Interview
Courtesy of Babalwa Mtshawu.

INFLUENCED: Meet Babalwa Mtshawu—The YouTuber Unapologetically Sharing Her Intersex Journey With the World

'I grew up thinking that my story was insignificant and that no one wanted to hear it,' says Babalwa Mtshawu.

OkayAfrica brings you the 2019 INFLUENCED Series. In the coming weeks, we'll be exploring the online communities being fostered by young South Africans who are doing more than just influencing. From make-up gurus and hair naturalistas to socially-conscious thought leaders, get ready to be influenced. Read the rest of the series here.

When she's not sharing her personal experiences in the hopes of educating her 3000 YouTube subscribers, you can find Babalwa Mtshawu jetting across the world. From Nairobi, Italy to Nepal, Mtshawu documents every exciting minute of her adventures and mishaps: the good, the bad and the really awkward. On her YouTube channel, she talks about her journey as a female-presenting intersex individual and the challenges she often faces in a society that seems adamant about keeping the intersex community completely invisible.

At other times, we're allowed into the romantic life of Mtshawu and her girlfriend, Thando Hlophe—who is also a YouTuber in her own right—and they talk about what any normal couple talks about online. But for them, there's the added dynamic of having to shield aspects of their lives as they live in a world where queer love is always forced to explain itself.

Mtshawu's content has landed her many gigs she never imagined she'd even be offered. She's taken part in various conversations, panels and even a viral BBC interview, where she's shared her views on gender, the queer community and more. Through this, she's earned a seat at the proverbial "table" that Mtshawu has always wanted, but wasn't sure if she was worthy of.

When she's not in front of the camera, Mtshawu is teaching military geography at the University of Stellenbosch.

We sat down with her to talk about what her YouTube channel means to her, where she sees it going in the next few years and the bigger picture of her work within the LGBTQIA+ community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How would you describe the engagement that you've had so far with your community of followers?

Well, I don't have a very big following so it's very easy for me to keep track of who's commenting the most and that kind of stuff. I've gotten very mixed reviews from my subscribers but mostly very positive. My channel is educational as well, because I remember my childhood was about education more than anything. A lot of people are saying that they are learning quite a bit. I just give the crux of the topic and then it's up to the person to do research for themselves because in 10 minutes I can't really tell you everything about that particular topic.

What prompted you to start your own YouTube channel and decide on the type of content that you wanted to create?

I got diagnosed medically that I was intersex when I was 25. I lied to a bunch of my friends and I said, "Oh no, I have cancer," when I was going through my treatment. I think I got to a stage where I wanted to come out to them, but I just didn't want to come out to them one by one. So I decided to shoot a video and put it online. Initially, I thought this video was going to be just for my friends because I just gave them the link. I was shocked when the initial video hit 20k views. That led me to releasing similar content, but because I didn't want it to be a very morbid channel, I tried to diversify the content and include new things like traveling, my career and that kind of stuff.

My Intersex Story || Intersex Awareness Day|| www.youtube.com

Your content is very personal. What have been some of the challenges to creating the kind of content?

Well, the fact that people feel like they are entitled to your life is a challenge. When you don't want to talk about something, people still feel entitled to that particular topic. I'll give you an example. I've made content about being intersex, but there are certain things I don't want to talk about. I'm intersex but I don't advocate for surgery although I went through surgery myself. A lot of people still want me to make a video about surgeries within the intersex community but that's not a topic I'm ready to talk about right now. You also get a lot of people who see my relationship and think that they have a say and can demand content about that too.

What conversations are you hoping to start or to continue with your YouTube Channel?

Basically, I really want to start advocating for intersex bodies and I want to focus mainly on legal work. That's the direction I want to go in. It's very difficult to venture there though because that's not what my followers are necessarily interested in. They want to be educated in a sense and the whole "let's stand together and support intersex people" kind of content may not align with what they want.

How do you navigate what (at times) seems like a trade-off between what you want to talk about and what your listeners want to hear?

What I realized with subscribers, is that you can sway them in the direction that you want them to go so long as you are not very abrupt about it. In almost every video that I've been making lately, I make it a point to let them know that while the channel is about them, it was also never about them at the same time. It was always about me and having a place where I can go back and reflect, put my thoughts out there. In essence, it's my diary and they are lucky enough to get a glimpse into my life. At some point I need to do what I want to do because it's not about the numbers for me, it's mostly about the message.

BEING A TOURIST IN NEPAL|| PASHUPATINATH TEMPLE www.youtube.com

Just within the South African context, looking at Castor Semenya and all the trouble that she's going through, how do you think that society is failing intersex individuals?

I think in most cases people are not ready to learn. And that's partly because we as the LGBTI community, sort of threw everything at everyone all at once and now it's kind of difficult to focus on specific issues. You know, every time that I tell people that my partner is a female and I'm also female-presenting, people call me lesbian, but I am not, I identify as intersex and that is a whole topic on its own. There are just a lot of misunderstandings as well as exclusions that happen within the bigger spectrum. Part of the LGBTI community itself is not supportive. There are exclusions within the community. We as intersex people barely have allies. You can call any LGBTI movement and ask them do they have a division for intersex individuals and there's absolutely nothing.

Are there any particular moments in creating content for your YouTube channel that have surprised you?

Yes, like there are quite a few. I think later on in August, I am talking at the University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape. I am part of the panel that's going to be talking about bodily integrity and gender topics. And I feel, for me, for someone who's in the hard sciences to be included in university platforms that are sociology in nature is huge. I don't "qualify" to be there but I'm there. And I feel like those are the moments that I think, "If I didn't create content, if I didn't put myself out there, no-one would have known that I belonged on that particular stage."

The travel that comes with it as well is great. This year I went to Kenya and Nepal and I was sitting on panels, doing podcasts and all of those things are for me, surreal moments where I sit and just take in the many people that are actually listening to my story.

"It's a very important thing for me because I grew up thinking that my story was insignificant and that no one wanted to hear it."

Have there been any pitfalls in talking about being intersex, your journey and everything that comes with that?

Oh yes. A good example would be the BBC Africa interview. What you probably saw was a short skit to sort of get people interested in going over to the main episode which is about 30 minutes. Right? They posted the skit onto their Twitter account and it went viral. I think it reached half a million views in a few days and I didn't even read the comments because the comments were quite brutal. People were very rude and very mean. You know, someone will tell you that they are a biologist and what you're talking about is ridiculous. And some people would be like, "The Europeans have infiltrated Africa now 'cause now we're having European problems", you know because clearly I'm a problem.

There's a lot of negativity associated with the number of views that you probably get because smaller crowds tend to be nicer and bigger crowds tend to be very mean. And when you're talking about your journey within a particular topic that is regarded as taboo in Africa, you're going to deal with a lot of backlash.

'I'm intersex, I don't get periods and I'm going through menopause' - BBC Africa www.youtube.com

How have you managed to carve out a space for yourself where you can disengage from all the negativity?

Actually, there is no running away from it. I think you have to deal with it head-on. I mean, even though I did the eNCA interview not so long ago and that was like a guaranteed 4 million views, people couldn't comment on the eNCA video 'cause it was playing on national TV. However, with the BBC video, could comment and that opened up a whole can of worms in terms of things I thought I had dealt with but I hadn't. So I found myself having had to seek mental health care.

Now I've got a psychologist that I see almost every week and we talk about my journey because even though I am public with my story, my family doesn't like the fact that I am out there like that. I don't even think that they know that I'm on these different social media platforms because for my family, that's not a topic to be discussed openly. But unfortunately for them, this is my story and not theirs.

Amidst all of this, can you think about some really fun moments that you've had creating your content?

There's a video I did entitled "The reason why I hate doctors". I mean, that whole story-line is very sad, if you're presenting it in a sad way but for me it has always been funny. So, there are some videos that when you're thinking about them, they bring tears to your eyes, but the more you shoot the content, the funnier it can sometimes take. I think by the 10th take you can probably find funny elements within the content. And I feel like for me, that's when I actually realize that some topics, as morbid as they may seem, they can also be very, very funny.

What are some of the hopes you have for your YouTube Channel?

Right now I'm currently involved in a lot of academic work pertaining to gender studies and intersex work. So that's the direction that I'm looking at going into. I'm thinking of producing content that is extremely educational. It won't necessarily be in the intersex space, but generally centered on gender-based discussions and mostly from an academic point of view.

Interview
Courtesy of Sibu Mpanza.

INFLUENCED: Meet Sibu Mpanza—the YouTuber Who's Making a Killing from Just Having Fun

'I am the person I needed when and even before I started my YouTube channel,' the prolific YouTuber says.

OkayAfrica brings you the 2019 INFLUENCED Series. In the coming weeks, we'll be exploring the online communities being fostered by young South Africans who are doing more than just influencing. From make-up gurus and hair naturalistas to socially-conscious thought leaders, get ready to be influenced. Read the rest of the series here.

Years ago, Sibu Mpanza found himself experiencing two realities Black South African students are still battling with even today: crippling financial woes at university and debilitating depression.

Keep reading...
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Courtesy of Jamil Khan.

INFLUENCED: Meet Jamil Khan—An Unflinching Advocate for Social Justice

This young South African influencer is pushing for people to tackle society's difficult conversations on social media.

OkayAfrica brings you the 2019 INFLUENCED Series. In the coming weeks, we'll be exploring the online communities being fostered by young South Africans who are doing more than just influencing. From make-up gurus and hair naturalistas to socially-conscious thought leaders, get ready to be influenced. Read the rest of the series here.

In May this year, a Black woman killing time before a job interview, was arrested by Cape Town police for no apparent reason. The video of the incident, posted to social media, caused a national uproar. For Jamil Khan, one of the more disturbing aspects of the case was that the arresting officers were Coloured. A Coloured South African himself, Khan took to Twitter to make his point.

"The fact that the Coloured community by and large is deeply anti-Black is clear for all to see." He tweeted in response to the video, "It is violent and potentially deadly. This allegiance to whiteness is the most mind blowing thing because it benefits us little to none."

His statement got thousands of likes and retweets. Khan went on to say how unsurprised he was as this kind of bigotry had been part and parcel of his own upbringing. He continued: "It is an exhausting reality but one that must be strongly condemned. This is one example of why it is important to understand white supremacy beyond White people."

Keep reading...
News Brief
Twice As Tall World Tour. Flyer provided by Atlantic Records.

Burna Boy Announces 'Twice As Tall' World Tour Dates

The Nigerian star will be playing shows across North America and Europe this summer.

Burna Boy is hitting the road again.

Following the celebrated release of African Giant—which came with nominations at both the Grammys & BRIT Awards and a trophy for Best International Act at the BET Awards—the Nigerian star will be embarking on a long run of shows that will take him across North America and Europe.

The Twice As Tall World Tour will kick off in May in Atlanta, and will see Burna Boy playing concerts across the US, Canada, Norway, France, Portugal, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and more locations.

You can check out the full tour dates for Twice As Tall World Tour below and revisit Burna Boy's performance for Okay Acoustics.

Tickets are available now.

Keep reading...
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Angelique Kidjo performs onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

'Take Africa Out of It and There's No Music for Y’all,' Angelique Kidjo on Success, ‘World Music’ & Championing New African Talent

OkayAfrica caught up with the legendary Beninese singer following her recent Grammy win and her feature on the collaborative electronic track 'Milambi.'

Last month, Angelique Kidjo won her fourth Grammy in the 'Best World Music' category. But it wasn't quite like every other year she had been nominated for the award. This time she shared the nomination with fellow African act Burna Boy, the first artist of the continent's current afropop scene to earn a nomination. While there's no question that Kidjo, who won for her 2019 album Celia, was beyond deserving (this was by no means a Kendrick-Macklemore scenario), Kidjo made the conscious decision to dedicate her award to Burna and urged viewers to pay attention to the wealth of new talent coming from the continent. "The new generation of artists coming from Africa are going to take you by storm and the time has come," said the artist.

Her vocal support for African talent isn't new though. As Kidjo notes, she gave a similarly memorable speech when she won four years ago for her album Sings, and she sounds fierce and impassioned as she speaks about it over the phone. After all, Kidjo has always been notably forward-looking in life and in music—experimentation doesn't scare her. Her latest work is on a futuristic, electronic project from Swiss DJ and producer Pablo Nouvelle and she expresses excitement about the novel methods in which African artists are creating and amplifying their music.

We caught up with Kidjo following her latest Grammy win and the release of her joint single with Nouvelle, "Milambi," to discuss her support of the new crop of talent emerging from the continent, fame, the controversy around the 'Best World Music' category, and remaining true to her identity in a Western-oriented music industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Grammys were a big moment. Why did you decide to dedicate your award to Burna Boy and acknowledge the new generation of up-and-coming African artists?

I'm always in contact with my continent. I go back on a regular basis, and that's where my source of inspiration is from. Throughout the years going back and forth, I've been seeing the entrepreneurship of the young generation coming up. When I started music—there was none of that. You just went to the studio, and you found people to help you do your music. Now you can be a self-producer. I have nephews and nieces, and I'll just say "Ok, what's new? Let me listen to the new stuff." And I just realized that the rest of the world has no clue about what's happening in Africa.

Four years ago, when I received my Grammy for the album Sings, I said "Brace yourself, because Africa is coming. You have to open your heart, your mind and ears to listen to what is going on and what is coming from the new generation of my contient"— I said that four years ago, and the time has come because [with artists like] Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and many more from Nigeria, and Sho Madjozi from South Africa—you have so much happening culturally in Africa. I have the feeling that sometimes people just completely turn their head away from Africa and I just wonder how one could possibly turn their head away from where they come from, because Africa is the cradle of humanity. Culture comes from there—there's no music on this planet that doesn't have Africa in it.

www.youtube.com

Is this why you've chosen to work with a lot of younger artists from the continent like Yemi Alade most recently?

I'm so proud of this new generation of musicians that are using the technology to tell a positive story about Africa. It's no longer about our suffering. Everybody suffers. So, why should people be focusing only on our suffering and not seeing just the human beings that we are, and how joyful we are? Then suddenly, you realize that joy becomes political because if your society, your people are perceived as joyful, then a leader cannot complain anymore that something is wrong. Beyond all that, [I do it] to pay tribute to the entrepreneurship of the young generation. They aren't waiting on help from anybody. If you are famous in your country and on your continent, there's nothing that can stop you. You have billions of people that will love you, so why should the rest of the world look aside when you're passing by? They should pay attention.

That's why I use my platform to bring the attention of the media to this new generation coming. They don't want to be caught by surprise because I've been telling them to pay attention. If something happens, and they don't pay attention, at least I've done my work.

I do think it's really amazing how new artists have been able to gain traction and put their music out despite their not being a lot of support by African leaders for creative industries. Do you think that African governments, and the folks with money should invest more entertainment?

I think they should because we create jobs. People make money, and it's not only the artists. There's also the people helping them make videos, or cut tracks—music creates jobs.

I think we have to educate our leaders and our business people in Africa. Who can carry their brand better than us? Who are the best ambassadors of our cultures, our countries and our continent? It's us artists across different forms of art, from painters, to storytellers, to people in theatre and movies. Every form of art is about telling the story of ordinary people and the people that have come before us. How do you know about your own history, if not for the elderly people that tell you the story of who you are?

In order for us to tell our story, we need to have a voice. We need to say it through different mediums. Music is one of them. We shouldn't let anyone else tell our stories anymore. That time in history has passed. We have new narratives, we have proof of how entrepreneurial we are. Africans can make money in Africa and anywhere else. The world is open to us—the world is ours. No one can stop us.

So many African artists look to you as an inspiration and a model for longevity in the music industry. I'm wondering which artists served that role for you when you were first coming up.

There are many, many of them. I would say it started with traditional musicians because I was a very curious child. I come from that background of traditional musicians telling me stories through songs. [Growing up] my brothers were playing music, my father brought the instruments for them, and freed a room in a crowded house for them to rehearse. I heard every genre of music in the '60, '70s and '80s through them, but my role models start with traditional musicians, both male and female. [But at a certain point] I noticed that every album that would be brought home had just men on the covers. I was like, "Okay, so women don't sing? They can't do albums too?" Then you had Western women start coming in and I was like, "Okay, at least some women are making it through [in the industry]."

Then Miriam Makeba came and Aretha Franklin came. The day Aretha Franklin came, the singer of my brother's band—who had such a fucking ego, you couldn't even put it anywhere—said "there's no song I can't sing." [But] Aretha came and he couldn't sing. I'm like, "What? A woman is whooping your butt. I like that."

So, there have been strong men and women as musicians that have informed the music that I make today. The only way I could absorb it and make my own music, and become a role model to others today is because I am proud of my culture. I know where I come from, I'm not trying to copy anybody because everybody copied what we have. There wouldn't be any music in America without the input of enslaved people that came from Africa. The blues came from slaves. It doesn't matter how hard the slave owner wanted to dehumanize us—they even took the drum away from us. But we had many ways of celebrating culture. We had many ways of celebrating our humanity—singing was one of them. We sing our pain to lift it up. We sing our joy to share it with people. That's what African music is. The essence of what music is comes from that place. We've seen it all, we've been through hell, yet here we are prevailing still.

"I have to be able to sing my songs till I die."

You've always championed African culture and identity, whether it's through singing in Yoruba, or representing Benin through various endeavors. Did you at any point, ever face pressure from the industry to tone down your "Africanness" to appeal to certain audiences?

They have a saying in my country, that "the advisor is not the payer." [It's about] what you do with the advice people give you. I'm always listening, I'm always ready to sit and hear constructive criticism. But if you want to critique for the sake of criticizing me—I've heard some journalists say that I'm not African enough in France because my music sounds too Western. I said, "What is the music of the West then? Tell me." Take Africa out of it and there's no music for y'all.

For me, I respect everybody, particularly the differences because there lies the genius. We all don't think the same.

People said, "Why don't you show your titties?" I'm like, "Well, I don't feel like showing my titties because my titties ain't singing. My voice is not in my breasts." You've got to be somebody, and I am African. I come from a rich culture. Why should I change to look like what? What do you want me to look like? I've never ever allowed anyone to say to me, "You can't do this." I have fought some producers that try to change my music. I say, "If that's the case, you take the microphone, you sing, it's not mine, I'm out of here." You have to stand for something. If you are afraid of not making it, then you become a fool to somebody.

People will say what they want to say. If I want to dress differently, I do sometimes. When I received the NAACP award, I wore a suit. A well-tailored suit, and I kill it too in a suit. It's not what you wear, it's who you are.

I always say, if anyone wants to work with me, I'm open. The bridge I'm trying to build, everybody's welcome on it in the respect of each other's differences. My strength might be your weakness, and then I supply. My weakness might be your strength. It goes both ways. I don't have the answer to everything, but one thing I know is that if we stop bitching at each other and blaming people for all the things that aren't good in our life will be better off because when we start doing that, what do we do? We create fear, and fear is dangerous.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy surrounding the Best World Music category at the Grammys. Many believe that it doesn't truly encompass the diversity of music coming from the continent. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Don't underestimate the recording academy. They have been thinking about it way before this. It's a conversation that we're going to be engaging in. Africa is not a country, it's a continent. The Latin Grammy exists. We should have the African Grammys too, because it's a continent, because it's vast, it's huge. So, it's a conversation we started having because the academy is also realizing this, and they are, at least, having that conversation. Right now, if you look at the "French Grammys" coming up, there's not one person of African descent [represented]. Not one. They just completely ban what is called "world music" out of it and we're in the 21st century. So, I think criticizing is one thing, finding solutions is another.

Let's work with the recording academy and find out how we can help to come up with something that works for everybody. That's all I'm about. I'm always about solutions. The thing is that we also need to recognize that we cannot be discriminating when it comes to culture. If we don't speak to each other, and we're always blaming and pointing fingers, there's no conversation possible anymore. We should have an open discussion about this and be creative about it. That's all I say.

Speaking on shifting genres, you recently worked with Pablo Nouvelle on his new project Eliso, I saw it described as your "maiden venture into electronic music." What was that experience like for you?

I started with electronic music. If you ask David Byrne, he would tell you that my first album, Logozo was completely electric, but African electric. So for me, working on this album brings me back to the beginning and, I'm not done doing that. I'm going to do it more.

So, we can expect a lot more of this electronic sound that you've already been working on?

I'm not saying anything.

We can't have a hint?

No, nothing, because I always follow my inspiration. If my inspiration changes a little bit, I have to change [my direction].

You just go with whatever feels right?

I have to be able to sing my songs till I die. All my songs, if I can't sing them, with just my voice and a guitar, it means it's not good. When writing a song, less is more because if you add too much stuff, then you kill the song. You're overstating it. Do the minimal. If it feels good to you, and you can sing it in your sleep, wake up dancing to it, and you can feel it in every beat in your body, it's right.

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