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Meet the Black & Queer Singer-Songwriter Toppling Constructs of Power & Perception in South Africa

Cape Town singer-songwriter OBie Mavuso on her new EP, 'Cosmic Fire'

“I am an alternative artist in South Africa, who happens to be black and queer. Everything about me is not what people are used to,” says OBie Mavuso on the topic of putting out music as a black, queer artist in a predominantly heterosexual, cisgendered and masculine scene. For the 25-year-old singer-songwriter based in Cape Town, being taken seriously as a musician is a daily challenge, but it’s something she takes ownership of.


“I think it’s up to me to try and change how people view the ‘alternative’ being," Mavuso writes via email. "Power dynamics are something that the local scene is still struggling with. Change is not easy to accept, but promoters and the media can start by including a wider range of musicians and artists in their line ups and write ups.”

If toppling constructs of power and perception are the topic at hand, then Cosmic Fire is one of the tools being used to knock it all down.

Produced and mastered by Cape Town’s Thor Rixon and Original Swimming Party, the three-track EP is, as Mavuso puts it, “A journey through my mind and being, barely making sense of things, but so aware of things that have to change, and things I can change.”

The title track opens the EP with swelling basslines that rise and rise before giving way to Mavuso’s bold and resolute vocals, weaving together intimate and captivating tales of incendiary love and chance meetings. “Human” is a languorous and somewhat forlorn track characterised by its choppy drumbeats and melancholic vocals, while “Oppressive Symptoms” concludes the EP on a powerful note with striking, free-flowing lines sounding out atop a pedestal of alternating keys, all backed by a choir of otherworldly vocals. Cosmic Fire is Mavuso's strongest release to date.

A quick journey down the musician’s SoundCloud offers insight into her experimentation over the years, slowly breaking away from a conventional hip-hop sound and constantly refining her vocals. Considering music isn’t yet a full-time gig for Mavuso, her repertoire becomes even more impressive. But don’t ask her to speak about her own music. She’s surprisingly blasé about it all.

“I write songs differently and I also spend different times working on them, based on the message and how I am feeling at the time,” she says. “Cosmic Fire was freestyled and rehearsed. I used lyrics I had written before and added new lyrics as I was recording. It happens. I have learnt to let go and just enjoy the moment and the music.”

From a young age, Mavuso learnt to find solace in music. To visit the artist’s musical origins would find you in Keiskammahoek, a small Eastern Cape village on the outskirts of King William’s Town. “When I was in primary school I started collecting cassettes around the house. Radio was a thing back then and good music was at its prime,” she recalls. “I would listen to Radio Ciskei (Now Tru FM) and record my favourite hip-hop, soul and local tunes on my cassettes. That kept me very happy.”

Photo by Valerie Amani.

Nowadays, Mavuso finds happiness through her own music––a blend of hip-hop and soul, paying homage to her cassette tape days, but with an alternative twist. It’s experimental at times, with greater emphasis on electronic elements and with a delivery that finds a home in that small area between conversation and monologue.

An average day for Mavuso also sees her wearing the hats of filmmaker and podcast host. On the side, she’s the curator of two niche platforms, Jam That Session and Queers On Smash, which serve as a celebration of up-and-coming black, queer musicians.

“I know how real the struggle is for a young artist in South Africa,” explains Mavuso. “Sometimes even a little push from a company like Jam That Session is necessary for growth and sometimes that’s the only push you will get, because some companies just won’t want anything to do with you as an artist.”

Cosmic Fire is out today. Listen above.

Dave Mann is a Johannesburg-based arts journalist who writes on local music, theatre and visual art. Follow him on Twitter @david_mann92.

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Introducing OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 List

Celebrating African Women Laying the Groundwork for the Future

It would not be hyperbole to consider the individuals we're honoring for OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 list as architects of the future.

This is to say that these women are building infrastructure, both literally and metaphorically, for future generations in Africa and in the Diaspora. And they are doing so intentionally, reaching back, laterally, and forward to bridge gaps and make sure the steps they built—and not without hard work, mines of microaggressions, and challenges—are sturdy enough for the next ascent.

In short, the women on this year's list are laying the groundwork for other women to follow. It's what late author and American novelist Toni Morrison would call your "real job."

"I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else."

And that's what inspired us in the curation of this year's list. Our honorees use various mediums to get the job done—DJ's, fashion designers, historians, anthropologists, and even venture capitalists—but each with the mission to clear the road ahead for generations to come. Incredible African women like Eden Ghebreselassie, a marketing lead at ESPN who created a non-profit to fight energy poverty in Eritrea; or Baratang Miya, who is quite literally building technology clubs for disadvantaged youth in South Africa.

There are the builds that aren't physically tangible—movements that inspire women to show up confidently in their skin, like Enam Asiama's quest to normalize plus-sized bodies and Frédérique (Freddie) Harrel's push for Black and African women to embrace the kink and curl of their hair.

And then there are those who use their words to build power, to take control of the narrative, and to usher in true inclusion and equity. Journalists, (sisters Nikki and Lola Ogunnaike), a novelist (Oyinkan Braithwaite), a media maven (Yolisa Phahle), and a number of historians (Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Leïla Sy) to name a few.

In a time of uncertainty in the world, there's assuredness in the mission to bring up our people. We know this moment of global challenge won't last. It is why we are moving forward to share this labor of love with you, our trusted and loyal audience. We hope that this list serves as a beacon for you during this moment—insurance that future generations will be alright. And we have our honorees to thank for securing that future.

EXPERIENCE 100 WOMEN 2020

The annual OkayAfrica 100 Women List is our effort to acknowledge and uplift African women, not only as a resource that has and will continue to enrich the world we live in, but as a group that deserves to be recognized, reinforced and treasured on a global scale. In the spirit of building infrastructure, this year's list will go beyond the month of March (Women's History Month in America) and close in September during Women's Month in South Africa.

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