On March 11, artists from diverse backgrounds will join forces with the youth of New York City in “A Time Like This: Music for Change,” a very special program to show how music can bring people together as part of Carnegie Hall’s "The ’60s: The Years that Changed America" festival. High school students performing original works inspired by social justice movements from today and the’60s will be joined by seasoned performers like Emeline Michel, Rhiannon Giddens,Young Paris and more. In addition to the fresh and diverse voices, there will also be a full orchestra and high school and elementary school choirs supporting the musicians. It will be a magnificent display of many instruments and genres, all in the service of proving the ways we are more alike than different through the power of music.
One of the musicians lending his voice to the cause this Sunday is Young Paris. He is an exciting young performer, model and entrepreneur born in Paris to Congolese parents and raised in New York. His father, Elombe Badila, cofounder of the first National Ballet of the Congo, along with his mother who is a dancer, raised him and his siblings in a household which encouraged musicianship and artistry. He is now signed to Roc Nation and continues to deliver Afrobeats and hip-hop music on the label founded by Jay Z. He is also a fashion icon, proudly adorning himself with Congolese-inspired white face paint known as maquillage.
I spoke to Young Paris over the phone, asking him about the upcoming performance at Carnegie, and got his take on the Afrobeats and Afro-futurism movements today.
Akornefa Akyea: How did you get involved with "A Time Like This: Music For Change"?
Young Paris: I met Manuel Bagorro [project manager at Carnegie Hall] in Dubai in 2016 and he invited me to perform at the culture summit, which ended up being very interesting experience for me. He loved my message and what I spoke about. I thought a collaboration with kids would be very cool, with students creating musical themes around songs from the '60s that could be updated to sound more modern with hip-hop or pop music. Collaborating with other musicians and working with the kids was something I was very excited about. And this continues to my personal foundation which is built around building excellence around specifically kids of color. I just thought it was a great outlet and I had the time to do it. I was excited to mostly work with the kids and see how we could use a platform as prestigious as Carnegie Hall to showcase not only their work but how to bring community together and put them on the same stage.
This is a very robust program, with students singing original songs along with featured musicians. Can you explain your role within the program?
I'm performing with the kids. I'll be doing two songs and I think they have a 40-piece orchestra that is playing a live set of a songs that were remixed from the '60s with hip-hop. I'll be performing with two other kids doing a rap trio, and another will be with the band, which will be a little more singing.
There are going to be some impressive musicians along with yourself. What does it mean to you to be on stage with such diverse artists like MacArthur Genius fellow Rhiannon Giddens, Broadway performer Carrie Compere, and Red Cross Ambassador Emeline Michel, to name a few?
I've shared the stage with a lot of great talents and I feel performance for me is my element. I'm just excited to see what they offer. I know what I'm bringing to the table, and I know when you bring a lot of different musicians on stage, it just becomes magical naturally, and we'll bounce off each other. We'll have singing, rapping and might be one of those improv, sporadic moments so we'll have to see what will happen! Ro James is a friend of mine so it's great to see him on the lineup. It's just exciting!
Were there be actual moments for improvisation?
I think so! Maybe! [Laughs]
What about your music reflects “Music for Change"’s mission of “showcasing how music has the power to bring people together to fight for change.”
If you listen to my music, a lot of it has an undertone of some sort of message and learning curve. I think even outside the music, the way I carry myself as someone who's dedicated to the culture and their region inspires a lot of people when they think about self-identity. When you think about community, it's really understanding where you're from and to contribute that to each other. I think my message becomes about bringing people together. A lot of my music is very communal. It's about celebrating and celebration. And also about challenges and self-expression. Some of the kids performing on Sunday come from low-income housing and they come from challenging backgrounds with a lot of struggle. I think being able to voice some stuff and let the world know how they're feeling is a very important part of how we understand change, by recognizing people's struggles. It's especially more specific to the youth and what they are going through. How do we create new outlets for them so that they can feel better or have a better perspective when they think about their future?
You’re kind of an American ambassador of Afrobeats. You’re signed to ROC Nation as a rapper and singer and firmly rooted in the music business in the United States. How excited are you about Afrobeats and bridging the gap between hip-hop artists and fans with Afrobeats artists and fans?
I kind of have a way of seeing things before they become what they are. I also have a company called Melanin, which was built from how we connect to people of color. We have a website that updates people of color on people-of-color subjects but we're building more physical interactions. We're creating panels and a festival and different ways to create conversation about what melanin really is and how that applies to people of color. I kind of saw something that was a game changer and the hope is it's something that the world is going to need to right its course. I built the company and foundation which we're working on and it's kind of the same with Afrobeats. Being an African and knowing this music and knowing this culture, I just saw the impact that it could have on the Western society, which has also been the latest on really picking it up. When I see how Afrobeats is impacting Africa and then Europe, I wonder why is it not where it's supposed to be, when looking at what we've got going on over here,.
I also said, let me make this a prominent part of my sound so that people can understand it and then I can relate it back home. My whole message a lot of the time is really about bringing the conversation back home. I've always been driven by Africa's strength, its materials, people, and knowing that Africa's the future. And when we think about music, it's a huge part of what inspires people. Afrobeats in particular is a sound. Not only is it a sound but there’s also a message behind it. Most of the music is really a celebration. There are not really too many demonic message or disrespectful contexts. It's a very bright and uplifting kind of music and about African-Americans, Africans or people who come from that lineage understanding how to celebrate themselves a little bit more. It really becomes powerful because it's really saying you can use this to really celebrate because we're moving into a time of celebration. We're starting to really understand that as a people we can feel powerful about being people of color.
I like that. You know, it's hard to think we are moving into a time of celebration with so much devastation in the world, but I like to believe that.
Yeah, well Afrobeats and different platforms have really contributed to making people of color feel powerful about themselves. I think we're really moving into a time of celebration and Afrobeats becomes the perfect type of music. Because it's like, this is what I want to listen to when I feel good about being African or having a link to Africa.
You were featured in Essence’s “Sensory Wonderland” pop-up experience which was curated around the theme of Afro-futurism. Afro-futurism is very en vogue right now with Black Panther and also Toyin Ojih Odutola’s recent exhibit at the Whitney Museum. You certainly embody that aesthetic in your music and fashion. In your opinion, why is Afro-futurism important right now and why does it resonate with you?
I saw Toyin's piece. I actually performed so I was there for the opening. I think it's time. If you understand the growth of movements, you recognize that it's an overwhelming feeling of celebration for those who celebrate the African culture. Afropunk kind of started a huge conversation around this. About how we celebrate ourselves and rebelling. I think that's what Afro-futurism speaks to. It’s just understanding that you have a traditional ambience but you're also a futurist. You understand that the time is now. We celebrate futuristic ideas but we still hold on to our culture. Or we celebrate a culture that we know we have a lineage to. In the end it's really about celebrating.
“The Way I Am” off your 2017 EP Afrobeats is a very defiant coming-of-age song. Can you talk about that song? How did it come about? What pressures in the industry were you facing?
This is just me. I feel like it was really to relate to many different perspectives and just celebrating! Whether you're transexual or you're gay or you come from a different culture or region. Just celebrating who you are or the way you are. I think that song is recognizing that a lot of people feel a certain type of pressure about their self identity. I'm someone who's very confident about my self identity and I thought that song would be a great conversation around identity. Even in the industry, coming in with my face paint, my maquillage in certain rooms, I've felt the ignorance and I've been called stupid things.
People didn't really understand what African was. We have to go through these different stages of self-identity crises and then eventually learn to embrace them. And you know the industry has kind of shown its shade when it comes to celebrating my particular culture but there have been many other outlets that have celebrated and shown me love. I try to outweigh the good from the bad but for the most part, any time that you want to share something that is not part of the norm, there is going to be a level of struggle. But interestingly enough, I find that in America, if you have an idea that everyone is against, and then the right person does it, everyone loves it. When I use to wear my paint, everyone used to laugh at me, but then Beyoncé put it on and everyone loved it and it became amazing. Stuff like that.
Is there something about Congolese culture you wish Americans could adopt to make this environment a better place or to incite change?
Yeah, in Congo, we have a level of communal understanding. There's a peaceful nature when you go to Africa even though there's a lot of challenges. Challenges from war-driven conversations around raw materials but a lot of these come from the West to create power. I think in Africa, anywhere I go, I've found that it's very peaceful. It's a very peaceful type of people and I think there are communal strategies on how to get along and understand each other better. I think just understanding community better.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I'm coming up with a new album. Not sure of the name yet but and there is also a summer tour in Europe and Africa and definitely the States. I’m also dropping a lot of videos in the next couple of months. We kind of had a big fashion year last year so now we're focusing more on music this spring and summer.
Don’t miss Young Paris in “A Time Like This: Music for Change” at Carnegie Hall, among many other inspiring performers. For more information, click here.