“Challenge me, baby, challenge me,” says Bonaventure (aka Soraya Lutangu) when we first meet in a Berlin coffee shop to talk about her music. No stranger to provocation and defiant in her attitude, the graphic designer-come-producer’s friendly and warm attitude, conceals a certain strength and intensity that’s unmistakable. If you’ve listened to her music or seen Bonaventure perform live you’ll get the point. It’s heavy, noisy, club music that’s visually constructed from collections of samples taken from hours, days, weeks of online research, emerging in samples of war chants, heavy beats and sound bytes of speeches by Sister Souljah.
One track ‘Supremacy’ features the provocative call-to-arms of the aforementioned 90s ‘raptivist’ on Bill Moyer’s PBS series Listening to America in 1992: “black people having to put pressure on the system, continued and consistent pressure.” ‘Complexion,’ released via NON Worldwide in October 2016 and later remixed by Chino Amobi, breaks from its opening post-industrial haze into a heaving, gaseous groove that’s littered with conflicting samples, including the occasional intrusion of a gunshot sample.
Violence underscores all of Bonaventure’s work, inspired by the tragic loss of Lutangu’s nephew, after which this project is named, and instigated by an awareness of a very real racial prejudice in her hometown of Laussane in Switzerland – as well as the rest of the western world – with painfully real consequences. There are other songs that point to Lutangu’s African and European heritage and how it affects her, including ‘Diaspora,’ ‘Mulatre’ and ‘Overcome,’ all songs to be released as her debut EP, FREE LUTANGU, with a date to be confirmed by PTP Recordings very soon.
These are some of the reasons I get nervous when asking potentially confronting questions in our first conversation, one that immediately goes deep and doesn’t let up for over an hour. The following is the result of this chat, too raw for real-time, it’s one that’s continued well beyond that first meeting into email and Google Docs, where Lutangu talks her ambivalent relationship to graphic design, the reason she’s moved into music and what it means to be an ally.
** I’ve been thinking about historical representations empire and oppression as propaganda – I don’t know whether I should ask you this – but do you believe in violent revolution?
Soraya Lutangu: No, no, no, you should definitely ask that. I believe in violence, since I don’t think that there is any other language that could work to fight white supremacy. It all started with so much violence from the moment that white men decided to take African people to enslave them. This was an organised act of war. Today, the trauma is still here and how weird is it to expect survivors to be non-violent?
I wanted to capture one of the aspect of this violence by sampling Sister Souljah on my track ‘Supremacy.’ The horns and the crescendo elements represent a call to war and her words are so strong. It is probably the fittest track I did so far, because it is so straight to the point and to me, so honest.
Even though the interview I have sampled is from the 90s, it is still happening today. Pretty much everywhere on the planet, white children are still raised to be supremacists and are integrated into a system of power that protects, nourishes and sponsors their alleged superiority.
** I’ve been thinking a lot about inherited trauma, growing up with a familial, even historical legacy of violence, it’s not something that just disappears.
SL: I think trauma never really disappears but its energy is powerful. We can definitively recycle this into something positive or political. I believe in white people redistributing power and cultivating awareness. Either you’re an ally or you’re a Nazi — I heard it is the N* word for white people.
** How do you identify with your heritage?
SL: Well, it was complicated growing up. Fifty per cent of my family is white, the other 50 per cent is black, with different religions crossing and clashing. You know, when I was young, kids around and cousins were asking me, ‘okay, do you feel more black or more white?’ This question was for me a vicious and violent signal announcing that I was part of war; that I had to pick a side.
So, what I did at that time was basically to ignore everything that was about my identity as a brown person. I focused on other aspects of my development, taking care of leaving that aside, until recently. But, retrospectively, I can say now that it made the identification with my heritage complex, until the death of my nephew Bonaventure.
** How did your experience with him change your outlook?
SL: It sounds so stupid now, but before that I was fully focused on graphic and book design and I was obsessed with my career. Each time I would have those racist micro-aggressions (that are really common where I grew up) I would laugh about it. It was a way to protect myself, but today I’m not the same person at all. I am convinced that my nephew died also because of the colour of his skin, and this really shocked me, changed me.
** Falling into these margins of identity can offer their own difficulties, as well as privileges, particularly in terms of access.
SL: I believe in mixing, for elements that are superficial as much as for elements that are really deep. Everybody is fluid on the inside.
** That can also apply to binary views of gender or sexuality.
SL: That’s why I like the word ‘queer’ because I have this feeling of just being a mixed kid in any field, including sexuality.
** I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the geopolitical histories of a number of regions around the world, and they’re so complex and dynamic. It’s strange to me that people reduce something like a sense of identity to such limited categories, like borders, for example.
SL: Yeah, if you can’t deal with something that is mixed, or multiple, your life is going to be so fucking hard. Nowadays, it’s really challenging to find stuff that is just ‘pure,’ and I’m not sure purity is as relevant as before. I think now it might be more about what is hybrid. Globally, our generation is crossing borders (of all kinds) more than the previous generation and I am hopeful about the next one.
**Can we talk about your move away from graphic design?
SL: That’s really a topic I don’t know what to say about.
**You don’t want to talk about it?
I am not sure it is so important. Or, perhaps, what might be relevant about me being primarily a graphic designer is that I have a real love and a instinct for grids, and making music is something for me that is also visual. I organise my Ableton projects in a very anal way, shout out to Jamie [Whipple, M.E.S.H.].
You know, graphic design is my first love, it’s not like it’s over, it’s just like… okay, this part is important [laughs]. The problem with graphic design is that 99 per cent of the people that consume it, and 99 per cent of the people that I studied with, are white. When at the opposite end, music is more of a global weapon. It’s easier to touch people. I mean that when I go to exhibitions, when I go to bookstores, I am often the only non-white person. When I go into a club, it’s not like that. So why would I continue to do graphic design, if the field belongs to white people? I think I will never stop design completely, I am just becoming really picky about projects I am getting involved in. Right now, I am finishing the design of a book written by Hannah Black and Juliana Huxtable, published by the MUMOK museum.
** Maybe there is something in music that subverts the restrictions and tropes that graphic design might not.
The thing is, I grew up with both graphic design and rap, equally. The big names of graphic design are mostly straight white men and the big names of rap, are straight, okay, but at least they’re black [laughs]. So for me it’s liberating, music is an unsafe space where I don’t need to justify my skin colour.**