Meet Umlilo: A Gender-Blending South African Artist Keen to Rock the Boat

In his video for "Chain Gang" he presides over the funeral of his alter-ego Rita, while looking like a vampire Karl Lagerfeld.

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Jan 14 2015, 8:44pm

Ever wondered what Karl Lagerfeld would look like as a vampire? Yeah, us neither, but South Africa's Umlilo serves it up and straight kills it in the video for his latest song, the hypnotic, future-fresh "Chain Gang," boasting a flow as laconic and unhurried as A$AP Rocky's. The promo opens with an invitation to the funeral of Rita—Umililo's alter-ego—who was killed while wearing black and gold. Please note the funeral's stipulated dress code: "Fall/Winter." Black, sheer, metal, leather, bold lips, rats—they're all de rigueur.

Umlilo, meaning "fire" in Xhosa (one of South Africa's 11 official languages) is a shining queer voice from a continent often mired in homophobia. With an image that flits between masculine, feminine, and androgynous, Umlilo challenges gender stereotypes without making the music secondary. He's a singer whose art is activism, without getting in your face about it; unless you're so repressed that the sight of men in lipstick and a mesh vest offends you. Johannesburg-born, but Cape Town-based, Umilio's "future kwaai" sound has entered the slipstream of South African artists who have redefined the country's musical output in the eyes of an international audience, including acts like Spoek Mathambo, Die Antwoord, Petite Noir, and Okmalumkoolkat.

His 2013 debut EP, Shades of Kwaai (download it for free here), is a spacious mix of smooth vocals and melancholic synths, flipping between skittering dance beats ("Out of My Face," below) and elastic trip-hop-pop, like Kelis back when she was left of center ("Toyi Toyi").

As for "Chain Gang"—it was born out of frustration. "First we have so many people of color getting gunned down," Umlilo explains. "Also in South Africa we have a huge problem with the corrective rape of lesbians and the list goes on and on. These crimes show us just how cheap the lives of black people and LGBTs are. We're all in the same struggle."

Additionally the song is about the "obsession with money that essentially keeps up all in this endless cycle of oppression, it's all a chain effect and we're all part of this chain gang."

This cycle in turn inspired the video: "We wanted to have a ritualistic fashion funeral where all these lush characters attend and they're so nonchalant about death because they'd rather be 'seen' wearing the latest brands and appearing rich than actually engaging with why all these things are 'to die for'."

"When approached to style Chain Gang I pretty much jumped on it because I've been wanting to work with a lot of black in one go," says stylist Mataruse. "The challenge was to stick to a fashionably dark brief and play with a color that is considered safe and easy to coordinate. The most exciting part was going into the Cape Town jungle and picking out interesting garments from young to mature talent."

Director Katey Carson added: "The concept of Chain Gang was inspired by the current state of youth culture in South Africa. I wanted to explore the 'scene kids' and play with the notion of a church that the young and hip would attend, a dark portrayal of a place of worship where deities are replaced with fashion designers, labels, shoes, and gold. I wanted to imagine what would happen if these scene kids had to attend a funeral, and express the idea that for the youth very few things carry meaning anymore."

Umlilo, meanwhile, has other ideas. "Artistically I was interested in staging my own death—imagining what it would mean and how it would play out," says Umlilo. "But I don't want to die because I'm black, or gay, nor do I want to die for money. I'd like to live in a world where everyone is pretty much pan-sexual andro-humans who seem like they're on MDMA all the time because they've tapped into their higher selves."

Can't argue with that.

Chain Gang is lifted off Umlilo's upcoming EP, Aluta.

Roger Young is a music and culture writer and filmmaker living in Cape Town. Follow him on Twitter.