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Princess Power 

Les Nubians: Black and white in color

Wednesday, May 19 1999
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Photo by Piotr Sikora, D.R.IT'S IN THE VOICES: THE PHRASING, INTONATION, blended tones. The fact that the songs are parlayed in French makes them exotic but not alien; it's merely the stretching of different skin over a familiar body. The conversations exist beyond the lyrics, and the chords struck are ones we already know: the grappling for self when the mirrors are cracked and distorted, a funhouse minus the fun; the clawing beasts of poverty, racism and invisibility; words of wisdom and inspiration from heroes who fought the good fight, and lost so much that even their victories sometimes seem hollow; trying to figure out who you'll suckle tonight, your lover or your muse.

Les Nubians, sisters Hèléne and Célia Faussart (24 and 20, respectively), make music whose sounds and influences purposefully span the African diaspora, drawing from sources like Miriam Makeba, Soul II Soul, Fela Kuti, Sade, Public Enemy, Ella Fitzgerald, Youssou N'Dour and Abbey Lincoln. It's an impressive list, filled with the same names dropped by a lot of self-consciously conscious young black artists. The difference is, the duo's debut album, Princesses Nubiennes, doesn't reek of calculation so much as it vibrates finely honed artistic and political focus. This is music that, when it's coming out of your speakers, seems to be pouring out of you. The grooves are seductive, often lilting -- jazzy, soulful, full of bass and beats. (You can definitely fuck to it.) What the sisters have lifted from their idols, though, has less to do with styles of singing, production or musicianship than with spirit.

Sitting poolside at the Mondrian, nibbling on slices of fruit-topped chocolate cake, singing along with the African pop music that another guest is coincidentally blasting from his box, the sisters Faussart are gorgeous and funny, smart and unaffected. Hèléne's short twists sprout all over her head; Célia's long braids are elegantly swept up into a bun. Speaking in coolly accented English, they complement one another easily.

"I am the Earth and Célia is the sky," says Hèléne.

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"She's the bone and I'm flesh," adds a visibly pregnant Célia. "Or something like that. She likes doing things. Sometimes I have ideas, but I will hang back, and she will say, 'Let's do it.' I tend to stay behind a little. I watch her back."

"Oh, and I don't watch your back?" asks Hèléne, playfully arching a brow.

"No, no, of course you do," smiles Célia. "But sometimes while you are charging ahead, I will be walking behind, and I can pull you back to show you something you may have missed."

Where both sisters fearlessly charge ahead is in discussing the media controversy that surrounded Princesses Nubiennes while they were promoting it in France. Americans who don't speak French won't know that they're grooving to songs about abortion, political fascists and racism, as well as politically charged love lyrics. (They write their own words and music.) The album's themes, coupled with its sample-free, mainly live-instrumentation gumbo of musical styles, led the French media to press the pair for a sound-bite description of their music.

"They asked us what kind of music we are doing, and we answered, 'We are doing black music,'" says a still-agitated Hèléne, "and they were like, 'Why do you say that? You are racists! How can you say that?'"

"No, we are not racists," interjects Célia.

"Doesn't black music exist anymore?" asks Hèléne. "Can we talk about it without all this stuff about 'universal music'?"

"Please!" says Célia.

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's," continues Hèléne firmly. "Black music is black music. It comes with its history and identity. You can't say anything against that."

"And Asian music is Asian music," chips in Célia. "It has different tones, a different scale, and that affects the way you hear it. We love bass and we love rhythm. But when we talk about this stuff as Afropeans -- which is a new group, a new identity -- they feel like we're trying to attack them."

"We're called black extremists," says Hèléne. "I think that if they act like that, it's because somewhere they feel guilty, you know? They become, like, paranoid. They think we are rebelling . . . "

"We are rebelling," says Célia. "We are rebelling against system, against . . . "

"Well, yes," agrees Hèléne, "of course, we are rebelling against the system, but . . . "

"No," says Célia, shaking her head, "I didn't say 'the' system. Against system. Against a mindset. For example, on 'Désolée,' the last song on the album, we are talking about African presidents, and we are saying, 'Stop your oppression.' We are not only talking about whites, saying, 'You are bad, and you did this and you did that.' No. But the media didn't seem to notice that."

The response Les Nubians received in France is not surprising; indeed, the French media's insistence on speaking in terms of 'universal music' instead of black music has its stateside counterpart. Celebrations of universal music and art are just another way to consume the energy and ideas of subcultures without acknowledging -- in fact, while downplaying -- their issues or struggles, or how art springs directly from those struggles. The critics who interpret high culture rail against "identity politics"; those policing pop-culture work more insidiously, as when they elevate form over content, e.g., the rock critic who recently wrote in the Village Voice that he had seen through the b-boy posturing and exaggerated bravado of gangsta rap but found real pathos within the nihilism of Emanem's rhymes.

"Of course that is true," nods Hèléne. "European people and white people -- they have to know they are losing their culture of dominance."

"Yes, that is why there is so much madness in the world right now," says Célia, "why fascism and racism are rising everywhere, why there is so much bloodshed. France, Europe . . . it is crazy now."

"See," continues Hèléne, "they think they know their history, but they don't. We know them more than they know us. We know the fullness of their history. Asian people know more about white people than white people know about Asia. Latino people know more about white people. White people, they know about who? We are starting to see some young white people who have figured this out. They know what's going on. The next millennium will be the millennium of the Third World. For sure."

BEING OF MIXED-RACE HERITAGE (FRENCH FATHER, Cameroonian mother), Les Nubians identify as black women; they're artists and activists around the issues that surround their racial and gender markers. I ask the two, who were raised in both Africa and France and now reside in Bordeaux, France, what it was in the way their parents raised them that imbued them with their strength.

"I think," says Célia, "it's because our parents raised us knowing each culture very well. I think our album is representative of that, of our experiences as Afropean people. We have a real African consciousness. That means that we grew up with African influences -- and that means the diaspora, not only Africa the continent. We listened to Afro-American music, Afro-Cuban, raggamuffin, salsa, reggae, South American music. All of it. And our father, who is French Caucasian, used to say, 'Don't forget you are black. Every time you forget . . . '"

"The world will remind you," says Hèléne.

"Yes, they will remind you," nods Célia. "He knew that to be true, even though his blood was flowing in us. I believe our parents were very clever to do that. Because we don't feel lost.

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