Johannesburg-born, Cape Town-bred performance artist Umlilo is on fire. Not literally, despite taking his namesake from the word for the Zulu equivalent, but with the recent release of his latest single “Reciprocity,” the daytime journalist, musician by night continues to challenge stereotypes around gender and equality with fervor.
The music video, written, directed, produced, and edited by Odendaal Esterhuyse, tells a tale about the interdependent nature of experience and what it means to be in love. It’s the self-proclaimed kwaai (South African street slang for "cool") diva extraordinaire’s sixth visual experiment, a multi-disciplinary pastiche of the avant-garde. Framed by various barren backdrops, choreographer Robert Haxton sees Kopano Maroga and Umlilo weaving around each other in a mock mating dance, their red lycra-clad bodies dispelling any hint of biological sex.
The focal point here is duality, not as it relates to the dichotomy created by socially constructed gender stereotypes, but in the dynamic brought about by falling in love. As with all universal principles, there is a cause and an effect, a give and take. “When it’s good it is like taking a breath of fresh air but when it’s bad it feels like you’re suffocating,” says Esterhuyse. The mutability of emotion means that feelings of love are rarely static and never simple. South Africa is no stranger to this dance—it's part mired in schisms of race, religion, politics, and territory, and Umlilo’s music reflects that. “What makes us different is usually what makes us great,” Umlilo says in a TEDx video. “But for the longest time in our lives, that difference separates us so negatively from the rest of the world.” His androgynous individuality and fearless audio-visual “future kwaai” aesthetic are defiant. The Creators Project spoke to Umlilo to gain more insight into "Reciprocity":
Who is Umlilo? Why did you create him, and what does he represent?
Umlilo: Umlilo is an exaggerated version of myself, an alter-ego if you will. I used to perform as Siya Is Your Anarchist which was a lot more political, loud, abrasive, and Umlilo sort of became the kind of artist I wanted to be that would be a lot more mature, explore different sounds, and also be a little more polished. I couldn’t use my name Siya because there’s already a Sia in the music world.
You’ve just released your latest single “Reciprocity”. What inspired the song and the video?
It’s a song asking how the feeling of butterflies can so quickly turn into suffocation when you’re falling in love. The song comes from a long archive of unreleased songs about unrequited love, heartbreak, and all the other trimmings of falling in love. I wrote it about a specific person but also wanted to explore the idea of reciprocation in love, which can have both positive and negative effects.
You’ve used white paint before, in your video for “Magic Man.” Does it represent anything in particular?
The white paint in "Magic Man" sort of represented a ritual. In Xhosa culture [one of South Africa’s 11 national ethnic groups], when young boys are sent to the mountains to be circumcised, white paint is used as part of the ritual. In “Magic Man” the white represents the metamorphosis and the ritual thereof of me becoming something, blossoming into something if you will. In “Reciprocity,” the paint acts as a motif showing me as a clean canvas to which art can be projected.
Are all the characters in your videos genderless?
My characters aren’t genderless, necessarily. It’s very difficult to create genderless characters but rather they are inspired by the idea that gender is not one or two things. Gender is just as wide as sexuality, race, and all the other identifiers. Gender is not necessarily important to me but because I’ve always naturally been androgynous, it is projected onto me by the people who follow my work as an interpretation. So for me now, I want to have the conversation about gender and hopefully discover many little intricacies within this complex matter.
Are there any risks associated with being openly gay in South Africa, despite discrimination based on sexual orientation being banned under South Africa’s constitution?
There’s always a risk of being openly gay all over the world regardless of what country you are in because the law and constitution are one thing, but until everyone accepts it as their own personal law, there will always be conflict. It’s just like racism—it’s not OK to be racist but it still doesn’t stop people from killing others for the color of their skin.
Do you write and record your own music? How has technology played a part in this process?
I write, produce, and record most of my music. My musician friend Shaun Acker owns a studio called In The Closet Studio where we recorded most of Aluta EP. Technology has done everything for my music because it’s mostly electronic and relies on that.
What is “kwaai”? How does “kwaai sound” exist outside the bounds of genre?
Kwaai means something fierce and cool in South African tsoti taal [slang]. Kwaai sounds fit in very well outside of its genre because its existence incorporates and relies on so many different elements.
South Africa is often called the “rainbow nation.” How does this resonate with you?
We are a rainbow nation in terms of the amount of different racial groups, cultures, and languages that exist in this country. This does not mean we are happy and smiling with each other all the time. A country riddled by a racially divided past will not be able to get over it overnight, but it’s once we recognize that difference is good, then we can move forward.
Why did you stage your death in the video for “Chain Gang”?
I was turning 27 and had a lot of thoughts about the 27 Club and artists who died young. I also wanted to reinvent myself and do something different, so Katey Carson approached me with the idea and we loved it immediately. There’s also something poetic about staging your own death. You fear death less, and become a lot of more comfortable with living.
What does having freedom of expression mean to you?
It means having to make the art I make, speak my voice, wear what I want, say what I want without somebody else telling me what to do. It is so pivotal to what we do as queer artists. Without it we won’t progress. We’ll only go backwards. Without freedom of expression what else do we have?