Taking up space – the revolution of queer, black artists in South Africa

Music is a vehicle for expression – of the self, of our gender and of an artist’s stance on social and political narratives. In South Africa, there is a history of gender-based racism, segregation and political strife that fractured the cultural and artistic expression of individuals for decades. However, breaking through the cracks are vibrant and dynamic artists creating space for something new, for something ‘neutral’.

In a post-apartheid society, women gradually moved into previously male-dominated genres like Jazz, where certain instruments were typically gendered. The gradual expansion of diversity in contemporary music was exciting, but revealed the constant criticism and interrogation on an artist’s body as a site of cultural or sexual identification. 

Ensuring artists are safe means choosing when and where they occupy sonic and physical space, or whether to occupy it in the music industry at all.

Despite the legality of same-sex relationships, gender marker amendments and equality for queer people, South Africa has a volatile history of discrimination and violence against members of the LGBTQIA+ community, due to stigma around the nature of gender and sexual identity in African culture. 

Black and queer artists are monopolising on not only having the resources and opportunity to achieve creative expression through music, but also using the reach of digital media to connect with people in South Africa and beyond.

Public expression of sexuality within the music industry is a rebellion against queer erasure. A community of artists are showing that being black, being queer and being African is symbiotic, not a series of extensions of the self. Showcasing the fluidity of their identities through their music means, track by track, they are carving out space for themselves and for those looking for role models in an industry that doesn’t always open the door to all. 

Umlilo, shot by Nina Bekink of Jolburg

The interwoven styles, genres and beats incorporate a multiverse of sound and speak to aspects of South African culture and the artists’ upbringing. From soundbites of religious hymnals to techno and electronic beats reminiscent of dancefloors dense with moving bodies. 

Artists are subverting normalised binaries and taking agency to make a space for liberation, innovation, and resilience in a postcolonial and often turbulent society.

Umlilo is an artist who uses their appearance, their music, and their videos to challenge societal norms in South Africa. Born and raised in Johannesburg, this ‘gender bending’ musician is proudly “queer, black, South African and non-binary”. Between their time spent melding melancholic synths and silky-smooth vocals, Umlilo is spearheading change, change they hope will permeate other African countries where nonconforming sexuality is oppressed and punished.

Hosted by Mykki Blanco, ‘Out of This World’ is a short documentary on performers and creators in the queer scene of Johannesburg featuring Umlilo. This cinematic capsule showcases how identity transcends the constructs we project onto it. How not only accepting but celebrating this allows this community to feel safe in artistic spaces, and spend time connecting to the music and themselves rather than how their image is being perceived.

‘Out of This World’ hears from queer and black individuals in Johannesburg and their perspective on marginalised voices in the community. It discloses an overarching acknowledgement that women’s voices are consistently crushed or overlooked.

When queerness is incorporated the danger intensifies, especially with masc presenting lesbian women. Subverting the cultural norms of femininity is seen as a risk, but KwaZulu-Natal born Desire Marea revels in the rebellion of the matriarchs who’ve been before. 

In ‘Tavern Kween’, a track from their album Desire, Desire Marea is the architect of a sonic soundscape growing from within. It starts slowly, like an existing foundation of our own identity that unfurls with every beat, growing skyward as the levels of who we are and who we could be grow and grow. 

The song is a tribute to Desire’s “assertive aunts” who prevailed in a patriarchal society. An ode to all of those who “are fierce about claiming their freedom” and a message for “the future kweens we hope to inspire”. 

The track is layered, like a cacophony of melodic waves crashing onto South Africa’s shores, eroding the past to make way for the present. 

Desire Marea spoke about how they were harassed at an airport in 2018 whilst on their way to perform at a festival in Berlin as part of their duo FAKA – “The price of visibility is consistent violation”. Yet they continue to reclaim their freedom in public to pave the way for others to do the same.

Another track on the album, ‘You Think I’m Horny’, is sung like a hymnal. The chanting vocals alike a rhythmic recital that transforms into a pacey dance track. This melding of spirit and soul an anthem for Desire’s own congregation. 

There still exists a climate of colourism in the country, but race is another part of these artists’ identities that becomes empowered by visibility in the industry. Black and queer musicians are here to make music that speaks to them and those that connect with their words and sounds. Their subversion of societal norms is not an effort to be seen as simply a queer, black “mascot” for change on stage.

This community of creators are using music as a call to arms, a call of community for the queer diaspora and a mouthpiece for those living inauthentically in the place they call home – I can’t wait to hear what they have to say next.

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