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POWER OF MUSIC

Voices of activism – Mzansi Gay Choir raises the roof with the sound of ‘a revolution’

Voices of activism – Mzansi Gay Choir raises the roof with the sound of ‘a revolution’
Choir members Olivia Magubane and Koketso Langa prepare backstage before a show at the Joburg Theatre. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

The choir, which is a ‘voice of change through the arts’, not only serves as a home for talented musicians but also provides a safe space and family for its members.

Mzansi Gay Choir

A member of the Mzanzi Gay Choir before a show at the Joburg Theatre. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

‘We are not just here for vibes, we also have a bigger responsibility,” says Thami Dish on the sidelines of a rehearsal session of the Mzansi Gay Choir, highlighting the dual roles of the choir – entertainment and activism.

The choir was in Newtown rehearsing for their show Pride without Prejudice, which the members hoped would not only celebrate the power of music but also spread the message of inclusivity and diversity.

Dish, one of the founders of the choir in 2016, shies away from that label of founder and prefers to simply be called a member. “In 2016 we were just curious to find out if we could find a way to put together what would be South Africa’s first queer choir and we found a great bunch of humans who were keen on this journey with us in becoming some voice of change through the arts,” says Dish.

Being the very first all-gay choir, not only in the country but also on the continent, I believe is a power move.

The choir has gone from strength to strength, losing some members while gaining new ones, all the while holding on steadfastly to its identity as a safe space and group for the queer community.

Mzansi Gay Choir

Choir member Koketso Langa backstage during the show at the Joburg Theatre. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

Mzansi Gay Choir

Choir member Sihile Mazibuko belts out a number in the Joburg Theatre. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

“It has become a safe space by virtue of occupying spaces where queer people can go and find a safe space and hear themselves, hear their voice, be entertained and hear real-life experiences that we speak about. I think the choir members themselves have had to create a safe space within themselves,” says Dish. “A lot of choirs are formed in churches, and it’s been beautiful to see them form a church of their own.”

Sihle Mazibuko, a 25-year-old from Johannesburg and one of the original choir members, credits the choir for his growth as a musician.

“I love music. I’ve loved music ever since I was a child. Had it not been for the choir I would not have grown the way I have as a person and as a musician,” says Mazibuko, who credits the choir with making him a more professional musician.

Mazibuko says the role of activism was etched into their identity as a choir from day one. “We knew we were going to represent the many talents, hopes and dreams that are not given the platform that we’ve been given. Being the very first all-gay choir, not only in the country but also on the continent, I believe is a power move.

Mzansi Gay Choir

Choir members hold hands as they say a prayer before the start of the show ‘Pride without Prejudice’ at the Joburg Theatre. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

“It carries a lot of responsibility because, yes, we are very talented musically and we love what we do, but we need to realise that not every performance is just a performance. It’s loaded with so much. It’s loaded with meaning. Take Pride without Prejudice. People may think that’s just an event but it’s actually a campaign that speaks to the injustices done to the LGBTQIA+ community,” says Mazibuko.

Choir member Olivia Magubane grew up in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, as the son of a priest, and her love of music was rooted in being the lead singer of the church’s worship team. Growing up queer in a religious family resulted in Magubane facing heavy emotional challenges.

Mzansi Gay Choir

Choir co-founder Thami Dish organising things backstage before the start of the show. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

‘Tired of living a lie’

“You know, my dad is a priest and a lot of people from the congregation used to judge me a lot. I was very scared of what people would say because already people were talking, saying ‘oh, the pastor’s kid is so feminine. He’s a guy you know but he’s acting very girlie.’ So, a lot of those things affected me and also I’ve had so many meetings with my family. I think me being queer has always been a problem and that’s why I decided to come on a platform like Mzansi Gay Choir, you know, because I was just really tired of living a lie,” says Magubane.

It has allowed me to express myself fully and not be… scared of who is going to judge me… I found family in the choir.

She credits the healing power of music and the community aspect of the Mzansi Gay Choir with helping her during emotionally difficult times. “Music is like my superpower and I love what we do with the Mzansi Gay Choir; that we [are] able to heal the world and each other through our voices… So, singing music for me touches my soul, it just changes the way that I live my life. If I’m going through a bad day I’ll listen to a song that will [lift] my spirits and will just make me feel better and feel good, you know,” says Magubane.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The art of drag — celebrating a joyful, exuberant life against a backdrop of discrimination

The choir serves not only as a home for talented musicians but also as a family for its members. “The choir has helped me build a lot of my confidence,” says Magubane.

Mzansi Gay Choir

Members of Mzantsi Gay Choir sing on stage at the Joburg Theatre as part of their show ‘Pride witout Prejudice’. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

Mzansi Gay Choir

Members of the choir in matching outfits as they prepare for the start of the show. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

“It has allowed me to express myself fully and not be… scared of who is going to judge me… I found family in the choir. Family could be anyone, it doesn’t necessarily have to be your own blood family, so I found a great family in Mzansi Gay Choir, so I feel very safe.”

Recently the choir performed Pride without Prejudice to a sold-out audience at the Joburg Theatre. When asked what the choir represents in today’s society, Dish replies: “Our existence is a revolution. We live in a world that tells us who we are not and who we should be and how we can’t be, and yet here we are.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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