South African artist Siya Ngcobo reveals his multiple personas and sounds in this special story
This exclusive photographic series attempts to capture the many faces of the Umlilo, also know as Siya Ngcobo, the Kwaai Diva, one of Johannesburg’s most exciting gender-and-genre-pushing artists. The images were created by visual storyteller Chris Saunders and stylist Caroline Olavarrieta, the team and subject inspired to convey Umlilo’s mercurial nature. “Siya’s femme diversity transpires in his different personas, though always of the same essence,” says Olavarrieta. “Meet Umlilo the performer, Kwaai Diva the drag queen and, of course, Siya the non-binary artist from the LGBTQA community. These personas are shot in and around his neighbourhood - a juxtaposition of suburban normality with Siya’s persona and unique beauty.”
Busy preparing for an overseas tour to the US and Europe, the multi-disciplinary artist gives us a little explanation of future Kwaai - the genre he has created. “Future Kwaai will always be the definition of the music I make,” Ngcobo explains. “It means looking ahead, rising up, conjuring up the ancestral voices of the legendary people that came before me and serving a full voodoo platter for the gawds. I represent so much history in my own being and have begun really exploring the complexities of that through music.”
“I represent so much history in my own being and have begun exploring the complexities of that through music”
Over the past few years Ncgobo has naturally matured as an artist and become more comfortable with the position that he is carving for himself in the global creative scene – that of a young, queer, black performer. “I used to be quite naive and although I’ve always been very assertive and self-assured, I was still figuring out who I am and now I know more of that,” he says. “In the past I let a lot of people take from me and make me into a puppet and I lacked the confidence to say no. Now I have zeroes fucks to give. Now I’m the puppet master.”
Ncgobo was born and raised in Daveyton, Benoni – a town to the east of Johannesburg. He started releasing work in 2013 as Siya the Anarchist, but quickly his alter ego Umlilo stole centre stage. Since then, his work, which is a confluence of music, performance, film and fashion, has caused quite a stir in South Africa and beyond. The video for his single ‘Magic Man’ was included in the Vitra Design Museum’s travelling exhibition Making Africa and Umlilo also featured in the i-D documentary ‘Out of This World’ with Mykki Blanco profiling South African queer creatives including FAKA and Rich Mnisi.
Across all of his output, meticulously chosen garments help Ncgobo express himself. “Fashion is a huge part of how I bring Umlilo to life and it has helped me create portals where I can play with characterisation in my music videos. In the ‘Chain Gang’ video I played a black Karl Lagerveld as a priest at a fashion funeral,” he says.
“I find it so beautiful how unshakeable we are as human beings and also how we can laugh through the pain, and celebrate and dance”
Umlilo’s newest work is an attempt to address his sexuality, race, and identity in the context of today’s South Africa – a country he understands to still be in fear of the LGBTQA community. “I see how we treat our black women, trans people, and queers of colour. I have an even bigger chip on my shoulder than before. I’m angry and frustrated at the current situation we find ourselves in.”
His outlook isn’t pessimistic though, and in spite of the struggle to validate himself as an artist and individual, Ngcobo sees great beauty and great strength in the resilience of his peers. “I find it so beautiful how unshakeable we are as human beings and also how we can laugh through the pain, and celebrate and dance. That’s where my head space is at these days,” he explains. “I’m way more confrontational in my work and I’m channelling my inner fearfokol.”
This year, Ngcobo has decided to focus on collaboration and making a more concerted effort to reach out to other artists on the continent. This has led to interesting partnerships, the most recent of which is with Namibian soul/funk artist Sean K. The pair have just released track 'Emoyeni'. “The song is about a change of seasons, something in the air shifting to make way for new things.” Whatever comes next, his art will no doubt continue to push boundaries and break into a space that surprises and enchants people. “I feel like in the current sea of noise, I’m still a fresh tilapia bringing a sense of honesty and truth to the fold.”