Crushing gender stereotypes with South Africa’s Kwaai Diva, Umlilo
South Africa’s Kwaai Diva is a gender non-conforming, genre non-specific artistic expression filtered through an electronic music soundscape. Siya pays the bills by creating content for a top digital media company that boasts over 100 titles across the country, and as Umlilo – a character born out of the need to stop repressing their more fabulous self, add some variation in the often cisgendered world that we live in, and speak out against things that affect marginalized people – f***s shit up in the music scene.
“Umlilo is my outlet to write, produce and perform music and art that inspires people and spark a conversation about the state we are in as human beings.”
Enjoy a mix of Umlilo's latest EP and collaborations the artist has done.
You started out singing in the choir, what else prepared you for what you're doing now?
I was lucky to grow up in a very creative environment, where I was in the musical Sarafina at age 4, which helped me realise what I really wanted to do. I've been in bands and groups over the years and those also made me a better artist, but it was studying theatre and media at Rhodes that prepared me for what I'm doing today. I've been on radio and TV, have acted, directed, written plays, danced in shows and written so many press releases and articles that they’ve all made me the artist I am today. I'm constantly learning.
What music did you grow up listening to and who inspires you now?
I listened to a lot of different types of music from bubblegum pop, Maskandi to jazz and kwaito. Nothing much has changed except now my musical spectrum has grown so I can listen to pop one day and obscure Bulgarian electro the next. It's all about the mood and feeling.
You've said that you live on the internet - why is it the perfect tool for you?
What, besides being able to google anything and everything you want to know about? I don't deal well in social situations, unless I'm on stage, so the internet is a great way to have a barrier, but still share your thoughts, art and interact with people without things being too invasive.
Rap is quite a macho genre, how much fun are you having challenging that stereotype?
By macho do you mean traditionally misogynist and homophobic? Yeah rap has always been unkind to all things feminine, but I was lucky enough to grow up at a time when rap had the likes of Lil Kim, Missy Elliot and Lauryn Hill holding up the feminist flag. I don't really care too much about breaking stereotypes of what a man is supposed to be, it's inevitable that the masculine energies that have destroyed the world to the ground are currently being broken down daily. My work now is to just do me, be a fierce kween and make a positive impact on the world through my art.
You're more than a rapper though, and if we look at your music videos and outfits you're a performance artist, really. How important is it for you to flex your creativity in everything that you do?
I don't really consider myself to be a rapper, I write and produce more songs than just write bars and wear baggy pants. I am a creative first and then a performance artist who happens to like the writing and rhyming styles found in slam poetry, spoken word and rap. So if a song needs a rap instead of singing, I'll do it. At the end of the day my work is very conceptual so the words, visuals, performance and production have to come together to best represent the concept. That's how I work whether in media, music, theatre or film.
What would you like your music to achieve?
I really want to be able to make a positive impact on as many people as possible through my music. I hope it can make people think, laugh, dance, cry and reflect on their own lives. I also hope through my example I can inspire other artists to do their own thing and refuse to be exploited by charisma vampires of the industry. I also would like my music to be enough to sustain me, take me to places I've never been and make an impact while I'm still alive.
What can we expect from you this year - gigs, tours, albums, shows, videos etc.
There is so much happening I don't know where to begin. We are currently editing my new music video single 'Umzabalazo' which was produced by ALV and directed by Odendaal Esterhuyse. Its the last single off my latest EP, Aluta. I've also got a single coming up with Jumping Back Slash, which will be releases internationally. I'm also launching my website and company kwaaidiva.com which will house many projects, merchandising etc. I've been working with my Jozi rap gals Stash Crew, we've started an queer arts organisation called Queer Plus, which will launch in the summer. There's a new EP in the works to be released later this year and my great friend Angel-Ho is also working on some tracks. There's a short film, a book and a theatre show in the works as well, and I will be going on my first world tour in 2017.