The backbone of Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul’s song Haha is the sound of Adigéry’s laughter spliced into a persistent refrain, a sound occasionally interjected with the phrase: “Guess you had to be there.” It’s as catchy as it is unsettling. The Ghent-based dance music duo want to make listeners dance – but they’re also not afraid of making them squirm with their pointed and drily funny politicised lyrics.
And yet, Adigéry was surprised when a white woman told them recently that she had been joyously dancing in her kitchen to another song, Blenda, until she realised they were singing about xenophobia (“Go back to your country where you belong,” Adigéry sings on the track) and suddenly felt uncomfortable. “I said maybe it’s not that bad that you knew you’d feel awkward,” says Adigéry. “[Maybe] that’s a new way to start empathising.”
Adigéry and Pupul are still in the early days of their musical partnership, but they’re already setting themselves apart conceptually. Their debut album Topical Dancer is a multilingual, 13-track electropop project blending R&B, techno and house, with lyrics that explore racism and misogyny.
It’s clear that their lived experience has shaped their songwriting. Adigéry says she has faced aggressive and blatant racism in her country. “My mom spent a night in jail without any clothes,” she says. “Beaten.” Talking openly about racism in Belgium is rather new, she says, and she can still feel the growing pains.
“Belgium still doesn’t recognise the atrocities that Leopold II did in the Congo. There haven’t been any apologies. It results in a lot of people being completely ignorant of that past. How can you be aware of the present?”
Pupul adds that Belgium’s colonisation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was never taught in schools. “They’re talking now about taking down the statue of Leopold II. But the question is, what do you do with the statue? We also have streets named after him.”
Nevertheless, they say they aren’t trying to be didactic. They tell me they are tolerant of different views and see their music as an “invitation” to a nuanced conversation. “We see pop music as a vehicle to say something,” says Pupul. And they always approach hard-hitting subjects with sarcasm and levity. When Adigéry sings “Don’t say ‘nice pair’ / Say ‘I love the symmetry of you’” on opening track Esperanto, it sets the playful tone for the rest of the album. “Humour is a great way of adding oxygen to some topics without sounding moralising,” she says. “It’s [important] to not laugh everything away, but also to not take yourself too seriously.”
The pair’s sense of humour and sibling-like chemistry radiates even through our video call. When I ask what they do when they’re not making music, Adigéry tells me that Pupul has a special talent for drawing penises. “It’s very realistic,” she laughs.
“Send me a DM,” says Pupul to any curious fans who may want to see his works of art.
Adigéry gently rocks her newborn son to sleep during our interview. She was born in France and is of Martinican and Guadeloupean descent. Pupul was born in Belgium and is of Belgian and Chinese descent.
They cite Grace Jones, David Byrne, David Bowie and Prince as influences, but also their own families. “My grandma sang and she had a record store in Martinique,” says Adigéry, who grew up listening to zouk and Haitian compas.
Pupul’s father is the well-known Belgian musician, comedian and cartoonist known as Kamagurka. “[He] always left a guitar somewhere. Or all of sudden, we had a piano at home. I was always intrigued by it.”
They met after both had their solo music featured in the cult 2016 film Belgica, about a group of friends trying to run a rock bar. David and Stephen Dewaele of Soulwax scored the film and encouraged Adigéry and Pupul to get into the studio together. “We trusted their instincts,” says Adigéry.
It was a road trip from Ghent to Amsterdam for an event about Belgica where their friendship truly bloomed. “We talked the whole way about music, friendship and family,” she says. “It went really deep, really quick. It was the friend version of love at first sight.”
“I felt safe,” says Pupul. “I felt like you understood what I was saying and felt like I understood you. Charlotte challenges me to come up with good ideas, to be critical. That’s something that you do way less when you’re alone.”
Together they created a unique sound, their combination of deadpan vocals, buoyant beats and abstract melodies giving their music a sense of surrealism. In 2019, they cemented their partnership with the playful and minimalist Zandoli EP. Soulwax remains one of their best sounding boards. “Every time we’re stuck on a song, they’re like the best chiropractors,” says Pupul. “They know how to push in Charlotte’s brain.”
They’re just one of the acts making the once overlooked Belgium into a European musical hotspot. Cult pop star Stromae (“his persona and his lyrics are amazing. We love him,” says Adigéry), rapper Damso, and singer-songwriter Angèle are breaking outside the country, but Pupul says it’s hard for Belgian musicians to make it internationally. “There’s so many incredible musicians [here], but there’s not so many that break through. We’re very lucky to be in a position that we got played on BBC Radio 6 Music.”
As a new mother, Adigéry is additionally relieved by the duo gaining international acclaim. The day they signed their record deal with Soulwax’s Deewee imprint “was the day I found out I was pregnant”, she says. The pregnancy wasn’t planned and she feared that it would majorly affect her success as a musician. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. “I called everybody. Bolis, Stephen and David and my manager were so supportive. It opened my eyes and I realised that my view on the music industry was a bit dated,” she says. “And what is a music career when you don’t have a family to go home to?”
Despite their wide future horizons, they’re humble about where they might go next. “Belgians – we like to be modest,” Pupul says with a laugh. “We are afraid to say our ambitions.”
“I don’t want to sound pretentious,” says Adigéry. “I just think we are being ourselves and there’s no one like us. We always try to switch it up.”