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Gender Bending Artist Umlilo On Music, Style and Representation Ahead of LittleGig Festival

Gender and genre bending musician Umlilo will be performing alongside Stash Crew at LittleGig festival this coming weekend. The festival is a 24 hour festival happening just outside of Cape Town and is a showcase of musicians, DJs, designers, artists, winemakers and chefs. Umlilo is forthright about queer representation and is constantly challenging gender constructs in their music and by being a part of movements such as Rainbow Riots and Femme in Public.

Your birth name is Siya Ngcobo, then you have your moniker Kwaai Diva and your stage name Umlilo, what differentiates your three personas and how does each one form a part of who you are?

They’re all expressions of different sides of me, when I need to be a business boss bitch Kwaai Diva comes out, Umlilo serves the artistry and vision and Siya balances all of them out by remaining grounded, humble and chilled.

Your songs are quite different from each other and are influenced by different genres, how has your audience received the eclectic quality of your brand?

I think I’m a very polarising musician so I don’t think it’s ever a unanimous feeling from the audience. What I enjoy is that different people enjoy different sounds, messages and performances. Some people like it more when I rap, some like it when I sing, some like the more experimental and political sounding stuff while others prefer me being a vogue kween in the club but whatever people enjoy, they usually pretty entertained and will never get bored.

You are quite active in ensuring wider representation for the LGBTQI community, in the content of your music, as well as having been involved in movements such as Femme in Public and Queer in Public Johannesburg, do you feel that representation for the LGBTQI community in South Africa is progressing, have you seen any positive changes?

I think mainstream culture is starting to embrace the fact that there are more people out there that aren’t cis-heterosexual and I think it is changing but we still have gate keepers who have tunnel vision and can’t seem to get over the fact that there are people who are not like them who deserve the same opportunities and rights. These are the same people that like to uphold a status quo that was built by colonialism, religion, apartheid and tribalism in SA. These people, usually cis heterosexual men have benefited from women, people of colour and queer people being oppressed so they’re holding on for dear life but their time will also come and soon. The positive changes I’ve seen come from all the young people being confident, brave and strong enough to fight for inclusion, awareness and to also represent themselves in the way they see fit.

You are part of the Rainbow Riots album, an album created by artists from the most dangerous countries in Africa for queer people, what does being a part of this album feel like and what has it taught you?

It taught me a lot. The really positive thing about this album was the fact that I also got to be introduced to queer voices I never knew existed and we managed to create a celebratory effect of marginalised queer cultures. The other lesson was to always be critical of everything whether its within the queer community, cross-continental or otherwise. I learned that white supremacists come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes Europeans love the idea of Africa as a place of turmoil and unrest, they love the idea that we are suffering. It’s like poverty porn, they feed into it so that it makes them feel better and re-inforces the stereotype that we are incapable of building ourselves so they can come and “help us” i.e steal from us. So while I was glad to be a part of this, I also learned the importance of telling our own stories independent of European forces, we must trust ourselves more in ownership of our stories otherwise it derails into another “poor Africa story”.

You often have quite elaborate costumes for your performances and music videos, what are your fashion influences as a performer, and what is the significance of the face art?

I see myself as a shape-shifting inter-dimensional being so my influences constantly change. I try keep to date with what designers are making but also always look to the past for inspiration. I’m not very good at following trends so I’ve learnt to do my own thing. Last year I was super into print textiles and this year I’m going through an explosion of colour. I like a mix of vintage and new, street and couture, I also like ideas that look to the future, fashion and make-up can really help you express how you feel at any given point. I’m very inspired by my friends also and my mom, they have amazing style and always keep me on my toes.

The face art is me experimenting with make-up, It’s always an amazing challenge to see if make-up can tell a similar story to the outfit you are wearing so they go hand in hand for me. I’m very inspired by drag make-up artists and the things they do. My friends DylosuarusRex, Charli JVR and Orli also keep me inspired with the make-up artistry they do constantly.

For those who have not seen you perform live, what can they expect from your performance at Little Gig festival?

I think this show really showcases who Umlilo is and perhaps a little bit of where it is all going as well as how our different styles with Stash Crew merge. We have really tried to bring elements of our international show into this show but cleaned it up, remixed the songs and were really shrewed about having a jam with songs than a more theatrical show. There’s so much material I’m yet to share but audiences will get awesome mixes of old and new Umlilo music with Stash Crew collaborations as well. It’s like a full on queer punk extravaganza, lush, loud and breaking the speakers.

Tell us about your collaboration with Stash Crew

Stash Crew is a collective made up of my dear friends Whyt Lyon and Phayafly, artists like Hlasko were also a part of it back in the day. We began collaborated two years ago and had the same mandate which was to make punk-inspired songs that are unapologetically queer. Together we get to unpack issues of race, gender, sex, love, politics and everything in between and we have managed to dismantle those structures using music and performance and community social engagement. We also want to build the queer community in SA because its really lacking at the moment so we have embarked on a difficult task to unite our queer peeps but also create kick-ass independent art and business structures in order for all of us to thrive without having to beg straight people for money or acceptance. What I love about this aprticular collab is that we’re all on same page in terms of the vision and amount of work it takes to get there. I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who have the same work ethic as me and want to get shit done. At the moment we are writing, producing, performing, designing, doing the admin, PR, bookings everything ourselves and its super fulfilling because that is the true price of artistic freedom, no one tells you what you going to do. It’s the longer road but we’re on our way.

Do you have any projects coming up that we should look out for?

I am currently working on my album/EP and I’ll be bringing out my new single Gobi Sandla in March 2018. It’s a collaboration between myself and Durban Gqom producer Scriby Lula and Detroit selekta DJ Sinistarr. It’s a club banger packed with attitude. The rest will all be revealed in due time but there are lots more exciting projects ahead across film, fashion, music and live performance.


Photography: Aart Verrips

Styling: Amy Zama and Don Zondo (DNA Styling)

Stockists: Martelle Ludik

Interview: Phendu Kuta

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