Umlilo: There’s a fire coming
Umlilo is the Xhosa word for fire. It’s also the stage name of Siya Ncobo, one of South Africa’s freshest electronic musicians. He / she is queer, outrageous and blazing a new trail. This Is Africa got the scoop on gender stereotypes, African Excellence and standing out to be heard.
TIA: Do you get tired about being asked about what your sexuality means in an African context? I feel like that comes up a lot.
Siya Ncobo: It comes up all the time but I never get tired of it. I get asked the same things anyway when I’m just trying to live my life, like getting groceries or just minding my own business. It makes people feel more comfortable when they feel like they understand someone else who they perceive to be “different”. I’d rather have that than someone shouting obscenities at me while I’m walking down the street, assuming things or threatening to rape me because they don’t understand why I have long hair or dress the way I do. I can’t shade people for genuinely wanting to understand what I do and contextualise it under the African sun. I understand my role in helping shape new ways of defining things and understanding concepts like gender and sexuality, especially in Africa. It’s new and necessary.
Do you get much hate mail? How about hostility in the streets? And does this affect your music?
Almost everyday I have to deal with men, mostly construction workers, whistling at me and shouting the things they would like to do to me. I live in the suburbs now but it’s no different from when I lived in the city or the township. It doesn’t phase me — I’ve dealt with this all my life — but it does make me a lot more empathetic to the bullshit our women and LGBTI people have to deal with in this man’s world we live in. South Africa is very conservative and heteronormative; I’m aware of that when I make my music. There’s never a moment when I don’t realize how different I am from the norm (whatever that is) but it makes this easier for me to place myself in a larger context. I don’t have to follow the rules that everyone else follows in terms of subject matter, music arrangements, fashion, political thinking and aesthetic. It’s freeing. I know my audience is not conservative moms against rap music. I don’t bother to make music for mass appeal. I just do me.
Do you worry about your visual identity obscuring your musical output?
Not at all. I’m a visual performance artist. When I create a song it is usually inspired by some kind of visual. The two go hand in hand. I believe in music videos; I don’t believe in mp3s.
Your music videos really stand out. How important have they been for cementing your career?
You have to stand out to be heard, plain and simple. I’m lucky in that I don’t have to go out of my way to think critically or be different. I’m a futurist first and foremost: I read and research my ass off to open my mind to new ways of thinking and being. From when I was four I was always singled out of a crowd. In the videos people see an exaggerated version of myself. Because I’ve always liked things that are considered “out there” I’ve manage to attract friends and collaborators with the same mentality of pushing limits and exploring the spectrums of our minds.
You’re moving to JHB to pursue music full time. Is the local music industry viable for someone as left-of-centre as you?
I think we often underestimate how switched on South Africans are. I’m constantly surprised by what people listen to. The other day a friend of mine told me he heard one of my songs in a mini-bus taxi. It blows my mind! There’s definitely room for artists like me.
Who, in your opinion, is pushing the SA scene forwards right now? Who are you most excited to share stages with?
I love Moonchild, Thor Rixon always amazes me, Okmalumkoolkat is a kingpin in rap, Manila Von Teese is killing the game in drag performance … I could go on forever. I love what Athi Patra Ruga and Gavin Krastin are doing with their performance art. Francois Knoetze is an inspiration in terms of film and visuals. I’m excited to share the stage with Black Coffee and DJ Zinhle at Oppikoppi Festival next month. I’ve seen them break boundaries and reach mass audiences worldwide. Maybe their magic can rub off on me.
It feels like there’s an expectation in SA that young black musicians will gravitate towards mainstream house or hip hop music. What’s it been like forging a different path, and who’ve your biggest influences been?
Genre is dead to me. There’s no point in boxing music anymore. People really don’t care as long as it’s good. I’ve had millions of influences and I keep getting inspired the more I discover new music. I love artists who are completely unique and stay true to their vibe, like Bjork, MIA, FKA Twigs, Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela, Brenda Fassie, Prince, Ru Paul, Grace Jones, Kendrick Lamar … I could go on but I’ll stop there. I like to fuse different elements in my music, which I call “Future Kwaai”. My sound is a fusion of everything from kwaito to queer nightclub jams. I’m happier forging my own path than having to listen to some old white record executive telling me what he thinks is cool.
Is your music a form of activism? Are you interested in making statements or shocking people? Or is this just you being you?
I’ve always been an activist at heart. I’m being queer and black and South African. It’s in my genes. Real change comes from snot, tears, broken bones, coarse throats, fire and revolt. I don’t mind addressing inequality, sex, violence, hate crimes, race and gender. I’m a product of oppression in every single way, from the colour of my skin to my genetic coding, so it’s aluta continua for me always. I’d love to live long enough to see a time when human beings aren’t being assholes.
Is that previous question evidence of how damn square society is? Tell me about always being framed — or framing yourself? — as different.
I am different but I am the same. I breathe the same air; I have a heart and a brain. On a superficial level I am different — my upbringing, race, gender, sexuality, education, living circumstances, outlook — but difference is relative. If we wanted to we could find reasons to kill off everyone based on our differences. That would be stupid.
Africa in the media: a series of stale tropes. Agree? What would you like to add to the script?
The trending Twitter hashtag #TheAfricaWeDontSee was so refreshing. It focused on this continent’s beauty, from landscapes to universities to architecture to fashion. There’s a sense of Africa reclaiming it’s position in the world. We’re the mother continent; this is where civilization came from. The world is changing fast and soon people will be able to acknowledge Africa’s contribution. I want to help change the perception but also be bold and proud of where I come from. I’m not afraid to say that most of Africa’s creative, economic, and cultural capital was stolen by the West, like full on daylight robbery, so we have to recover centuries of turmoil — but let’s not be defined by that turmoil, let’s make new things that people will want to steal and just say “NO” when they try. I’m about African Excellence now. I’m bored of the stale tropes.