Umlilo aka Kwaai Diva Extraordinaire is an androgynous Queer artist from Johannesburg South Africa focused on music, film, dance, and fashion. Their pronouns are they/them.
Amandla: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background: I know you have done quite a lot in music, and fashion.
Umlilo: I’ve always been a somewhat wayward artist kid. I always did drama, music theatre and sang in groups and choirs before. When I was 4 years old, I was in the movie Sarafina starring Whoopi Goldberg and Leleti Khumalo. It sparked my love for music, dance, and theatre. I studied theatre and media at university and after university, I decided to pursue music and journalism. After my first EP, Shades of Kwaai, I began to craft my sound and visual outlook as Umlilo. I’ve since released over 10 singles, toured the world with my music, and was able to really expand artistically. My second EP, Aluta, was the culmination of that and I’m currently working on my debut album, Isambulo, which comes out in November 2020.
I’ve also begun my own fashion boutique called Kwaai Boutique that caters to gender-less clothing and fashion. This year I also launched my own record label and company called Future Kwaai and it will be merging fashion and music.
Amandla: I would love to hear how you developed and nurtured your interests over the course of your life.
Umlilo: It hasn’t been easy as a queer femme body to realize my artistic purpose. Resources and support are not readily available for people like me so it has taken much longer to get where I am because I’ve had to do a lot by myself. I think education and learning have been the best way for me to develop my skills and nurture this artistic calling.
Loving what you do is great but you need the roots to grow and education did that for me and made me realize my own artistic point of view and how to harness it. I taught myself how to write and make music, make clothes. Costumes, hair, and make-up, to market myself, plan my own tours, etc. So it has been a very difficult journey without the support that you’d normally get but I feel very empowered to have full ownership of my art. Being part of a larger queer community worldwide has also helped me hone in on my artistic endeavors.
Amandla: What is fulfilling about your work, and what are some challenges you have faced?
Umlilo: I think for me music and art have the power to inspire and heal. For me, these are two key fulfilments I get from pursuing an artistic career. It’s so challenging financially, socially, emotionally, and physically but when you have a calling for something, those challenges have to be overcome because of a larger purpose. I’ve been rejected so many times for being queer, black and femme and that’s been the biggest challenge. On top of the normal challenges as a musician and artist, you have to deal with prejudice and create your own space in a world that doesn’t accept you.
Amandla: So tell us, how did you come into your identity coming into your identity especially because you have achieved so much at such a young age?
Umlilo: My whole life I’ve been a pioneer amongst my peers. I got to really know myself at an early age and so most of the time I was a lone wolf in this world navigating my way through and breaking any boundary in sight.
I started accepting my sexuality when I was a teenager and that propelled me further to explore my gender, sexuality, and identity within art and music. It was hard facing the world alone but I soon found my community. Fashion plays a huge role in expression for me a gender non-conforming person. Clothes have no gender and everything is drag so I’ve naturally gravitated towards fashion and drag to inspire my art. Being able to play and explore gender and sexuality is such a vital part of a queer artist at least at the beginning of their careers. I’ve always mixed my interests in fashion, music, art, film with a more political and socially aware stance.
Amandla: That is profound. What does Queer Liberation mean to you?
Umlilo: Queer liberation means so many things to me. It means taking full ownership of your life, being able to exist freely, love freely, create freely, move freely, and be protected socially, financially, physically, and legally.
"...Until there is queer liberation, there is no liberation because my freedom is your freedom..."
If the world could understand that if you treat fellow human beings with the respect and dignity we deserve, you create nations of evolved people, and there we will see real progress in society.
Amandla: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Umlilo: I’m excited and nervous about the next five years. I think the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world completely and I want to be a part of this change. I’ll definitely be doing more art and music, touring the world again, activism work and I’m super excited to be the CEO and founder of my company Future Kwaai. I think we need artists running NGOs, businesses and creating a space for ourselves in other industries.
Amandla: What should we look forward to as far as your art and music go?
Umlilo: I have some very exciting projects coming up. My album, ALUTA, will be out in November with some visuals, I’m also planning a virtual concert to go with it as well as other musical collaborations. I’ll also be announcing more developments within my record label and company with some new artists on the horizon so watch this space. Hopefully next year I will get to share my work with the world.
Amandla: Any word advice for upcoming queer artists across the continent and the diaspora?
Umlilo: I would say to upcoming queer artists to educate themselves and arm themselves with the knowledge of what they do. Become the best at what you do, learn everything you can because this knowledge is invaluable in this world. Also, take ownership of your work, make sure you own everything and build a legacy for yourself because no one will do that for you. Trust in your community and empower yourself at any point. Save money, live in the moment but always plan for the future.
Connect with Umlilo @kwaaidiva on the queerafricannetwork.com