Polaris Prize winner Pierre Kwenders recommends two great reads in English and French
The Montreal musician won the 2022 Polaris Music Prize for his album, José Louis and the Paradox of Love
Congolese-born, Montreal-based musician, singer, songwriter and DJ Pierre Kwenders (born José Louis Modabi) grounds his sound in the joy and abandon of dance, creating a unique blend of Afro-inflected electronic sounds inspired by Congolese rumba.
Kwenders won this year's Polaris Music Prize for his album, José Louis and the Paradox of Love. The $50,000 Polaris Music Prize, which celebrates the best Canadian album of the year, was announced on Sept. 19, 2022.
Recorded over four years in a handful of different cities and featuring multiple collaborators, including King Britt, Michael Brun and the Africa Intshiyetu Choir, José Louis and the Paradox of Love expands on the sound Kwenders has been developing for the past decade, including with Montreal's Moonshine collective, which he co-founded in 2014 to celebrate diversity in dance culture.
The album features Kwenders singing and rapping in Lingala, French, English, Tshiluba and Kikongo, with lyrics touching on all aspects of love: romantic, familial, community ties and beyond.
The multilingual Kwenders told CBC Books about two books he's read recently that he would recommend to others — one in English (All About Love by bell hooks) and another in French (La plus secrète mémoire des hommes by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr).
Gift of love
"I really enjoyed reading All About Love by bell hooks because it's all about love. [laughs] I like the fact that she went through all of her relationships to talk about love. I can relate, because it was my own relationships that is the main subject of my album. It's all my experiences with love — either with my partner, or my parents or friends, or anybody I've met that I have a connection with — that's kind of the story I was telling, and it's those parallels that I really liked.
"It was a gift from my friend who is based in L.A. When he visited Montreal, I wasn't in town, but he stayed at my place and left me this little book. I wasn't at all familiar with bell hooks before that, but I was surprisingly happy about this, because then I discovered so many things about her and what she had written before and who she was and what she stood for. So it was definitely a very beautiful gift."
"She was very honest — she wasn't shy about saying things the way it is. Sometimes we can shy away from talking about things, especially something as deep as love — it can be very, very hard to just say things the way they are — sometimes we try to say different things that we think mean the same thing, but actually aren't upfront about it. Tell it like it is!
Sometimes we can shy away from talking about things, especially something as deep as love — it can be hard to just say things the way they are.
"I feel like that's what I love about this book — it was just easy to read. As my first language isn't English, sometimes when I read books in English, I always like to have Google Translate handy, but this one was very straightforward.
"There's nothing more enjoyable than love. This book really gets deep into it and redefines the real meanings of it — and within this book, people can find a way to really understand the different aspects of what love is all about."
Exploring personal parallels
"I've just started reading La plus secrète mémoire des hommes by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr. I was travelling in Europe, going to see my brother in Brussels, and I was at the train station and picked up this book there.
"Sarr is a young Senegalese writer who has won some big awards, including the 2021 Prix Goncourt. I was intrigued by the title in particular — the translation of it is 'the most secret memory of men.' The thing about me is that I like anything that's mysterious, so I immediately thought, 'I want to find out what this is all about.'
"The story is about this young writer who discovers a book that appeared in 1938 by a Black author who then just disappeared. So this young writer is going through the book, relating to it through his own experiences. I just found it very cool — it felt almost like a sci-fi movie to me, the mysterious aspect where the writer is trying to connect the dots in his life.
I can relate to all the different kinds of trauma and pressure you might have growing up as a person of colour.
"And I read online that the author of this book was also exploring the parallels between writing and his personal life and questioning a lot of things about him being African and studying in France. I can relate to all the different kinds of trauma and pressure you might have growing up as a person of colour and moving here and finishing school and starting a career here. But then in my music, you'll hear a lot of my culture — all those questions that I sometimes ask myself about my identity, I felt like I could find some answers in this book.
So I really need to finish it!"
"Reading Black authors is important to me. It's also not something I used to do when I was younger, just out of a lack of knowledge, I would say. In school, it was not necessarily put forward — obviously here in Quebec there's more French literacy, but growing up and finding my own identity, I thought it was important for me to read more books that I could find myself in and learn something.
Growing up and finding my own identity, I thought it was important for me to read more books that I could find myself in and learn something.
"It's also important to just delve into the imaginary; because sometimes our imagination is based on things that people show you. If you're curious like me, you want to know more — and want to know what more is out there.
"What are you missing out on? How can you change things? That's the question that I asked myself — and that's one of the reasons I started gravitating more toward Black writers."
Watch | Pierre Kwenders performs José Louis and the Paradox of Love at Toronto's Music Gallery:
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out CBC's Being Black in Canada. You can read more stories here.