‘Everything I do has a socially conscious perspective’, says rapper Young Paris
It must be tempting to dream of big dollar signs when you sign with Jay Z’s management company. Instead, Young Paris sees big concepts.
“Everything I do has a socially conscious perspective,” says the passionate rapper/producer, whose real name is Milandou Badila. “There’s this free-form, colourful element to it, but also an underlying message. All of my projects have this grandiose reasoning behind them.”
Now based in New York, Young Paris was born in Paris and has Congolese roots. His background heavily inspires his music, along with fashion, branding and activism.
With this in mind, there is little doubt why he was booked to perform at the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit 2017 – which is taking place on Saadiyat Island until Thursday. Not that he is only there for the entertainment.
“I’m talking on a panel, too,” he says. Young Paris certainly adds a fresh voice – and look – to the modern rap/pop scene. His latest EP, Afrobeats, is an achingly cool but accessible mix of edgy electronica and more traditional African rhythms, while his shows and videos exhibit a flair for dance and visuals.
You can trace much of it back to his talented parents: his father founded Congo’s National Ballet, and his mother was a dancer and playwright.
“In a lot of West African culture – Ghana and Nigeria – parents are heavy on raising their kids as doctors and lawyers and having sophisticated jobs,” says Young Paris. “But in Congo specifically, it is a lot more of a free-form liberal, artistic and musical culture. We prioritise arts before politics.
“So my parents raised us with this artistic dynamic. At 3 or 4 years old, I was growing up in dance studios; by 7, I was already performing on stage.”
The family had moved to New York by then, and Young Paris’s initial career path was modelling – a desire that also “stems from our culture”, he says.
“The Congolese man is known for how he dresses and how he treats his woman – so we’re romantics and we dress really good,” he adds.
He certainly does dress well, although working in fashion full-time was not his calling. Interestingly, it was only after his father passed away that he found the creative spark that forged his path to a singing career.
Having initially been inspired by American and European dance culture, he felt compelled to build sonic bridges with his home continent. “It was definitely a turning point,” he says. “Different ways I would look at the world, how I could contribute. I needed to create art, and use the dynamics he taught me.”
That loss led to a surprisingly fertile streak, as his sound took shape. “I started going crazy,” he says. “I’d be shooting a music video every week, making myself extremely busy to numb the pain.
“Then one of my brothers told me: ‘People want to dance in our culture’. So I started adding more dance elements, and the subjects I started tackling were subjects he would talk about. It just became this whirlwind about how I wanted to project myself in the world.”
The most distinctive element of Paris’s visual identity also emerged at this point – the striking face paint.
In fact, the whole family continue to observe this Congolese tradition “whenever we play music together”, he explains.
“There are different colours for different meanings,” he says. “The white they wore for the spirits, for those that they’ve lost; so in honour of my father, I continued wearing the white. It stems from paying homage to our traditions and staying true to our culture, keeping my mindset in the direction I’m going.”
The 28-year-old’s career is definitely going skywards, but his overriding mission is to bring people together, and encourage diversity. A few years ago he began the social-media brand Melanin, which celebrates people of colour and has raised the profiles of numerous black fashion models.
Meanwhile, his next album should be like a series of cultural summits, as he brings numerous African musicians together on each track.
“It is not like a ‘world’ album,” he says. “It is a project where really tasteful artists do really amazing projects, where we can connect with each other.”
While the rapper is keen to highlight others, he, too, has attracted high-profile attention. The gifted performer is now signed to the management arm of Jay Z’s Roc Nation label, and is branching out far beyond his musical comfort zone. “I just did a few records with Win Butler from Arcade Fire,” he says, “which are in a whole other world”.
He is fully prepared for Abu Dhabi to be another world, too, and hopes to hang with some associates during this first proper visit.
“You know the actor Tyrese? They say I look like him, and he’s apparently going to be in Dubai that week. So I’ll try to extend my invitation to go meet him.”
• The Culture Summit runs until Thursday at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Young Paris is performing on Tuesday (April 11) night. For details, visit ww.culturesummitabudhabi.com