that is oppressive.
Let’s talk about the Ascension EP. What I found most interesting about was that it was sonically very jarring, there was a lot of different sounds and themes coming through. At times it felt there was a horror aesthetic to it. You’d see such things as queerness come through. Use of the Ha sample. What kind of things were going on in your EP?
ANGEL-HO: I don’t think my trauma is an aesthetic. I started making sound, probably like two years ago, and it was on and off in the beginning. I was doing these sample-based narratives with our president speaking, it was very political. And with regards to how I was feeling – becoming aware, you know. Then it progressed to this five track EP. I kind of healed from those stories I was telling, I felt like I was condensing a lot of the information.
Tayyab: One of the things about NON Records is it had a statement. One of the things it mentioned in the statement was dealing with a “collective trauma”. I was wondering, Melika – ‘cause you DJ in London sometimes right?
Tayyab: London’s quite a diverse place in some ways. I’m wondering – ’cause I’ve never made it down to one of the Endless nights (I’m based in the north of the UK where no one ever ventures and such) – what kind of crowd you get at the Endless nights?
Nkisi: I guess it’s really mixed, and it’s also why it’s been really inspiring for me when I started working with sound. Just because it was so mixed, the sound, good music, basically just people like me, and sometimes you can feel like being like a freak, and it’s nice to be in an environment where we’re all the same, we’re all into the same stuff. Good music, and I really love hard music so it’s really nice to just have a place where it’s no soft music.
Tayyab: I find that certainly in your music – well, I guess everyone’s music here – that it feels like existing within a storm, there’s so many things going on. There’s a real physical tension to it and I think part of the reason that I do feel like that is due to my existence as a brown guy in the Western world where my place of origin was colonised for so many years, there’s a kind of identity rediscovery going on. Which I kind of see in your music, not to apply my own narrative to it, but I dunno if you think that that’s maybe why stuff that you do, and NON Records does, is so empathised with by so many people?
Nkisi: Yeah, definitely. I do think, obviously coming from a really personal place, that’s how you can find similarities with someone else. And I think that just by being like, “This is how I feel,” – ’cause I think people think subjects (people) make society, I think it’s the other way, I think a society makes its subjects, so we’re all suffering the trauma of patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy. What I’m trying to do with my sound is just – every time I get that rage – to just get it out. Every time I feel that rage is coming I’m like, “Okay I need to make a track!” I do think that the most intense emotions, that’s where you can actually touch something with someone else, that’s where you can find similarities in experiences.
Tayyab: Just going further in on your music, a lot of the things you’ve uploaded to SoundCloud include quotes within the descriptions or there’ll be links in track titles. I think some included a link to UCL studies of legacies of British slave ownership. Another one was a study on astrology and cycles of injustice within progression of the race discourse of the USA. Would you say there’s an inherent politicalness to your music?
Nkisi: I think I can say that yeah, I’m that person that’s constantly on the political aspect. Obviously it’s part of the music too, but I think it’s part of what I’m doing and even what I’ve been doing before.
Tayyab: As a question to all three of you, as someone with characteristics that are marginalised and oppressed in the world, is it possible to make music or make art that isn’t given an inherent political nature? Is it possible to simply exist, or does it have to be political?
ANGEL-HO: Well, I feel like people are trying – whenever there’s a review, or when people discuss Ascension, they’re kind of categorising and oppressing its freedom, in a way. ‘Cause that was just me being free with all these chords and discordant rhythms and it was really about being free and creating my own freedom, my own space. I feel like sound as a language does that already, it doesn’t need – I feel like it needs [expression] outside of the colonial languages.
Tayyab: I often feel I’m limited with the tools I have to explore things outside of a colonial mindset and I guess one of the things that I’m finding about a lot of the sounds being made is [they’re] using different tools to work with the situation, ones that we aren’t familiarised with, ones that haven’t been claimed by patriarchy and colonialism and such.
Eric, you’ve been quite busy this year music-wise, ’cause you had the Baptizm EP and you have an album about to drop. From reading around it, both of those seem like they’ve been influenced by a lot of the personal things that’ve been going on in your life?
Rabit: Yeah, definitely.
Tayyab: Is that something that’s inherent to your music or that just shows in your music, or are we able to access these places without applying a narrative to them?
Rabit: For me, I feel like songs come about from a feeling space. I never set out to be like, “Oh, I’m gonna do a song about this, and I’m gonna do a song about this thing.” The thing about explaining my work, that’s always been kind of weird, is that I don’t really like to explain it yet press is deemed to be a necessity, you know what I mean? Even if it’s something as simple as, “OK, I made an album,” you can’t make something that long and not reflect [on] how I feel. Say at the end if I feel, “Well what was I thinking at the time that I made it, what was bothering me?” It’s really as simple as that. Well, it’s a little bit about my story, it’s a little bit about my friends’ stories, it’s little pieces of everyone’s lives around me. At that point, once it’s put on paper, that’s the part that makes me uncomfortable. Everything after that, you know? Because then it’s like, “Well you said this, what specifically does that mean?” I don’t feel that it’s wrong for someone to question that because they’re just curious and also it’s on a piece of paper as, “Oh, this is what this album’s about,” but for me, I just actually don’t have the language to go into detail and explain in the depth that a lot of things deserve. So that’s why I’ll leave it to my friends to really tell their story and I just like to focus on the feeling aspect. Because even when I started making music a couple years ago, I didn’t really know what I was doing but it was abrasive, it was fast and hard, and that’s just an amalgam of what I grew up listening to, which was actually like a wide range of things.
Tayyab: Yeah, I wondered what you were listening to, ’cause the thing is – especially your music a couple years ago – a lot of people call it grime and that’s something you’ve disputed. So I wonder what the cues were for the sounds you were creating.
Rabit: I mean I listen to all types of like, weird stuff. And I think, especially with the album, it’s more complete because it took a couple years of learning to the tools before I was able to create the full picture of what I wanted to make. The thing about dance music is it’s so broken down into styles that when you’re first getting into it, it’s kinda like learning. Like, “Oh, I like this style, let me try and make it.” So that’s how I learned. “Oh this is pretty cool, let me try and make it.” And there’s nothing wrong with that but I feel I’m in a much better place now, because I can draw on all the music that influenced me. Whether it was metal, or rap music, whatever. People don’t really see the correlation but I think rap was way more influential to me, being from America too, than grime was. It’s really just a matter of using sounds and liking them. I didn’t really look into it too much beyond that, and basically ended up stepping in a pile of shit, pretty much.
Tayyab: I wanna push the grime button a little bit further, just because I like grime a lot. It’s interesting to me that this whole thing of, “Oh, Americans are making grime now,” whereas from the UK side of things there’s not really been an embrace of the transatlantic grime connect. I think of the grime parties I’ve been to and I go to in the UK, the only American grime music that I’ve really heard has mainly been yours, but you don’t see yourself as a grime artist. I just wondered what your thoughts were with regards to that situation.
Rabit: It’s a little bit tricky because I feel like, [enjoying] using a sound but labelling yourself being of that culture or of that genre are two different things. I have no place being like, “Oh, this is my scene,” because it’s not. So I don’t have the answers, I’m just enjoying creating and navigating the minefield of press basically, where nothing I can really do is good enough to explain it, you see what I mean? Every single interview, that’s what’s kind of tiring to me, it’s all treading the same subjects and like, I don’t have the answers.
Tayyab: That’s a really interesting topic you touch on there of genres and scenes and cultures kind of becoming one of the same. I’m thinking of the term ‘club music’ which I’m hearing a lot these days, often in reference to Baltimore club, Philly club, Jersey club, even New York’s ballroom scene, this kind of
heterogenisation [homogenisation] of all these different styles despite the fact that geographically all the scenes are so disparate but in the online world – it’s all SoundCloud music I guess. I wonder, certainly Melika and ANGEL-HO, because your musics incorporate a range of different styles, do genres lose their roots when they enter this new recontextualisation? What does it mean to repurpose these musics into a new thing?
Nkisi: I don’t think I think about it a lot when I’m actually making music. I see myself as being a weird hybrid person because from the outside. I’m African black but then I was born in the Congo and then came to Europe when I was like eight months [old] and haven’t been back. Then I grew up in this small town in Belgium, Leuven, so I think that’s also how I work with my stuff, I kind of see it as [a] melting pot of everything. I don’t really think about it as like genres, obviously I love genres, I love my doomcore, I love my afrobeat, I do listen to specific genres, but when it comes to making my own stuff I prefer to think of it as a hybrid of different stuff that just comes together.
Tayyab: Do you feel a personal connection to the different scenes and strands that you’re involved with and listening to?
Nkisi: Definitely, definitely, because when I listen to doomcore, gabber, I remember growing up, where I come from, where I grew up. And when I listen to afrobeat I’m more like, black, African rhythms, I think about my family, my mom, I see my mom dancing. It’s more from a personal level I guess.
Tayyab: I feel like it’s important to explore the personal connection sometimes, ’cause I think in a previous talk today it was mentioned about afrobeat being really popular now. I’m feeling like that’s starting to happen with music from South Asia too, Four Tet just released a record, I think the lead track on it is basically just a Bollywood tune or something and all these [white] people are like, “Wooow! He’s such a digger, he’s found all this amazing music we never knew existed!” and it’s like well, you could’ve just listened to a different radio station or talked to a brown person or something.
ANGEL-HO, I mentioned the Ha sample in your music earlier, which I think it came from Masters at Work sampling Eddie Murphy in the New York ballroom scene? What I wonder is does it have the signifier when it’s deployed in music in Cape Town?
ANGEL-HO: I guess, with the Ha sample and me using a lot of ballroom, bass and New York chants from like Kevin [Jz Prodigy], before I used those to share my experience. I obviously spoke to him ’cause I wanted to connect with him before I even decided to share my experience with him because there’s – it wasn’t like a way of appropriating, it was more of discussing that shared experience. And also like I think of the sound as being kinetic and moving and moving within space and the way I gesture with the reverb and with echoes and playing with where the [sounds] travel throughout the speaker, yeah, it’s glass shattering, it’s just me letting it all out you know.
Tayyab: Let’s talk about Halcyon Veil. So Halcyon Veil is a label that Eric started this year I believe and the first physical record that came out was from a guy called Myth, but you also did the joint release of the Ascension EP. NON Records actually shows that marginalised people have to create or they feel that they may have to create their own platforms in order to really show who they are and actually exist in worlds that oppress them. So what I think it would be good to explore is how to support people in that way, how to be an ally I guess. And I guess it would be cool if all three of you talked about the experiences of allyship.
Rabit: Yeah, [for] me it was a matter of talking with Angelo when he had a collection of songs ready and was gonna release it anyway. It was around the time I was setting [up] the label, my label’s kind of been in the works for a couple of years. It was a matter of really just thinking if I help with it, maybe it could get like one or two more articles. It was that simple, honestly. Just in terms of logistics, it wasn’t mastered so I was like well, we can work on that. I can help. And the thing is helping friends with feedback, that’s how it started too. He had a collection of songs and it was about working together on what we just felt the best order was, something really simple like that. Then it’s the idea that two is better than one, a group is better than one person doing it alone. So I was kinda just like, let’s do it together.
Tayyab: ANGEL-HO did you feel that having that autonomy was key to the signal-boosting process? The autonomy to shape it how you wanted to shape it.
ANGEL-HO: You mean the tracklist, the way it flowed?
Tayyab: Everything about the whole release.It seemed like you were involved in all the different aspects that went into the release. I just wonder if there are particular things to highlight when it comes to working with allies?
ANGEL-HO: It wasn’t really something we’d think about that much because Alejandro [was] mastering the EP – it’s very cinematic as well, the sound, we thought that he would be great to master it because…
Rabit: It’s cunt.
ANGEL-HO: Yeah, it;s just cunt, you know?
Tayyab: Melika, you’ve worked with the Endless crew. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is that they do? Also Doomcore Records who you’ve got two records out on as well.
Nkisi: Well Endless is just fam. Since I’ve been in London, I’ve been in London for three years, it’s always kind of been around. It’s just like family, I dunno – What does Endless do? It’s just good music, good people. It’s difficult to say what. And Doomcore Records, I’m a big doomcore fan and the guy from Doomcore Records got in touch with me – because he’s like, really political with his music and really up for different experimentations with the genre, he just contacted me through SoundCloud. He was just like, “Would you like to release something, some of your stuff,” then it happened. Now and then I hear something from him like, “Oh, I like what you’re doing, if you wanna do something again…”
Tayyab: Can you tell us a little bit about your name as well?
Nkisi: Well nkisi is a pre-colonial power figure that was used in the Congo kingdom by what they call witch doctors, amazing sculptures full of nails. Basically when a contract had to be sealed or something had to be demanded for the good of the community, every time a nail had to be slammed into the sculpture as a proof of what happened. Then there are different – it’s also in Lingala which is a language in Congo so there is different layers of what [‘nkisi’] means. The other layer, it just means medicine, as like aspirin or when you go to the witch doctor and you ask for something.
I think I’ve always been fascinated by those sculptures because I guess in Western eyes it looks really scary and it’s this kind of angry sculpture that’s really frightening. And also because a lot of the stuff that ‘til now I’ve found about those objects has always been anthropology studies or missionary stuff that I guess the Belgian people or whatever who colonized the Congo always explained whatever it meant and so on. And all nkisis, they’re almost all in like museums, there’s a few in the British Museum, there’s a few in the Africa Museum in Belgium. I just really like [that] the object has like a lot of layers.
Tayyab: I had a friend studying how a lot of culturally significant things end up in the museums of colonialists, which is a lot to unpack for indigenous peoples and for peoples who are of the heritage.
Just continuing with the trend with names, I wanna talk about ANGEL-HO as a performance identity and what it means to hold onto heritage and then channel that into an identity for performance.
ANGEL-HO: Well, ANGEL-HO – I mentioned in an interview, I’ve been called ANGEL-HO by my family for a long time, since I was a child, and I was thinking about my name, and ANGEL-HO, and that idea of [a] messenger. I was also just having wordplay with my name, thinking of it as not a binary but like a balance. Creating some kind of balance within my narratives as well. And as a performance identity, it’s my performing self, it’s existing within this reality but as true form.
Tayyab: It sounds like there are things that stop you from being your true form on the day to day.
ANGEL-HO: I mean, even me having to speak with these – sometimes I’m like why do I have to say these words that I’ve been taught to describe what I’m trying to do? It’s kind of limiting the way that I think and the way that I wanna create art and because I didn’t come from this European language or culture but I was kind of put into those spaces, and having to learn that, it kind of took away a bit of myself. And I’m kind of removing that slowly, removing those systems.
Tayyab: It’s kind of like unlearning the things that we’re socialised with. I mean, what goes into the unlearning process?
Rabit: Yeah that’s like – it wasn’t the sole reason I started a label but as I became more aware of things around me, it was like, oh cool, releasing records, that’s fun but then coming to the awareness that, wow, a lot of records released every week are white people. And a lot fans or people who follow scenes don’t even really think of that, you know? It’s not just in the music scene, it’s in everyday life as well, in terms of who gets hired for a job, who gets this, that, it kind of like transcends every part of society: racism. So yeah I just think awareness, that’s not a reason I got involved, it was just a natural progression, you know? So when I set out with the label, it’s really just to release music from my friends and then as things progressed and built on themselves I realised structures and the way things are set up and the way it’s benefited me without even knowing, you know what I’m saying?
Tayyab: I definitely think that often environments, they’re very white-normative and white is seen as the default and if you’re not white you kind of have to have a caveat or a premise or a disclaimer with everything you do, which ties into what ANGEL-HO was saying as well about having to explain all the time.
If anyone has questions for the panel, they’re more than welcome.
Audience: Hey, I guess this is for the NON collective. So following your SoundCloud links as well with Chino’s work and your link with serpentwithfeet and Total Freedom, there’s a lot of industrial music kind of iconography. I don’t know whether it was intentional or not, I was kind of assuming it was intentional that you’re using ‘NON’ as like Boyd Rice’s alias and him being quite famous for being a bit of a fascist idiot. And then also with serpentwithfeet singing over this Coil track, I was wondering what your relationship is with industrial music, whether it’s kind of like, you’re celebrating the post-punk, almost working class ideology that they have or if you’re taking a spin and kind of taking the piss out of the sort of fascist, weird elements, which weirdly have come in with the whole Current 93 situation as well for this weekend?
ANGEL-HO: Personally I don’t know what grime is. That’s something I didn’t grow up with. Also punk music, I didn’t listen to punk music when I grew up, I listened to a lot of soul, like Roberta Flack, also a lot of Whitney, Janet, so I don’t know what you’re asking.
Tayyab: I was actually wondering the same thing when I first saw NON Records because yeah, NON is a thing Boyd Rice did and Boyd Rice is not… just, yeah. But it’s interesting to ask where the name NON comes from and what NON means in this context, in your context.
ANGEL-HO: NON for me, it’s to be honest with yourself, it’s to be honest. And I feel like that’s something everyone here can practice, you know? And really think about why we’re having this discussion about decolonizing our dancefloors in music, and how you also play your part in it.
Nkisi: I think for me, I really like NON as a word just because I see it in front of words, and then also how I personally feel. I always felt I was non-accepted, “non” like in French, I was not accepted in places and stuff. But then if you turn it around and you’re like, “Okay, we are NON,” so you can be like okay you have, non-violence but you have NON’s violence, our kind of violence, or you have non-inclusive but you have NON-inclusive, an inclusive space for NON people. So that’s how I like to think about it.