“There is not one but many silences”: Responses to Inxeba (the wound)

To say that the movie, Inxeba (the wound) is controversial is to put in mildly. I have written about my experience of seeing the film, and how moved I was by the movie. The film has resurfaced the conversation about Xhosa initiation rites. I say “resurfaced” because the conversation about Xhosa initiation tradition is an ongoing conversation. Both Thando Mgqolozana, one of the writers of Inxeba, and Nakhane, one of the actors in the movie, wrote about the initiation process or some aspects of it in their respective books. Thando Mgqolozana wrote A Man Who Is Not a Man and Nakhane wrote Piggy Boy Blues. So Inxeba, the movie, uses a different medium to contribute to an ongoing conversation about different initiation experiences.

Majola’s album Boet/Sissy is also part of this ongoing conversation. In Boet/Sissy Majola sings about life as a queer Xhosa man. I wrote a review of the album as I was also moved by Majola’s work. It is worth repeating partly what I wrote on the review of the song Mountain View, where Majola sings about falling in love on the mountain:

“The Xhosa tradition of men going to the mountain for circumcision is a topic often treated with kid gloves. In the song, Mountain View Majola rejects kid gloves and sings about falling in love and having a relationship on the mountain with another initiate. Interestingly, this is the only song on the album sung in English. Majola is bold because not only does he have a love affair on the mountain with another dude, he then sings about it. It is a kind-of middle finger to the homophobic Xhosa culture establishment. Because of what the mountain represents, it is the last place one would expect a same-sex love affair to flourish. But then again, maybe it is the ideal place seeing that it is only men walking around naked often with their penises hanging out. Although men are often all alone on the mountain, there’s often nothing erotic about that space, on the contrary, it can be dangerously homophobic. Maybe Majola is trying to prove to us that you can find love anywhere. I have to say though, getting a boner is not ideal on the mountain seeing that you are trying to heal a wound on the penis. This has got to be the first romantic song about a love affair on the mountain during initiation. The love experienced on the mountain is depicted as raiser sharp. Hot. And saucy. Majola talks about learning to love another man and understanding love. Singing about the lover on the mountain he states: “He was kind to me, patience a gift from him. I understood love, and how to make love from that initiate on the mountain.” Although both men experience great love, the love doesn’t survive beyond the mountain. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album. Audacious. And just awesome.”

What I want to demonstrate here is that there are some Xhosa men, particularly queer Xhosa men who have been vocal and engaging in a conversation about Xhosa initiation rites. Mgqolozana, Nakhane, and Majola have all produced work that speaks to Xhosa initiation rites. These creative works highlight the different experiences of boys journeying to manhood. Inxeba is a wonderful contribution to this ongoing conversation.

Before I watched the movie, I had seen on social media and newspapers that there were people, particularly Xhosa men who were against the movie. Many have been upset because the movie exposes Xhosa initiation rites “secrets.”

Nakhane has received death threats over the movie. As people living in a democratic South Africa, people are allowed not to like the movie and express disagreement over it, but death threats over the movie are alarming. Ironically, the death threats towards Touré reveals the very toxic Xhosa masculinity that is on display in the movie. The violence that Touré is being threatened with is linked to the violence that often accompanies the making of Xhosa men. You have to appreciate the fucked-up-ness of our society where death threats are so nonchalantly issued and treated as normal when you disagree with someone.

Even the Xhosa King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu has weighed in on the “debate” over the movie calling for a boycott of the movie. It is hard to imagine that King Sigcawu has seen the movie yet because he is in the Eastern Cape and the movie has had limited screenings, and none of them were in the Eastern Cape. This means that the King has not seen the movie, but he is calling for a boycott of the movie.

According to the Times, the Xhosa King and other traditional leaders will submit a complaint to the Film and Publication Board and National Heritage Council about the film, apparently, the film is “too graphic.” As someone who has seen the movie, I wonder which part of the movie is “too graphic”? Is it the bum sex scene? Is it the circumcision scene? Or is it the scene at the end of the movie?

According to the Times, the King has said that the movie will instigate “the wrath of ancestors. Attacking and insulting this custom is an attack to our ancestors.” This is interesting because the King does not seem to wonder about the “wrath of the ancestors” when queer Xhosa boys are physically and sexually assaulted when they go through initiation. Where is the talk of the “wrath of the ancestors” when Xhosa boys come back from the mountains in body bags. I am sorry King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu but the “wrath of your the ancestors” is very selective, not to mention condones homophobic violence.

I find that the outrage over the movie is outward looking. People are preoccupied about how we, Xhosa people, will look to the “outside” world. Yet, the call of this movie is for us, Xhosa people, to look at ourselves. It is a call to maybe rethink some aspects of our culture.  It is a call to think about – what does the things we do do? While it is important that we respect and take pride in our Xhosa customs and traditions, we can’t do so blindly. As people, we need to question and call out harmful practices, even if they have a long lineage.

The responses calling for the boycott of the movie, and the death threats on Nakhene’s life, is all about silencing. The responses are about having control over the narrative surrounding initiation practices. The initiation process is shrouded in secrecy. It is mythologized. One is forbidden to talk about it in fear that “secrets” will be revealed. As Xhosa men, we are held to ransom with the silence. The silence is powerful. At times the silence enables destruction. The silences surrounding the initiation process reminds me of Michel Foucault, who wrote:

“Silence itself–the thing one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers–is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies.  There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case.  There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” (The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, p. 27).

Indeed, there are many silences surrounding the Xhosa initiation process and Inxeba breaks some of that silence. We need to pay attention to the silences that exist between all the things that are said about the process of making Xhosa men. In the loud elevation of pride in tradition, there is the silencing of the horrific aspects of our cultural traditions. In the blind and vigorous holding on to “Xhosaness”, there is the silence on the destruction of young people’s lives. While there is noise about preparing men for heterosexual manhood, there is silence about homosexual desires. There is silence over the production of misogyny in the initiation process. There is silence over the botched circumcisions that are reported on every “circumcision season.” There are silences about the particularity of the initiation experience for queer Xhosa boys.

Instead of calling for a boycott of the movie, we should really take this opportunity as a space for conversation. The movie is a conversation starter for us to engage with each other, and not just about same-sex love between Xhosa men, but the initiation process itself. We should see this movie as a mirror held up to our faces so that we, as Xhosa people, can look at ourselves. Future generations of Xhosa people, specifically Xhosa boys will be grateful that this moment happened.

Inxeba (The wound) – The trouble with making men

 

Directed by John Trengrove. Written by John Trengrove, Thando Mgqolozana, and Malusi Bengu

 

Inxeba (the wound) is a groundbreaking movie. It is a combination of artistry, emotional depth, and a serious engagement with a difficult subject, often taboo subject, that makes Inxeba probably the best South African movie in 2017. Nakhane Touré who plays Xolani, Bongani Mantsai who plays Vij, and Niza Jay who plays Kwanda are amazing in their individual portrays of the characters, but are explosive as a trio. In this movie you are confronted by the violence inherent in the construction of Xhosa manhood through circumcision. You are confronted with the pain of Xhosa men who are unable to claim and live out their sexualities. After watching this movie I am even more convinced that the subject formation of Xhosa men is a violent process. Also, the process of man making is lonely.

Inxeba is a movie about the experiences of queer Xhosa men when they go to initiation school. It is a movie about the intersection of sexuality, manhood, tradition, and desire. The movie exposes the ways in which manhood, particularly Xhosa manhood, in this case, is rigidly policed by other men. You are confronted with the consequences of a homophobic culture and society where men are unable to claim and live out their sexual desires for each other.

I went to go watch the movie with my queer friends. While we were watching the movie, we laughed out loud at certain moments in the movie, we gasped, we looked at each other knowingly, we made faces to each other. We were seeing ourselves in the movie. When we spoke after the movie, we all agreed that watching the movie was like seeing our younger selves on the screen. Stories that centralise the experiences of black queers matters because there is very little of our reflections in South African stories. These stories also matter because they enable us to publicly engage in conversations about culture, manhood, and sexuality. These stories create platforms that enable us to have a conversation about what it means to be a man in post-apartheid South Africa. What is the role of culture in 21 century South Africa? Stories like these enable us to ask questions about the process of “constructing a man.”

For me, this movie has resurfaced questions I have often debated with my and myself and my friends, like, how do you make a man? What makes a man a man? Who can be a man? Who says who can be a man? As a queer person, I have had to engage these questions all my life because my manhood was always under scrutiny. And many men have noted my “failure” at performing manhood.  In one of the scenes in the movie, the initiates are circumcised and the person who does the circumcision asks the recently cut boys to shout “I am a man.” There is something powerful about this pronouncement. Uttering these words just after you have been circumcised cement Xhosa culture belief that you are only a man once the foreskin is gone. It is also bizarre that the foreskin is what separates “boys” from “men.” But of course, I am being simple, for I know that it is not foreskin per se that is at the heart of this practice but the pain you endure as you recover from circumcision.

At one point in the movie, the father of the queer initiate addresses the caregiver, giving him instructions to be “firm” with the queer kid. The father complains that his son is “too soft” and then he goes on to blame the mother for the boy’s softness. It is ironic how the supposed “failure” of the son to be “manly” is blamed on the mother, not the father. Which of course, begs the question, had the son succeeded at being “manly”, whatever the fuck that is, who would get the kudos? I’ll go on a limb here and say that the father would praise himself for having raised a “man.”

The father distances himself from his son, which is very revealing of the relationships many queer boys, particularly effeminate queer boys, have with their fathers. In this then manhood is associated with not being “soft”, not being a “mama’s boy”, and if you are soft, you need to be toughened up. In Xhosa culture, a man is made through pain. The ability to withstand immense pain is intricately tied to Xhosa masculinity. This is not unique to Xhosa culture, of course, it is part of patriarchy in many parts of the world. When I think of manhood construction through pain, when I think of this movie, I am reminded of bell hooks when she wrote:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.” – bell hooks

The accuracy of bell hooks in describing the violence of patriarchy on men is chilling. bell hooks speak to the detrimental effects of patriarchy on men. She speaks to the value of feminism for men. She speaks to the need for men to fight patriarchy because it damages men. This quote speaks to the destructive ways in which the characters portrayed in Inxeba conduct themselves, towards themselves and then to each other.

I was incredibly moved by the scene where the men are asked to verbalise and claim manhood after they are circumcised. The “I am a man” scene is interesting to me on many accounts. The queer initiate Kwanda, played by Niza Jay is the last initiate to be circumcised. He is then also asked to announce the statement “I am a man.” In his effeminate voice, Kwanda repeats the phrase. It is the first time we hear Kwanda speak, and the voice is a “giveaway” that he is queer. Even my friends and I looked at each other in the theatre when Kwanda spoke.  After Kwanda says the phrase “I am a man”, the man who performed the circumcision asks him to repeat the phrase, and Kwanda does. Kwanda is the only initiate who is asked to repeat the statement as if he was not heard before but most likely because he was not believable the first time around.

The “I am a man” scene reminded me of myself in many ways. When I went to initiation school, none of the boys who were initiates with me knew who I was. I was thrust into a “man’s world”, a world I had never really been part of in the ways the other boys were. In many ways, I am still not part of that world. I was acutely aware of violent homophobia when you are queer in the company of other men. Men often perform homophobic violence in the presence of other men, in conversation with other men. When I arrived on the mountain I knew that my survival depended on being a wallflower. The problem, of course, is that my personality does not lend itself to be a wallflower. I had decided that I will say as little as possible, keep to myself, and avoid any contact or conversation that would “out” me. It was only on the second day that I realised my plan not to be “out” had failed when another initiate mocked me by mimicking the way I had said the “I am a man” phrase after circumcision. My effeminate voice had betrayed me. Now my girly intonation was being used to mock me. The violence and shame I felt in that moment still makes me well up. And it’s been over a decade now.

The relationship between Xolani and Vij is complicated. They are both in the closet, and they annually meet during “circumcision season” on the mountains.  Vij has a wife and children. Xolani lives a lonely life. Xolani’s loneliness is haunting. What Nakhane Touré does with this character is nothing short of brilliant. Xolani really only goes to the mountain to be with Vij. Considering the homophobic context they live in, and their own policing of their desires, it’s an impossible situation. The homophobia is not only coming from their society and culture, it is also internalised by the men. The two men share intimate moments with each other, but there’s also violence in their intimate moments. It’s as if their desires for each other has to be mitigated by violence.

There are two moments in the movie where we see the complex intimate yet violent interaction between Xolani and Vij play out. When Xolani tries to kiss Vij, he pushes him away, also when he tries to give him oral sex he pushes him away. In both moments Xolani is violently rejected. These are heartbreaking moments. They are moments that make obvious the intricate relationship between shame and desire, and the sometimes consequent violence. Xolani loves Vij, and I think Vij also loves Xolani, in his own way. But it is a love that cannot speak itself. It is a love that cannot be lived or expressed. It is a love that must quietly exist for a couple of weeks in a year, and even then, it must be hush about its existence. Xolani desires more than what Vij can give, and Vij is not willing to give more than he already has, which is not much to begin with.  In this way, Inxeba borrows much from the queer archive of stories of love and double lives, of impossible arrangements where one is sustained for a year by a patchy intimacy of six weeks, and most of all the self-annihilation in the denial of one’s desires.

The irony about the circumcission tradition in Xhosa culture is that it is homoerotic. There are two examples I want to highlight of a homoerotic nature in the movie. Firstly, it is when the initiates are starting to heal, and they decide to show each other their penises. They play a version of “show me yours, I will show you mine” and it is hilarious. The queer initiate is excluded from this conversation. It is not uncommon for men in groups to play show-and-tell, and it is excused as “boys being boys.” The sexual tension that might accompany these show-and-tell moments is often underplayed or nullified. Secondly, when the boys are about to head home, when they are fully healed, the older men comment on the beauty of the circumcised penis. The talk of the penis as a beautiful organ in the movie is strikingly similar to the way my queer friends talk about penises when we are having “kitchen” talk.

Inxeba succeeds because of the richness of the characters of Xolani, Vij and Kwanda. It succeeds because it paints these characters as people with fluid and complex desires navigating rigid systems of identity and culture. These characters are real, they are people I know, I have seen them. This movie succeeds because it sidesteps the traps of portraying black characters on television and movies, particularly queer characters, as one dimensional. It challenges head on the overly simplistic notion that homosexuality is “unAfrican.” Homosexual desires exist wherever there are people. Our homosexual desires are formed in ways we sometimes cannot explain, but there they are. This movie opens up space where we can have a conversation about our desires, space where our desires matter.  As a nation, we should all applaud John Trengrove and the team for an amazing job at story telling. Inxeba is an immense contribution to the queer archive in South Africa.

 

 

Boet/Sissy – Black. Queer. Xhosa.

I was introduced to Majola’s album, Boet/Sissy by a friend who tagged me on Facebook. I immediately went online to have a quick listen, and then bought the album instantly. The subject matter of the album is of particular interest to me. The album focuses on the experiences of a black gay man, trying to make sense of the world. The album is the life journey of a black gay man predominantly sung in Xhosa. I love this album and I am with Majola in the politics of this album. This album is the epitome of being young, gifted, queer, and black. In this piece I embrace and celebrate Majola’s work talking to all the ways that this album resonates and inspires me. Boet/Sissy is a poignant reminder of the artistic talent in South Africa, but also of the myriad of stories we are yet to tell about what it means to live with the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, in post-apartheid South Africa.

The first thing that grabs your attention about this album is the title. When I read about the album I was first amused and then really moved by the title Boet/Sissy. You see as an effeminate gay man, I know all too well the weight of the term Boet/Sissy. I’m also acutely aware of the venom that usually accompanies this phrase. Growing up in Xhosa culture (I believe this is the case in other black communities in South Africa) Boet/Sissy was, and to some still is, a derogatory term that is used to bash gay men, especially effeminate gay men. The phrase is directed at effeminate gay men for being men who “act” like women. So Boet (or in Xhosa Bhuti) represents the male side, and then Sissy of course represents the effeminacy. It is a term that is often used interchangeably with “talase” which is a word people call gay me. It is a term that suggests one has both male and female genitalia. So then Boet/Sissy and talase are used as derogatorily synonyms for each other. People who use these words as putdowns often don’t care about the “real” meaning of the words, but are only interested in using the words to shame and to hurt whoever is perceived to be of a different sexual orientation. With the risk of sounding too postmodern, Majola is reclaiming this phrase; he is taking back the power. For me, Majola uses the Boet/Sissy in a productive way, similarly to the ways in which we have reclaimed the word queer. The use of Boet/Sissy is also similar to the way academics and artists have found productive use of shame, shame associated with same-sex sexuality. Majola’s use of Boet/Sissy is a queer thing to do, therefore immensely political. The fact that the album is mostly sung in Xhosa, which means it is directed to a black audience, speaks profoundly of the politics Majola is engaged in. When I saw the name of this album, I immediately thought about the piece I wrote about the complexities of sexual identity and the Xhosa language. In the piece I try to come to terms with having no specific Xhosa words in everyday language to talk about the diversity of sexual and gender identity. This piece sparked a number of conversations over the radio, and it seems the conversation of sexual identity and language continues in a different form with Majola’s album.

boet-sissy1

In the beginning of the album, in the first interlude Majola is standing in front of a judge before he is sentenced to jail. So his first utterances in the whole album is “I stand in this court a man, fully aware that manhood is a narrowly defined subject within society.” This opening lines targets the narrow definitions of manhood, particularly black manhood that often positions black gay men as outside of manhood. And then Majola goes on to define what he thinks is a man. Although I like what he says, and I think that he is politically astute to issues of masculinity, I find the five interludes in the album interruptive.

After the first interlude Majola then proceeds to the first song, track number two. The track is named Khanyisa, and it starts with the birth of a boy named Khanyisa in 1985 (which incidentally is the year I was born). In the song he does this haunting repetition of “kwazalwa indodana” – a boy is born. As Khanyisa grows up, experiences life, trying to discover himself, he gets lost wondering through life. Khanyisa eventually meets a woman called Nobanzi who saves Khanyisa’s life. The friendship that Khanyisa has with Nobanzi   restores him, as this woman loves him. The affection with witch the lyrics are delivered warms the heart. The song is almost homage to the relationship between black women and effeminate black gay men. I have these relationships. These relationships are what got me through high school. I would be nothing, nothing without the love and support of black women. The song sets the tone for the album in a way, as he deals with issues of light and darkness, getting lost and found, and eventually loving yourself.

The third track called Bawo – father – the word is also often used in reference to God. This song is an affirmation of the gay identity. Majola talks about a boy who is cursed out, really chased out by his father for falling in love with other men. Majola begs in this, asking why the father is rejecting the gay son, where will he go? What is this boy to do? There is a theme of redemption in this album, and in this song Majola then continues with the narrative of being lost and found. The gay boy who is cursed out by the father finds his way to the big city and his life spirals out of control. This is a powerful song that speaks to the lives of many lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) young people who escape home because of abuse. The homophobia experienced by young people is sometimes so intolerable that they would rather live elsewhere with friends or on the streets. Majola begs, and pleads for acceptance in this song. The piano keys coupled with Majola’s voice especially as the track fades towards the end has an incredibly haunting sound. I feel like this song is also speaking to the difficult relationship gay men often have with their fathers. A relationship of course that is mediated by the culture of patriarchy which often renders the gay boy useless, not man enough, and therefore not a good son. Having never had a real relationship with my own father, I can relate to this song. Majola is really engaging us in a conversation about masculinity and what it means to be a father to a gay kid.

The Xhosa tradition of men going to the mountain for circumcision is a topic often treated with kid gloves. In the song Mountain View Majola rejects kid gloves and sings about falling in love and having a relationship on the mountain with another initiate. Interestingly, this is the only song on the album sung in English. Majola is bold because not only does he have a love affair on the mountain with another dude, he then sings about it. It is a kind-of middle finger to the homophobic Xhosa culture establishment. Because of what the mountain represents, it is the last place one would expect a same-sex love affair to flourish. But then again, maybe it is the ideal place seeing that it is only men walking around naked often with their penises hanging out. Although men are often all alone on the mountain, there’s often nothing erotic about that space, on the contrary, it can be dangerously homophobic. Maybe Majola is trying to prove to us that you can find love anywhere. I have to say though, getting a boner is not ideal on the mountain seeing that you are trying to heal a wound on the penis. This has got to be the first romantic song about a love affair on the mountain during initiation. The love experienced on the mountain is depicted as raiser sharp. Hot. And saucy. Majola talks about learning to love another man and understanding love. Singing about the lover on the mountain he states: “He was kind to me, patience a gift from him. I understood love, and how to make love from that initiate in the mountain.” Although both men experience great love, the love doesn’t survive beyond the mountain. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album. Audacious. And just awesome.

The second interlude is track number five where Majola talks about being different and the journey to self-love. “I have always felt different to other males, stares of disdain, the name calling, distant affection from elder males and sometimes the violence inflicted on me confirmed that I was indeed different. The price I paid for being different is the excruciating loneliness I felt. Accompanied by guilt, shame and stigma, I overacted being a man and still wasn’t man enough to many … I was a secrete friend to some, and a secrete lover to many. I thought I was deserving of secrete validation, someone had to take a stand for me, and to my luck that someone turned out to be Me.” – Poetic.

Then there’s the title track where Majola captures the anxiety of growing up gay in the township. He speaks of the warnings people often give to visibly gay kids where they warn the young gay about their deviant sexuality. When I was growing up, people would say that you will grow up and become like uNokuku. Nokuku is an effeminate openly gay man that lived in New Brighton and was well know in Port Elizabeth and the surrounding areas. I believe Nokuku still lives in Port Elizabeth. Nokuku is what all young gay kids were warned against, he was used as an example of what one should never be. Nokuku had cult status as an openly gay person in Port Elizabeth, the only gay in the village kind-of status. Majola also references the other warning issued to gay boys that they must not become like the men who are on the Felicia Mabuza Suttle show. You will remember The Felicia Show had a number of episodes that were about members of the LGBTI community. The reference made by Majola of course means that he grew up in the 1990’s, when Felicia Mabuza Suttle was a big talk show host assisting South Africa through the transition to democracy. In the song Majola also makes a reference to “Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve”. Homophobic heterosexuals often quote this line as if it’s the smartest line ever invented. The phrase ‘it’s not Adam and Steve’ is often accompanied by unintelligent smugness. This phrase needs to die and be buried. In the chorus of the song, Majola repeats “ndingu boet/sissy” –I am Boet/Sissy. He asserts and affirms himself in the song that he is he what he is, “and so what?”

Imbali is the next track. It is a track about love. It’s a lovely tune, but it doesn’t do to me what the other songs do. It is a soft song, and Majola holds himself back as he sings the song. Which I suppose is a good thing for an artist to be able to have restraint. It’s plain song for me, and it is preceded by some really marvellous tracks, so it doesn’t shine that much.

Throughout the album there are references to bible scriptures. There is an interesting way that Majola plays with church references. “Khulula ezombadada” is the line said to Moses by God that he needs to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Sondela is a slow jam. It is about two men making love; it is made that much sweeter by the Xhosa lyrics. Majola speaks of listening to the body parts of his lover, and how these body parts encourage him as they become intimate. The song is beyond courageous. Majola poetically croons about his manhood and the manhood of his lover and all this is done with a persistent haunting sound in the background. My heart skipped a beat when I heard this song for the first time, I had to go back and listen again to make sure what I heard was correct. I am not going to even pretend that hearing a black male artist talk about two men being intimate on a record in Xhosa is not a bit of a mind fuck.

In the third interlude Majola does not shy away to speak directly to the political situation of the African gay. He directs his words to those that prosecute gays all over the African continent. Majola states: “My sexuality is used as political fodder to dissuade from real political issues. Men whose crime is to love other men fill up prisons that should be filled by men who snatch bread from hungry mouths. Who rape and murder daughters and sons of this land. Love is one of the greatest virtues to be possessed by any human being. To be prosecuted for the courage to love is the highest crime committed against life itself.”

After the third interlude there are three tracks that are similar in mood, Ndindedwa, Luthando, and Andizoncama. It is in these tracks that you hear the influence of church or choral music. Although the influence of church music, particularly black Methodist, is felt throughout the album, there’s something about these three tracks for me that really captures that essence. In the title track Majola does make a reference to the Methodist church where he carries the cross in the church procession, but is afraid when he leaves the church that there is a boy that will taunt him on the way home without anyone there to stand up for him. The influence of church music in the album is undeniable. Of course Majola follows in the footsteps of many black artists whose artistry has been “honed” in the church.

Interlude number four is all about loving men. Majola states: “I love men, I love the feeling of being held by another man. In another man’s arms I find comfort, safety, healing, escape, release, pleasure, and unspeakable joy.” These words reminded me of the beautiful piece written by Fumbatha May called a love letter to the black man in the Mail and Guardian. Fumbatha May writes a loving and inspired piece. After speaking these words in the interlude, Majola proceeds to one of the two up-tempo songs on the album. The name of the song is Zithande – Love yourself, which is really an anthem for gay people to practice self-love. Living in a world that is dominated by heterosexist institutions, it becomes political for LGBTI people to love themselves. Majola sings “funda ukuzithanda” – learn to love yourself. In this track I find Majola’s lyrics affirming and reassuring. The way he articulates ‘”learn to love yourself” one can’t help but think of the message of black consciousness, where black people are made to realize that loving themselves is a political act. So in the same way that black love is an act of resistance so is black queers loving themselves.

In queer circles, especially black queer circles Simon Nkoli need no introduction. In the song Simon Nkoli, Majola praises Simon for his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle, the gay liberation struggle, and also his involvement in HIV/Aids activism. Simon Nkoli was a hero and Majola gives him the honour and respect he deserves. In this song Majola gives Simon Nkoli the same reverence that Madikizela-Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, and Nelson Mandela receive in Thandiswa Mazwai’s Nizalwa Ngobani. Also in this song Majola continues his narrative of darkness and light as he speaks of Simon Nkoli as a light in the darkness. And for many black LGBTI people, Simon Nkoli was just that, a light. The up-tempo beat gives the song a celebratory feel, celebrating a man’s life spent trying to conscientise South African society. This album will now be part of the archive of black queer lives in South Africa, and the fact that it pays homage to legendary people like Simon Nkoli makes it even that much more poignant.

The fifth interlude is the sentencing of Majola from the judge who he stood in front of at the beginning of the record. The judge then proceeds to read his sentencing.

The closing track Majola sings about Ikhaya lam – my home. In this track he goes back to his melancholic sound that was interrupted by the two previous tracks. Interestingly, the question of home has been a topic of conversation within my friendship circle. I was born in Port Elizabeth. Many of my friends come from diverse backgrounds and different cities from all over the world, and the question of what is home is always a topic of discussion. Although I call Cape Town home, it is never without qualification. Majola asks for his home to take care of him, to protect him from the world. Home for Majola is a place where he finds safety, a place that offers protection. In this song Majola concludes with the narrative of darkness and light, talking about wanting protection from the darkness of the world. Again, it is hard to miss the biblical undertones. Bible references and all, Majola has given us an amazing piece of art. The album is a bold queer statement. The subject matter of this album is about what it means to be black and gay and live in South Africa. Majola takes us on a journey of a black gay boy, negotiating manhood, falling in love with other men, and experiencing rejection from family. Although one can claim universality in the experiences described by Majola in this album, this is an album about the life experience of a black gay boy. Majola bares himself and speaks his truth, and in the process holds a mirror for me to see myself and I am grateful for it.

 

We Must Free Our Imaginations

 

“We ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” – Slavoj Zizek

2014 was a dramatic year for LGBTI Rights on the African continent. The ‘we must free our imaginations’ videos came after Binyavanga Wainaina came out in 2014 through an article that was the ‘lost chapter’ from his book One Day I Will Write About This Place. His coming out and subsequently these videos came after the homophobic bills against homosexuality and same-sex marriage were proposed in different African states. Wainaina’s response to the homophobia and irrational justification for the prosecution of queer people in different parts of the African continent was to come out and speak out against the prosecutions. His main message was about the need to free our imagination. He asks us to imagine a different world from the one we are living.

These videos about freeing our imagination were really the inspiration for me to start writing about queerness in South Africa. So I developed the Queer Consciousness website. We often feel so helpless in the face of hate speech and homophobic violence, and I thought maybe writing about it could be a small contribution to us thinking differently and critically about being queer on this continent. The message contained in these videos really challenge us as black people to imagine the kind of Africa we would like to live. It challenges us to see the ways in which colonisation still affects us and affects how we navigate the world. The fact that in many African states colonised by the British, there is still all kinds of laws against “unnatural” acts is just one of the ways we have remained chained by colonial powers and restrictions. These videos were a great inspiration to me, and I hope they will be to you as well.

 

 

 

 

 

Grace Jones – the embodiment of Queerness

My adoration of Grace Jones started when I travelled to San Francisco for the first time. I was doing my Master’s in Minnesota when I visited San Francisco during San Francisco Pride. It was real a pilgrimage. I was wide eyed and intrigued. I had heard and read so much about the city by the bay and I was intrigued and mystified and absolutely thirsty for this gay mecca that everybody seemed to rave about. My imagination was obviously too limited to really imagine San Francisco, it was gayer, more beautiful, and so forbearing, than I could have possibly imagined. I had died and gone gay heaven.

When I was in San Francisco I met Kevin, who would become my guide to the city, my reason to go back to the city, and a very dear friend. When we met, one of the first things he said to me was how I reminded him of Grace Jones. He was the first of many people who shared this sentiment during San Francisco Pride that year. To put things in perspective, the Grace Jones references were fuelled by the hairstyle I had at the time. I had a flat top hair cut with red cornrows on the side, about three on each side of my head. This created a striking, almost square shaped face that was feminine yet still masculine. It created this androgynous look. I was born in the mid 80’s, so I was born when Miss Jones was at the pick of her modelling-acting-singing-performance artist career. And when I came of age she had decided to stop recording because of her dissatisfaction with music industry. So of course I would only make the connections, and realise the enormity of the compliment from Kevin much later when I started to learn more about Grace Jones and started to appreciate her art, her life philosophy, and just about everything about her. I was in my early twenties when I started listening to her records, and this was decades after her last recorded album.

Since then, I have followed Miss Jones and she has been more than just inspirational. She has been my guide to living a life according to my own rules, and not bowing down to the societal pressure to be normal and therefore average. Grace Jones’ memoir, I’ll never write my memoirs, is probably the best memoir I have ever read. Granted, I don’t read many memoirs; it’s not a genre I am particularly fond of. But Miss Jones’ memoir is not just any memoir; it’s a chronicle of a life lived without boundaries, dangerously on edge, and completely at odds with the mundane, the slow moving, and the expected. One of the stories that captured me is within the first 100 pages of the book is when Miss Jones describes her first orgasm. She writes:

 “Shaving my head led directly to my first orgasm. This is because I am fairly sure the man I had my first orgasm with was Andre, my hairdresser from Cinandre… These days they say DJ’s are god. Back then it was hairdressers who were God… He definitely knew what to do with me. My hair could be adjusted, changed, edited, in much the same way that later my whole body would be treated. He was the first one to style my hair short… I suppose it’s not surprising that my first orgasm was with Andre. His fingers on my scalp working their magic helped… I’d never had sex like that before. It was sex from another era, another solar system. It still started with the mouth but it ended up beyond the body. It made me feel like I was falling backward in time. He was very open-minded and creative, and that seemed to spill over into the sex. He bent me out of shape.”

To say that Grace Jones is sex positive would be an understatement. She celebrates her sexuality; she celebrates her body and takes her sexual pleasure seriously. The description of her first orgasm is poetic, all consuming, and infused with process of beautifying – her hair being cut. Her life is so art infused that even her first orgasm is artful. In the memoir she transports you to that moment, and for a minute I was searching my memory for my first euphoric sexual moment, and it failed to compare to the one Grace Jones had.

There is a refreshing honesty in the memoir. She doesn’t seem to hold back; even her mistakes and misfortunes are laid bare for the world to see. I suppose that’s the power of living your life with integrity, and being honest to yourself about who you are and what makes you who you are. She writes about her sexual encounters, the relationships, the breakup; the reasons for breakups, and of course the drugs. The laissez faire attitude towards narcotics is enlightening. Often when celebrities open up about their use of drugs it is filled with regret, and is linked to moral failure and repentance. Grace Jones’ approach to drugs seems to be ‘use but do not abuse.’ The legendary parties she used to throw had Grace Jones dubbed “the Errol Flynn of the 80’s” and these parties have now taken a mythical narrative. She says “at my parties, I would let people do what they want as long as the didn’t die. That was the number one rule. People could have all the fun they want, but no one should die. No overdoses, no drinking in the bathtub. No accidents. Don’t spoil the party. If you wanted to kill yourself you had to leave the house and walk across the highway.” The directive is very clear, and this is probably why to this day we have never heard of a drug overdose from any of her parties.

When miss Jones started out as a model, she struggled to establish her self in New York. Her “look” was rather too much for the American sensibility. She was dark skinned, boyish skinny, androgynous, and in no way representing classic or ordinary ready-for-vogue-beauty. So following in the footsteps of Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and many other African Americans, Grace Jones moved to Paris for a better chance at a modelling career. Indeed her modelling career took off in Paris with artistic magazine covers and photo spreads. It would seem the French and Europeans at large were much more excited about her “look” than the Americans. Although she didn’t speak French when she arrived, she had Latin roots through Spanish and she learned “French in three months flat.” Her attachment to Paris would last throughout her life. The Paris years were dreamy, although she was hustling, they are so mystical and glamorous and read like a movie script. It is also during this time that Grace Jones meets her lifelong friends Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange. I particularly loved reading about her life in Paris because I love Paris and all things French. It is a love that has been fuelled mostly by novels by African Americans who have moved there post World War Two. Grace Jones makes me want to live in Paris.

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 My obsession with Grace Jones has to do with my love for art and artistic individuals, because I see artists as almost supernatural beings. I am not an artist; at least I don’t see myself as one. Although one of friends once said that the way I put myself together could be considered art. The way she describes the creative process of how she came up with some of her songs with her collaborators is a marvel. There is something intriguing about learning about the genesis of songs like La Vie En Rose, My Jamaican Guy, and Slave to The Rhythm. There is no doubt about the commitment Grace Jones has to her art. She is heavily involved in all of her productions; she wants to have creative input if not full control of her art. She rejects being just a muse. She attracts artist who are interested in creating something new, something different, and something that has not been done before. She celebrates what makes her different, she lets others mine what makes her different and create something artistic out of it. She knows that she is not a conventional beauty, which is why she had to go to Paris to pursue modelling, but instead of hating her difference, she uses her unconventionality for artistic expression.

 Her unconventional beauty is matched by her unconventional approach to being a star or a celebrity. She goes as far as to say “I am not a Diva. I am a Jones.” She rejects fame for fame’s sake. She rejects being part of the pack, or a being grouped with other female entertainers. When she was coming up, and starting to make records, producers wanted her to sing like the superstars of the day, people like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross and she rejected these proposals. The aim is not to be like someone else, the aim is to be artistically interesting, to create something original that has the potential to outlive the artist. The most quoted sections of the book by reviewers are the sections towards the end of the book where she talks about young stars, and what is lacking in female entertainers today. It’s very provocative how she names entertainers who she thinks have copied her. But all of this is done to demonstrate just how different she is, and how far ahead of her time she was. Her artistic philosophy is summed up when she writes:

“I come from the underground. I am never comfortable in the middle of the stream, flowing in the same direction as everyone else. I think people assume that’s where I want to be, famous for being famous, because as part of what I do there is a high level of showing off, but my instinct is always to resist the pull of the obvious. It’s not easy, especially when you have had any sort of success, because the people want you to repeat what it was that made you a success, even if your instinct is to move on, or to want to change, or have other ideas.”

Her disdain of being compared to or told to sing like other female entertainers by record companies is but one example of her living feminism. When you are Grace Jones and you have lived your whole life according to your own rules and have singlehandedly defied and redefined beauty standards of the modelling industry and used your body for sexual pleasure and to create art that challenges norms, you don’t need to go around saying you are a feminist. When you are Grace Jones your whole being and everything you touch is feminism and challenges patriarchy. The feminist thread is weaved throughout the book. The book is a feminist force of how to live a life that undermines patriarchy. When she signed a lucrative recording deal with a Capitol Records, they tried to interfere with her creative vision and she lashed out. She writes: “I was female, and they decided that I was rock and roll insane. Had I been a man, they would have considered I was retaining control, or professionally fretting about the details… You can tell why there are so few female film directors. It’s the same with any job that society has decided can only be done by a man: They find ways to undermine and undervalue a woman doing that job. And the fact that you end up saying ‘they’ makes you sound paranoid… What are the chances of a female president being elected? The men-only corporate reaction is: what about the tampons? Will she bleed everywhere? What if she gets pregnant? What if she is going through menopause? … It’s the same old caveman shit, a power thing. It’s why I want to fuck every man in the ass at least once. Every guy needs to be penetrated at least once. Do it yourself if you want. But that’s the vision – a woman lies there and the man goes in, takes control, whoosh. It’s all about power. The woman is always in the vulnerable position, and the man takes control. Come on. Everybody can be penetrated – mentally too. Slowly, slowly, it changes. Too slowly.” Grace Jones raged against the male corporate machine that wanted to exclude her from the creative process of her own music, and market her like any other female artist. This is what sets Miss Jones apart from her contemporaries and younger artists; she refused to be neatly packaged for commercial success.

Just like Grace Jones doesn’t go around talking about how she is a feminist, because it is painfully obvious, she doesn’t go around chest thumping that she is a gay icon. Grace Jones’ status as a gay icon is like everything else about her, underground. Her first encounter with a gay man is her brother, Chris, who she was very close to growing up. Grace Jones used to go with Chris to gay bars, so she was exposed to gay people and gay culture early in her life. Although Grace Jones has collaborated with gay artists, is close like twins with her gay brother, she was close friends with renowned gay artists like Andy Warhol, she performed in underground gay bars in New York in the late 70’s and early 80’s, she has never branded herself a gay icon. Her memoir is filled with stories about gay men she worked with and some she had crushes on when she didn’t know they were gay. And all of this is treated as but one of the many threads in Grace Jones’ life. And this for me makes her more of a gay icon than the chest thumping icons.

There’s a point where Grace Jones reflects on her friends who died too young in the 1980’s and early 1990’s due to HIV/Aids. It’s a sobering read because she had so many gay men in her life, so she experienced many deaths and the paranoia that followed. It was Tina Chow’s death that really shocked Jones. “Tina’s death made it seem closer than ever. You couldn’t help but think of the people you had slept with or, even more so, of the people who had slept with the people you had slept with. It had been easy to sleep around. In the places I was, everyone was so sexual. In Paris, it was food and sex. Wine, food, and sex. You can’t leave out the wine. Sex was a vital point of individual freedom. It was meant to lead to more life, not death.”

There is no disputing the queerness of Grace Jones. If queer is understood in the David Halperin sense where queerness is about the transformational power of the queer identity. Halperin speaks of a transformative potential of queer culture that Foucault also emphasised. According to Halperin queer is an identity without an essence, not a given condition but a horizon of possibility, an opportunity for self-transformation, a queer potential. This queer conception of identity aims to demolish boundaries; it sets no limits to the ways in which queers can potentially organize their lives. Halperin might as well have described Grace Jones. Grace Jones embodies the essence of queerness. She disrupts the norm; she challenges conventions of beauty, of womanhood, and sobriety. She is someone I look up to for inspiration for a life lived according to one’s own rules. It takes courage to reject the mainstream and to create one’s own path. It requires courage of conviction and a knowing of the self to live your truth without apologies. What a life Miss Jones.

Lwando Scott