ACL Fest Nights
Charlotte Adigery & Bolis Pupul
with Jane Leo
ABOUT CHARLOTTE ADIGERY & BOLIS PUPUL
Cultural appropriation and racism. Social media vanity. Post-colonialism and political correctness. These are not talking points that you’d ordinarily hear on the dancefloor but Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul are ripping up the rulebook with their debut album Topical Dancer. The Ghent-based duo, who broke out with their 2019 Zandoli EP on Soulwax’s record label DEEWEE, are rare storytellers in electronic music: they take the temperature of the time and funnel them into their playful synth concoctions – never didactic and always with a knowing wink.
Their new studio record – which cements them as a duo under both their names for the first time and is co-written and co-produced by Soulwax – is both a triumph of kaleidoscopic electro-pop and “a snapshot of how we think about pop culture in the 2020s.” It captures Charlotte and Bolis’s essence as musical collaborators and the conversations they’ve had over the past two years on tour, as well as their perspectives as Belgians with an immigrant background, Charlotte with Guadeloupean and French-Martinique ancestry and Bolis being of Chinese descent.
Conceptually, the pair wanted to put these observations and ideas about culture today and the zeitgeist into a “time capsule shaped like an egg”, with the idea that you could “bury the album somewhere”, says Bolis, for future generations to find and figure out what the 2020s were all about through their eyes. The egg is “a visual shorthand,” they say, “for new life and unhatched potential.” Zandoli was partly an exploration of what it means to be a woman of Caribbean heritage growing up in Belgium – Pitchfork called it “striking, playful electro pop with a sly sense of humour”. Topical Dancer, however, expands their worldview outwards. Songs like “Hey” question the shallowness of ‘wokeness’ and searches for a utopia of “equality, harmony and integrity”, while ‘Reappropriate’ is a fluttery R&B-ish song about liberating oneself from sexual trauma. Charlotte sings across English, Dutch, Creole and French, her signature deadpan delivery at times recalling a vogue house vocalist or a Black Mirror-style virtual assistant, giving the album a hypnotic, fourth-world quality.
These are undoubtedly hard-hitting subjects, and yet mischief is a key aspect of Charlotte and Bolis’s musical alchemy, too. It takes a certain self-awareness to include a song about the French pronunciation of Will Smith on the tracklist (‘Huille Smisse’) on the tracklist. Or the moment you first felt sexually attractive: standout track ‘It Hit Me’ details Charlotte and Bolis’s teenage awakenings over a deliciously thwacking industrial techno beat.
In a way, Topical Dancer’s opening track ‘Esperanto’ lays down the gauntlet, setting up this tricky balance of irony and hard truths from the off. “Don’t say ‘But where are you really from?’ / Say ‘I don’t see colour… Don’t say ‘nice pair’ / Say ‘I love the symmetry of you’,” Charlotte jokily taunts over the song’s syrupy whirr. “Humour binds us,” she explains now – “it’s knowing how to have a laugh at yourself and with each other. It’s also a coping mechanism that helps us to not be bitter or stay angry.”
Let’s rewind for a minute. Charlotte and Bolis met during the recording of Belgica, Soulwax’s film soundtrack featuring 15 imaginary bands. Soulwax’s David and Stephen Dewaele suggested she team up with Bolis to make some music of their own and gave them the keys to their Ghent studio for a week to experiment with their vast synthesizer collection. Charlotte was initially inspired by the subversive freedom of punk bands like The Slits and similarly, she says, “our music comes from a playful, limitless place.”
Their music also comes from their everyday experiences, dating back to the first song they made together at Deewee. “Charlotte played me a recording she’d made of a guy in a parking lot in Brussels who was trying to seduce her and was asking her questions like, ‘Do you have a boyfriend? Is he black or white? Oh he’s white, so you like money then…?’,” remembers Bolis. “We plugged in a synth and that became our first tune, ‘Senegal Seduction’, where we worked those questions into the song.” This hyperspecificity is a cornerstone of their songwriting, such as on new track ‘Haha’, which is built around a sample of Charlotte making herself laugh. Fans, meanwhile, may find ‘Mantra’ familiar – it takes Charlotte’s voiceover from her Ying-Yang Self-Meditation tape in 2019 which lists her neuroses and turns it into a celebratory anthem about letting go.
Beyond their new album’s thematic heft, though, Topical Dancer cements Charlotte and Bolis’s idiosyncratic sound: it’s thoughtful but it bangs. Their take on familiar genres is always off-kilter; songs sound undone or a little wonky; but these are nocturnal heaters to make the club throb. “We like to fuck things up a bit,” laughs Bolis. “We cringe when we feel like we’re making something that already exists, so we’re always looking for things to combine to make it sound not like a pop song, not like an R&B song, not a techno song. We’re always putting different worlds together. Charlotte and I get bored when things get too predictable.” The album has a song that directly addresses this urge, ‘Ceci N’est Pas Un Cliché’, in which Charlotte’s lyrics roll off tired pop music lines like “I throw my hands up in the air” and “I’m down on my knees begging you please”.
Their creative process is filled with clever concepts for tracks that only they could think of. First single, ‘Thank You’ –a tantric acid-electro stomper that is “a cheeky and cynical revenge for all the unwanted, unsolicited opinions some people generously offer us,” writes Charlotte in their track-by-track guide – came about because they “wanted a last song for the live set where we build and build and don’t deliver a climax; it builds and then it ends,” says Bolis. ‘Hey’ is their take on the 80s Caribbean genre zouk. On ‘It Hit Me’, both Charlotte and Bolis speak in pitched-up digital voices until their voices drop when they “enter adulthood.”
Topical Dancer is fizzing with ideas – there’s certainly no filler among its 13 tracks. But above all, perhaps, it has a restlessness, a desire not to be boxed in and to escape others’ narrow perceptions of who they are. It’s summarised by the refrain of their second single, ‘Blenda’: “Don’t sound like what I look like / Don’t look like what I sound like.” “One thing that always comes up,” says Bolis, “is that people perceive me as the producer, and Charlotte as just a singer. Or that being a Black artist means you should be making ‘urban’ music. Those kinds of boxes don’t feel good to us.”
‘Blenda’ in particular references how “I am a product of colonialism,” says Charlotte, “and I feel guilty for taking up space in a white country.” The song was inspired in part by Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m Not Longer Talking To White People About Race. “It talks about the colonial past and post-colonial present in the UK,” Charlotte continues, “but that isn’t merely a British or American problem, Belgium is part of that as well.” She says that her home country is likewise “oblivious to a big part of its history” which “results in general ignorance and a lack of understanding and empathy towards Belgian inhabitants of immigrant descent.”
It’s one reason why Charlotte enlisted her mother Christiane, with whom she started singing as a child and who taught her about rhythm’s relationship to musicality, to join her on the track ‘Ich Mwen’ (‘My Child’). They sing in French and Creole about unconditional love, the spirit of sacrifice and putting yourself in your parent’s shoes. It’s become even more poignant as Charlotte recently became a mother herself.
She says that casual racism at home is still a regular occurrence at home, from people assuming she doesn’t speak Dutch (the language most commonly spoken by Flemish people) to – as the lyrics from ‘Blenda’ reference – shouts of “Go back to your country where you belong”. “When you experience stuff like that your whole life, you have to define yourself more actively, to claim a place in the world,” says Charlotte. “Asian people too are so underrepresented in Belgium in culture and the media. So our music is our safe space to define who we are.”
On Topical Dancer, it’s less about finger pointing or being dogmatic about all the things they speak about. It’s about emancipation through humour. “I don’t want to feel this heaviness on me,” says Charlotte. “These aren’t my crosses to bear. Topical Dancer is my way of freeing myself of these issues. And of having fun.”