Literature
Still taken from uMama trailer.

In Conversation: Zakes Mda on No Story Being too Taboo or Sacred to Tell

The legendary South African writer on storytelling, losing Bra Hugh Masekela and his hopes for South Africa

Zakes Mda, endearingly referred to as Bra Zakes, is a South African literary giant. He is the exemplar "jack of all trades, master of all"—a professional 'dabbler' as he refers to it. An accomplished novelist, playwright, poet and painter, he has written close to two dozen novels thus far, including the beloved Little Suns, Ways of Dying and The Heart of Redness. He is extremely hilarious as an individual and never afraid to speak his glorious mind. Case in point:

"Some random guy claims he has lost all respect for me because I hold a different view from his on a specific issue. I'm trying hard to recall what his respect has done for me lately or ever did."

Bra Zakes hails from the dusty streets of Orlando East, a suburb in the township of Soweto. As a child, the oral tradition of storytelling nurtured him, he recited the Shakespeare that his father taught and his name, was actually that of a fictional character in a book. None of this was hardly coincidental.

Zakes Mda is now a full Professor of English at Ohio University but still frequents South Africa on occasion.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Your full name is Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda. Explain to us how 'Zakes' came about?

That's my pen name. But then it's been my nickname even before I became a writer. Being Zanemvula Kizito and therefore ZK became Zakes. And during those days there used to be a great saxophonist in Alexandra Township called Zakes Nkosi. And of course, I was Zakes the artist. That's what I was called.

I think it's not often that an artist is so diversified like you are. You're a novelist, you've written plays, poetry and you're a painter as well. Is it all the same to you?

Well, to me art is art is art is art. This so called "diversified in art" is something that I only learnt when I got here in America. I wake up one morning—If I feel like a play, then I write a play. I wake up one morning—I'm working on this animation cartoon, if I'm creating a certain scene and then a song comes, I say, "This is what this character sings here." Then, I compose that song.

Do you think being an artist is a calling or just another job?

It's quite possible that being an artist is a calling although I don't know who's calling you. But it is a calling in that if you have to resist and refuse then you run mad. You cannot say no. As a writer, the story tells you to tell it. And if you say, "No. I'm not going to do that," you will certainly run mad.

On the subject of South African artists especially, do you think South Africa loses a lot of them because it doesn't sufficiently value them?

Well, the world is a stage. There's a bigger stage out there. You cannot ask why Trevor Noah should work in America for Comedy Central when there's the SABC here. He's an artist. It's the same with Pretty Yende who's one of the greatest sopranos in the world. She could have stayed in Mpumalanga where she comes from but she went to La Scala in Italy. If you have a provincial mind, you'll go, "Why doesn't she sing in the State Theater?" She still does. But she's there on the bigger stage.

I have to ask you about The Zulus of New York that you're releasing this year. Do you think the theme of Black people as human spectacles has been explored enough?

There are academic papers which have been written about human circuses. In fact, even my writing this novel, it came from first reading an academic paper which was about these human circuses. I think I need to share this with the broader readership out there because we're trying to regain our dignity and many of us are afraid of exploring that kind of a story because it brings back the shame of the past. But you cannot regain your dignity when you do not know how you lost it in the first place.

And this especially for stories of oppression?

Yes. But you get flack from both sides. The oppressed and the oppressor. The oppressed because of the embarrassment and shame, and the oppressor did that for himself. Whereas the oppressed should not be embarrassed. This was done to him. And the oppressed did resist. It's not like the oppressed folded his or her arms and said, "Okay, oppress me." Right from day one, there was resistance.

Do you think that there are certain stories that are too sacred or too taboo to tell?

No. Even before you finish that question. There's no story which is taboo or too sacred., I tell any story I want to tell. Actually, sometimes, it's not even that I want to tell it. The story tells me to tell it. The story nags me. It nags me and says, "Hey, I'm a story, I need to be out there and you are the only one who can channel me out." If I don't do that, I will run mad, as I told you before.

One of the arguments by Xhosa people, after the release of the film Inxeba: The Wound, was that of sacrosanct practices. What would you say to that, as a Xhosa man yourself?

I actually like that movie. I just didn't like the abrupt and brutal ending. The movie showed the superficial parts that, in a Xhosa initiation school, are seen even by women because they sometimes take food there. It showed the day-to-day life they have and then of course the romantic relationships between homosexuals. They are not manufactured by the initiation. They are gay and of course they continue their gay relationships there. I didn't see anything wrong with that.

The other day you tweeted a photo of you and Bra Hugh Masekela. When he passed last year, how did you feel?

I felt very sad because even when he was sick for some time. His very last public performance was with me and he looked quite sick already at that time, although he was trying very hard to be strong. So when he died, I was almost already resigned to the fact that he was going to die. I was not shocked; I was just sad. I'm still sad now because he was a friend of mine.

Tell me about the Market Theater performance.

We had planned a tour together, not of music but just talking about culture, heritage, which was what our last performance was at the Market Theater when he appeared in public for the last time. There was no saxophone in sight. It was just me and him and a moderator and an audience, discussing issues pertaining to culture and heritage.

He was one of our greatest musicians. Would you say that his own artistry influenced yours in some way, if at all?

I would think so. You know, what? Sometimes, you don't consciously try to be influenced by anybody but invariably you are. Hugh and I were working on a movie project together with some people here in New York. And that project continues. Hopefully, after some time, we're going to see that film that we were doing together.

You're quite critical of politics, here and abroad. You speak about an intellectualism that used to be so characteristic of the ANC. Do you think under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa, that may return?

There's this sentiment whereby you try to suppress the intellectual and intellectualism so as to appear as part of the populist. But we are in a better place than we were a year ago in South Africa. Philosophically and ideologically I believe in the ANC, all things being equal. This leaves people like me in a limbo. I know that things become very bad and are bad in many places.

But there's always hope. You always see some glimmer of hope somewhere.

Featured
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.

Featured
Photo Credit: Screengrab from Ìfé

The 10 Best African LGBTQ+ Films to Watch This Pride Month

From lesbian love stories to documentaries about South African queer love, here is a list of LGBTQ+ films to watch for Pride month.

Historically, LGBTQ+ films have never been in the mainstream in countries around Africa, mainly because of the intolerance of the various film industries around the continent.

However, over the past decade, there has been progress, with significant representation of LGBTQ+ people on screen. These examples come mostly from independent filmmakers within several countries in the continent. But it hasn't been easy. Throughout Africa, there have been laws that not only ban these films but put a jail term that punishes the filmmakers who have put efforts to produce a nuance story of the lived experiences of queer people in films.

To celebrate the efforts of these filmmakers and to acknowledge these thought provoking stories that are inspired from the realities of LGBTQ+ individuals, OkayAfrica put in a list on the 10 LGBTQ+ films to watch for Pride month.

Braids on a Bald Head (2010)

Braids on a Bald Head is an award-winning Nigerian film directed by Isahaya Bako. It tells the story of a submissive wife who does everything for her husband. But having a new neighbor, who is much different from her, begins to change her perception. When things in her marriage get sour, she finds the strength to ask for better treatment after an experience that makes her question her sexuality.

Difficult Love (2010)

Zanele Muholi’s power as an artist and activist is beyond this planet. Difficult Love introduces us to Muholi’s life, while capturing the lives of several Black lesbians and their lived experiences in South Africa.

Coming out of the Nkuta (2011)

Coming out of the Nkuta tells the tale of a Cameroonian defense attorney who boldly defends arrested queer folks. The heartbreaking documentary speaks about the situation in Cameroon and the LGBTQ community who live in great fear.

Stories of Our Lives (2014)

Created by an art collective in Nairobi called The Nest Collective, Stories of Our Lives details the lived experiences of queer people in Kenya. The movie is an anthology that features five short films.

While You Weren’t Looking (2014)

While You Weren’t Looking aligns queerness with race and speaks on the struggle of queer women in South Africa. Twenty years after apartheid, two lesbian couples who live in Cape Town get separated. While they explore their different lives apart, their adopted daughter gets caught up in her own world, exploring her bi-sexuality. Her dilemma? She isn’t black enough — something her girlfriend helps her navigate.

Reluctantly Queer (2016)

Akosua Adoma Owusu'sReluctantly Queer, an eight minute short film, tells the story of a young Ghanaian man who struggles to keep two personal-contrasting factors balanced: his love for his mother and his sexuality.

The Wound (2017)

Directed by John Trengove, The Wound is a powerful movie that navigates masculinity. The movie is centered around a group of young boys from South Africa who get sent to a rural, remote camp where they will be initiated into manhood, in various ways.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2018)

We Don’t Live Here Anymore centers on two teenage boys who are caught in a romantic scandal that turns into tragedy. The film shows the reality of the class divide that exists in Nigeria and the capitalist hypocrisy that is accompanied with it.

Ìfé (2020)

Ìfé is a fascinating film that shows the intimacy between two queer women. The movie uses dialogue to tell the story of two women navigating a homophobic society. Written and directed by Uyaiedu Ike-Etim — and produced by Pamela Adie — the 37- minutes film communicates love and family.

Country Love (2022)

Wapah Ezeigwe's Country love is a story about two men who, after years of being apart, rekindle their love. But everything doesn’t go as planned. In the end, one is wafting for continuity, the other pirouettes away because of societal perception towards queerness. The film is a joyful celebration of the femme identity and communicates themes like departure, homophobia and the frill of belonging.

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Photo by Ovidio Gonzalez/Getty Images

Afro-Colombian Francia Marquez's Ascendance Is Historic

The single mother and former cleaner captured many as they voted her and President-elect Gustavo Petro in to redirect the South American nation's path.

In what could arguably be the greatest rags to freedom story in some time, Colombia has voted in their first-ever Black woman Vice President. The historic vote saw leftist Afro-Colombian lawyer and activist Francia Márquez win alongside President-elect Gustavo Petro in Sunday's election. The pair won by 50.4%, just making it as Colombia's first elected government to follow leftist ideologies. Naturally, racists are upset, but for so many Colombians, seeing a Black woman in power was considered a thing of fantasy.

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Interview

Magixx Wants to Speak for a New Generation of Nigerians

The Mavin Records signee talks to us about his come-up, signing to Mavin Records and his debut self-titled EP.

The Nigerian dream is changing and its booming creative scene is spearheading a paradigm shift for young Nigerians looking to explore alternative career paths. Nigeria’s music industry in particular has become one of its biggest exports, fondly called ‘Nigeria’s new crude oil,’ it represents escapism for young Nigerians finding ways to thriving lives where their passions are put first, and the unconventional is conventional.

This is a new age embraced by 23-year-old Mavin Records star, Magixx, who always knew he wanted to chase his dream of being an artist, writing his first song at the age of nine. Magixx consistently pursued music-making and performing at school competitions, from high school to his college years, when he started to get acquainted with recognition and fame.

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