Imperious and controlled, Marie-Pierra Kakoma – the Belgian artist who performs as Lous and the Yakuza – is singing about “la money” to a rapt crowd. From her latest album, last year’s Iota, the track reflects on what happens when “plus de money” sours a relationship. Although peppered with English, the lyrics to Kakoma’s banging R&B songs are mostly in French. Her meaning has no problem landing with this small but partisan London crowd. Its core message – more money, more problems – is driven home by Kakoma’s delivery and her emphatic live band.
Swagger and a certain cross-Channel sophistication are only part of her appeal, though. A great many artists are being forced to diversify their offering to make career ends meet. Kakoma is a something of an instinctive Renaissance woman, a 360-degree artist whose talent, savvy, cross-cultural breadth and sense of mischief call to mind artists such as Spain’s boundary-vaulting Rosalía – or a Belgian Beyoncé.
Kakoma’s last two albums were produced by El Guincho, the architect of Rosalía’s innovative flamenco R&B hybrid. That Beyoncé comparison, meanwhile, gained more weight last summer, when Lous and the Yakuza acquired new management: the powerful Roc Nation, founded by Beyoncé’s other half, Jay-Z, and a stable responsible for the career of Rihanna, among others.
Kakoma has a side-gig as a model, most notably for Louis Vuitton and Chloé. But musically, she is a thoroughly compelling artist, drawing on a wealth of inputs that resonate throughout work that dances across divides and plays with hybridity.
Take Kisé, the out-and-out banger from Iota about a passionate, but unwise, hook-up. Kakoma dovetails English with French as though there was no disconnect. “À deux dans le moshpit, aux pieds nos Yeezys,” goes the chorus (roughly: “together in the moshpit, Yeezys on our feet”, Yeezys being the Kanye West-designed trainer line from Adidas.) The title puns on the French “qui sait?” (who knows?) or “qui c’est” (who is it?). Thanks to the Yakuza’s drummer, the beat goes even harder than usual tonight.
If her elastic voice and terrific tunes were not enough, there’s one more way into her art. Kakoma is a manga geek. The artwork for Iota takes its cue from a pivotal scene in the Berserk animé. A recent performance video for La Money found her dressed in red leather biker gear in tribute to Akira.
Growing up bouncing around between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Belgium, her childhood was disrupted by war and enforced separation from her parents. Among her other interests, Kakoma became obsessed with the Japanese artform; she used to draw her own record sleeves. Her band name – the Yakuza – nods at the Japanese crime syndicate, but Kakoma also plays knowingly on its original meaning, “loser”. Much of her nuanced music comes from the perspective of an outsider. Her songs – such as Solo, from 2019’s Gore, or Dilemme, her best-known track – emphasise a need for autonomy, coupled with a deep well of loneliness. On top of a difficult childhood, Kakoma endured homelessness and other hardships when she announced to her family that she was quitting her philosophy degree to pursue music.
Why aren’t Lous and the Yakuza better known? Kakoma’s slinky trap-pop songs about trauma, resilience and hope deserve a wider audience. A simple answer might be the language barrier.
But non-anglophone music is booming. Six years on from the Justin Bieber remix of Despacito, Latin music briefly surpassed country and western to become the fourth most streamed genre in the US in May last year. Korean is now normalised for anglophone audiences. Måneskin, the Italian glam rock band, broke through with Zitti e Buoni, an all-Italian track.
A few of Kakoma’s tunes draw on Afrobeats, a defining international sound. The major Afrobeats artists tend to come from places such as Nigeria, however, rather than Africa’s francophone countries. For some reason, French struggles to get past the bouncers at the global polyglot pop party.
It might, however, just be a matter of time before that dial moves. Here’s a baby step: Drake rapped a line in Québécois French on his album of last year, Honestly, Nevermind. It may just take one compelling performer to capture the international imagination and Kakoma is a strong contender.
Tonight’s narrative emphasises Kakoma’s many strands, not least her charm. Chatting easily in English, she alludes to having had a problem with her legs that left them paralysed recently. As the set goes on, her dancing becomes increasingly more free as Kakoma flings off her high-heeled boots and replaces them with trainers, throwing her limbs around gawkily, but joyously. Then she loses the trainers too. She encourages the crowd to sing along. “Even those who don’t speak French,” she smiles, “even if it’s gibberish.”