/ 14 July 2017

Riots for a queer resistance

Inspirational: The album’s producer
Inspirational: The album’s producer

Rainbow Riots is foremost a piece of activist art. The album is a collection of music that brings together queer creatives from all over the world, exploring issues of resilience and resistance.

Composed and produced by gay Swedish artist and activist Petter Wallenberg, the album platforms voices from Uganda, Jamaica, Malawi and South Africa. Coming from countries where colonisation has played a role in perpetuating homophobia and transphobia, these artists use music to speak up against the violence that they experience on a daily basis.

Comprising 12 tracks, each telling a different story, the album comes together to inspire cross-cultural connections and solidarity, particularly among queer people of colour. It takes the listener on a journey that affords opportunities for intimate engagement with a host of creatives, in a variety of genres.

The first single from the album, Equal Rights by reggae artist Mista Majah P, is a booming track that explicitly challenges homophobes to “move over or get run down”. Prophesying a global realisation of equality, the song offers reassurance to all those fighting for their rights to be who they are and to love who they choose. Used as part of the United Nation’s Global Goals campaign for sustainable development, the track is a queer anthem in the making.

Another track, Stand Up For Your Rights, has rapper Ivy B spitting bars in Chichewa, the national language of Malawi. Encouraging freedom fighters to dance without fear, the track is full of hope. Its precise and charismatic verse has the potential to transform club dance floors into spaces where queer people can freely move their bodies, without the chilling threat of discrimination and violence.

The songs that incorporate African languages and vernacular into their lyrics stand out. In tracks such as We Need Love and Dreamer the featured artists draw from their home languages, showing their ability to transcend the weight of being culturally and politically unsanctioned. They offer retellings of queerness beyond the confines of English, in a way that challenges the misconception that queerness is unAfrican.

More than just a call for recognition, the music also celebrates joy in the midst of grief. The sheer poetry of Unmask speaks to the complexities of navigating identity under an oppressive state, society and religion. The Ugandan contributor of the words to this track, like others on the album, chose to remain anonymous — indicative of the risks that living as one’s authentic self can create for queer people.

Although adages such as “we are different, but love is love, and it is no different” become the music’s offering to listeners, one of the album’s strengths is its ability to disrupt social norms without exposing the artists to the danger of attached visibility.

Wallenberg, noting his time in Uganda as one of the inspiring forces that drove him to complete the album, has commented on how the “project shows people that are subjects in their own narratives”.

In the chorus of Shivan’s Song, by Ugandan artist Shivan, the lyrics offer affirmations to the listener, telling them: “Don’t give up, the sun will shine and the rainbow will arise to wash your tears away, then joy will come to fly you higher and higher until you reach the sky.” The song has sounds of a gospel that has absconded church on a Sunday morning, to speak to the need to cultivate a vital future where religion is grounded in love and not used to justify malice towards the queer community.

In a similar vein, the production of the album itself speaks to the work that still needs to be done. It lays the foundation for a future where more queer artists facing persecution are able to compose, produce and fund their own stories.

One such pioneer is South African artist Umlilo. A gender-queer creative, Umlilo commented on how “the album has already received traction all over the world, from Jamaica to Croatia, and has opened up the possibilities of some kind of change”. Co-written with Stash Crew, a queer electro-rap crew, Umlilo described their track Mad As Hell as one that “celebrates diversity and love”.

Rainbow Riots offers a starting place for queer activism and advocacy through gospel, dancehall, pop and poetry. Its tracks provide an impetus for Pride, as marches occur at this time of the year all over the world.

A step towards freedom, the most invaluable and enduring feature of the album is its ability to give courage to others to stand up, write down and sing out their truths.

The album is available for purchase on ITunes. Proceeds will go to Wallenberg’s Rainbow Riots charity dedicated to realising a world of fundamental freedom and equality for all.