The place of art in advancing LGBTQ+ equality | Music Edition

Picture this: A young boy of 10 flipping through the channels in search of a language to describe his struggles. Not finding any, he relies on the adults in his life to define things for him. It helps, but inadequately.

Years later, he chances upon a TV series whose very opening scene is like a frame from a random moment in his Junior Secondary School days. It confirms two things:

  1. That the language he sought years ago exists, always has, in art.
  2. He wouldn’t find it in the local art of his home country.

LGBT+ representation in art – film and music to be specific, has gone from the caricaturing of the community to positive humane representation in a handful of decades. For Hollywood in any case. The same doesn’t apply to Nigeria’s entertainment industry, but that might be changing.

The language of heterosexuality

“You’re my African queen. The girl of my dreams.” – 2Face African Queen.

For many queer Nigerians, consuming music means either tuning out of lyrics they either can’t relate to and enjoying the sounds or tuning out outright homophobic lyrics to enjoy the sound. There is a ‘rarer’ happenstance where an artist like Simi manages to unintentionally make queer-inclusive music – Love don’t care comes to mind.

Consuming Nigerian music is to queer people an act in swallowing the language of heterosexuality without complaint. Something shifted in the 2010s.

There is a theory I swear by and it goes thus: sometimes your soul can be so flattened that you have nowhere else to go but up and it is in that space that courage is born.

It makes sense therefore that some of the earlier queer-affirming music by queer artists were born in the years following the enactment of the infamous Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (2013.)

Up and coming experimental music artist, Raldie Young, is one of the pioneers of this era. I wouldn’t be clear on that until a recent interview with the YNaija Nonbinary Blog.

Newly emerged from the pandemic in late 2020, embattled openly lesbian music artists, Temmie Ovwasa blessed the world with her tour de force debut album E Be Like Say Dem Swear For Me. It is everything queer-affirming in ways hitherto unimaginable in the Nigerian music industry.

We wrote about it in the article below:

In May of the same year, months before Temmie dropped her album, another body of work had meant something similar to the small community of queer family I have in Lagos, Nigeria. Raldie Young’s EP Songs From My Bedroom.

It didn’t purport to be a gay album then or now, but I knew the artist before the art and I would in listening to the second track on the EP, Same Song, hear the informed intentionality in the use of pronouns that made it accessible to my peculiar lived experience as a gay man.

“It sucks to tell you this, but we don’t write the same songs anymore,” goes the lyrics, an ode to a love that once shared so much but now shares nothing. It spoke to me a language I could make my own, and I became a superfan thereafter.

The conversation

I asked Raldie in the April edition of YNaija Non-Binary Chat, whether he intended for his work to mean so much to so many queer Nigerians or he was just an accidental community servant in the sense that he simply created and the meaning was layered over that creation by his fans.

“Yes and no. I’m glad that [queer] people resonate with my work, but for the most part, I was simply singing what was in my head at every point.”

Yet that’s always been the story of representation where the constraints of hostility are nonexistent. In the freedom that art gives us to do with what we create whatever we deem fit, is where people are able to see themselves in music, films and literature.

Each work is a gift presented to the world that many will scorn and take a piece out of with gratitude. There is a price to be paid by the artist notwithstanding how positively or negatively the work is received.

Artists who belong to one minority group or another know of the danger of being typecast. Being boxed by the industry into roles that mirror who you are as a person.

  • The gay bestie.
  • The black best friend.
  • The brainy Asian.
  • The strong and unbowed black woman.

I asked Raldie if the fear of being boxed into a stereotype may be part of why – in addition to the sure homophobia as we have seen with Pamela Adie’s movie Ife, the music industry is lacking in open queer representation.

“The simple answer is ‘self-preservation.’ The thing about simple answers is however that they rarely do justice to the embedded nuance in the subject matter.

“Take the case of British singer Sam Smith for instance, from the beginning of their career to now their fan base has drastically shifted.”

The pop superstar had spent much of 2019 sharing their journey of coming out as non-binary, culminating in the public changing of their pronouns in September.

“Their earlier works had been inclusive with the usage of pronouns. Using ‘You’ when referring to a lover for instance. The story gets told and no one feels excluded,” Raldie added.

“Once they began singing their truth things changed. Take a song like ‘Him,’ you can’t deny what it is about and it takes a specific demographic to identify with it. Their fan base hasn’t been the same since they came out as nonbinary.”

The industry may not be lacking in artists who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and other sexual and gender minorities (LGBT+,) but it is lacking in content that speaks to that truth because artists will always choose success, and rightly so.

Every input liberates us

At the album listening party of Temmie Ovwasa, part of which we documented in the piece shared above, the room was electric with a life force all its own. Every song performed by her and her all-female band was a cry of resistance, every dance a ritual of power. We were, for that one night, liberated regardless of sexual or gender identity.

Raldie shared what the album release itself was to him.

“It was a moment, an iconic one. To be clear, it may have been an openly gay album, but maybe not the first. We have had queer artists from as far back as the 1970s, someone like Area Scatter for instance.”

It is a statement Temmie may not challenge because during an interview with her after the listening party she expressed gratitude for all the shoulders of past queer artists she stepped on to her meteoritic rise to success.

The impact of art is so far-reaching that even art from cultures 1000s of miles always can help shape our core identity over time. Consider the scenario of the child we painted at the beginning of this essay. In search of a language for their struggle, they found the answer in a TV Serie – Glee, an American high school musical drama. Then consider the implication of seeing that representation portrayed by Nigerians like himself, speaking a language that is his people’s – Hausa/Efik/Gbwari/Igbo/Ijebu.

“It will strengthen your sense of identity, remind you that you’re not alone as a sexual and gender minority,” Raldie posits.

“It helps to know that you’re not alone and that you’re valid, especially growing up in a country like Nigeria. Every input of representation matters – movies, music, books, you mention it.”

Yet with over 70% of Nigerians still struggling to come to terms with accepting that LGBT+ Nigerians even deserve equal rights, the danger of failure is always a deterrent.

Where the money goes

There is a rule of thumb in financial security circles that says if you suspect foul play, follow the money. The same could apply to the matter of lack of visibility of queer artists in the Nigerian music industry.

Art is expression, yes, but a truckload of expression won’t pay anyone’s bills, so artists will prioritise money for obvious reasons.

What if Non-Governmental bodies working in the LGBT+ activism space, say The Elton John Foundation, for instance, funnel funding into art and culture?

We invited Raldie to consider if the necessity of proper representation is enough reason to consider funnelling investment into the works of our local queer-affirming artists.

“I think it is a great idea. I imagine if queer artists don’t have the fear of economic loss to contend with there will be more queer representation in Nigerian art,” he said, “it is worth considering because not only will it help the sense of identity of LGBT+ Nigerians, but it will also help improve attitudes towards LGBT+ people and issues in the country.”

This author agrees. The trick remains how to convince global funders.

Raldie’s body of work can be found on all streaming platforms under the artist name Raldie Young.

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