He’s playing intimate clubs on his North American tour, but Fally Ipupa can sell out a 20,000-capacity arena in Paris and his native country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he’s pretty much the biggest name in music right now.
Born and raised in Kinshasa, along the border with the Republic of the Congo (that’s a different country), just south of the equator in western Africa, Ipupa has been making music for more than two decades.
He got his start in the late ‘90s in a group alongside Congolese legend Koffi Olomide before going solo. His 2006 debut album was certified gold (100,000 copies sold).
The 44-year-old crossed over to the Francophone music market with 2017 album Tokooos. He’s collaborated with both French-speaking and American artists like Olivia (G-Unit). Ipupa has won several MTV Africa Music Awards and was nominated for Best International Act at the 2022 BET Awards.
His native language is Lingala, and he first earned success by making Congolese rumba, with its signature ringing electric guitar “sebene” bridge. So when he worked in singing in French and a sound more popular in Europe—R&B and soul—some fans actually pushed back. But he quickly followed that up with 2018’s Control and 2020’s Tokooos II, which blended the traditional with the modern, and his star continued to grow.
Ipupa splits his time between Paris and Kinshasa now. He’s on his third tour of North America now, having previously played venues like the iconic Apollo Theater in New York. He’s got millions of streams online, yet in the U.S. he’s still a relative unknown compared to Afrobeat counterparts like Nigerian Burna Boy, which he says is largely due to a language barrier (Nigerians speak English; Congolese do not).
“Congolese music is very rich music. All African music is very rich. South African music, coastal music, our music,” Ipupa said in a recent call from the back seat of a car after landing in Washington, D.C. where his third U.S. tour kicked off. “All music from Africa is very rich music, so I’m happy to be one of them, to be a musician coming from Africa, to define this music.”
The artist sees a great responsibility in not only representing his people to the world, but in using his success to help others. Outside of music, he’s partnered with United Nations’ cultural heritage organization UNESCO and Development Programme, the latter of which works to eliminate poverty in developing countries, as well as with UNICEF as his country’s ambassador. In the DRC, malnutrition, affects 10 million children every year.
Ahead of his current tour, he released two singles, both of which have already racked millions of streams, including this month’s ode to the rumba, the music of his youth, with “Science-Fiction.” We spoke to Ipupa the day before he kicked off the U.S. portion of his tour in Washington, D.C., last week.
RIFF: What elements make up Congolese rumba?
Fally Ipupa: Rumba is one of the oldest kinds of music in Africa. … Rumba expresses more love, and rumba is very rich music because lyrics are in there because you can speak, you can dance, you can communicate with this music. That’s why if you’re from Africa, you’re supposed to love this music.
What about your other influences?
Fally Ipupa: Yes, we have lots. We have many communities, and as many types of music. All African music is good for me, I’d say. It’s different, sometimes. The beat can be different, but it’s cool. Other types of music are cool… but we definitely have the best!
When did you start making music and what drew you to it?
Fally Ipupa: I’ve been making music for more than 20 years since I was young. That is my only job. I started music so young. The only thing I do all my life is music. All my life is music.
What was it like growing up in Kinshasa? For someone who’s never been.
Fally Ipupa: It was cool. Of course I have known ups and downs, but I loved growing up in Congo. Kinshasa is an incredible place. It gave me the culture, it gave me my language, hospitality, music. … Africa is my home, and I loved growing up there.
How did you end up in France?
Fally Ipupa: There is a big Congolese diaspora in both Belgium and France. We have these communities in those two countries.
How much time have you spent in the U.S. before and what have been your highlights here?
Fally Ipupa: The people are great. Good people, good experience. We love challenge. We are jetlagged, but it’s cool for us, too. We are tired, but when we go to the stage, you enjoy it, so that for me is a good experience. And the crowd is incredible! They sing all the lyrics, dance, and bring an amazing energy to each show.
What defines success in the U.S. for you? Are you trying to reach an African audience, a French audience? English speakers?
Fally Ipupa: All of them. If they don’t come, they’re going to miss the best music. We look for the American audience, too. American audiences have to come to see what we are about. How we celebrate, how we dance, from the heart.
You’ve already made one big jump with your 2017 album; which led to a lot of success with the French-speaking audience. Are you planning another one for an Anglo-audience?
Fally Ipupa: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have this project in my mind. Maybe not a whole album, maybe an EP in English. One of my ideas I have, my plan, we look to collaborate with American artists.
How are you involved with UNICEF and UNESCO? What do you do with them?
Fally Ipupa: We help the people, we help the kids, we help raped women. I’m a UNICEF ambassador. Sometimes financially, sometimes we go to them. I use my voice. Sometimes we go to the field. For me, it’s one of the most important things I do in my life. I help people.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.