FAKA Won't Be Ignored
THE MUSICAL DUO IS redefining what it means to be black and queer in South Africa.
There they are: Two black men strutting through a school gym in full drag, accompanied by a slinky house beat. A space that normally serves as a stage for the braggadocio of team sports is transformed into a runway for luscious wigs and flowy 70s disco getups.
Rapper Desire starts rhyming mantra-like affirmations (Mr. Incredible / I'm choco-colored, edible), only bolstering the voiceover testimonials of queer South Africans: "I never really was given the luxury of discovering my sexuality – I think at the age of three I was told that I was gay," one voice recounts.
The video for “Queenie” is South African performance art duo FAKA – members Fela Gucci and Desire Marea – at its finest: A showcase of black queer experiences in a conservative society known to stifle LGBTQI visibility.
"We have our own way of engaging with, selecting and embracing our own masculinity," Desire tells LURE. "It's about reclaiming ourselves and our spaces."
Despite having some of the world's most progressive constitutional protections for sexual minorities, South African society lags far behind what's codified in law.
Strict Christian morals condemn queerness and non-traditional masculinity, a hangover from white colonial rule, according to Lesiba Mothibe, a transwoman and activist in Johannesburg.
"I feel that black people lost their ways of experiencing things,” she says. “White people came with the Bible, and now the Bible speaks the truth for them. It's why all the things that happen to us … are classified as bad, but I don't see support [for LGBTQI rights] in the country."
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, an estimated 61 percent of South Africans believe that homosexuality should be rejected by society. Same-sex marriages are routinely denied, despite being legal since 2006, and a rising number of anti-gay hate crimes often go unprosecuted.
It's a confusing duality that sometimes deters queer people from coming out publically, says Zane Lelo Meslani, who’s written about South Africa's queer community for the New York Times and other publications.
"We have a piece of paper in the constitution that pretty much protects our rights – it's progressive and fantastic," he says. "But most South Africans are pretty conservative, and their religious background and ideology really shapes how they perceive the world.”
Tired of existing on the edges of society, a new generation of black queer creatives in Johannesburg are using their talents to reclaim visibility.
Ground-zero of the movement is the monthly Pussy Party at hipster hotspot Kitchener's Carvery Bar, which spotlights up-and-coming female and queer artists. Rapper and producer Dope Saint Jude spits about being a lesbian in South Africa, and DJ Doowap, brought up in Canada, the UK and Johannesburg, makes for an interesting mix of Euro electric slide infused with local youth culture.
Such vibrancy has also spilled into the mainstream. FAKA has had massive crossover success, gracing the pages of Cosmopolitan and Glamour. And Eastern Cape-born musician and actor Nakhane has been critically and commercially acclaimed, both at home and in Europe, with his second album, You Will Not Die. Lyrics navigate queerness and Christianity, laid atop 80s synths, haunting guitar riffs and gospel choirs.
For all the progress, however, Mothibe worries that such praise is underpinned by how queerness has become fashionable, potentially reducing the messages of unabashedly queer artists like FAKA to kitsch.
"It's complicated," Desire describes the attention. "We don't know what exactly it means when we're in the mainstream media because you also see how they report on different artists…Very few of them are proactive, a lot of them are reactive."
That's why FAKA has been so vocal, from website mission statements to social media, on how the group’s art should be interpreted.
"I'd like people to broaden their perspective of black people and queer people and Africa," Fela says. "Just speaking from the perspective of a black queer person is enough."
Discover emerging black queer music from South Africa in the SoundCloud setlist below.