A singing demon & futuristic narratives: An interview with Nygel Panasco
Pictures by Claire Dumont @ the Fête du Slip. Illustrations provided by the artist.
BØWIE was at the 2022 edition and 10th anniversary of the Fête du Slip, a Lausanne-based festival celebrating sexualities and genders over an exquisite program of performances, screenings, concerts, exhibits, talks, and workshops. There, we had the chance to sit with Nygel Panasco, a Strasbourg-based Cameroonian artist. She opened the festival the day before with her captivating voice and red horns, performing songs from her last EP, “Économie D'énergie”. Singer, songwriter, and illustrator, Nygel opened up about her universe, discussing her creative process and upcoming projects.
- How would you describe yourself? How would you describe Nygel, your persona?
I don't know if you want me to describe Nygel or Mireille. But Nygel is Mireille's tool. They are a character who came into my life a few years ago. I was studying art, first in Paris at Estienne and then in Strasbourg at the Haute École des Arts du Rhin (HEAR). During this period, I had various projects going on, and Nygel imposed themselves as a project. In the beginning, I was doing performances in the public space. I had a whole protocol, with face paint and special clothes. I would go out into the street and sing songs by other artists. The story was that Nygel came from the future to prompt an awakening. It was a bit naive I think, but with a core that I still have. I think we all need to be more aware and conscious of things. I was singing songs that had a political message, messages that I felt were strong. Time passed and the project gradually changed. There was a lot of activity between 2015 and 2016, then fewer happenings and performances. Later in 2018, Nygel came back as a stage persona, performing at concerts. I started performing at my school, where I did my first gig. Then I got invitations to different queer events in Strasbourg. I started performing on those stages, and since last year it started to expand. I did a concert in Germany, in Lausanne, in Douala, Cameroon, and this year I was invited to several cities in Europe. Nygel has evolved too, as he’s now a demon figure.
- You said you started with other artists' songs, what made you want to create your own?
I always wanted to do that. I started by performing other artists' songs because I didn't study music, so I didn't have the tools to create my own. It seemed easier to reach people by singing songs they already knew. I would choose iconic French artists like Georges Brassens or Jacques Brel. When thinking of these names, you wouldn’t say that their songs carry revolutionary messages, but some can be interesting. When I started to equip myself materially, when I had the means to compose my own music, I started to make my own songs. I was already writing songs but I wasn't singing them in public.
- So you are completely self-taught in music? Your art school training was not oriented on that?
No, it was on fine arts. I studied other things before I specialized in illustration. But I always wanted to create music. At first, some friends would create the instrumentals and I sang on them. Then I wanted to find my own style, to see what fit best with what I wanted to do with my music. So I bought what I needed and went for it.
- You're an illustrator and you have already published two books…
It depends on how you count. It can be more than two books because I self-published several, but there are two that I have released that belong to the same universe. I’m in a dynamic of expanding that universe, and there is more to come.
- “L’an 2021” (The Year 2021) and “Froid Comme La Pierre” (Stone Cold) are from the same universe?
Yes. In this universe, there is a collection of cards that I had released before, called “Les bonnes amies de Ridam” (Ridam's good friends), set much further in the future. There is a comic book project I am working on that will not be released immediately, with a character that will come back several times.
- Since it takes place in the future, is it related to Nygel's character? Is it in the same spirit of raising awareness?
No, not exactly. Well, it is, but it's in the background. It's not the main purpose. When I started doing performances, it was "Nygel wants to raise awareness" and to say it like that, that's what made it naive. It's not a value judgment, I was just younger and that's normal. Today, I still want to do that but I'm not going to say it as a soundbite. It's not so shocking actually, it's part of the project. It's like, I don't want to say "I'm a feminist". To me, it seems obvious. Maybe when I was 18 it seemed like a crazy thing to say, but now it's natural. It's just part of things, like breathing.
- So what messages can be found in “L’an 2021” and “Froid Comme La Pierre”?
In these two books, there is a lot of violence. While I was making “L’an 2021”, I wasn’t aware of it. Recently I reread it and realized its violence and was quite shocked, even by the images. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
In “Froid Comme La Pierre”, the violence is hidden, still present but brought on a different perspective. You have to look at the images several times to see it.
I don't know if this is the message I want to convey, but one thing I believe is that depending on what you do with violence, it can be positive. It can be good to reappropriate violence to do something productive that can benefit us.
- Your first album came out last year. If you could tell us a little bit about it, about the difficulties you had to face making this album, about the songs that are in it...
There are seven tracks so I guess I consider it more like an EP. It was released on December 30th, 2021. The idea to see “Économie D'énergie” (Energy saving) as an album came in the last months of 2021. It's made up of new songs and some that had already been around for two or three years. Some of them were not recorded yet. At the end of the year, I went to Cameroon for two months at my parents' place. I took advantage of this time to recharge, and as I had all the time I wanted, I improvised a studio at home and I recorded all the songs that were not yet recorded.
Working alone is a challenge because I'm on all fronts. I compose the music, I take care of the production, I write, I record, I sing, I design the album, I release it... In the future, I want to work with other people to be able to delegate some things and concentrate on others. Also to be rich in different points of view and different perspectives, and to share mine. The fact that I work alone is both a starting point and a rewarding feeling, to think that I have managed to do this by myself. Even if I still have a lot to learn, I am already learning. Working alone is a challenge, but I'm used to that with illustration. Even if it's different, because in illustration people often work alone, even if there are collectives. In illustration, you write your book and then delegate the printing and distribution to the publishers. In music, it often works in teams, and that's what I miss. A team to get feedback, to progress faster.
- In the album, there are songs in both French and English. What is the difference for you between the two languages as a medium of creation? How do you choose the language, does it come naturally or with a particular purpose?
It comes quite naturally. Usually, I don't decide, it just comes. But last time, I started working on a new project, and there's a song that I started in English before realizing it wouldn't work. So I went back to writing it in French. I also like, on songs sung mostly in French, to have passages in English or vice versa. I feel that French corresponds to something more deeply rooted.
I grew up with American culture, which was very important on TV, with music videos, etc. So singing in English, there's this kind of reminder of the soft power of the United States. I also grew up with the idea that French is weird and doesn’t sound very good in music. However, in the current French music scene and even at the time in the 00s, you had so many beautiful things being made, with lots of ways to approach the language.
I have a literary background, with a literature baccalauréat (French high school diploma), so the French language is a language that I love to work with. I realize that my writing is also singular because of my background and my references, so I think it's good to exploit this singularity which is more marked in French than in English. In English, I think I keep this singularity but I tend to take things from other artists more.
- Where do you get your inspiration for your writing process? Do you have different inspirations for illustration and music?
When I listen to certain things, I have images that come up, and those are images that can inspire me in illustration. For illustration, making images can come from the street, from everywhere. Currently, I realize that my music and illustration projects are mutually nourishing, even more than before. It used to be my goal and now it's becoming true. Names-wise, in music, the person who undoubtedly inspires me a lot is Aaliyah, an American singer.
- You started on the queer scene in Strasbourg, how would you describe these spaces in terms of reception, of support, would you have anything to say to improve them?
I would like to thank them first because I am grateful that I was seen, that they wanted to book me. I don't think I have too much to complain about the queer scene. It's not a criticism but currently, in Strasbourg, there are no festivals as big as the Fête Du Slip. All the festivals I was invited to were smaller. The last time I did a queer feminist festival was in October 2021. There was also Le Lou, who is also there. It was the Femfest, and there were several big names on the lineup. There were lots of people, but it was only for one night. I thought it would have been nice if it had been over several days like that. It needs to expand!
- How was the Fête du Slip?
I think the public was very receptive. During my performance, I wanted to make the public interact, to sing with me, and they were there. I could hear people singing and I felt happy and grateful. It's not easy to open a festival, but I'm happy.
- Do you have any new projects coming, or things you would like to develop in the future?
Music-wise, I have started to work on a new project. It's still very early on, so I don't know what it will be yet. Illustration-wise, I have a book coming out in October this year at Colorama Risoprint, a Berlin-based publishing house. Otherwise, I have self-publishing projects in mind. I have a work on family that I've started to do, I've released a book on it and I'd like to continue on that, or a book in the universe of “L’an 2021”.