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 TEMPLEwww.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 Africawww.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.

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Photo Credit: Ikechukwu Okonkwo

Korty EO is the YouTuber Documenting Contemporary Culture in Nigeria

Thanks to her confessional-style videos and high-concept shows, Korty EO is one of Nigeria's rising YouTube stars.

There is a stillness in Eniola Olanrewaju’s upscale Yaba, Nigeria flat. It matches the abiding sense of quietness that almost seems to envelop the 24-year-old when she retreats into her world. Eniola, popularly known as Korty EO,is one of the most popular faces in the post-digital creative taxonomy that has swept through Lagos over the last half-decade. In many regards, she is a poster child for the boundlessness that characterizes the grind and hustle of young people in Africa’s most populous city. Over the last four years, she's worked as a graphic designer, writer, content creator, and videographer. Now she is one of Nigeria's brightest YouTube talents, gathering almost 200k followers on YouTube and more than 100k followers on Instagram.

But Korty’s story did not start in Lagos. She grew up in Bodija, Ibadan.

“It was a safe area but my house in Bodija was not around the fanciest sides," Korty said sitting in a rocking chair in her spartan living room last month. "My parents were very protective but that’s because they knew that our environment wasn’t the safest but if you asked me I was proud to say I lived in Bodija because it was a fresh area but I wouldn’t bring you to my house.” Growing up as the middle child in a family of five, Korty was aware of the limitations of her parents and strove to make a way for herself. She started out working as a graphic designer while enrolled in the University of Ibadan after a brief stint at Bowen University. “I saw that there’s a lot I could do and I could even not go to class if I wanted,” she said. “I was just freer and able to do my business.”

Her clarity of purpose meant that she always knew she was going to have to move to Lagos to pursue some of her grander dreams, even if she didn’t know what those dreams were at that moment. An opportunity came in 2018 when a modeling agency scouted her while in Lagos to get a certificate from her IT attachment office. But Korty was reluctant to step into the modeling world. “I said no because I used to think that models were shallow,” she said, half-joking.

Eventually, Korty decided to give modeling a shot. She was grateful for the extra income and the opportunity to explore Lagos’s creative community that her constant visits provided. In the modeling world, Korty was faced with having to navigate a labyrinthine maze of toxic booking agents and haughty designers who treated her poorly. “You can usually tell when someone is not so comfortable in a certain place," she said. "Because I wasn’t comfortable, a lot of stylists did not pick me to walk their shows.”

Mostly observing other models strut their ways on glitzy walkways, Korty started to document their lives in short videos that piqued the interests of her fellow models. Soon after, she joined Zikoko, where she worked as a writer and content creator before convincing her bosses at the time to let her helm a show named HER that was dedicated to showcasing the often-overlooked life of women in Nigeria. In December 2020, after working with Zikoko for close to two years, she left to join Mr. Eazi’s music accelerator program, emPawa, as its head of content. Where Zikoko had a big collaborative culture that emphasized creative cross-pollination, emPawa was more independently structured, giving Korty free rein to pursue projects and create her work in her own image.

It was while handling the YouTube channel of emPawa that Korty began to see the potential of the platform to host the quirky, confessional-style videos that she really wanted to make. “I was always looking at the analytics and understanding how the platform works,” she said. “After a while, I was tired of it and I just left because I realized that YouTube paid."

She, of course, wasn't getting paid immediately. The YouTube channel started taking off with a video documenting the thought process of moving out of her parents’ house and quitting her job at emPawa to create videos for YouTube.

Korty EO pink dress

Korty’s YouTube channel has taken definitive shape, anchored around two shows: Flow, with Korty andLove and Lies.

Photo Credit: Ikechukwu Okonkwo

That was in 2020. In the months since then, Korty’s YouTube channel has taken definitive shape, anchored around two shows: Flow, with Korty, is an exploratory show into the life of celebrities and trendsetters in the Lagos and wider west African cultural scene. While the newer one,Love and Lies, is a dating show that chronicles the drama and comedy that follows setting random people on dates in Lagos. When she shoots her subjects, what Korty aims for is submersion, seeking a way to remove any distraction from their immediate consciousness and get as much information as possible from them.

“I put my camera far away from them so they can even forget that it’s there,” Korty said. “It’s usually me, my cameras, and a photographer because most of the people I film are in some sense celebrities and once they see too many people, they become guarded but if you make them comfortable they can express themselves.” Editing, though, is where it all comes together as she applies her experiences while staying true to the vibe of the shoot. It usually takes place over an active period of one or two weeks depending on the quantity of footage she gets.

The distinctive contours of life in Lagos and the city’s ever-present trans-generational tensions weigh on Korty’s mind and spill into her visual content. “I think Lagos is the center for a lot of things because there’s a lot of people here so it’s easy to find various communities here,” she said. “Sometimes I’m very conflicted about where I stand because I’m old Gen Z. I’m 24 and there are people being 18-year-old in 2022. It often feels like I'm in the middle because where does the class of 1998 fit into it all.” Still, the grind, hustle, and growing fearlessness of young Gen Z'ers’s in Lagos inspire her more than anything. “There’s more evidence of people’s patterns and lifestyles (in Lagos) because of the Internet and that brings more exposure. I feel like the Gen Z culture awareness in Lagos is so strong that it’s being transferred to other parts of the country but Lagos is the pinnacle.”

Korty EO pink dress, white nike sneakers

“There needs to be a better process for how people get monetized in Nigeria," Korty said. "If YouTube says it’s catering for everyone in every part of the world, they need to do that regardless of the difficulties in the country."

Photo Credit: Ikechukwu Okonkwo

Still, existing in Lagos can take its toll, and navigating the YouTube payment model as an independent creator can make it even harder. “It was very difficult,” she said about getting her channel — none of Nigeria’s fastest-growing — monetized. “They have to send a pin to a post office. It’s very easy for people abroad but if you live in Nigeria, getting your pin and money is very hard.” Korty had to make a video detailing her frustration with the monetization process before further relief came and she worries about the next generation of indie creators hoping to share their talents with the world via YouTube. “With newer people coming into the platform, it’s really hard for them because they are confused. There’s a procedure but the procedure doesn’t work unless you get your pin and it’s mentally wrecking.

“There needs to be a better process for how people get monetized in Nigeria, if YouTube says it’s catering for everyone in every part of the world, they need to do that regardless of the difficulties in the country. I know that’s easy to say but that’s just it, it shouldn’t be better in one place than it is in another, and also I guess Nigeria should also care about these things enough to make it easier for everyone.”

Earlier this year, a video documenting Korty’s attempts to schedule an interview with Wizkid over three days in Lagos went viral. And it’s an experience that has only solidified her resolve. “For me, the main thing is that only a few things can stop me in this life," Korty said. "Obviously, the goal I had was to get Wizkid but the real thing was for people to see how if you set a goal and you move towards it, you either get it or move really close to it.”

For all the inspirational themes of her videos and persona, Korty is not a filmmaker that really cares about cajoling an awakening in her audience, seeing her role as more of a guide on the facts of a situation or phenomena. “I think for me, my role is to talk about certain things, shine a light on them and leave people to take whatever they want from the video,” she said. “That’s why I tell people that my aim is not to inspire. If it happens that you’re inspired, that’s on you.”

Despite all her protestations to the contrary, Korty understands the impact of her videos and is warming up to her role as an archivist of Nigerian contemporary culture. “When I do things, I don’t have plans but they start to unfold and people start to see what it can become,” she said. “I’m just trying to make it in life, I’m really not trying to be a culture shifter but I also feel like if that is happening and people are seeing a pattern, it’s now up to me to see if I can accept that responsibility.

"I’m very aware that there is a growing responsibility and, if I don’t accept it, I might not grow, I could just be stagnant."

In many instances, Korty is quick to reject tags or titles and as our conversation comes to a close, I ask what she identities as these days. “I’m starting to say filmmaker,” she said. “A lot of people would say that where do I get the audacity to call myself that because I make YouTube videos but if you put me up next to the YouTubers of today, there’s a clear difference. It’s also why I don’t like it when people call me an influencer because I didn’t sit outside Eko Hotels for three days to be called an influencer. Filmmaking is where I have found myself. In 2018, I was in fashion. Before 2018, I was designing. As time passes, I’ll stumble on something else. I don’t think I can do one thing for all of my life. But whatever I decide to do, I’ll succeed and be competing at the top.”

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Photo by Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images

8 Queer-Owned African Fashion Brands to Check Out For Pride

In honor of pride month, we highlight eight African queer fashion designers and brands putting queer stories on the global map through fashion.

In the last decade, there have been an emergent of fashion designers who aren’t just queer but have aligned their fashion vision with their identity, creating demystifying collections and criss-crossing their concepts and ideologies to represent the inscape of non-conformity, fluidity, queerness and androgyny — whilst maintaining a quick balance with their cultural roots. Despite the numerous fabric experimentations and collections, these designers never forget to tell stories that align with them, especially those that resonate with queer people in queer unfriendly countries.

In honor of pride month, OkayAfrica highlights 8 African queer fashion designers and brands putting queer stories on the global map through fashion.

Rich Mnisi

South African designer Rich Mnisi is part of a new wave of designers putting African stories on the global map. Founded in 2015, the brand Rich Mnisi is immersed at offering fluid expression to gender, celebrating youthful excellence and exploring extremist design elements with minimalist cultural tailoring. For pride month, the brand released a limited edition capsule titled “Out." The capsule visualizes a fine-line between elegance and fluidity whilst boldly emphasizing on the act of struggle and resilience as an outfit.

Udiahgebi

For a fashion brand like Udiahgebi, identity is very important. And offering that form of visibility to femme queer Nigerians is not just a form of visual activism but a detailed story of essence. The brand was founded by Emerie Udiahgebi, a gender non-forming fashion designer who wanted to give queer, non-binary and non-conforming individuals more options to express themselves fashionably. Udiahgebi’s fashion concept is extremely bold, fierce, and unconventional.

Lagos Space Programme

Designer Adeju Thompson fuses traditionalist concepts with genderless possibilities. Founded in 2018, Lagos Space Programme is a gender-neutral fashion brand that enveloped aesthetic designs using local craftsmanship. The brand appreciates West African unique fabric and communicates compelling stories of identity, gender and queerness — a ideology that has garnered them not just audience but earned them a spot at the LVMH prize.

Muyishime

Patrick Muyishime is a fashion innovator. Not only does he know how to source excellent fabrics but his designs are authentically vibrant. Founded in 2016, Muyishime is a Kenyan fashion label that introduces conversations surrounding androgynous and explores aesthetically fabric inventions that commands fluidity, feminine wiles and constructive elegance.

Bola Yahaya

Founded in 2019, Bola Taofeek Yahaya's fashion label aligns thought provoking pieces that elevate the discusses around queer representation, sexuality and feminity. The brands merges sustainability and explore eccentric fabric experimentations.

Nao Serati

Founded by South African designer Nao Serati Mofammere in 2014, the fashion brand Nao Serati explores the versatility of gender and the fine margin of sexuality whilst finding its balance with their South African heritage. Mofammere wants his brand to explore masculinity and the different ways it takes to wear a fragile look.

Vangei

Lolu Vangei has different recipes to gender fluidity and she has used fashion to express that. Founded in 2018, Vangei is a fashion label that unites modern ideology of afro-centricism to produce pieces that dismantle cliched ideas about gender.

Mayetobs

There is no explaining the sort of talent Emmanuel Tobiloba possesses. Founded in 2020, Mayetobs' eccentric approach in reinstating androgynous norms is interesting. From oversized pants that speaks of fabric maximalism to fast flowing robes, the fashion brand is an ode to redefining modern masculinity.

Interview

The Alluring Distinction of Falz

Falz' contributions to Afropop are masterfully encapsulated on BAHD. We speak to him about his vast scope of sounds on the new album, Nigerian politics and more.

Falz is one of Afropop’s most distinctive figures. His songs have defined several periods of Nigeria’s push into international spaces, formed on the background of rap but possessed with amorphous creativity. With the backdrop of a global pandemic, the 31-year-old musician again found himself staring down the well of reinvention.

Having made appearances across several facets of the entertainment industry, he wanted to move into a new soundscape. He poured that motivation into his fifth studio album BAHD, a collection of twelve songs which show Falz at his most risque and naughty. “To be honest it’s a big mix,” he mentions to OkayAfrica some days after its release. “It’s arguable whether this is actually pop. This can even be looked at as an Afro R&B project, it’s an Afro-fusion project as well. I definitely touched on a few different genres while making BAHD. That was the aim from the beginning: I just wanted to have an album with a vast scope of sounds”.

Each featured guest uniquely broadens his vision. Whether it’s Tiwa Savage on “Beautiful Sunflower” or The Cavemen on “Woman,” there’s a seamless entry into the lush sonics of Falz’s universe. He tells me animatedly that he’s always wanted a song with the iconic Ms. Savage, and already has multiple songs with the Highlife-influenced Cavemen. His curatorial skills are present on “Inside,” combining the unusual duo of Timaya and Boy Spyce to fine effect. Apparently the record was created way before the latter was signed to Mavin Records, pointing towards Falz’s continued inclination for digging deep and leaning into new styles and sounds.

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Events
Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images,

Tems Is Taking Over The World

The Nigerian songstress made history as the first female Nigerian artist to be awarded BET's Best International Act at this year's award ceremony.

Nigerian musical legend in the making Tems is one hell of a force. The singer has had a fleet of accomplishments in recent months, showing off her star power and the waves her music has made on global music charts. On Sunday, Tems became the first female Nigerian artist to accept the Best International Act award at this year's BET award ceremony -- also collecting the Best Collaboration award on the behalf of colleague Wizkid on their "Essence" remix featuring Canadian pop star Justin Bieber.

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