Part 2 of my interview with Arthur Ashe’s protégé, the only tennis player with dreadlocks who ever won a grand slam. He doesn’t only talk about his new CD and how Obama inspired him but also why he started locs, what his hair, his family and tennis mean to him and where gets his spirituality comes from.
MIREILLE: Did you realize that you were breaking barriers when you were doing that?
YANNICK NOAH: Of course. But I realized it as an 18-year-old with my 18-year-old mind, but it was okay. I did good. And I still remember.
Oh, no, that’s not something you easily forget.
How was your relationship with Arthur Ashe? Isn’t he’s the one who discovered your talent and offered you to go to France. Did you talk to him? What was your relationship like?
YANNICK NOAH: I was very shy but he was my god, you know.
Did you admire him as a mentor, or did you also like his playing?
YANNICK NOAH: I liked everything about him. First of all, he looked like my uncle. So, he could be my family, you know. I loved tennis, I knew him from the magazines and obviously, I looked up to him.
So, I came to the club one day, there he is you know. Wow, there this black American guy. So clean, you know, it was amazing, he was so clean. With a white, nice white shirt. Our white shirts were like so washed out that they were not even white any more. His shirt was really, really white. He had a beautiful racket. He had this aura about him. Geez, I had never seen a guy like this guy. Like out of the magazines. At that time Cameroon was independent for only 10 years. So, there was always still had colonial feeling about things, you know. We were like kind-of owned by the French People. And this black guy comes visiting all the way from America. As a colonized kid from Africa, you looked up to a black guy coming from America. They way he walked. He swags. And, you’re like, wow man. He started hitting the ball. So, nice, so perfect. I had never seen anything like that. Then all of the sudden the guy started to play with us, the kids, and he goes, “You come, hit some.” And I went and hit it. I tried to kick his ass, you know. You know, I was like, I’m going to show you.
Because I felt, even back then I felt, I knew it was a moment. I knew it was my moment. You know, life usually goes on. Minute after minute. But for some reason sometimes you realize that these minutes count that these minutes make a difference because something happens. I knew something was happening, you know.
I took it very serious. I even have footage of this. There were a lot of kids from school there that day and I was really into the game. So, when I started to hit the ball, the kids started to cheer. Then all of the sudden I realized, hey I can play. Every time I hit the ball kids cheered. The atmosphere was crazy, and I was getting into it even more. Arthur loved it, and he made me play a bit more. So, instead of playing 2 minutes, I played like 6 minutes. And then at the end, he gave me a racket. The racket was like, you know, it was like, what my parents earned together in a month. >That’s what that Arthur did for me. Then, he sent me a poster saying, “To Yannick. I hope I’ll see you at Wimbledon.” That poster was on the wall near my bed.
I went to France and practiced because of his help. Then, like when I was 17 I received…my coach received a call from Wimbledon because Arthur asked. He followed me obviously and asked for an official invitation for us to play doubles together. So, we actually did play doubles like six years after we had met in Cameroon. We actually played together. My first Wimbledon I played with Arthur on center court. And we won! And the picture is here. So, yeah, Arthur was huge. Yeah, he even became spiritual to me. You get – I get inspired. I dreamt about playing. He is the guy who gave me my first real racquet then my first Wimbledon title. How strong can the dream be that like six years after we met in Cameroon, we actually end up winning. Then the first ever tournament I’ve won, my first biggest tournament, in 1982, was in Richmond, Virginia. That is where he was born.
How can you explain this?
Because there was this energy that made me feel stronger. I felt protected. It was meant to be. It was right, it felt right. The people felt it too. People respected Arthur. They really respected Arthur, and I was like his protégé, so when I was walking on the court, the vibration around me, surrounding me, was so good. So, I just played loose and just did my thing, you know, free.
Was he there?
YANNICK NOAH: When you start a tournament there are like 32 players in the dressing room. You know, players loose and then the second day there are 16. Then Friday 8; Saturday 2. But there was an — an older man who was in the locker room handing towels and soaps to the players. And he was always kind to me saying, “You can do it son. You can do it. You can win the whole thing.”
And I was not supposed to win. I was not like one of the top seeds. But the next thing I know, I’m in the semi-finals and I realize that this gentleman was actually Arthur’s dad. So, he tells me, “Son, if you win the semi-final, Arthur is coming tomorrow.” So, I’m, like, I win again, and Arthur came. Arthur came. And Arthur actually handed me the cup.
YANNICK NOAH: That was Richmond. Too bad he passed away. Yeah, I went to his funeral.
MIREILLE: He was infected, right? Because of a blood transfusion.
YANNICK NOAH: Yes. He had a heart problem. And he had a blood transfusion. He was one of the first guys who got one.
Yeah, was crazy. It’s crazy, so, you know, Arthur was huge. That’s a beautiful story.
MIREILLE: I also read that you had a song dedicated to your grandfather, too. He was also one of your inspirations. and he came to you in a dream in 1985, and it changed your life. How did it change your life? What were you dreaming about? What did he mean to you?
YANNICK NOAH: Well, he changed my life, but it’s not like instantly. We all have, this. It starts with a question, you know, it’s the universal question of what’s happening after we’re gone.
Every religion has its own point of view of after life. Some people think, you know, we are coming back in different ways. Some say, it’s the end. Some people say, you burn if you are bad. Others say, you are going to become a rat if you’ve been bad. You are going to be a rainbow if you are doing good. Some people say your spirit is always there.
Yannick Live in Sedan September 2010
My experience of life, and my road led me to believe, especially since I was hearing this since I was a young child in Cameroon, that the spirits are here. And, actually, dead people actually come back. That’s what I heard when I was a kid. Then, when I lived in France, my view changed because people, believe different things. Some people don’t believe at all. So, of course, I started to have doubts. I thought that maybe I had misunderstood. But, I didn’t really misunderstand, because I remember hearing, like, my dad and my uncle talking about dreams of people who had passed. And they were just talking about it at breakfast in such a natural way. “Yes, she came to tell me this, so therefore I have to go do that.” These were natural conversations. There was nothing intense about it. So, when the dream happened it was like a little sign, you know. That moment where you say, “I believe.” When you go to the other level where you know. I don’t believe any more; I know. So, basically, this song just tells my story, the way I experienced it. You can take whatever you like from it but but this was my experience…
And I received a lot, a lot of mail, from people, who were very touched and happy that somebody like me who is well known actually had enough courage to come forward in France, and talk about this. Because 99% of the time, when you start talking about these subject the way I talk about it, people think of that you are, you know like cuckoo. You smoked too much ganja. >And it’s really crazy because it was like my first, my second biggest hit. And the chorus is like the name of my grandfather, mMy descendents, my tradition. I’m the first boy of my generation. Therefore, the tradition in our village it means that I am actually him. My second name is Simon just like him. I am him. When he goes, I am him. So, when he goes, I become my grandmother’s husband. This is the way it has been for generations and he used to tell me this all the time.
“When I go, I don’t go. I’m with you all the time.” “You listen to me, son.” I was like 5, 6, 7, just a little kid. Scared because he was very intense about it. You know, he wanted to catch my attention. “I won’t go.” “I will always be with you.” “I will always be with you, what is your name? What is your name?”
I would say, “Simon, papa.” He would say again “What’s your name?” And then he would make a little joke, shake my hand and we would laugh about it.
My grandfather was the chief of the tribe and it goes to the first grandson. So the next one is going to be my first grandson. And this is something that I have to do. I have to take care of all the land that we have. I’m responsible for that. And I’m also responsible to pass that to my first grandson.
Yannick Noah father of Chicago Bulls center-forward Joakim Noah
Photo Credit Salute To Sports Fathers
MIREILLE: I see…tell me if there’s something here. Your father was a famous soccer player. You became a famous tennis player. Your son is now making his way in basketball. Is that like a pattern here? Where all of the Noah’s find their own famous sports, not necessarily following the father’s footsteps. But finding their own way to fame, or trying to do their own thing, or is there a pattern?
YANNICK NOAH: There is…there is something there. There is something, yeah. My dad used to play football a lot, obviously. He was a professional player. And then, even though he loved it, he kind-of pushed me and made me enjoy the fact that I was into a sport that was individual.
He’d say, “You know what, it’s in your hands. If you lose, you have no excuses. And that’s a blessing. You have your destiny in your own hands, and that’s the most beautiful thing that you could ever have. You don’t depend on no-one, so if you work hard. If you, play well, you going to win, and that’s it.” And he always pushed that in me, since I was really young. So it was not that I wanted to do something else. I liked playing football, but you know, we were going to the tennis club as well. So, my dad his words were encouraging to me and showing me an angle that I always remember. Which is, what else – what a beautiful life I have. I have my own destiny in my own hands, you know. So, that was my dad’s advice, and me. And then, I took my son to tennis, and he didn’t like it because even if I wasn’t there personally, there was like all this pressure.
Everybody knows me in France. He was not even on the court and people were always asking him if he wants to be a champion. He was just a kid who wanted to have a good time. So, it wasn’t a good time for him at all. We were living in this nice neighborhood but, he felt better to go to the inner city where they had basketball, because he felt free. And he expressed that when he was 6-years-old, and that felt…it was so right. I felt it was so right that this kid was sensitive enough to express that.
“I don’t want to go to this beautiful country club because they are just assholes. ” He was even angry at me because they were telling him “You never be like your father.” YANNICK NOAH: Yeah, so I think the connection is that sport was always important in our house. Like, you know, on TV, we would all watch. My mom was into sports. If we had a good grade in sports my dad would say, “Yeah, congratulations.”
How was your first performance here in Central Park, Summer Stage? How was it for you?
YANNICK NOAH: It was all right.
Was it a little bit disappointing?
YANNICK NOAH: Well, I mean it was rainy. It rained most of the day, so it was not like the atmosphere that I dreamt of, which is like spring in New York. Sunny and people just relaxing, people couldn’t go down because it was too wet, so…But, it was ok. It’s like again like the power of dreams.
Sometimes you dream so hard and it’s so powerful. Like I used to play tennis here, and we used to stay at the Essex house when we are playing the US Open. It’s only funny that I just happen that now I live like a block away.
I remember seeing one of my heroes, one day while we were staying at Essex House, It was Bob Marley, walking past the lobby going to play a concert.
And it was even beyond a dream, because then I liked to go to concerts but I never thought then that I would be a performer, you know. But, when I was seeing these guys playing in Central Park, I was like-Jesus, it is so cool to play here. It would be so cool to play here.
And then when I’d started my career as a singer, I thought wow, it would be nice to play in Central Park one day. It would be so cool to be with the band here at my place. Have a drink and then walk to the concert. That would be so cool just like that. With no bodyguard whatsoever. And this is what we did.
>We walked and as a matter of fact they didn’t want to let us in. Then I said, I am singing, this is my band, this is my family. And a woman came and said, let them in, let them in. They apologized but I said it’s ok. That’s why I like New York, You know, its so real.
Do you write your own music?
>No, the minute I stopped writing we became successful. But you wrote saga Africa which was very successful.
MIREILLE: What was your greatest moment in tennis?
French Open. Davis Cup. 30 year old captain. Being the captain of the French team with dreadlocks. We played the US, Pete Sampras and Agassi, the strongest team and we beat them. And when we won, it was the 1st win after 40 years, so the whole nation was watching and they asked me to sing Saga Africa. The place was going crazy and everybody was singing. I felt I won, it was way beyond winning. The best moment.
MIREILLE: I was going to ask you what was your biggest moment in music but this is actually bringing the two together.
>NOAH: If people ask me I have to say that it was this moment.
MIREILLE: What does your hair mean to you?
>My Hair? It’s my freedom. There is something that comes with it. In the beginning I didn’t really think about it. It started as a joke. It was like a statement of my freedom. A man with long hair. I was in a Halloween state of mind. Wanted to disguise myself, with glasses and a suite.
>Then the vibration came with it. And I loved it. I just loved it. Also with the performances, the air, you don’t move the same when you have the hair. You don’t dance the same way. You don’t dress the same way.
>You know first I had kept the fake hair for a year. When I removed it to start the real dreads the beginning my hair was short. Then I realized how different short hair was. You don’t dress the same, you don’t move the same. it’s like a different dynamic.
Did you ever consider cutting your hair?
Sometimes there are these moments when I want to be totally anonymous. It never last long but I feel like it brings me a lot of attention. People recognize my hair before they recognize me and sometimes I just don’t want the attention.
What do you think of the stereotyping of locs? Have you ever thought about that?
Yes, You talk about it, you hear stuff but it’s ignorance. Negative stereotyping. I look at it as a way that people can still own you. Still control you with clichés but I don’t fall for it. I don’t even talk about it. Your actions should speak for you. Dreads gave me the energy to be myself.
The reason I am asking these hair questions is because I feel that because of all the stereotyping of our hair, black women are the only ones who are suffering from hair issues as much as we do 73%. its because locs are stereotyped and we know so little about our hair.
I feel hair as an energy and I know it was my energy. A positive energy. No, not just energy but I am going out in the world with this energy and the way that I look and the way that I am and be myself and I know I have influenced a lot of kids out there. So, I didn’t even have to talk about it but I said it.
Sometimes it was tempting to let the hair go for a contract you know because of a good offer. Yeah, you know in Japan, I couldn’t sell shampoo with this hair. So sometimes it wasn’t even for a bad reason.
>But a lot of people fall for it. Especially women because seduction is so important for women you know. They try like to seduce and seduce. And you see like these ladies, they all have their hair straight. Non of them keep their own tresses. Why don’t they keep an afro? I don’t want to name any names. They try to look like white women and it’s ok, I don’t mind. It’s just a trick. Maybe that’s just a way to be successful. So I don’t judge but I like to see someone who is like, this is me, this is who I am and I’m going to win this way. That is stronger for me but it’s a hard road, you know.
I think you did a great job. You come from a place of love. People can relate to it.
Yeah they did a survey like the best sport moments in the last 30 years and my win was nr. 1. It was because when I won the match point my father jumped from the stand and ran onto court and we hugged. And we started jumping up and down. Millions of people watching and people cried because it was all out of love.
>People related to it. it was privilege to me because he meant so much. We never said I love you in our family other but in that moment everything came together. We were separated for so long. I left when I was 11 years old. As a parent you never know if it’s a good decision. To let your 11 year old go to live his dream. Or was it the most stupid thing to let my first son go to play tennis in France. What if it doesn’t work? My mother asked herself this question a 1000 times, crying, you know.
I have kids and if they tell me at 11 years old, I am going to the other side of the world and I can afford to fly but it would destroy me because I have to say yes of course. My parents couldn’t even afford a ticket, not even a phone call. So at the moment it was like this is what we all sacrificed for. 12 years of my life and their lives. So my dad just jumped on court and said I love you!
Yannick’s new CD Frontières is out now. you can order it from
amazon.com or via his website: http://www.yannicknoah.com