Interview
Image courtesy of Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro.

Beyond the Struggle: Trans Activist Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro on the Everyday Joys of Embracing Her Identity

Hailing from a country that criminalized queerness comes with its own challenges. But Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro is choosing to find the joy in her life as a trans women instead of dealing in the loneliness and trauma that can come with being a leading voice in the movement to change the status quo.

Protest comes in many forms. For some, it's marching in the streets with picket signs and bullhorns. For others, it's boycotting or petitioning. For Ugandan trans activist Cleopatra Kambugu Kentaro, it's simply existing, fully and openly as herself.

Remaining hyper-visible on a continent where non-binary identity is shunned and sexual relations between people of the same sex remains illegal in a whopping 37 out of 54 countries according to Amnesty International, is in itself a radical act. Still, Kentaro has chosen to take her activism even further through her work as a storyteller, which she acknowledges as a tool for queer Africans to become the authors of their own histories.

In 2016 Kentaro starred in the groundbreaking documentary The Pearl of Africa, making her one of the first openly trans Ugandan women. At the time, however, the activist didn't fully realize how much of an impact the film would have. Instead, she says it was completely "organic" and humbly refers to it as a simple look into her everyday life. "I didn't even anticipate it having an impact in the community, and among my friends and family," she tells OkayAfrica "But [because of it] people have started having this conversation around transness."


Despite the obvious trials that she and other members of the LGBTQ community face in Uganda—where in 2013, the government moved to make same-sex relationships punishable by life imprisonment through its infamous Anti-homosexuality Act—Kentaro is quick to assert that her identity as a trans woman is not primarily rooted in struggle, but rather in the joy of living in one's truth. (One of those challenges came when Kentaro was forced to flee to Kenya from Uganda due to the legislation.) There is a quiet yet invincible power that arises from living in that truth, and for those traditionally deemed "other" by society, this is perhaps the most vocal activism there is.

We spoke with the OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree about her ongoing work with queer African youth, what it means to live life authentically, and the lasting and profound impact of The Pearl of Africa.

Kentaro on the taboo that remains around sexual identity on the continent:

My understanding is that Africa is still grappling with issues of sexuality and gender. Sexuality and gender represent two tools that the patriarchy uses to control people, and once that tool is let go of, then people can literally be anything they would like to be. I feel like the combination of sexuality and gender have been relegated to controversy and as issues to discuss for later, so it's difficult to have that conversation right now. Simply because [it] means that [LGBTQ] people could realize that they do have autonomy over their bodies. So, as it is now, it all feels like a matter of control.

On the cultural power of storytelling as a tool for the African LGBTQ community:

I think it is important when approaching the conversation around sexual education in Africa to use things that we have used to communicate as Africans. One of the ways we've been taught to communicate is through storytelling. My activism revolves around the use of film and art—using film as a tool to be able to tell stories. In my tribe in Western Uganda, we use stories and riddles, and that's how our culture has been passed on, through the telling of stories.

I feel that it is important for African queer people to start and continue owning and telling their own narratives, so that they become part of the narratives of this generation to be consumed later by the people in the future, and so that there are known plots of the struggle that is happening right now.

On the unexpected but lasting impact of The Pearl of Africa:

The Pearl of Africa wasn't meant to be as it ended up becoming. It was simply a shout from the darkness from a trans person who wanted to say something to the world, and to her community to say, "You are not alone, and because I can do this, you also can do this," because the collective experiences of trans people are relatable. [Since then] there's been a shift. I recently moved back home to Uganda and I realize that The Pearl of Africa has had an organic reach that I didn't even anticipate it having among the community, and among my friends, and family. But people have started having this conversation around transness.

Also, the thing for me was being authentic as people, and how seldom we are truly authenticated as people. We all individually go through an identity crisis, especially since we are faced with a world that tells us what we should be. In a way, that overshadows our own narrative of what we think we should be, and it's a struggle that everyone can identify with.

It's also about being able to fill a niche within Ugandan conversation about who are we as Ugandans, given our own socio-economic struggles. The Pearl of Africa has had that reach, and has been something that most Ugandans have been able to access.

I just got back home last August, and I was walking in town and minding my business and someone was like, "I know you. I watched you from this movie." And other people pick it up because of its name… and before they know it, it's serving as a means as an intermediary—they've brought it to their sitting rooms and they've had conversations.

On why she doesn't consider herself a spokesperson for trans people:

I've just had this conversation with my brother, and he was speaking about the things I have been able to achieve at may age and how I have thrown myself in dire situations, in which I could've died. I told him it wasn't about bravery or courage. It was about the effect of inaction, which meant that [if I did nothing] I would simply exist and not live. If I had done nothing about my life and not pushed, I would still be alive in this world, but I would not really be living, just existing. I would not be happy, I would not be fulfilled. All of the things I have pushed myself into have exposed me to the idea that I would rather not live my life any other way.

I wanted to live my life fulfilled—however long or short that life is.

In 2017 when I asked my government to change my name and gender on my passport, it was scary, no one had ever done it and I could have been arrested. Uganda is a very scary country. But I sat among a legal tribunal of 10 men, and explained to them what it means to be transgender. I explained to them what gender means, and spoke about my reality. These are people who have never had someone openly speak about these things with them in a space that's non-judgmental, and for the first time in history Uganda gave a transgender person a legal gender and name change.

It's such a monumental thing that happened, and a thing that can change when one person starts speaking. So, I feel like it's really a personal conviction to push yourself in those spaces. It does have an impact on one's life but also for the life of the community.

On how living life as an openly trans person impacts youth:

The tran-phobia I've felt, a huge part of it hasn't been physical violence towards me. It has been humiliation that has been verbal, that's been psychological. But I say that while respecting trans people who have dealt with physical abuse.

I grew up among very Christian friends and folk and I used to go Pentecostal church and I asked my girlfriends "how come you never minded me?" I used to sing praise and worship, I used to be a part of a youth group and in spite of doing all these things, I never turned down my queerness. I was very heavily queer. While going through these things it always baffled me. I wondered "How come people don't mind me." It was a pathological thought that if people minded, I would feel like a confirmed queer person.

So I asked them "why?" And that friend of mine told me that it's because "you walk in this world with your head held up so high. And with such a confidence that it makes the people who doubt you and think you're wrong think that it's them who are wrong to doubt that you should exist in this world as you are."

And that was the most powerful thing. And that is really my message to other youth who are struggling with existing in their authenticity and expressing themselves. Once you shrink and allow people to doubt who you are and to think that you are wrong. Once people see their wrongness, they will feel empowered to actually express their phobias.

And I think this is my message to trans people to be able to walk with that pride, and confidence and fullness of themselves in that habitation.

On looking beyond "the struggle" and the everyday joys of living in her truth:

When I speak about my life, I don't speak about it like its monotone. It's not a "one note" story. It's a mountain-high history that has high moments and low moments. Some moments are more eventful than others and some moments are pretty much uneventful.

Some of the things I celebrate are the wins I have been able to get with my family, being able to change their attitudes. For them to be able to understand what being trans means. I come from a family of five mothers. My father had children with five women, and we were twelve. We were really like that Cheaper By The Dozen movie.

Having to go one-by-one and change minds made me believe that change is possible, change can happen, it has nothing to do with religion and it has nothing to do with how someone was born. [It is about] being able to have that small impact within my ecosphere. It means that wherever my sisters, wherever my brothers are, they will not target people who may be like me. They have had a real, personal touch of what queerness means and what transness is. There is change that will happen because I have allowed myself to be vulnerable with them. And to be authentic before them even when it had an implication.

My family is like a Telenovela, they say things that you would be like, "Have these guys attended queer university?" I am speaking about my nephews and nieces who are like, 5 years old, who say "I want to be like Aunt Cleo."

[Another joy] is being able to advance career wise, being able to go to school and being able to choose my name and gender, which in my national ID was a huge challenge but mostly a huge win. I feel like most of my wins have been in my personal life. 'Cause that's my world, and I feel like I exist in a world that never questions me. I go to a church that knows I am transgender. We never discuss it, but they know I am transgender. It's not labeled a "queer church." Instead, it's a church that a trans person can walk in, praise, speaks with her pastor. No one is ever distracted. I mean, no one ever talks about it, 'cause no one has had to ever declare their sexuality when they come to church anyway.

For me, that's change. It's change in a place where if you're a minority, identity never becomes something that needs to be discussed. It is freedom to worship, or to work, or to access education—that's movement for me. That movement is happening, and I get to witness.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

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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.

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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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Courtesy of Universal Music Group.

In Conversation with Daniel Kaluuya and Melina Matsoukas: 'This isn't a Black Bonnie and Clyde film—our stories are singular, they're ours.'

'Queen and Slim' lands in South Africa.

Melina Matsoukas and Daniel Kaluuya are everything their surroundings at the opulent Saxon Hotel are not—down-to-earth and even comedic at times. Despite the harsh lights and cameras constantly in their faces, they joke around and make the space inviting. They're also eager to know and pronounce the names of everyone they meet correctly. "It's Rufaro with an 'R'? Is that how you say it?" Kaluuya asks me as he shakes my hand.

Matsoukas, a two-time Grammy award winning director and Kaluuya, an A-list actor who's starred in massive titles including Black Panther and Get Out, have every reason to be boastful about their achievements and yet instead, they're relatable.

The duo is in South Africa to promote their recent film Queen Slim which is hitting theaters today and follows the eventful lives of a Black couple on the run after killing a police officer. It's a film steeped in complexity and layered themes to do with racism, police brutality and of course Black love.

We caught up with both of them to talk about just what it took from each of them to bring the powerful story to the big screen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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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.

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Video
Sarkodie "Bumper" (Youtube)

Watch Sarkodie's New Music Video For 'Bumper'

A dance-heavy clip for the Ghanaian star's turn-up single.

Sarkodie comes through with the energetic new dance video for "Bumper."

The new track is a high-octane affair that sees the Ghanaian star rapper delivering some standout rhymes and flows over an afro-fusion leaning production from Nigeria's Rexxie.

The new video for "Bumper," which was directed by Monte Carlo Dream, follows a group of dancers as they show off their moves inside a barbershop.

"Bumper" comes after the release of Sarkodie's latest album, Black Love, which features the likes of Donae'o, Idris Elba, Efya, Mr Eazi, Stonebwoy, Tekno, Maleek Berry, King Promise, Kizz Daniel and several other artists.

OkayAfrica spoke with the artist in November, following his win for Best International Flow at the BET Hip Hop awards. "[The album] is just about love amongst black people and it's 90 or 80 percent based on relationships," he said.

Watch the new music video for Sarkodie's "Bumper" below.

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