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An exploration of love was also a journey of self-acceptance for Pierre Kwenders

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Pierre Kwenders is a Congolese Canadian singer, songwriter and DJ. His album, "Jose Louis And The Paradox Of Love," made a splash last year and won Canada's prestigious Polaris prize. Now he is out with a deluxe version with three new tracks. NPR's Kira Wakeam has more.

KIRA WAKEAM, BYLINE: Pierre Kwenders love for music was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he spent the first 12 years of his life surrounded by song and celebration.

PIERRE KWENDERS: There's always a guitar around, and there's always people singing and my mom and auntie dancing around. My moves are - all the dance that I like to do comes from my mom's side definitely.

WAKEAM: In 2001, Kwenders and his mom left Congo for Montreal, Quebec, where he would eventually join the Afrika Intshiyetu Choir, a local African church choir that connected him to the community he had left behind...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AFRIKA INTSHIYETU CHOIR: (Singing in non-English language).

WAKEAM: ...And where he would find his voice.

KWENDERS: That moment when I joined the choir, that was kind of the beginning of me realizing that that was the path for me, you know?

WAKEAM: Almost two decades later, that same choir helps Kwenders close out his intensely personal album, "Jose Louis And The Paradox Of Love," on a track titled "Church."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHURCH (LIKAMBO)")

PIERRE KWENDERS AND AFRIKA INTSHIYETU CHOIR: (Singing in non-English language).

WAKEAM: This is Kwender's fourth studio album. Last year, it earned him the Polaris Music Prize for best Canadian album. That's a title previously bestowed on artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Arcade Fire and Kaytranada. But who exactly is Jose Louis?

KWENDERS: Well, Jose Louis, it's me. It's actually my birth name. I was born Jose Louis Modabi Nogaya Cambila Lubango Lubango (ph), which is a very long name (laughter).

WAKEAM: Kwenders, whose stage name is an homage to his maternal grandfather, says this album is an exploration of love in all its forms - romantic, familial and platonic. But it's also a journey towards self-love and acceptance.

KWENDERS: The story that I'm telling here in this album is basically the story of that young kid who left Congo at a very young age. I was 15, 16 years old, and then I arrived here. I still have this idea of what life is supposed to be and everything else that everybody is telling me around me, and especially all that was connected with love, you know? That's why the album is called "Jose Louis And The Paradox Of Love" because you ask yourself so many questions about who you are, about who you love. And hopefully, people could find some answer. I believe I'm finding some answer after that and the therapy that I did with this album. But, you know, I'm getting there slowly.

WAKEAM: One of the things Kwenders has been able to find answers about - his own sexuality.

KWENDERS: I grew up a straight man. You know, I have to say, I've only came out to my mom. I think it was during the pandemic, and that was through the process of this album because I wanted to tell the story. And there is a song in this album called "Your Dream."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR DREAM")

KWENDERS: (Singing) This is your dream, your own dream. This is your dream, your own.

It's basically a letter to my mom reassuring her that everything will be OK but also thanking her because she made sure that everything is OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR DREAM")

KWENDERS: (Singing) She thinks I'm going crazy and said, how could you do this to me?

(Singing in non-English language).

(Singing) Finally found myself, yeah. Oh, yeah.

(Singing in non-English language).

(Singing) This is the way I am. Love is all we got. Love is all I got. I'm a Scorpio, perfecto.

(Singing in non-English language).

That's one of the confusions that I had because there was a side of me that was hidden, and I couldn't really talk about it. And I've talked about it a little bit in my previous projects but not really deeply like that. And I really wanted to go deep into my soul and share my deepest thoughts, my deepest fears and also my most beautiful joy.

WAKEAM: And he expresses those emotions in a mix of languages - French and English, Ciluba and Lingala.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIATA")

KWENDERS: (Singing in non-English language).

(Singing) You too close to me. You too close. You too close. You too close.

(Singing in non-English language).

(Singing) Don't get close. Don't get close. Don't get close.

WAKEAM: The seamless flow from one language to another and back again has become something of a musical signature for him.

KWENDERS: When I started singing, it just felt right for me to kind of move in between those languages. And it's also something very common in the Congolese choir because there are, like, over 250 tribes in Congo. So imagine how many language there is. So whenever you go to church, we could start the mass in French with one song in French, and then the second song could be Lingala. And then the other song could be in Ciluba, and then we go in Swahili or Kikongo and then the song that mix all of those.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIATA")

KWENDERS: (Singing in non-English language).

WAKEAM: Kwenders says he appreciates the way African music and African diasporic sound have been embraced in Canada and beyond. But for him, there's a lot more room for growth.

KWENDERS: I just went to the JUNO this year, and I saw for the first time an artist of Indian origin singing and performing for the first time at the JUNO. That's beautiful. I want more of that. I want also African diasporic kids also to be able to stand on that stage and sing, you know, and be like, we did this. You know, this is also part of Canadian history.

WAKEAM: Kira Wakeam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kira Wakeam

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