Musician Umlilo pushes gender boundaries in South Africa

Artists in South Africa continue to push the boundaries of gender norms in popular media. In contemporary dance, members of the group V.I.N.T.A.G.E. Cru (who we’ve interviewed) are boldly leading the way (see their latest video) and in music, the young Cape Town-based singer Umlilo is poised to redefine common gender perceptions. Through his makeup, hair, attire and the qualities of his vocal style, Umlilo unabashedly challenges South African society to reassess their assumptions of how men and women are supposed to look, act and sound. This is especially evident is his videos for “Out of My Face” and “The Elements”.

Sonically, Umlilo is innovative as well, blending melancholic electronic beats with vocals that can be slow and ethereal or fast-paced and rhythmic. Coming off his “Shades of Kwaai” EP, Umlilo still has a relatively niche audience, but his presence is demonstrating that there can be space in urban South African youth culture for an open embrace of queer/trans aesthetics, despite the challenges that those communities face in daily life.

That Umlilo is black is significant to consider as well. The popular belief of rigid gender roles and the “un-Africaness” of homosexuality in most African societies make gender transcendance of the kind Umlilo is striving for both more challenging and higher risk in South Africa than in the social environments of North American, European or Asian countries. The penetration of creatives like Umlilo and V.I.N.T.A.G.E. Cru into mainstream media will be the catalyst for life to finally imitate art around perceptions of gender and sexuality in South Africa. Eventually, this gradual social change could influence other African countries, in particular Nigeria and Uganda, where people with nonconforming sexualities are currently being openly persecuted through political and religious agendas.

Photo by Mads Nørgaard.

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