Everything’s happening on the internet. While mainstream media is still governed by outmoded ideas of gender, race and sexuality, the internet is a more subversive medium.
In South Africa, there’s a growing wave of artists using the net to break down conventions about gender and sexuality. Here are three acts using music, performance and digital art to explore the complexities of gender.
Umlilo ‘The Future Kwaai Diva’
‘I don’t really have anyone in mind when I’m making music,’ says electronic musician and performance artist Umlilo. ‘I usually just make music for people who want to have a good time. My only prerequisite for any listener is to have an open mind.’
Listening to Umlilo’s music is an experience. Future kwaai – his name for his genre of music – is a series of divergent parts that he manages to fit into a coherent whole. His debut EP (2013’s Shades of Kwaai) draws on a range of influences. There are moments of synth-pop, scatterings of kwaito, house, rap and a heavy undercurrent of dance throughout. ‘Different’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.
‘Kwaai is an old township term for fierce, but as a music aesthetic it only really blossomed post-apartheid,’ explains Umlilo, whose real name is Siya Ngcobo. ‘I think people like Oskido, Boom Shaka and Brenda Fassie all had a fierce [kwaai] township energy with an international appeal. Their music was a huge influence and subconsciously informed the type of music I make.’
Umlilo has a way of delivering weighty truths without sounding preachy or sanctimonious.
His latest offering – the recently released Aluta EP – is equally as disarming as his debut with Umlilo displaying the full range of his talent over the course of the six-track EP. On Slima Mina, a barcadi house tune with a racing drumline, he sings about someone trying to make a fool out of him while Umzabalazo sees him crooning about ‘starting a revolution’ over a sparse, rock-infused soundscape. The highlight of the EP, however, is the song writing; Umlilo has a way of delivering weighty truths without sounding preachy or sanctimonious. On Magic Man – a piece with a warbling bassline and clattering drums – he sings, ‘Living in a world where you’re either man or woman… I always look beyond that road. It ain’t easy being him.’
South Africa is a country still deeply mired by homophobia. Queer people still live under the threat of violence for their sexuality and Umlilo is acutely aware of this. It ain’t easy being him. It’s this very frustration that has been the source of one of his most popular songs. He says he wrote Out of My Face, a song off his debut EP, as ‘a queer anthem’ aimed squarely at homophobes and misogynists. ‘I was frustrated at having to defend myself to people who hate who I am, what I wear and who I date. It all just got a bit much and I wanted to write a song that tells intolerant people to fuck right off.’
Although he’d probably play it off if you asked him, Umlilo is just as much an activist as he is a musician. His body of work – from his songs to his gender ambiguous videos – is an avant-garde critique of society’s gender stereotypes. He’s definitely the type of artist South Africa needs to fracture the mainstream’s current insularity.
With each release, the future kwaai pioneer amasses a bigger following.
Since initially dropping onto Cape Town’s music scene a few years back, he’s been one of the city’s best kept secrets, but that’s quickly set to change. He’s recently relocated to Johannesburg to solidify his music career while also debuting at Oppikoppi (one of the country’s biggest music festivals) last year. With each release, the future kwaai pioneer amasses a bigger following, so it’s only a matter of time before he breaks out of his niche and cracks into the mainstream. I ask him whether he ever gets tired of new people hyphenating his music with his sexuality (he’s often referred to as ‘queer artist Umlilo’). He offers a measured response.
‘It’s okay, I’m not offended by the words gender or queer. People can hyphenate all they want, just as long as it leads to constructive debate around the labels we choose. But I’ve been lucky enough to interact with people who engage with my music rather than just dismiss it as queer noise.’
FAKA, Amplifying Black Queer Voices
‘Representation is important,’ says Thato Ramaisa over a hissing Skype connection. His voice trails off, echoing into loud static before reintroducing itself when the signal holds. He’s running through his list of influences, mentioning late anti-apartheid and LGBTI activist Simon Nkoli. ‘A while back, a friend of mine encouraged me to read up on him.
A big part of his political career was dedicated to creating inclusive spaces for black, queer people. He founded an organisation called Saturday Group [the first regional black gay group in South Africa] that allowed queer people living in townships to share their lived experiences with each other. That blew me away.’
‘Black queer artists are often alienated by society and the art world for simply existing as themselves.’
Ramaisa and his friend Buyani Duma make up FAKA, a Johannesburg performance art duo, that now also exists as an online platform showcasing and documenting young, black queer voices. The online platform comes as a response to the dearth of media outlets sharing the work of black, queer creative talent. ‘Black queer artists are often alienated by society and the art world for simply existing as themselves. We wanted to create a space that celebrates their work and allows them to present themselves, as they choose, to the world.’
Identity – in all its various subdivisions – has become a ubiquitous topic on social media. Because the net is primarily a self-publishing medium, it lets people be in control of how they present themselves and their different identities to the world. While this freedom of self-expression has been FAKA’s nucleus, the internet also has its limitations. When asked whether queer voices are heard enough, Ramaisa delivers an answer that’s both short and conclusive. No.
‘I mean, it’s starting to happen online but the internet has a class limitation. Not everyone can access it; I know most of the people where I’m from don’t. It’s not representative of the entire society.’
As a performance art duo, Ramaisa and Duma – under their aliases Fela Gucci and Desire Marea – explore themes such as godliness, race and sexuality. Recently, they performed a piece called Waiting For Lorraine… An Introduction to Siyakaka Feminism. The piece was a critique of society’s power structure, but also examined the complexities of gay, sexual relationships.
‘It’s important for black, queer people to be aggressive with their voices.’
‘There are a lot of heteronormative ideas that are recycled in gay, sexual relationships,’ he explains. ‘Like the idea of a top and a bottom, that relates to the idea of male and female sex. Siyakaka Feminism was just all about exploring that power dynamic.’
Sure, it might be all very ‘in-your-face’ but that’s part of the design.
‘It’s important for black, queer people to be aggressive with their voices. There are so many things working against us: our sexuality, our race. It’s important to make our voices heard whenever the opportunity presents itself.’
Vusi Makatsi, Dismantling Gender Binaries
Vusi Makatsi’s work demands to be seen. It has an understated magnetism to it; one that’s as enticing as it is daring. The 22-year-old digital artist’s Tumblr page describes him as ‘a social scientist, queer, activist and a drag artist’. He uses digital art as a way of exploring masculinity and splintering society’s conventions about gender.
In 2015, he released a digital series of artworks that used flowers as a way of interrogating black masculinity and its restrictive nature. The series of photos featured shots of him in soft, inviting poses and also showcased his talent for styling.
‘Artists like Zanele Muholi and make-up artist Matthew Anderson all led to my own sexual liberation.’
‘I draw most of my influence from marginalised artists who do really iconoclastic work,’ he says. ‘Artists like Zanele Muholi and make-up artist Matthew Anderson all led to my own sexual liberation.
I think the most important thing for me is recognising people’s humanity and the people I mentioned have a way of humanising people through their work. Outside of all the social categories we restrict ourselves to, we’re all human, first and foremost.’
The anthropology and psychology student defines himself as gender fluid; there is no one label he conforms to. As such, he says work is dedicated to exploring the entire spectrum of gender identities and ‘creating labels that are inclusive and don’t diminish the intricacies of people’s identities.’
‘You’re angry because I’m “fruity”, but you’re still attracted to me.’
One of his most recent works, BattyBoy is about reclaiming public space. The series features shots of him in different public spaces with fruit a recurring motif.
‘It’s about the street harassment directed at queer people,’ he explains. ‘Cisgender men often buy into the thinking you’re either strictly a man or a woman and you’re only allowed to be attracted to the opposite sex. It kind of trips them out when that isn’t the case. Battyboy was my way of saying that I’m sexy and I got your attention. You’re angry because I’m “fruity”, but you’re still attracted to me.’