UMLILO IS SETTING ARTISTIC NORMATIVITY ON FIRE
June 26, 2019
Genderqueer expression is something that lies outside the bounds of mainstream media while also speaking to what makes South African art singular and spectacular. With a history of sanctions that isolated South Africans from the world, it was imagination that drove the culture forward and that same imagination lives on in the likes of artists like UMLILO. Groundbreaking moments in art happen in the least expected places and the genderqueer singer, songwriter, producer and activist is proof that molds and expectation are what stifle the South African media landscape.
UMLILO’s approach to music is one that discards the notion of boxes; their fluidity flows beyond their gender expression, incorporating various genres and concepts along the way to produce a new experience — in UMLILO’s case, it’s their own genre music called Future Kwaai. In UMLILO’s world, the isms that serve as a barrier to freedom and humanity dignity are done away to ensure freedom for all. It is manifestation in its purest form and they were gracious enough to share that dream with us at AFROPUNK.
You started out as Siya Is Your Anarchist. Would you mind taking us on the journey from that persona to UMLILO?
Siya is Your Anarchist was a very lo-fi experimental project where I was combining the idea of protest music with a post-apocalyptic influence. It was a super gritty, grimy, in-your-face approach to making my music and getting my point across. It was super fun and taught me so much about producing my own sound, performance art and music but it was also limiting once I had outgrown making noise music about the world ending. I had so much more to say and grew at a fast pace as a producer, songwriter, wordsmith and singer. So it was quite natural that Umlilo became the love child of Siya Is Your Anarchist, it was a much clearer direction without a lot of clutter and an all-encompassing way of exploring my musical ideas along with visuals and live experience.
Why the name UMLILO?
Umlilo means fire in isiZulu and fires have an amazing power to ignite and spark something and stimulate growth. It is our source for food and warmth and yet has the ability to destroy. It became a little metaphor for what kind of artist I want to be. I want to be able to be thought-provoking, vulnerable yet fierce and able to break down the walls that exist in society and in entertainment.
What has been your artistic journey? Has it been something that was always there or did you wake up one day and think “I can do this too.”
I’ve always been an entertainer from a very young age. I was drawn to music, dance and film and was always in some kind of choir, band or performance group growing up. It was very encouraging to win talent contests at school or be in front of the Church singing — those were the building blocks that led me to where I am today. I decided to study drama and theatre but couple it with media and journalism and that taught me so much. I wanted to do something that combined all of my interests and with music, I could combine elements of dance, film, media and fashion. It’s something I work towards every day and the journey feels like it’s just beginning to be honest. Every day I’m learning something new and I have this love for music that is beyond me. It’s one of the only things I can do for days on end and not feel too bothered about where the time went.
How would you describe your sound?
I call my sound Future Kwaai. It’s a combination of local and global sounds from the past, present and future — limitless and unwavering. My genre of music is set to break convention by transcending the genre and gender lines. It’s a mixed bag of contemporary avant-garde pop, soul, hip hop, electronica, house, kwaito, dance and so many other genres fused together with political insight, a queer attitude and pop sensibility.
Compared to the mainstream, you’re labeled as experimental. Is that a label that you happily own or is there a more deliberate nature to your art than experimentation?
I don’t mind the label of experimental at all because a lot of what I do is experimental although there is a method to the madness. I have very diverse influences when it comes to music and art that has helped me be open to different sounds and not limit myself. The possibilities are endless when it comes to making music. I just don’t appreciate “experimental” if it’s another box meant to stifle you as an artist, just because people don’t have the words to describe what you do.
The imagery you use is unlike anything being created in this industry — what, whom and where do you pool inspiration from?
I’m inspired by so many things, I live in such a dream world in my head. It’s a combination of influences from film, fashion, literature, current affairs of the world, pop culture and queer culture. I’m hugely inspired by drag aesthetically. I love the idea of being a chameleon and being able to shift and change into different incarnations of self. I’m a quiet observer of culture and trends and that also informs my point of view of what not to do. I’m also friends with so many inspirational people in the arts and beyond, so being surrounded by this magic fuels my fire to produce interesting work.
Groundbreaking art usually comes from the queer Black community and is mostly appreciated underground before it is consumed by the mainstream. Where do you think the industry can do better by putting that queer voice up front and center so we’re not experiencing a watered-down version years later?
Queer people have informed culture for centuries but have been unable until now to be at the forefront of this culture. While it’s an exciting time to be an artist or entertainer because the world is changing and, to some degree, acknowledging the immense erasure of queer voices, we have a long way to go. In South Africa, we still have this tokenism culture where we put one queer person on a line-up to tick a box and we still have gatekeepers that fear what will happen when there’s an equal opportunity for queers and Black women. These gatekeepers are heterosexual men who have been clinging onto the power for so long that they don’t even see that they are being left behind. We no longer have to beg to be included, we just create our own spaces and places to be heard so if the gatekeepers want to continue locking us outside, we’ll just create a whole other avenue and they’ll have to come and approach us. The people in charge in the “industry” still hold all of their prejudices and perceptions and when you are at a place of privilege you think everything you do is right. It’s a battle we fight constantly but I’m not the type of person to force myself into a situation — I’d rather go where I’m appreciated and most artists in SA are seeing appreciation overseas. Hopefully, that will shake up the local industry.
If you would, what has been the most interesting and most challenging aspect of being a genderqueer artist?
The interesting thing for me is how audiences react every time I’m on stage; they’re completely gobsmacked and I can see them try to process everything in their minds. It’s quite hilarious to watch because there’s a level of discomfort that they have which I love to use as fuel. I know that my art is meant to break down stereotypes, challenge people, provoke and entertain and I’m fine with that. The problem I have is not being able to still walk the streets in my own city as who I am because of fear of being harassed, abused, raped or murdered. That fear is something so many of us have to work through every day in Johannesburg and it stifles our growth and prospects. Within the entertainment industry, the challenge is people not wanting to take a risk on an artist like me and so many others — they want to play it safe and do the tried and tested (boring) methods. So it’s an uphill battle to be an independent artist who is Black and genderqueer in South Africa — you’re basically on your own.
What unexplored facet of African queerness are you looking to bring into the world through your art?
I’ve always had such a fascination with queer history in Africa and it’s something that’s so underexplored. I want to know about the two-spirited people that lived on this earth a long time ago. I’ve been looking to bring this ancestral spirit into my music and my debut album, which I’m currently working on; it has traces of this exploration and it’s helped me create such a far out unique SA sound that’s never been heard before. I can’t wait to share it.
You are a Cape Town creative and CT has a rich queer history that many people aren’t aware of. Are you able to tap into that culture/history? Is it something that feels accessible to you there?
I’m actually based in Johannesburg these days but Cape Town had a huge influence on me artistically and socially when I lived there. I think the mix of culture in Cape Town permeated through into the queer world and the history is so rich and inspiring. I’m so amazed sometimes at how queers, especially in the Coloured community, have such support and strong bonds with the rest of the community, we see it in the drag pageant world in Cape Town, people come out in droves to support the queens and I wish other communities had the same spirit. Although I cannot physically tap into that history I admire the rich queer history that comes from the Cape and am very inspired by it. The thing that grates me is the blatant racism in Cape Town and how everyone is so complicit in it. It’s such a diverse city and yet this Eurocentric power still puts a dent on this spirit.
What does PRIDE mean to you as a Black, queer South African?
Pride for me means to be able to fully experience the freedom so many people before I fought for. It’s about self-actualization and being part of a community that is able to build and create a better situation for people everywhere. It’s an intersectional struggle that acknowledges that we can’t do it alone, we need our people to stand with us from different walks of life because my freedom is also theirs. Pride for me is about making people aware that if I’m safe, happy, able to provide for my family and be proud of who I am, that also impacts you. If people are allowed to flourish, the whole community is able to flourish so taking away my rights is actually shooting yourself in the foot.
Who is your dream artist collaboration?
I think I would love to work with so many artists: Gui Tacetti, Sevdaliza, Frank Nitty, Randy Cano, Adam Pizurny just to name a few.
Ok, the white capitalist patriarchy is dead. It’s done. It’s over. There’s a party to celebrate its demise. What are you wearing?
Absolutely nothing. I’d go there naked with my body dipped in gold dust and maybe some jewels that the Queen of England has had to return.
Finish the sentence: Queer South Africans will be free when… all Black South Africans are also free from internalized generational trauma from apartheid, economic recession, patriarchy, racism, sexism and all the other isms.
UMLILO as Karl Lagerveld in CHAIN GANG
Umlilo performs at Intergalactic Space Aliens
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