Welcome to the self-love club

FAKA have always come across as artists for whom sound defines a large part of their practice. Formed by friends Desire Marea and Fela Gucci, FAKA first released beatless audio meditations with self-shot footage emphasising location, styling and the interactions between them, as well as improvisational movement.

The naked human voice formed the basis of the audio work, taking cues and influences from South African genre staples as shorthand for their narratives.

While being grounded in styles of music with which the country is familiar might make it seem like their work should sit comfortably within its boundaries, FAKA’s approach ensures that this isn’t the case.

They aim to use all the tools at their disposal to interrogate the status quo, while working towards the liberation of black queer bodies and identities.

From a Distance, the duo’s 2015 video piece, used some of the visual language of mass-copy DVD compilations and hymnal music to create what they described as a “Gqom-Gospel lamentation for Dick”.

While the details around the edges have varied, the centre of their mission has held since then, becoming sharper in execution and in its ability to provoke. Their latest sophomore EP Amaqhawe was announced earlier in October, accompanied by cover artwork that used a sleek visual language to introduce their new work: Desire and Fela in sun hats, dress gloves, made-up and topless.

The image’s mere presence on people’s timelines encouraged a wide range of reactions, many of which proved the need for their focus on queer lamentation. The image was possibly the least transgressive media release for the EP, even though it did stoke the fires of some with regressive sensibilities.

Amaqhawe sees the duo move from strength to strength in terms of reach and relevance. Their first excellent single, Uyang’khumbula and its video, used a familiar danceability, while still managing to exhibit a daring singularity and originality.

All of these artefacts, and especially the first single, had a new incisiveness to them that signalled that FAKA’s work would be as poignant as ever, employing careful collaboration to elevate the end product.

Uyang’khumbula was produced by Vukani Chamane and Mnotho Chamane, who simply produced as hot a gqom song as they could, as opposed to providing a gqom-inspired backdrop. In a way, the song’s lyrics, vocalisations and styling allow Uyang’khumbula to reach as far into contemporary South Africa’s boundaries as possible, while setting the stage for the narrative to push those boundaries outwards.

Gqom has always been a salient touch point for FAKA. It’s a genre through which they express themselves, but also one with which they’ve shared an upward trajectory.

Gqom has always been one of the more insular and reclusive styles of South African music — the petulant younger sibling of kwaito. In the late 2000s, this uniquely Durban sound kept to itself and barely left the neighbourhood. Now, as the style matures, it’s beginning to expand and meet new people, so to speak, while retaining it’s core constituency on Durban dance floors.

What this means is that when acts like FAKA who feel a connection to the style but also embody transgressive progress begin looking for collaborators, there’s now a whole new world of producers who understand the genre’s inner workings but approach it from varying angles.

So while Uyang’khumbula’s sonic palette sits at the heart of the three-track EP with a sound rooted very much in a contemporary rendering of local dance music, the remaining two songs reach beyond Durban and tap into Cape Town, represented by Bass Music producers Surreal Sessions and Omar Moto.

The results are a set of uniformly danceable tracks that nevertheless vary in the quality of the energy they bring.

While the centerpiece is raucous, opener Isende Lendlela ramps up the iconic ominous mood at the underbelly of so much gqom music. By adding more melodic movement than is usual for the style and sound design, Isende Lendlela leans closer towards experimental techno than to gqom.

The final track Inhliziyo plays it slightly more straightforwardly. The song adds thick, down-tuned synthetic strings and a detached melody to the mix.

Overall, the more unconventional production of Amaqhawe is met stride-for-stride with some of FAKA’s most off-the-wall vocalisation choices, particularly on the closer.

What Amaqhawe is though, before being a dance record, is a mini love letter. Whether it’s reflecting on past loves and encounters (Uyang’khumbula), connecting with current loves (Inhliziyo) or self-love (Isende Lendlela), the EP’s powerful central thread ties the project together.

In an elucidating interview after the release of the project’s first single, FAKA confessed that their aim was to be “visible as who we are”.

That this approach is relevant today is both self-evident and saddening. That this mission is taken up by practitioners like FAKA, with their fidelity and clarity, is sure to benefit of us all.

The moment that their subversions no longer shock or even subvert, we will still be left with thoughtful and infinitely-listenable projects like Amaqhawe. Perhaps then, FAKA’s work will be done.

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