I want to change the m**herf***ing word: SA's proudly queer rapper Gyre
From a reserved schoolboy to an unapologetically queer rapper, Gyre is kicking down doors in his leather skinnies and high-heeled boots, writes Andile Ndlovu
On the midweek morning that I am due to interview 24-year-old S'bonakaliso Nene, better known as queer rapper Gyre, I find myself watching an old BBC interview of Razia Iqbal chatting to English novelist Alan Hollinghurst.
"Do you think that you could see yourself writing a book that isn't informed by, or doesn't have at its heart, a gay protagonist?" she asks the Man Booker Prize-winning writer who has given the world a plethora of novels including The Line of Beauty (a personal favourite), The Swimming Pool Library and The Sparsholt Affair.
This is at a time that I am grappling with the visibility of gay and queer people in the media, particularly South African media.
For the record, Hollinghurst replies that "there are quite a lot of books about heterosexual people already. I don't feel any obligation to add to their number ... I think I will always write about gay experience, yes."
I am writing this piece on Gyre, who recently released his debut album, Queernomics (which he refers to as a documentary or documentation of queer black life in our country), the morning after singer/author/actor Nakhane is interviewed by the Guardian in the UK.
Nakhane says: "For as long as I need to, I'm going to talk about being a gay artist." He understands the importance of his visibility - in all its unapologetic and authentic hues - to "some kid out there who can't be themselves".
It is this that makes Queernomics so spellbinding - an intrepid 54-minute, 13-track "documentary" in which Gyre brazenly checks privilege of all types, while also proclaiming his sexual liberation, prowess, desirability and desire for romance.
In 'Queernomics' Gyre brazenly checks privilege of all types, while also proclaiming his sexual liberation, prowess, desirability and desire for romance
It's not for the faint of heart - that is, those who found 50 Cent's Candy Shop or Beyoncé's Drunk In Love or Ludacris's Splash Waterfalls, or even half of Rihanna's catalogue, to be explicit. Toughen up, beloved.
Like Nakhane and Hollinghurst - and even actress and director Lena Waithe (who recently told Vanity Fair: "I didn't realise I was born to stand out as much as I do. But I'm grateful. Because the other black or brown queer kids are like, 'Oh, we the shit'.") - Gyre feels his art is accompanied by a sense of great responsibility.
Go to a music store and you won't find a "queer rap" category. You will find "rap/hip-hop", which Queernomics would probably be slotted under. Take it or leave it. Gyre would take it. Then, like a concertgoer with a golden circle ticket, jostle with others until he finds himself in the front row - even if the journey can appear futile. That's the vantage point queer artists in this country aspire to, but hardly ever ascend to. When they do, in the case of Nakhane and Toya DeLazy, for instance, they find appreciation abroad instead.
AN ARTIST'S DUTY
Nevertheless, doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will, the saying goes. So there are walls to be kicked down and hearts to be thawed and ignorant perceptions to be addressed and Gyre's washed his face and brushed his teeth, pulled on his leather skinnies and put himself up for the job.
"I recently watched a documentary in which Nina Simone said that an artist's duty was to reflect the times," he says as our conversation finally turns sober. "I think that is true. But I don't even see it as bravery [on my part]. It feels like a sense of duty. In fact, whenever I get onstage, it's as if I black out and I am no longer me, as if something takes over.
"When I was younger, it was definitely 'I want to do this to break masculinity' rather than focusing on the oppressed, which is more important. Once you do that, masculinity will just be the collateral to our liberation."
His referring to Queernomics as a documentary is apt, chronicling a journey of self-discovery and navigating spaces that are harsher to black lives, let alone queer ones too.
I'm so cautious of my path as I am of white gays, coz white gays, they still have a white gazeGyre on his track 'S.O.S'
On S.O.S: "I'm so cautious of my path as I am of white gays, coz white gays, they still have a white gaze."
On Crumbs: "You could have the cake, but you eat the crumbs ... Does he look away in shame when you strut and vogue? Your crop top got this top cropping himself out of photos ... you've fallen for a homophobic homo. Now you pay the bill just to fit the bill. Being out the closet ain't really what it was billed."
On Isingisi: "Biko was a philosopher, not just an activist. But you're sitting on your sofa, you're a pacifist. I see you're active on Twitter #Parliament. Aluta continua."
By now you get the picture: the young un is ready to speak his mind. It is the week of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's death, and it has brought with it some nastiness unbefitting of a woman so central to our emancipation.
Gyre tweets on the day the news of her passing is announced: "'A flawed heroine'. When [Nelson] Mandela died no one spoke of his flaws. Till this day when you speak of his flaws you are demonised. Patriarchy is disgusting. Not to say she wasn't flawed but how pathetic it is to observe hers and glorify Mandela. RIP to an icon!!!"
LISTEN | S.O.S from Gyre's debut album, Queernomics
He has no time for bigotry. It's a reminder that oft times activism comes almost instinctively to those most marginalised. You are so met with maltreatment at every turn that you cannot miss it, unless you choose to.
We talk about his alma mater, St John's College (where he attended on a scholarship) in Johannesburg. On Isingisi, he features real clips of a news report where the school's headmaster sought to defend a staff member who was accused of racism (and later found guilty of serious misconduct).
For many of us, school is where we either find ourselves or are made to suppress who we truly are, and for him, it was a toxic environment in which he generally sought to blend in rather than shake the table.
'GYRE HELPED ME ACCEPT MY QUEERNESS'
He may be candid now, but the habit of recoiling spread into his earlier romantic relationships too (we laugh about how he once told someone on Twitter that his longest romantic relationship lasted just six weeks).
"I wasn't a very confident person [in my past relationships]. I didn't value myself and I struggled with self-love a lot, just as a human being. I owe a lot of who I am now to Gyre. Gyre helped me accept my queerness. Once I did that, I was able to accept myself in my totality because I understood the context in which I exist.
"I think I am best-placed to enter a relationship now. I hope I won't be making sad boy music much longer."
I think I am best-placed to enter a relationship now. I hope I won't be making sad boy music much longerGyre
He pauses. Then: "At the same time, I'm very queer-oriented. I sometimes wonder if I should date someone in the industry, who would potentially understand me better. I need someone who gets me. People don't get me. I don't know what it takes [to find someone emotionally intelligent enough to be with me], but it takes more than what I have received in the past. Goddammit, and can I not meet any more pathological liars!"
I wonder if we're witnessing a sort of cultural quantum leap - films including Inxeba, Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, Carol, God's Own Country and Love, Simon have been met with wide critical acclaim and accolades, while storylines around homosexuality have entered primetime TV.
Pop musicians including Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, Olly Alexander of Years & Years, Nakhane, Janelle Monáe, Troye Sivan, Halsey, Mykki Blanco, and Sia are all achieving chart success while also dismantling stereotypes through their art.
Back at home, we have queer DJs including DJ Olwee, M(x)Blouse, Angel-Ho, and Lelowhatsgood (who, at the recent Dividuality music event in downtown Johannesburg, said he wanted to "make all the queers happy with my set"). They have also opted against waiting for opportunities that may never come, and created their own. The duo of FAKA, particularly, and Moshe Ndiki are making serious moves in the Gqom genre.
Certainly, there is a lot to be proud of.
"History will be the judge of that [whether we're really in the middle of a sea change]," Gyre says. "We don't know. It could just be a purple patch. Gqom, as a genre, might be enjoying a brief purple patch. We'll see. But like I say in one of my tracks, 'my sexuality gets me views, but my talents will take me places'. It's why people like Nakhane need to be put right up there with one of the top artists to come out of our country.
"It's not even about queer excellence now, it's about being good anywhere, and if we were judging according to that, then he isn't getting the credit he deserves."
What about his own standing, both on his own vision board and in the wider music industry?
Gyre is effusive in his response:"I'm very happy about where I am at the moment, and I understand that it can only get better if I keep working and challenging myself. This music industry teaches us that we must be proactive, because nobody will do it on your behalf. It is relentless. That's why I idolise Cristiano Ronaldo so much - his mentality sets him apart from other players. Now I realise I can be who I want to be. I want to change the motherf***ing world."
• Queernomics can be streamed digitally.