Majola: Exorcising demons of shame

majola_african_gay_singer_interviewThe continent has a bold new son. Proudly composing, singing and performing his truth as an openly gay African man – Majola is exploring issues of sexual identity and his journey to self acceptance through music.

The 28-year-old South African theatre graduate recently released his début album Boet/Sissy, and it’s clear that he doesn’t believe in holding back – culture, religion and politics be damned.

Majola (real name Khanyisa Buti) falls amongst a new breed of ground-breaking male singers like Frank Ocean, Sam Smith and our very own Nakhane Touré – who have all used music to explore the complexities and beauty of their sexuality.

His 13 track album includes four interludes that feature the voice of openly gay Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron – one of his ardent fans. The songs themselves are unapologetically gay; blending soul, jazz, classical, choral and gospel – anchored by Majola’s soulful vocals.

Early next year, Majola plans to launch a national tour that will include both shows in traditional venues as well performance pieces in public spaces, such as outside courts and in taxi ranks.

Majola spoke to Mambaonline about his amazing journey: Starting out as a fiercely ambitious and talented child in the Eastern Cape, embarking on a brief career as cruise ship singer, and most recently finally completing his remarkable new album.

Did you always sing as a child?
I always wanted to sing and I sang any chance I got while growing up. Much to the annoyance of my family, I sang a lot at home too. I officially started singing at the age of nine with a gospel group called Heroes of Faith in Zwelitsha, King Williams Town.

What kind of music or artists have influenced you?
Anything with elements of soul moves me and speaks to me. It must have impressive vocals as I was influenced by artists with big voices such as Whitney Houston, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Luciano Pavarotti and Luther Vandross.

You travelled the world on cruise ships as a singer. Why did you choose to come back home?
I wanted to work on my lifelong dream of completing an album. In my 21-year-old understanding I believed I had made enough money to last me a lifetime. But more importantly I wanted to find my true identity as an artist and as a person here at home.

When did you first start to put together an album?
I came up to joburg with the intention of recording when I was 10 years old. I came to Down Town Studios and the late Hamilton Ndzimande told me to grow up first.

At 10? Where did that confidence come from?
I credit my late grandmother and the rest of my mother’s family. They are hard workers who never give up on themselves. My grandmother respected knowledge and enlightened people. I vowed not to just imagine the world but to travel the world and become a world citizen.The first step to that dream was to pass matric and get out of Zwelitsha.

You’ve chosen to unashamedly write and perform music about being gay. Why is that?
Because it is the only aspect of my identity after being born black that has brought about a lot of pain and man-made adversities designed to make me feel shame. I am using music to exorcise the demon of shame.

majola_south_african_gay_singer_interviewMost artists wouldn’t use their first album to be so open out of fear of limiting their commercial success.
A lie is a lie, and when you settle for a lie the flow of your life’s existence becomes destructive. The artist has to choose what matters more. Is it material wealth or spiritual wealth?

Some might say that you’re very brave; singing about being gay and gay love in your home language of Xhosa… 
Thank you for that. I don’t take that attribute lightly. The intention is to disrupt the myth that sexuality is a western thing, when it in fact is human nature.

What does the title Boet/Sissy represent?
The acceptance of the masculinity and femininity that is within me. I’ve gone through circumcision to be culturally regarded as a man and to be addressed as “bhuti”. Justice Edwin Cameron writes in his second biography Justice: A Personal Account that he secretly wished to openly be a “sissy.” I agree with his sentiment and I decided to claim it.

Is the album a kind of coming out to some people in your home town?
It may be that they regard it as that, but I don’t believe in “coming out”. To me it means having to explain myself to close minded people who couldn’t really be bothered about my well being. I am not coming out but just sharing a truthful account of my experiences through music.

Were you always aware of being different?
Yes, and that awareness was brought about by external condemnations. In the song Boet/Sissy I relate four incidents that stand out for me. The first is one of my aunts pointing at me and saying you are going to be “Nokuku,” which likened me to having a vagina, a female organ. I must have been five or six. It sort of emphasised the belief that all gay men desire to be women, which of course is nonsense. The second incident is when the leader of the Heroes of Faith also pointed at me and warned me not to end up like “those men” on the Felicia Mabuza-Suttle Show. The third is being slapped across the face outside the Methodist church by a guy named Gatete for being a “moffie”. The fourth is being taunted, poked and followed home after school by a guy whose name I can’t recall when I was in primary school. These are horrible incidents to live through. Even more painful is that I had no one to share them with as I felt that the entire community was against me for being this “different” thing. I deeply loathed myself for being different and spent so much time trying to change “it”.

You’ve spoken about your initiation into manhood. What did you hope would come from it?
A sense of self, a sense of unconditional acceptance from the community and not to be regarded as “different” any longer. I was alone most of the time in my hut and I’m still trying to make sense of what it was that I was there to learn. The expectation extends into pressuring you into marriage to be fully considered a man – and that’s where my desire to please started to die.

Is it true that you came out to your mother via SMS?
I did, and I received no response. She probably didn’t know how to engage me. I mean most black families are faced by a lack of communication in their relationships. It’s more of a structural construct than it is an individual attitude. So people tend to have one-sided understanding regarding homosexuality or sexuality at large and it happens to be negative. So when you have to accept that a person you love is “that thing” you don’t like, you have to reconcile feelings of dislike and love. Hopefully love rescues you, as has been the case with my mother.

Your music was rejected by eight record companies. Do you think your music is too confrontational?
It has to do with me singing about homosexuality in Xhosa and it also has to do with the fact that most of my music is ballads that can’t be easily defined. What sells fast is up-tempo, light content. So I happen to be marginalised by the sound and the subject matter. We don’t seem to like developing geniuses in this country. That may speak to a general complex we share as a country.

You’ve written a song about the late activist Simon Nkoli – and want to write an opera about his life. What attracts you to his story?
His is an amazing tale of courage and tenacity. He lived in a time when black people were illegal citizens and he fought bravely for the right to say “I am Simon Nkoli and I am black”. Also those he was fighting with in the ANC regarded him less of a human for being gay. He continued fighting for another right, to say “I am gay”. The HIV/AIDS that locked people into silence and stigma didn’t silence him either. He stood up once more and said “I am living with HIV”, in the early 90’s when people were completely in the dark about the disease. He had a spirit that couldn’t be defeated and I believe that not even death succeeded. We are still talking about him right now and living his legacy of freedom for black people and all gay people.

majola_south_african_gay_singer_interview_coming_outFrom Toya DeLazy to Nakhane Touré and yourself, it seems that music is a new frontier for emerging black gay artists.
It might look like a black revolution but it’s more of a human evolution and that is how I choose to see it. That human beings may finally be understanding that what they essentially are is human – before they are black, white, female, male, Christian, Jew, rich or poor.

Do you think that music and art can make a difference in changing hearts and minds in Africa about homosexuality?
It already changed hearts and minds about apartheid and I believe it can change hearts and minds on many, many other issues.

Does having openly gay public figures such as yourself also plays a role?
It does. I am somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, a friend, a neighbour, a colleague and so on.

How do you maintain your cultural values and identity while still challenging them? How do you reconcile that?
I’v changed my mind regarding culture. Culture is a dated concept that changes with the times. Love is my culture. The only connection I have with ancient African culture is speaking Xhosa. I seek to maintain and uphold common human values. It may seem as though I am challenging certain aspects of black culture but if you look deeper you realise that what I am challenging is prejudice. A human flaw.

 

Majola’s album Boet/Sissy is available for download on iTunes and Amazon. Watch a documentary about the making of the album below, as well as a recent performance.

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