LONDON — When she was young, Marie-Pierra Kakoma’s mother gave her an equation for success: When you’re Black, you have to work twice as hard. When you’re young, Black and female, make that 10 times as hard.
Making music as Lous and the Yakuza, Kakoma has embraced this message, and the journey to releasing Lous’s debut album, “Gore,” last month has taken more sacrifices than even her mother would have liked. In the last several years, the 24-year-old Kakoma has moved countries, dropped out of college and endured months of homelessness.
For Kakoma, whose life has long been marked with periods of turbulence, there’s no question that it was all worth it. “Music is an outlet, it’s where we leave our reality,” Kakoma said in a video interview from Paris. “We put our reality on paper and then it’s there, it exists. For me it explains to me what’s going on in my own life.”
The genre-fluid artist blends sultry hip-hop with harsh trap beats to create tracks that are both a declaration of her resilience and an exploration of Generation Z concerns, including race, loneliness and despair.
With words sung and rapped in French, Lous and the Yakuza feels like a distinctly globalized project, interweaving Kakoma’s Belgian-Congolese-Rwandan background with eclectic influences including politics past and present, manga comics, Mozart and Whitney Houston.
The bulk of her fans hail from France and Belgium, but she also has followings in South Africa and Germany, and huge popularity in countries like Italy, where a remix of her soul-flecked track “Dilemme” (“Dilemma”) rose through Spotify’s Top 200 chart to its Top 20 in April.
“I like to describe my music as a constant search for truth,” Kakoma said, occasionally flashing her distinctive collection of rings. “It brings confusion and that’s what artists should do, we’re here to disturb.”
Lous and the Yakuza seeks to disturb and provoke in myriad directions. In “Solo” she asks whether she needs to cry to be heard, mentioning Congo’s independence in 1960 and questions “why isn’t Black a color of the rainbow?” Over the bouncing trap beat of “Messes Basses” she sings “yo, yo, yo,” a refrain used in Rwanda when someone is suffering. And for the video for “Tout est gore” (“All Is Gore,”) she sits on steps with rivers of red dripping around her.
The album’s themes of violence and gore reflect experiences from Kakoma’s own life.
Kakoma was born in 1996 in Lubumbashi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two years later, her mother was imprisoned for being Rwandan as part of Congo’s period of drawn out-civil violence, which is often referred to as one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II. After spending months in prison, Kakoma’s mother was released and instructed to leave the country immediately. She fled to Belgium, taking her youngest child, but was forced to leave her other three children, including Kakoma, in Congo.
“I think that’s something that shaped me so much,” said Kakoma, who joined her mother in Belgium two years later. By age 7, Kakoma had developed an artistic flair, but the poems, books and songs she made were riddled with grief, death and tragedy. The cause, she said, was feelings of abandonment rooted in the two years of separation from her mother.
As a child, her father — an activist and prominent doctor in Congo — was shuttling back and forth to Belgium. In 2005, Kakoma and her younger sister were sent to live in post-genocide Rwanda with their grandmother.
“For me, we were living in a ghetto in Belgium,” Kakoma said, “but the ghetto was actually so privileged compared to the basic life in Africa at that time.” When she was 9, she learned of the genocide her grandmother and cousins endured.
“It was very explicit and that traumatized me,” she said. “All that shaped me into a person who believes very strangely in hope. I have a lot of hope in the future because I overcame so many things.”
Kakoma returned to Belgium at 15 and attended first an all-girls boarding school and then the University of Namur, where she began studying philosophy. She quit after four months, to her parents’ alarm, to focus on singing.
At age 18, a succession of wrong decisions and encounters — getting fired from several jobs, hanging out with the wrong crowd and a falling-out with her roommate’s mother — left her homeless in Brussels for six months, Kakoma said.
“That’s when I learned everything that I know today,” she said. “At that point it was either crying, getting suicidal or start laughing and find a way out.”
Kakoma got back on her feet with the support of friends and released her first song “Full of You” in English in 2015. For the next few years she uploaded music to SoundCloud and took gigs across Brussels until she signed with Columbia Records in 2018.
Now, Kakoma channels pain into her music: “I let joy be the only thing I enjoy on the daily,” she said, smiling.
Lous is an anagram of “soul,” and Yakuza means loser or a person outside of the norm (it’s also the name of Japan’s infamous crime organization). “I think it’s a testimony to my resilience,” she said of the moniker.
The album’s title, “Gore,” is a metaphor for Kakoma’s life, she said, and the darkness she’s faced. To make this autobiographical work, Kakoma enlisted the Spanish producer El Guincho, known for producing Rosalia’s album “El Mal Querer” in 2018. When El Guincho received a folder of songs from his management, he had never heard of Lous and the Yakuza, but was instantly drawn to her songwriting skills and voice.
“She is different in a way that she really is a natural, she has an incredible set of skills for making music,” El Guincho said in an email. “While that is a very good thing, sometimes it is harder to push an artist so effortlessly talented to go further.”
“I think by the end of the process of making the album she really understood that, so now the sky’s the limit for her,” he added.
Recently, Kakoma’s distinctive style — reflected in the symbols she draws on her face, her boyish swagger and striking elegance — saw her starring in fashion campaigns for Louis Vuitton and Chloe and striding down the catwalk for Paris fashion week.
“There is so much inspiration behind her, I even learn so many things from different cultures that I didn’t really know,” said the stylist Elena Mottola, who has worked with Kakoma for a year. “I think the fashion industry needs people like Lous.”
Kakoma is an avid student of the world who recognizes the significance of being one of only a few artists who is Black, European and female on a major labels, and the responsibility that comes with it.
“The problem is that I am in an industry that thinks about my vagina and my skin color all the time,” Kakoma said. “If I don’t speak up about it, how would young women feel?”