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Umlilo on Rising Above Race, Gender, and the Mundane

Umlilo is part of the wave of South African artists who are revolutionizing the cultural landscape of the region. If you don’t fully understand his unique style, simply allow his experimental “Future Kawaii” style to stimulate your senses while he fuses kwaito and contemporary hip-hop, promotes androgyny and originality, and criticize injustice and intolerance.

Umlilo’s alter ego is arts journalist Siya Ngcobo, who most recently worked as the entertainment and lifestyle editor for iafrica.com. However, he transformed into the confident performer “out of sheer frustration and necessity” because the name Umlilo (which means “fire” in Zulu) gave him the courage to give homophobes, sexists, racists, and bigots a piece of his mind. “Us queers know a lot about fire. We’ve come under fire for all sorts of reasons, the way we dress, and who we love,” he said.

After releasing his successful debut EP “Shades of Kwaai” in 2003, he released the well-received EP “Aluta” on Naas Music. Under the direction of South African filmmaker Katey Lee Carson, the video for the single “Chain Gang” depicts a fashion funeral for the fictional 27-year-old Rita who was gunned down under questionable circumstances, or as Umlilo suggests in an alternative interpretation, it is a staging of his own death had he joined the list of artists who die at that age. The murder represents the many people of color who are being killed worldwide, he says, in addition to the proliferation of corrective rape in South Africa. Rita’s jaded friends attend her funeral only to be seen worshipping their favorite designers and labels, in the ultimate display of apathy toward pressing problems and an obsession with materialism. “I don't want to die because I'm black, or gay, nor do I want to die for money,” Umlilo said.

In the video for “Reciprocity,” director Odendaal Esterhuyse brought to life a genderless love story, with Umlilo and dancer Kopano Maroga interpreting the passionate and often turbulent dance of interdependent love in its purest of forms. But don’t take Umlilo too seriously. His ideal society is painted with splashes of bright colors and is bursting with joy. “I'd like to live in a world where everyone is pretty much pan-sexual andro-humans who seem like they're on MDMA all the time because they've tapped into their higher selves,” he said.

Umlilo Q&A

How would you describe your sound to those who've never heard your music?

I would say to them, "Think about genre as something that has died and my sound as the afterlife combining all the different elements that we enjoyed from the this dead genre," and if that is too confusing for them I call it Future Kwaai, which is like a electronic fusion of so many different shades and styles of music including kwaito, R&B, baroque pop, bounce, hip hop, bass music and so many other elements. The main glue that holds it together is my voice.

Why did you choose the word "fire" as your stage name?

Umlilo in my native language Zulu stands for so much more than just fire. Fire can symbolically mean so many things, for me it is the embodiment of fierceness and versatility. It can destroy things and shatter significant structures yet also be quite spiritual and ritualistic like a purging of all things old. Most of the time it can't be contained and boxed, the flame goes until it is finished. It can be very much like the burning passion that ignites something in people. If you're going to give yourself a new name, it might as well be bold, strong and represent you completely and I'd like to think that Umlilo completely represents everything I'm about.

What's your favorite track on your latest EP, Aluta?

When you have babies, it's difficult to choose which one you love the most. Sometimes one irritates you and then sometimes you love another. at the moment I love performing “Reciprocity,” my latest single that I did with producer Cutting Gems (Jeremy Bishop). Maybe it's largely because it's the only track I didn't produce myself in the EP so I have a soft spot for it but in general I love how emotive and sonically rich Cutting Gems' production is. He is super talented and inspiring.

You've mentioned your mom advised you to look into a career that you were passionate about but also paid the bills. Tell us about your “day job.”

Well as of recently I quit my "day job" to focus solely on music and other entrepreneurial ventures (including one with my mom) but I used to work as the Entertainment and Lifestyle Editor for iafrica.com, a job which I loved as it married so many wonderful things like music, art, theatre, food, etc. I got to meet so many people and every day was new and exciting. I studied media, journalism, and drama so I will always be a journalist and performer at heart. I'm hoping to carry on writing critically about things that I love for different publications in future.

How does Umlilo influence Siya Ngcobo and and vice versa?

For a long time, I, as Siya had to pay the bills so that I can afford to writhe around on stage in crazy outfits as Umlilo. Umlilo was born out of sheer frustration and necessity. Frustration because I felt I wasn't cultivating or nurturing my more artistic brain and as a performer I felt stifled. I can't really differentiate much from myself on stage and off-stage. Both sides are necessary and influence each other but I'd say that having a stage persona has given me so much courage I never thought I'd possess and the ability to read people on the spot. I come across a lot of homophobes, sexists, racists, and bigots, so being Umlilo gives me the courage to tell them their lives.

Early in your career you were put in a position where you had to write, produce, distribute, and promote your own music, and everything in between. How have all those roles impacted your relationship with your audience?

I think you definitely understand your audience better when you do so many things and I have a far closer relationship with them because they know that I'm a real person and not some robot operating my communication channels. I would like to think that people appreciate the fact that I didn't just sit there and wait for a dream team to appear and make things happen for me. It is a lot more authentic and real.

Is your music an escape from your reality or an example of it?

It's definitely a bit of both. If I could escape reality completely I'd probably do it but then it would drive me insane at some point. Music has the power to reflect reality but also create a hyper reality or even fantasy. I love having elements of both escapism and reality because that's what I look out for in other art that I consume. If something challenges me and also excites me, it usually gets a stamp of approval.

Some say your style can be confrontational. Do you agree? If so, what are you confronting and how?

I agree to a degree that my musical style can be confrontational but it's necessary. I don't see myself as someone who is making music to create pretty pictures and perfect sounding lullabies. I want my music to be difficult and challenging. I use my voice and words as instruments to interrogate, explore, and confront. One of the reasons why I use spoken word and hip hop rhyme patterns is because hip hop comes from a culture of confrontation but any heterosexual male rapper would frown at me rapping because they're stuck in a cycle of their own oppression. This irony makes me lol a lot but also creates an interesting conversation about who holds the mouthpiece.

What inspires you the most in South Africa? What other parts of the world influence your work?

I think South Africa is so diverse that there's inspiration everywhere. It's one of those places where inspiration is on every corner from the landscapes, buildings, and languages, to the people, food, and cultures; I get something from everything. When I was growing up we were force-fed American culture and that has had an influence on me largely but nowadays I also look to Asia, UK, and Europe for a bulk of my artistic inspirations.

What do you think about the cultural landscape of South Africa right now? How does it stand out from the rest of the world

The cultural landscape in South Africa is always evolving as we try to negotiate a way forward after 20 years of democracy. It's a difficult time, gaps between poor and rich are widening more than ever, government is questionable, and there's a serious class struggle. But at the same time, SA has always managed to innovate even during the roughest of times. I'm seeing a culture of people making world renowned work using their own lived South African experiences and that alone is exciting.

Is "post-Apartheid" a relevant term for the nation anymore?

No, I think post-apocalyptic would be far more descriptive when you walk around the cities like Cape Town. It’s like one of those movies except instead of zombies it’s homeless people and so many people in need walking around. But then I think of how much racial tension is still there in the world and here, in many ways the world is still grappling with post-apartheid and post-colonialism so it'll always be relevant.

How much progress do you anticipate in gender and racial equality in the next 10 years? Will the world be a more tolerant place?

I think the struggle for gender and racial equality has taken centre stage in recent years by virtue of people just being so over smiling and turning a blind eye while people get murdered on the daily for the colour of their skin and gender identification. It's only when we openly interrogate these powers that imprison us that we can begin to breakdown the structures and define new ways and ideas of tolerating each other. Difference is a good thing and if we realize this, the world will be better off. I do foresee a lot of old structures falling, it's already happening with colonial structures in America and here.

You've said knowing the meaning of true love is on your bucket list. What does love mean to you now?

I'm very fortunate to be surrounded by my family and friends who constantly surpass any expectations of what true love should be so I never feel like I don't have enough love in my life. Romantic love on the other hand has always served as a distraction for me so I'm far more reluctant to explore it with as much enthusiasm. But I think True Love is love that knows no bounds, like the kind of love a mother has with her child. I don't know many people who can achieve that level of true love in romantic situations but it certainly doesn't stop us from trying.

What message do you want people to remember the most about your music?

That music has no limits or barriers and can really help rise above the mundane and bring us together because of its universal nature.

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