How queer and non-binary artists are re-imagining the South African creative identity
Words: Caron Williams | Photography: Supplied
Creative expression has largely been a luxury in South Africa. Beyond battling generational poverty and the profound dehumanisation of existing under a racist regime, exploring the spectrum of who we are as South Africans beyond a racial lens was almost unfathomable for a long time. Creatives carried the responsibility of voicing the muted cries and cumulative sorrow of an entire people. Artistic expression, an often deeply personal and introspective process, was a luxury not many local talents could truly explore.
The post-apartheid South African creative landscape, much like society at large, has inherited a preoccupation with race relations as the legacy of Apartheid, racism and the grossly disproportionate distribution of economic resources still plagues us as a nation. In the midst of all this a new breed of creatives are emerging and ushering a creative renaissance that intrinsically explores who they are and represents those who remain marginalised. The contemporary musical, art and fashion landscape has been ignited with boundary crossing creatives whose careers serve as a form of social activism and are dedicated to increasing the visibility of queer, transgender and non-binary South Africans. Their aesthetic and music are so powerfully expressive, they've become the catalyst for stirring and deeply needed dialogue on identity, sexuality, elevating and so much more.
The re-imagining of the South African creative identity remains an exhaustive task, but powerful voices such as FAKA, Mx Blouse, Angel-Ho and K-$ are among those at the forefront of ushering in this movement of bold, unapologetic creative leaders changing the game. Mx Blouse is a status quo challenging artist with a particular focus on representing non-binary artists locally. With preferred pronouns being they or them, Mx Blouse's merging of rap, kwaito and Gqom have invigorated the local sonic spectrum. With their tremendous talent, musical prowess and non-conformance to prescribed gender norms, Mx Blouse juxtaposes the sonic "masculinity" traditionally associated with rap and kwaito and the "femininity" often associated with avant-garde fashion and aesthetics. Their music further challenges topics traditionally covered in South African rap with nuanced lyrics exploring issues such as the autonomy of women, their freedom and safety.
"I believe identity and expression are inextricably linked. Identity, to me, is the sum total of one's understanding of the self, in relation to the world around us. What we express and how we express it can only be informed by that understanding. So, for example: if my understanding of self is that I command superiority over someone born with a vagina, my expression will reflect that, and I will see nothing wrong with expressing that openly because that is how I understand things to be. For me personally, I have this strong desire to not simply exist. If i did, I think I'd be happy with accepting what the society I was born into accepts as fact, but I'm not. My desire for purpose leads me to question the norms of society. So, I think, all in all, my expression is fundamentally informed by my quest for identity in a world of boundless complexities. I love documenting this journey, but I also love sharing the ideas that come about as I go through this journey. Music just so happens to be how I enjoy sharing these ideas." - Mx Blouse
Another inspiring example is Thato Ramaisa and Buyani Duma, popularly known as Fela Gucci and Desire Marea – the talented duo behind FAKA. Described as a cultural movement, the creatives and performance art collective have made an indelible mark on both the local and international creative community. According to the duo, their creative expression is rooted in the "unapologetic representation of Black Queer Culture in South Africa, one that embraces the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and spirituality". Their ascension within the creative space has been a result of their unique combination of "mediums ranging from sound, live performance, literature, video and photography, to create an eclectic aesthetic with which they express their ideas about themes central to their experience as black queer bodies navigating the cis-hetero-topia of post-colonial Africa."
FAKA's creative narratives and unique expression through fashion has been so compelling they've captured the attention of the global fashion and music scene. They've enjoyed features in fashion bible Vogue, performed internationally and were recently invited by Donatella Versace to the Versace SS19 menswear show to have their Amaqhawe EP serve as the soundtrack to the runway affair, which featured the likes of Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid. Speaking to Vogue about their unique fashion identity, they speak on why their aesthetics represent more than just clothes, but powerfully support the narrative they aim to convey and the ethos they live by. "I guess it's similar to the Skhothane culture, where kids from the township are trying to create an identity outside of poverty by reimagining themselves through style."
Cape Town based artist Angel-Ho has taken gender activism a step further by transcending the notion of gender altogether through intense exploration of sound and conceptual performances. In an interview with Dazed Angel-Ho poignantly explains the birth of their creative persona.
"There are so many complexities to South Africa's history which moulds my reality, identity and have become components of my DNA, through the traumas my parents experienced living during Apartheid South Africa. It has only been 20 years since its end, and has left generations feeling displaced, forcefully removed from their homes where cultures are born, and left scaring the land like a room full of needles and one island of hay, so Angel-Ho is a result of that trauma."
Cape Town has proven to nurture an important movement tackling traditional gender norms and fighting for the creation of open dialogue and representation through creativity. Cape Town born and raised K-$, an increasingly important voice for transgender artists and creatives, has captured the attention of many within the industry through his talent, honesty and rising success. His openness about his transition, confidence and sheer bravery has been incredibly inspiring to all those who have followed his journey.
Whilst South Africa still has a very long way to go in protecting and supporting queer and non-binary creatives, the strides that FAKA, Mx Blouse, Angel-Ho, K-$ and countless other local creatives have made is immeasurable. The commitment to their crafts and creative expression not only expands the spectrum of what is creatively deemed as music or art; they fight each day to be catalysts for stirring commentary in South Africa. Their presence alone is a feat to be celebrated, and their artistic excellence and creative activism will open the doors for countless acts to follow.
Their continuous rise is also important to note because it signifies a paradigm shift slowly underway within the South African music industry. Queer and non-binary artists are beginning to resonate with music and cultural fans in a way traditional artists struggle to because they're promoting authenticity, innovating South African music and reflecting upon pertinent issues, which has resulted in them no longer existing on the fringes of mainstream South African music.
The challenges they face are still significant, but their increasing pull is beginning to decentralise the music industry and decrease the power many traditional gatekeepers hold. We're at a creative tipping point and queer, transgender and non-binary artists are amongst the new vanguards of creative progression.