Hélène and Célia Faussart were surprised with their American success in 1999. Their record, Princesses Nubiennes, became the best-selling French language record in a stateside decade, even though it did poorly in France. The amazement, Célia says, came with American audiences who loved Les Nubians' music despite not being able to comprehend the lyrics. But something else was clicking.
Perhaps it was the smooth soul grace that led Princesses Nubiennes to three separate Billboard charts. The music reminded some fans of Sade and made others consider the international influence of hip hop. Still, the language barrier for American fans is ironic, given Les Nubians' longtime focus on words. The Faussart sisters started out as an a cappella group doing R&B, reggae and African songs. Poetry was a natural focal point. They developed the poetry journal New Griot and, later, a music and book project called Nubian Voyager.
"We wanted to create generational links between youth and elders, and we realized words and poetry are a way to cut through," Célia said. For the Faussart sisters, poetry connected the aged storytelling traditions with contemporaries who worked in new poetics. Chuck D and Langston Hughes stood together.
"Poetry's meant to create sensitive images. It's not like rhetoric," says Célia, speaking from New York, conversations in French and the coos of children drifting in from the background while she pauses to cue the right English words. "It's like this French poet Jacques Prevert said: 'The world is blue like an orange.' And you say, 'What is that?' but it's like vision, like a painter has." Les Nubians' words reflect their knowledge of culture and history and the feeling of words fitting together snugly, as in "Sugar Cane": "And what you've got to do is just take care of/ That inner black beauty that shines through/ Your melanin tone/ And take care of everything you got visible or invisible/ For not so long ago/ They didn't love none of us—at all."
Maybe it makes sense, then, that even with American audiences missing the words of Les Nubians, the music still resonates. The music is a hybrid of hip hop, soul and international pop, refracted through a lens of protest music. Like Les Nubians' lyrics, the sounds reflect an understanding not confined to one country. Such pluralism takes egalitarian form, pulling on pop flavors from Africa to Western Europe.
As children, the word "home" was like a prism in sunlight: The sisters were born in France to a French Caucasian father and a Cameroonian mother. They moved from Bordeaux to the central African country of Chad and later back to France. Now based in Paris, their collaborators stretch from Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour to American mainstream stars Black-Eyed Peas, and they were nominated for a Grammy in R&B in 2002. For an upcoming collection called U2 Africa, the sisters will even lend a cover of "With or Without You." It's "first to thank them for their position of giving attention to Africa," Célia explains, "and also to raise money and end the debt in Africa."
After all, Les Nubians are artists and educators. Four years ago, they led a seminar at Duke University about the intrigues of being a professional with mixed heritage. They made the Nubian Voyager, says Célia, "to put a light on [the poets they admired] and put money coming from art back to art." If more musicians and artists thought this way—that is, in a universal selfless language—that light could travel like current on a power line.
Les Nubians plays The ArtsCenter Sunday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25.