There’s a Bowie in all of us
As tributes continue to pour in for rock legend David Bowie, South African artists take some time out to remember music's ultimate chameleon.
“Histories like ancient ruins are the fictions of empires. While everything forgotten hangs in dark dreams of the past, ever threatening to return.” This opening line to Todd Haynes’ 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, loosely based on the 1970s glam rock era, is hauntingly poignant today as masses around the world mourn and celebrate the life and times of iconic pop idol David Bowie.
The movie itself remains a very significant part of my life because in a twisted blurring of real life and fiction, it introduced me to David Bowie. He would probably shrug at this because he never gave the film his blessing but I must’ve been around 12-years old when I first saw it and allowed it to leave an indelible mark on me and make me obsessed with Bowie’s historical offerings. Up until that point, I too, was a lonely child constantly wondering why I had developed the way I had. Unlike other boys, I had no interest in cars, guns, action figures or any miniature toys or games that other boys played. Instead I loved art, film, theatre, fashion and music with limited means of accessing these living in a township in East Rand.
Umlilo as Magic Man (photograph: Jason Howes)
I loved to dance and perform, put on my mother’s make-up with a jersey on my head and sing pop hits. I was a clichéd queer boy, who, up until that point, was stunted in the ways of expression. Yes, I had a collection of paper dolls, male and female, each with their stories and unique fashion point of views, books about exotic fictional characters that would transport me to other worlds but nothing quite like seeing the moving image of Bowie in a music video or on stage, or rather Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing fictional character Brian Slade whose alter ego, Maxwell Demon, was loosely based on Ziggy Stardust in Velvet Goldmine.
Although my understanding of this world was limited, there was a sense of freedom in knowing that somewhere out there, there were others like me, who had musical gifts to share and brush strokes of rainbow colours to paint on the world. David Bowie was one such gift to the world. Undoubtedly a genius, him and other icons like Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury, Brenda Fassie, Miriam Makeba, among others, had the mark of greatness. To me, they were bonafide legends with a special imprint that no one could decode but the older I got, I realised that they were empty canvases that coloured outside the lines, rewriting the musical histories with every song, every image and influencing a whole new generation of artists who would never measure up to their genius.
When I began to introduce myself as musical artist Umlilo, the delinquent love child of the artist previously known as Siya Is Your Anarchist, I was beginning to put years of admiration and note-taking to task. Using Bowie’s recipe of meaningful lyrical content, a pinch of charisma, a hint of humble pie manifested through a chameleon-like character that could change face from song to song, I began to understand glimpses of what it meant to be a star. To be able to write lyrics that could transcend space and time, to re-invent oneself and never get stuck in one form of expression. To be a star, one has to always be willing to stand alone, to look strange, to be laughed at, misunderstood and to always look at the future, the universe beyond the stars.
Oscar Wilde once said: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” This is what Bowie excelled at, perhaps even the source of his genius was his ability to always look forward without much compromise or nostalgia. He was ahead of his time and gave birth to many others who dare to look beyond the stars. I look myself and see Bowie, I look at Lady Gaga and see him, I look at FKA Twigs or Bjork or Prince and his influence, whether conscious or not, is there. There is a Bowie in all of us who aspire to take risks with our art and lives, push it to the limits whether there’s a critical acclaim or not at the end of the rainbow.
We live in a world where our true iconic geniuses are dropping like flies, waving goodbye one by one leaving us with a big question mark about who will replace them. It is impossible to replace any of them, their decades of work and dedication to pushing the culture forward is done. Now, there is you and me, mere mortals, carrying little hints of the past that always threatens to return. They live through us. – Umlilo
Bowie Remembered: South African musicians weigh up Bowie’s influence on their practice
“Which one of you bastards is death” - Dambudzo Marechera
Within that quote, a particular sentiment of defiance that first springs to mind upon hearing about the passing of David Bowie, comes to life.
One that gave him the bravery to live as he did, questioning everything, deconstructing reality at every turn, he was a certain breed.
Challenging his masculinity, whiteness, privilege, his craft, rock ‘n roll and MTV. In over 40 years of creating, nothing seemed to be spared or safe from an incisive scalpelling by his razor sharp curiosity.
An eerie joy, is sitting here listening to Seu Jorge’s cover of Life On Mars for Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic, thinking about Bowie’s beautiful family and that old plastic saxophone, while watching the tributes pour in.
Bowie’s entire life stands as a masterful work of art, a true inspiration to us all
As they say in Brixton: Respect! – Mpumelelo Mcata
Tamara Dey. (Supplied)
David Bowie pushed a lot of boundaries and I think that in itself makes him such an inspiration to a lot of people and not just through his music but through his fashion. He used fashion to push his message and to express himself without holding back in anyway. He was also an example of how staying completely authentic and being yourself, is that very thing that separates you from everybody else and for me that’s what made him stand out.
Bowie took everything to the very edge and that’s just what made him so enigmatic. With him it wasn’t just about making the music but about expressing the music in every way possible, from his performances to the clothes he wore. It was also about the whole package and I certainly approach my music in a similar way in terms of being the whole package: combining style with the music, lights and performance, and he ticked all those boxes. – Tamara Dey
Nakhane Toure. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
There is a moment in Christopher, my debut single, where I sing “You’ll find me here…”, the lower range where the notes rise with what I call David Bowie’s vampiric vibrato. All of that … Stolen. Unabashedly.
When we were recording Brave Confusion, an album I was studying and was obsessed with was Station To Station. In my opinion, this is where his golden age began. Yes, of course some years before that he had released Hunky Dory (which is also brilliant), but here and the following Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes and Lodger) was where I was inspired the most. He threw caution to the wind, song structures were amorphous (Side 2 of Low and Heroes), experimentation was rife, but above it all, he put everything he had in that material.
There is a lot of talk about his image. We studied it in art school: the androgyny, the theatre, etcetera. But that is not enough to keep one going back to an artist, to search for all documentaries about him, to try to read books about his methods, his idiosyncrasies (There is a rumour that while he was recording Station To Station he was surviving on a diet of red peppers, milk and cocaine). What inspires, what draws one back is the art. Those songs are unparalleled. The poetry. That voice.
He left us with another masterpiece in Blackstar. What a way to bow out. A true artist he was, willing to make even his transition to another world a piece of art. One would think that this would be a sombre affair, but Bowie knew how he wanted to be remembered. He was writing his own epitaph. And everything I love about him is in this last statement: It’s fiercely serious and art-house, it’s hilarious, it’s sneaky, it’s “How the fuck did they do that?”, and other qualities I can’t even begin to describe. A knot, a fantastic period to an amazing career.
Thank you David Bowie. Rest in peace. – Nakhane Toure
A guy like David Bowie has influenced me as a songwriter. The type of songwriting he put out there is in the realm of escapism and fantasy and it is what I try to achieve.
His stage person was always theatrical, there was the person and the alter ego he brought on stage, which is very much what I try to do in my realm.
He’s a huge influence on pop culture in general. There are certain artists that will live on forever because of the huge influence they had on musicians, The Beatles being one [group], Elvis being one, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash. Bowie is one of those, even for people that don’t know his music, they’ll know who he was. He was an iconic figure in music.
With art we all beg and borrow, aspects of his that inspired me were the theatrics that he brought to the stage – the larger than life alter egos. Not to say I have achieved but it is definitely something that inspired me. – Kahn Morbee, Parlotones
Chris Chameleon. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
The comparisons to David Bowie throughout my career have been both an insult and a complement. An insult, because he is often stated as an influence of mine, which hasn’t been the case. Although acutely aware of his contribution, I have, to this day, none of his work in my collection of music. Like most artists I prefer to be properly acknowledged for my own authenticity, instead of being reinterpreted in the context of some other artist.
It is, however, also a compliment because Bowie was a gifted and hugely influential artist. Despite the annoyance such comparison causes me, it is usually meant well and I usually take it kindly. Tolstoy devotes almost an entire chapter in War and Peace to explaining Napoleon as a man whose destiny was shaped by a particular time and the inevitability of destiny.
I think, similarly, Bowie was the man that had cometh when the hour had cometh. The world was ready for the innovation, redefining and vision he would bring. I’m sure it had happened earlier, but fell on the barren soil of an unprepared time. For those for whom it had happened later, they would bear the yoke of comparison and recontextualisation. Through the avatar of Bowie we have come to terms with new frontiers in androgyny, sexuality, music and performance. - Chris Chameleon