No. 3 Extension: Queers & Synths

Africa’s a Country introduces Kat Kai Kol-Kes, a transgender musician from Botswana (article originally featured in Afropop Worldwide). Natasha Mmonatau also provides a brief analysis of Botswana’s attitude to queers and the relatively tolerant cultural climate from which Kat Kai Kol-Les comes. It makes a deeper analysis for another time irresistible. What I also found irresistible is exploiting this opportunity to roughly examine what seems to be queer artists’ preference for left-field sounds in their music, particularly those taken from underground electronic music. The analysis is not meant to be deterministic but offers a possible perspective on how Kat Kai Kol-Les’s identity and her choice of sound inform each other.

My Body starts with the funky bass you would expect from the experimental pop act, Little Dragon, before an uptempo beat reminiscent of Bjork’s “Hyperballad” kicks in. There are South African queer artists that can be shoehorned alongside her. Umlilo generously incorporates electronic production into the music. Nakhane Toure’s music, although more on the “organic” sounding spectrum, is a unique hybrid of influences jazz, funk, rock and afropop. With this piece, I attempt to argue that experimental, electronic (not to be confused with “EDM for bros”) music offers refuge for queer identities and embodies queerness itself.

In the last couple of years, the New York rap scene has seen the emergence of rappers like Le1f, Angel Haze, Cakes Da Killa etc. They refuse to make music that is instantly comfortable and immediately accessible. In indie pop, Perfume Genius’ recent album more deeply engages with his sexual identity and it so happens to be the first time he ditches his pared-down piano ballads for a more out-there, electronic-inflected sound. The line “no family’s safe when I sashay” from the song “Queen” possesses more queer punk sensibility than anything I’ve heard this year. Just watch the powerful video (I still not sure I get half of what it means). Compare this to Sam Smith. Oh, Sam Smith. Any middle class family would welcome Sam Smith with open arms when he sashays in, except he wouldn’t even sashay at all so as to not throw his sexuality in their faces. As it happens, his music is neatly packaged in all the traditional signifiers of “music of substance” – including that golden voice – for the masses.

Electronic music – and I speak of it as if it’s not incredibly vast and diverse – deconstructs the distinction between the organic and the synthetic. In the process, it de-priviliges the organic over the synthetic. It rejects the prestige of well-established musical institutions like classical music and jazz, both built on the production of “organic” instruments. These traditional instruments are as disposable as a “real” penis when a dildo is available for use. At times, the sounds are as off-putting as the sight of two men kissing is inappropriate and unnatural to a homophobe.

Bjork, one of the notable figureheads of avant-garde pop, explores the depths of musical possibility through various techniques of electronic production. Last year, Le1f tweeted in the midst of the media venerating straight US rapper, Macklemore, for selling gay rights to a wide audience: “gay kids don’t come out cuz of Macklemore vids. they come out to Bjork concerts YA DIG??”. This is not to say queerness does not thrive in other genres. Punk band, Against Me!, released their album this year titled “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”, dealing with subject matter suggested by the title.

Queerness can be seen as more easily drawn to non-conventional signifiers in music-making and I also see a deliberate attempt to carve out a niche away from mainstream audiences that would be hostile to new musical ideas as they would be to unapologetically non-normative gender identities. The fascinating history of underground electronic music itself signals its nature as a refuge for queer people, its creativity accommodating of non-normative gender expression. This piece in the New Yorker shows how queer people are a major feature in Berlin’s world-famous techno scene. Resident Advisor foregrounds the critical role of queer people of colour in the origins of modern electronic music. You can hear disco’s prominent influence in the house music that has accompanied ball culture and voguing throughout the years. It’s not an accident that queer-identifying Azealia Banks, although known to be occasionally homophobic, uses 90’s house beats that are more than ready for walking and a deadly death drop.

In a time when all sorts of alternative music is beamed over the internet, queer Africans like Kat Kai Kol-Kes also seem to be finding a home in it and bringing in elements that acknowledge geographical ties. Hearing that SeStswana sample gave me life.

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