By Haytham Benbrahim
There is something inherently political about revealing your true self to a world deeply ravaged by apathetic journalists and netizens. The winner of “best newcomer” at the 36th Victoires de la Musique, Yseult, knows this all too well.
Yseult Onguenet, whose name can fittingly both mean “she who is gazed upon” and “icy battle”, has been met with vitriol, right-wing zealotism and – perhaps most importantly – criticism veiled in deeply rooted sexism and racism. And still, Yseult rises. Through her stage presence and crystal-clear vocals, she asks daringly: what is it about bold, self-assured, multidimensional, and talented women that scare people so much?
It is in that same multidimensionality where we can witness Yseult’s deepest strengths: her voice is both sensually suave and surprisingly powerful, her lyrics oppose years of self-harm and hate to a newly proclaimed love of the self. All of this is highlighted by thoughtful creative direction. At 26, Yseult stands as one of the strongest and most promising French talents with only one album (YSEULT) released in 2015 and three powerful EPs (Rouge, Noir and Brut).
But she’s left her home, France, to find a safer space in Belgium, as she expresses in an interview with The Guardian. Yseult felt that in Belgium “people welcome diversity” and “[Belgians] are coming to terms with their colonial past”. There is no doubt that the French music industry has an aversion to people who dare to be different, spanning the LGBTQ+ community, women who stray away from society’s beauty ideals (one could mention the abhorrent attacks on singer-songwriter Hoshi’s looks), and specifically black and Arab women, such as Aya Nakamura who faces similar treatments as Yseult. There is one common denominator in the way France treats its artists born from immigration: with the same quickness to propel them when they thrive and to abuse and reject them when they break out of the mould.
Despite France’s rejection of Yseult, her artistry has something of the classical francophone artists. It is essentially raw, as she often sings with a single piano track, revealing her voice and lyrics to the world without distractions. ‘BAD BOY’ is perhaps one of her most poignant songs, with hints of a newly reborn Aznavour, depicting the fresh sprout of love (“someone is knocking on my door / I feel my pulse accelerating / time has stopped / I open the door, it’s love”) slowly hinting to domestic violence in the second verse (“It’s time for the sun to return to its nest / the sky has changed its face / your hands are overtaken with anger / where is the man I was waiting for?”). Yseult and Aznavour do not only share lyrical and musical prowess, they are both children of immigrants. Yseult bears within her her Cameroonian roots, and she shows them proudly as heard in the Afropop and funk-infused ‘NUDES’. If you add this to her collaborations with French rappers (Jok’air, Ichon, …), Yseult proves she does not shy away from genre-bending. Going deeper into her songwriting abilities, Yseult holds themes related to rediscovering and loving the female body at heart. Although she does not qualify herself as a feminist (as stated in an interview for Terrafeminina TV), her words ring true in a society where women are constantly objectified. In ‘CORPS’ (BODY), she bravely exposes the violence she’s been subject to from the very first lines (“naked body on the ground / I’ve been hurting myself for years). The chorus then shifts to Yseult’s path to self-love and growth (“I’ve lost my mind / where is the path to my home / come what may / I’ll find the keys to reason”). By gracefully navigating through these themes, Yseult carries a strong message of hope.
Ironically, the French music industry has been suffering from a lack of classical talent, rejecting so-called “urban music” and diaspora-born music… which could also explain why Yseult longed for greener grass in Belgium. When French journalists fail to understand avant-gardism and remarkable (and unapologetic) talent, they cry out against “wokism” (a term tainted with condescension), victimization and progressivist marketing. France wasn’t (isn’t?) quite ready for Yseult, but perhaps the rest of Europe and the world are.
This article was published with the support of Liveurope.
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