Mamba Q&A: Cape Town’s proudly gay rising star Latheem Gabriel

Capetonian singer, musician, songwriter and LGBT activist Latheem Gabriel is determined to become a musical star – but on his own terms.

The 31-year-old Mitchells Plain native was singing by age eight and composing songs by sixteen. He stands out from many other performers by wearing his views on social justice on his sleeve and incorporating them into his music.

Latheem recently released a five track EP as well as his first music video for the single Mr Walk of Shame. His talents also extend to other media, including directing Fitrah; a documentary that addresses sexual diversity within the Islamic community.

Earlier this year, despite criticism of the event by social justice activists for being exclusionary, he performed at Cape Town Pride. And his composition Human Being has just been selected as the Official Song for Pretoria Pride 2017.

Mambaonline spoke to him about growing up Muslim and LGBTQ, his musical influences and his journey as an activist and musician.

You are not only a performer but also an activist. How do these intersect in your work?

I spent many years actively working toward human rights recognition within the LGBTI sector. The socio-religious dynamics of queer people have always interested me and it’s fed, by and large, into my writings. I write about identity, love and the need for recognition. Whether by a partner of a family member or society.

Your lyrics unashamedly refer to your sexuality. Do you believe that being so open about yourself could limit your commercial success?

Probably! [Laughs] How many people out there do you know that listen to songs about ‘this guy loved that guy’. But not all my writings are intentionally explicit. Many of my songs, and ones I continue to write, deal with just the abstracts of feelings and thoughts which I hope are universally identifiable. But having said that, I believe it’s a feeling a song incites that makes it resonate with someone.

Have you experienced any resistance within the music industry because of your sexual identity?

Not openly. But again opportunities might have slipped through my fingers because of this without me knowing. I can’t control how someone is going to react to my being gay but it’s never stopped me. Call me naive but I’d like to believe that the message music brings speaks louder than our prejudice.

Do you think that openly LGBTIQ+ artists like Nakhane Touré and yourself are creating change in the music industry?

I think Nakhane is brilliant. I had the privilege of meeting him and performing right after him on stage. His music definitely breaks boundaries and expectations of black or queer artists in South Africa. I’d like to think as a queer artist myself that I have been an inspiration to others. We don’t have many openly queer public figures in SA.

Pic: Bazildeviant

Sexual diversity within the Islamic community is one of your focus areas. What inspired you to create a documentary about this?

I worked for many years with civil society organisations helping queer Muslims deal with the dissonance around their own identity and I’ve seen the devastating effects of someone not being able to find reconciliation. So in collaboration with The Inner Circle we travelled to India, Malaysia and Indonesia [and including Cape Town] to capture the varying experiences of LGBTIQ persons within their own Islamic contexts.

How has it been received?

The goal was really to do something hardly ever done before and to highlight the realities faced by queer persons within Islam. The hardest part of the process was having to interview a young man who was determine to kill himself and there was nothing we could do. It was well received at many film festivals. However, the Muslim community was not as openly supportive of it as we would have hoped.

Have you been personally accepted as LGBTIQ+ within your family and community?

Yes, to an extent. When I came out I was tacitly accepted though no one spoke about ‘it’. However, it’s important to remember that if it takes us years to come out, even to ourselves, it might take a long time for our family or community to come to terms with it as well. What helped me was to show that I was okay with it. Now my family is quite open about it.

Do you see yourself as a person of faith and how do you reconcile these aspects of yourself?

I grew up in a diverse spiritual setting; my dad was Muslim and my mom Christian. So spirituality has always been a big part of my identity. I needed to reach a point where I didn’t believe anymore before I found my own reconciliation. I made up my mind that if we are made in the image of God and God is infallible then surely there must be nothing wrong with me.

You performed at Cape Town Pride recently. It remains a contentious political space for some in the LGBTIQ+ community. What’s your take on it?

I’ve had long running issues with Pride and the exclusive nature surrounding it. And when I was approached to perform I needed to fully understand why I would say yes. Yeah, I could have said no and caused little to no effect, but I chose to see that platform as an opportunity to encourage interconnectedness. Pride has always had a lot of potential, it’s not going anywhere and it should be used by artists to create change from within the system. I believe the personal is the political is the spiritual is the macro and the micro; and so we have to see Pride for what it can be.

You’ve been composing and performing from a young age…

My father was an artist and my mother loved singing. I used to watch her singing putting on her big hat to go to church on Sundays. However, my own singing choices were never encouraged as a life path because that wasn’t our reality. We grew up like most families in the Cape Flats just trying to make ends meet and so emphasis was placed on getting a ‘real job’. My father was a dreamer like me, so he was more understanding. After my mom saw me on TV though, I think she’s singing a different tune these Sunday mornings. [Laughs]

How would you describe your style of music?

My native genre falls within alternative rock but I’ve been known to belt out a bluesy jam. Musically I believe it’s important to be open to every sound on the planet. I like being versatile [clears throat] in my vocal technique.

Which artists are among your musical influences?

The first time I heard Alanis Morissette I was hooked on rock music as a form of expression. Explains why I write a lot of angry love songs! {Laughs] But Tracy Chapman, Placebo, Sarah Mclachlan and Radio Head have all influenced my writing style.

The track and video for Mr Walk Of Shame seem really emotionally raw. Does writing about these kinds of deeply personal experiences help you deal with them?

It really does. It’s my catharsis. Writing is the conversation I can no longer have with someone, the confession that absolves me of the part I play when it comes to matters of the heart. Mr Walk of Shame was the proverbial dam waiting to burst. Years of beating myself up for making the same romantic choices over and over because my choices were always born of desperation and fear and loneliness.

Tell us a little more about your EP. Is there a theme?

The songs deal with themes of love, teenage angst, anger and hope. Invisible was written as a confession to my Mother, while Seed of Unease was a conversation with my younger self. I’ll spend the rest of life most likely dealing with mommy issues! I deliberately chose not to title my EP because at the time I just couldn’t think of one.

What would you say to a young, probably closeted, LGBTIQ+ aspiring performer about being true to themselves?

I would encourage them to honour themselves and to never be pressured into a choice they’re not comfortable with. Life isn’t easy out there but it’s often harder inside, so be kind yourselves and move at your own pace. You know what you’ve got and it’s not going anywhere.

Tell us something that we’d never guess about you?

I have paralysing arachnophobia. And a nipple piercing!


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