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Yamê takes the world by storm

PAM spoke with Yamê about the rapper-singer-melodist’s meteoric rise and his knack for lofty melodies and heartfelt punchlines.

Franco-Cameroonian musician and singer Yamê is making waves. The hybrid style of the artist’s 2nd project, ELOWI, a mix of melodic rap and high-pitched vocals, has been validated on both sides of the Atlantic by Stromae, Damso, Booba and Timbaland. By organically revisiting the codes of trap and drill, this video game and big bike enthusiast, who brilliantly slaloms between genres and references, has accumulated 900,000 followers on TikTok to date (as well as on Instagram), and his Colors session, posted in June 2023, has been viewed over 35 million times!

To recount the meteoric rise of this 30-year-old self-taught artist, who in the space of a few months went from near-unknown to unclassifiable revelation of the year, PAM has chosen to take a look back at four of his punchlines. Firstly, because Emmanuel Sow chose Yamê as his stage name, and among the M’bo people in Cameroon, his father’s homeland, it literally means “the word”, which, according to Genesis, is how it all began. Secondly, because over the last few years, this “mega geek”, who taught himself sound and mixing software on Youtube, has done a lot of hard work to translate his thoughts into words.

Your clique fears me like the end of the earth
Pan-African tomorrow will be king
Bantu bionic, I’m on Pandora

“Carré d’As”- Agent 237

Genesis and the creation of agent 237

In 2020, Yamê was 27 years old. After a bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s in information management and a job in data processing with a major group, he decided to go into music professionally. He released 2 EPs: Bantu Mixtape Vol 1 and 2 and, a year later, his first album.

Like the title track, Carré d’As is resolutely rap. And yet, it wasn’t at open mic nights that Yamê earned his stripes, but at Parisian jam sessions. “I learned to play the piano, to understand music, to play with others, to construct pieces for the stage and, above all, I created a network of friends with whom I make music today.” 

Initially hiding behind his keyboard, where he perfected his jazz-blues grammar, this Hiatus Kaiyote fan went on to cover soul and rock songs, notably by English band Muse. So, why rap for this first try? “Because, at the time, when I started making sounds, my priority was to write lyrics. And I had a lot to learn, because I’d never written a single song! As I didn’t want to spend too much time producing my own sounds, I practiced on ‘type beats’ (pre-recorded productions available online, editor’s note). And as most of these instrumentals are only for rap, I got stuck in them. And then, as I was listening to a lot of rap (LIM, Kery James and Despo Rutti), I thought that was what I wanted to do. Today, I still want to rap, but it’s not what I prefer.

On his debut, just 3 years ago, Yamê chose rap to express himself, and named his first album Agent 237. “237″ is the country code for Cameroon. Born in the Paris region, Yamê lived in Cameroon from the age of 5 to 10. It was in Douala, the economic capital, that he forged both a curious ear for different rhythms (Papa Wemba, Meiway, Extra Musica but also André Marie Talla, Ben and Grâce Decca, Fernandel or Gainsbourg) and gained nimble fingers on the piano keys. Later came bass, drums and a little guitar, among the “myriad of instruments” made available to him by his father, the Senegalese-Cameroonian songwriter, arranger, musician and singer M’backé Ngoup’Emanty. After the sudden death of his mother, the family returned to France. The patriarch replaced his career-passion with a “more stable” job to support his children, and chose to live in a tiny Parisian apartment so that they could attend good schools. Throughout this time Yamê tried to “stay positive, make friends, and dive into French rap, computers and video games.

The “Agent” in Agent 237 refers to Le Bureau des légendes, “a French spy series that I loved too much,” confides Yamê.On the “agent” side, there’s also the diaspora thing where, in terms of our identity, when we’re kids we’re split between two cultures, we’re always a bit torn. And it’s true that sometimes you don’t feel at home on either side, so you’re kind of “on a mission” or, as in the series “sous légende” (an identity fabricated from scratch, in a permanent state of concealment). 

To carry out his “mission”, Yamê chose his character. On his first album, and ever since, he’s been the “bantu bionic”: a “wakanda-esque” expression made up of the word “bantu” meaning “human” in Kikongo (and also in Douala, two languages rightly called “bantu”) and “bionic”, an Anglicism referring to biology and electronics. “I’m a mega geek, I can’t stop,” he admits, “and this desire to always find solutions, often geeky, this curiosity, I apply to all fields, including music. At the same time, I’m an African who’s aware of his Africanness. So these two terms define me well. On the one hand, my roots, and on the other, the technology that complements tradition and modernizes the continent.”

To change my life, I had to raise my voice (Ouh)
Too much Mola flow, bah yeah, bah yeah
I can’t find my way, I know all the paths (All the paths)
You, you only make trends, sounds with no tomorrow
When I operate, it’s a bit of a change (Ah)
Huh Mola, oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah 

Bahwai” – ELOWI

The appetite to sing

After releasing two mixtapes, an album and a handful of singles – enough time to tell himself that it would never work, then to convince himself that it was worth persisting – Yamê understood that his melodies, more than his rap, would enable him to “change his life”. This began with the song “Kodjo “, released in September 2022. “I sang on this track, but that’s where it really clicked for me. I told myself that it’s summer, that I’ve been rapping a lot, that the whole thing is pretty dark and that it needs a bit of light and warmth. And then I wanted to test myself on an Afro sound. The real trigger was TikTok, in the winter of 2022. I started doing piano/vocals because that’s what I love, it’s what I do at home but don’t share because I’m in the mood: I’ve got to rap! And then, as soon as I posted the 1st video, it worked and made my desire to sing legitimate!”  

And because 2023 will definitely be quite a year for Yamê, in March, one of his improvisations was not only liked and commented on, but also revisited by American pop legend and producer, Timbaland. Timbaland, who is responsible for many of Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake’s classics, created a custom production for him, which he posted on his social networks: “Wild. Astonishing,” comments Yamê, who is still in contact with “Timbo the King”, and confirms, “The United States? I’d love to. It’s going to happen, for sure, soon!

Meanwhile, “I know all the paths“, Yamê sings on “Bahwai”. In other words: Yamê comes prepared as ever in the business and has set up his own company to frame his work in music.

Each step is a terrible tremor, you hold on or you drift away
My little one, don’t come for a test, you’ll be corrected, I’m the daddy in my category
All my life I’ve jumped dams, fuck them, I don’t need to be fixed
I’m too far away, given my skill and cadence, but I’m burning up, I’m weighing down the scale

“Ayo Mba” – ELOWI

Yamê opens his 2nd album, ELOWI, with this track. “Ayo Mba”, in the M’bo language, is “an expression we use to celebrate. It’s a bit like ‘youpi’,” explains Yamê. “This sound celebrates the fact that I chose to make music my profession. And I made this choice after checking that the other option, that of working, in this case creating IT services that enable data to be transferred from point A to point B, was not an interesting one.”

Not content with just getting started, Yamê has found his own sound: as he sings here, he’s created his own “category”. And the evolution between his first and second album is so impressive that we wanted to know how and with whom he found this sound unlike any other.

“The first step was to choose my high voice, my head voice. And the first person to advise me was FLEM (the so-called “right-hand man of French drill”, the Franco-Cameroonian rapper, producer and beatmaker Joseph Doumbe AN).The second step was to surround myself with producers, because type beats were no longer possible. That‘s why I met the right people with Pandrezz, but also Kronomuzik and Epektase, the little band from Légendes industries with whom we produced the ELOWI project. With Pandrez we really wanted to have something very hybrid in terms of musical sounds. We wanted to draw on trap and hip-hop, but at the same time leave ourselves the possibility of going far in terms of orchestration, with raw, acoustic sounds and a mix of all that. And then I spent a lot of time rewriting my lyrics, so I’d say that’s what’s changed since the first album. It’s the work!

ELOWI, also in the M’bo language, means “not visible, perceptible, not manifest”. A term that perfectly sums up what emerges from this album, as the artist confirms: “People who listen to rap say, ‘It’s weird, it’s not rap, but I like it. People who don’t listen to rap say, ‘That’s weird rap! I don’t usually listen to rap, but I like it. What I’ve come to conclude – and I chose the name of the project beforehand, so it’s good timing – is that there’s something that people like, but they can’t quite grasp it. They can’t put words to it or put my music into a style, and that’s all the better. So, I do Yamê. I’m in my own category.”

Sankara, Cheikh Anta, négro, I chose my models, it’s as reliable as a German engine
In indie, without carats, without chico, yes I do quer-cro much more than the greats of your greats
I don’t tease them, they’re not focused, I don’t wait for the pass, they can’t center
I’m bantu, don’t talk to me about basane, we didn’t come here to strut our stuff

“Bécane” – ELOWI

Even before the release of ELOWI in October 2023, the world was won over by Yamê’s visit to Colors Studio a few months earlier. The result is a minimalist video, whose principle – initiated by a Berlin-based online magazine – is simple but devilishly effective: artists from all walks of life are invited to perform one or more songs from their repertoire alone in front of a microphone, all set against a single-colored background that changes with each guest. Yamê is his own color, and he rips through one of his songs, “Bécane”, now certified gold. In it, Yamê praises the reliability of German engines, while at the same time evoking his disdain for a business based on rules. But make no mistake, Yamê’s real passion – since a fall down the stairs as a child, he’s no longer afraid of breaking his teeth on anything – isn’t motorcycling, it’s freedom. And he’ll do anything for it: “The motorcycle is a metaphor for something that can take us somewhere else, that can get us out of hell. To each his own. For me, it was the constraints of computer work. I sing that I’ll take any risk to get out of it, even if it means ending up on a stretcher or an operating table!

For the clip, which went online at the end of January 2024, a group of bikers follow him around his home in Douala. The road ahead for Yamê is paved with success, who dreams of playing and, more broadly, touring on the continent: “Africa is part of my heritage, part of my identity, so I’d love to go there and show what I can do.” In the meantime, Yamê is off to a flying start on tour in France. But there’s no telling where the limits of Mr. Bantu Bionic lie.