Gqom and black queer activism: an interview with South African duo FAKA
We met up with the two South African artists and activists Fela Gucci and Desire Marea after their show at Different Class, the yearly Ghent-based festival by Subbacultcha. While eating grapefruits, we had a chat about gqom, gentrification of music, their future projects and spirituality.
Article and pictures by Chloé Galmiche, picture edit by Bavo Goossens
August 10, 2019 at DOK: a colorful place on the outskirts of Ghent, Belgium where sand and stars get in your eyes, unless you’re wearing fancy red-shaded sunglasses. 8 PM: the French artist coucou chloe just finished her bouncing acid show. An energetic duo like no other was getting ready to take over the stage. FAKA offered a performance that crushed down the walls of our dancing anxiety and penetrated a bit of glam in our chest. Their music resonated like a mantra against the ceiling of the ancient warehouse and took over the space with sensual dancing and a playful aura.
HI FAKA, HOW DID YOU ENJOY THE SHOW?
Desire Marea: It was fabulous! The crowd and the sound was great. We felt good and it was just an overall great energy.
LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR MUSIC. WHAT ARE THE LYRICS ABOUT?
Fela Gucci: We like to sing about spirituality. We grew up in spiritual villages, but like very spiritual, beyond religion. Religion was a practice, it was sort of a foundation in some way but the practice was spiritual. So we borrow a lot from that but also from our own personal experiences as individuals. Growing up as sexual bodies, as black bodies, as queer bodies... Our music is about all those experiences.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE GQOM TO SOMEONE WHO HAS NEVER HEARD ABOUT IT?
Fela Gucci: Gqom is South African underground music. My only problem with the standard definition is that people always feel like it borrows from techno or European electronic music. Which is very problematic because people think techno is European but techno actually comes from Detroit in Chicago. It's black music, gentrified by white people.
Gqom comes from Africa, it comes from black people, it comes from black queer people. Honestly, Gqom doesn't belong to some previous culture that you [Western people] own. It's just spiritual black music interpreted through electronic music, which African people make as well. Some people really think African music is made with live instruments only.
WHY DID YOU GO FOR GQOM AS A MUSIC GENRE?
Fela Gucci: We didn't go for it, gqom went for us: it was an instant connection. Desire lived in Durban, where gqom originates from, and he introduced me to it. I immediately connected to the sound and was like "Oh my god what the fuck is this? It sounds so fucking good!". Then I came to Durban and we went to this club called Spank, they just played gqom all night. It was a very beautiful place, very sexually fluid as well.
Desire Marea: With the most beautiful men in the world...
Fela Gucci: Beautiful people indeed. It's just dancing all night, you know. I was like "Woah, oh my god the sound, and this culture". Also because I feel, especially in South Africa, how people understand electronic music is very classist. Like if only a middle-class person could understand what electronic music is. But in Durban, kids from the township, kids from the villages, are creating this music on FruityLoops. They don't know what techno is so it isn't a reference to them. I always have a problem with how European people try to dissect electronic music that comes from Africa. They always feel like they need to make a reference to what is happening in Europe. Actually, what's happening in Africa is what's happening in Africa. Keep it there.
EXACTLY, WHEN I WAS RESEARCHING ABOUT GQOM, I FOUND DESCRIPTIONS LIKE "IT'S A MIX OF TECHNO AND...", ETC.
Fela Gucci & Desire Marea: nooooooo, it has nothing to do with it.
Desire Marea: When they do that, it's like they're making other European people lazy because they're not encouraging you to think further than what you already know. It's “okay techno and house is close to you” so they think it's the only way that you're able to make sense of it. I feel like everyone should challenge that. I would find it offensive if people didn't believe that I could understand any kind of music that doesn't come from somewhere close.
That's probably because we are from Africa and we've often been consuming music that isn't directly related to African music, but we’re still able to absorb it and embrace it. So I feel like when people do that, dropping parallels with house or whatever, that it is a disservice to you all. They're telling you you're dumb and you shouldn't allow that.
ABOUT YOUR MUSIC CREATION PROCESS, HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH YOUR MUSIC?
Fela Gucci: DJ Bigger Nimza Nzuza sends us beats. He's our DJ and he also produced our music from the second EP 'Amaqhawe'.
Desire Marea: Recently, we were working with other people's beats and then just writing. That sort of gave us most space to have fun with our lyrical content, the hooks and the song making. Now we are swimming in a river that is already flowing. When we were making our own beats, we literally had to drain the water of the river from the pores of our soul before doing the vocals in the end. So I think the arrangements were a little bit more complex and just fluid but also very rooted in an individual way.
YOU RELEASED TWO EP'S NOW, 'BOTTOMS REVENGE' AND 'AMAQHAWE'. ARE YOU PLANNING ON MAKING AN ALBUM?
Fela Gucci: We are working on an album at the moment, yeah. So I need to get back home. We need to be working on an album, girl!
ARE THERE SOME ARTISTS YOU WOULD LIKE TO COLLABORATE WITH?
Desire Marea: Nkisi. She’s from Belgium actually.
WHO ELSE WOULD YOU LIKE TO WORK WITH?
Desire Marea: Maybe Rihanna or something.
Fela Gucci: Yeah I'd love to work with Rihanna and I’d also love to work with Kanye West. I mean, I feel like I'm presumed to drop underground names now but I really want to work with Kanye West. He's a musical genius because he understands all these worlds. Kanye listens to a lot of stuff and I feel like that’s what people don't understand about him. They see him as this mainstream artist but his influences are so diverse. He works with a lot of people so he's very in tune with what's happening in the underground world.
But I feel like, strategically as well, it's very smart to work with him. As he's someone who understands that underground world but is also based in the mainstream. He can match those both worlds together to create something interesting, accessible and still iconic at the same time. Kanye, yeah.
Desire Marea: Kanye if you read this interview… (laughing)
YOU ARE VISUAL ACTIVISTS, HELPING TO BRING REPRESENTATION TO QUEER BLACK PEOPLE. DO YOU FEEL LIKE THINGS HAVE GOTTEN BETTER SINCE YOU STARTED?
Desire Marea: Yeah they actually have. I can confidently say that. Johannesburg isn't the Jo’burg we were living in before we started doing what we're doing. We sort of related to the idea of queer visual activism, via Zanele Muholi's work. She's a visual artist from South Africa, like our best artist, in South Africa. As much as you want us to be activists, we're not the rainbow flag-waving activists who demonstrate on the street. We're also glamorous people. Very much conscious of aesthetics.
So, I think what we did strategically was to use our love for aesthetics to ingrain a different kind of perspective and attitude. To put our truth into that kind of thing. This sort of worked and it wasn't something that was out of our comfort zone. Although it was challenging. I feel like it was effective because visuals are the primary force in everything.
WHICH BRINGS ME TO CLOTHING AND STYLE, HOW DO YOU CHOOSE YOUR PERFORMANCE OUTFITS?
Desire Marea: So we work with a designer called Nao Serati who we’ve known for a long time now. He knows exactly what will work on stage and what we need, to express our internal power. He's one of the most talented black queer designers in South Africa.
IF YOU COULD GIVE AN ADVICE TO YOURSELF 10 YEARS AGO, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Fela Gucci: FUCK IT UP BIIIITCH, you're gonna be alright.
FAKA will be playing in Belgium again on November 29 at Beursschouwburg in Brussels.