More than 1,500 New Yorkers gathered today in Manhattan to mourn the death of a 32 year-old gay man, who was shot down on Friday just blocks away from the historic Stonewall Inn in an apparent act of anti-gay bias.
Guest Post: Award-Winning African Artist Shishani Defies Gay Stereotypes and Makes History
This is a guest post written by media advocate and founder of Queer Women of Color Media Wire (QWOC Media Wire) , Spectra Speaks. Spectra Speaks was also a participant in 2011 GLAAD's National People of Color Media Institute.
By Spectra Speaks
Award-winning acoustic soul artist Shishani got her big break when she performed at the 2011 Namibian Annual Music Awards in the capital city of Windhoek, where it’s still illegal to be gay. And though, she says, she’s made no real attempts to hide her sexual orientation, she hasn’t come out as an “out lesbian artist” until now. "I wanted people to get to know my music,” she says, “I’m an artist first, before being a gay artist.”
Born to a Namibian mother and a Belgian father, Shishani spent her early childhood in Windhoek, before her family relocated to the Netherlands far away from her homelands. She shares that due to her mixed race ancestry, she was already used to being perceived as an “outsider”, but was shocked at how much more ways segregation could happen when she returned to Namibia.
“Being raised abroad gives you a certain freedom... I knew I was gay from being young. It took some time before my parents were okay talking about stuff, but I was living with my former partner of four years, it was different... But living in Namibia, it became so clear to me how much more people are discriminated against for different reasons, including their sexuality.”
Being LGBT is illegal in a number of countries in Africa, including Namibia. Even though Namibia has been independent for over 20 years, and its constitution views all people equal under the rights of the law, punitive colonial laws against sodomy (though not enforced) have remained. Thus, LGBTI people risk harassment and violence due to a strong culture of stigma in part reignited by religious leaders and government officials.
In 2001, past President Najoma’s called for “anyone caught practicing homosexuality to be arrested, jailed, and deported”. And, just over a year ago, Namibia’s first gay pageant winner, Mr. Gay Namibia, was beaten and robbed shortly after securing his title.
But Shishani, who upon her return in 2011, found a safe haven in Windhoek’s art performance communities, is optimistic that the current climate for gays will improve. She recently became an honorary member of the board of Out Right Namibia (ORN), a human rights advocacy that aims to address widespread homophobia in the country, and is eager to continue evolving as an artist, while using her platform as a musician to advocate for freedom and equality.
Since her breakout two years ago, Shishani has released indie tracks such as “Raining Words”, an acoustic ballad about a new relationship, “Clean Country”, a soulful, melodious call to action to raise awareness about climate change, and--inspired by Alicia Keys’ chart-topping tribute to New York--"Windhoek", a song that celebrate the beauty of her hometown. Her music has been described as a fusion of sounds from such political music icons as Tracy Chapman, Bob Marley, and Nneka. “Minority” is the first single through which the 25-year old songstress seeks to address the issue of same-sex love.
“Two years ago, I was really just trying to get my face out there.... When I returned to Namibia, I started booking my own gigs, performing solo, writing new songs. When I was invited to perform at the Namibian Music Awards, I was afraid to perform “Minority” because people didn't know who I was. But to make a statement, you have to be strong.”
As an African musician who is now proudly declaring that she is part of the LGBTI community, the lyrics of “Minority” no doubt challenge the infamous meme "Homosexuality is unAfrican". Still, Shishani insists, her song is about much more than being gay.
”Minority” argues for equal rights for all people regardless of their cultural backgrounds, economic status, sexuality, religion,” she says, “There is so much systemic discrimination against people, for so many reasons.”
The release of “Minority” is timely; January is the month in which people in the U.S.--perhaps even all over the world--celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a power civil rights political leader and icon. His call for freedom and equality of all people has been taken up by activists all over the world, including Shishani, who shares his principles of love and unity.
“Homophobia all over the world comes from the same place; colonialism, apartheid, racial segregation. All our struggles are connected.”
When asked about being a visible lesbian African artist, especially in light of the hardships experienced by LGBTI people in countries such as Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, she says:
“My music is popular in Namibia. I’ve made my mark, so I feel stronger, now. I may lose some fans, but it's okay. So many others have it way worse than me. So many others activists are risking much more. It is an honor to be viewed as a role model. So, if I can support the movement through my music, I'm happy to.”
To learn more about Shishani, visit her website at http://www.shishani.nl or follow her.