The Many Facets of Non-binary Artist, X

Multi-disciplinary, queer and non-binary artist, X: on re-launching their South African based horror anthology, 4, releasing their 1st music video and their journey as an independent artist

Written by Yolanda Mdluli
Photography by Yolanda Mdluli
Artist X
I used to be an easily frightened little girl who refused to sleep alone at night. As a result I went from sharing a room and bed with my late great-grandmother to sharing one with my older sibling, Mercy. Who in this interview will be referred to by their artistic moniker, X. For as long as I can remember I was regaled with tales about the intricacies of the imaginary worlds of someone I thought of as a genius, a somewhat strange genius, but a genius nonetheless. Sharing a room with them often meant not sleeping until the early hours of the morning because of all the stories they would recite for me. In the afternoons, during school holidays, I would sit and quietly play in rooms adjacent to the dark and narrow passage that ran through the center of our 3-bedroom house, which X converted into a faux concert auditorium –because of the amplification provided by the high ceiling and soundproofing from all the adjoining doors being closed- and hear them running through dozens of songs by Whitney, Mariah and some of their own early creations. All of which was years ago, the beginning of it all. Fast forward to this interview that we both decided we would do, to announce the re-launch of their anthology and discuss their other work and also officially launch my blog. I walked into the warm, wooden floored room in which X was sprawled on their bed and scrolling through Twitter. We began having this conversation after they had offered me lots of chocolate and treats, as a way of ‘breaking the proverbial ice’ and making sure I was fed and comfortable for the interview. I have been talking, living and interacting with this person for my entire life thus far. So this sit down was peculiar for me but also opened me up to realizing that I have been living with a bomb ass artist and human being that isn’t just a great sibling but is also a creator who is extremely worthy of my respect. I am sharing this with so much love and with the audacious intention of illuminating the person behind the art as well as the work itself. I trust you will enjoy reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.
YM: How are you doing?
X: The area around my new crown (tooth) hurts like hell so I’m a little grumpy about that but I’m mostly okay, how are you?
YM: A new tooth? Do yo wanna explain what that’s about to my hypothetical readers? I am doing ok though, just tired. I also feel a little unprepared for this because I can’t figure out what questions to ask first, so I’ll just jump right into asking about the book. You wrote 4 last year, a horror story anthology set in South Africa, why?
X: Well, first of all, I’m really sorry to hear that you’re tired. It’s definitely been quite an eventful day. And yeah, I was in Cape Town sometime last year and I was drunkenly laughing with a friend while sitting on the pavement in front of their house and I lost control of my body and fell forward, slamming my face into the pavement and badly chipping two of my front teeth. It was a really eerie and horrible moment, every bit as shocking and jarring as it sounds. But that is life, though, right? A horrific, eerie, shocking and jarring experience. I guess that can be explained as my main reason for writing a horror anthology; to convey the horrific nature of everyday life, to map out the horror in the mundane.
YM: Yikes. That absolutely does sound horrifying, sorry nani. But I can definitely agree that the anthology shows how horrific the mundane can be. Was it difficult writing certain parts, like the violent racism, colorism and even the not so lovely love story?
X: That’s a really interesting question because writing is always difficult for me, regardless of the subject matter. The process of like, coming up with an idea and then jotting it down; putting words to paper or screen and trying to get those words to adequately reflect your idea can teach you a lot about how to manage and get past self-disappointment. I also, sort of, think in a perpetually morbid kind of way, so writing about violent things seems to be the most familiar part of my creative –and sometimes, non-creative- brain to occupy. So yes, and no, the writing –because it is writing- was hard, but writing about those topics was familiar, those topics are a part of everyday life. I try to keep my fiction really realistic because I think we should be having more conversations about the things happening around and to us.
It’s really funny to me that you called Love a not so lovely love story, because it’s maybe one of the more romantic stories I’ve written? But yeah, there was a curse there and one half of an otherwise unremarkable couple got caught up in it and I think, like every regular couple, they tried to make the best of their circumstances, they tried to keep their connection sweet and honest. But it’s a horror anthology so there had to be some horror in it. [Laughs]
YM: Love was romantic? It really is interesting to get an author’s point of view on things but I have to say, I did not interpret Love as a romantic story. Romance to me is about things being mostly perfect in a relationship; about going to all ends to make sure things remain that way. Love felt like a story about the opposite of romance, about things being hard and not sweet and thus was a bit difficult to read. For example, that couple was not very compatible? And the freedom Frida sought from being in that relationship was never really attained. It’s a really sad story, to be honest.
X: Love is romantic to me because they tried their best to be good to and for each other despite having a bunch of really weird odds against them. One of them is essentially zombified? And they need the companionship and intimacy with the other to reach some state of freedom from that zombification. And so they figure out a way to give each other what each of them need. I think if you focus on their incompatibility as human and living-dead, you can get caught up in the wrongness of their relationship and forget that they actually loved each other, in spite of it. That they were friends before and above all else and when it was time to let go they did. So is it an ideal love story? In many ways, probably not, but it’s a story about a very honest and vulnerable kind of love.
Sometimes love frees you when it ends. So I think Frida eventually does find the freedom she needs and so does her William.
YM: I appreciate your point of view and I am actually starting to learn that I read that story in a very shallow way. I think that readers will read Love in the same way that I did because we are so overwhelmed with the messaging in mainstream media and literature that makes romance out to be this idealistic, perfect world not complicated by difficult choices or circumstances. It must be hard trying to appeal to an audience like that, knowing that your voice is probably not like many others. Does that make it any harder putting your work out there or more determined, or both?
[Cover of X’s horror anthology, 4, illustrated by X]
X: I don’t think it’s possible to think of the mainstream and not think about who represents that mainstream, yeah? So like, the mainstream is mostly informed by white people and cishet men. And neither of those demographics is invested in portraying positive or realistic kinds of any kind of human behavior and romance is no exception. The romance depicted in mainstream media and literature is often very narrow and unrealistic and posits cishet men as the sole beneficiaries of it; the ones saving someone from something, or freeing someone just by like, being there. Love on the other hand, centers friendship and honesty; it involved loyalty that wasn’t possessive or unrealistic. Frida sticks around to help William finish his book, but she isn’t strictly bound to the confines of their strange relationship; she gets to seek pleasure and release elsewhere. And it’s really important to note that once their sort of contract is up, he doesn’t guilt her into staying with him, because he still loves her and she him; he lets her leave. Sometimes the best way to love people really is to let them go.
To answer the second part of your question; I think knowing that my perspective isn’t common is why I write? Because I write what I wish I could read but haven’t found anywhere else. It is however, very difficult to share the work knowing that there are dominant narratives that counter what I think or the ideas I try to convey. I worry a lot about whether or not anyone is going to want to read my stories. I worry about whether or not people are going to enjoy them. Not because they are bad stories or because they are badly written, but because they are so…different. But I am always going to tell the stories I am meant to tell, and want to tell. And I’m probably always going to share them because I ultimately want to make a living out of doing this work and how else can that happen outside of me sharing what I make? So both; it’s hard to share, knowing that the work might take a long time to be received well. But I am also determined to share because there are goals I have in mind by sharing; beyond personal ambitions as a creator, I also do want to shift the way people look at the world around them.
YM: I think with that story, like the others, you give readers a sense of reality that many people may not be accustomed to. So I can, quite confidently, say that your efforts to write stories that shift perspectives will most likely be fruitful. I want to park on something you mentioned earlier; about your mind being morbid and that meaning you create portraits of everyday scenarios that are not very pleasant. I want to speak about this particularly with regards to the second story in the anthology, Pale. It was particularly difficult reading about colorism in that way. Why did you frame that topic the way you did? And is talking about issues like that part of your creative purpose?
X: The first two stories in the anthology convey oppression as horror and folks with privilege as the antagonists. So Pale (pronounced pah-lee because it’s short for ‘Palesa’) was definitely a tricky story to write about because the person with privilege in this case was a person who is vulnerable in many other ways. She is a child, she is an adoptee and she is the child of two black lesbian women in a world that isn’t very kind to folks taking up space in any of those realities. It was important for me to make the ‘enemy’ in the story someone who isn’t cleanly identifiable as bad, to remind that she is still a child, that she is still an adoptee and that these things complicate how much power she wields by having light skin and favorable features.
I think that was also why the character of her Grandmother was necessary, because it illustrates how [structural] power isn’t something people innately know they have and thus wield, but rather something that they are taught to weaponize by other people. It’s like how the folks who did the most horrible racist thing in The Veld did it when they were children; that hatred was passed down generationally. Palesa’s privilege is still real even though she is marginalized in many other ways. And she is taught to weaponize that privilege against her adopted parents, by someone with internalized bigotry.
These are definitely important things for me to write about because they illustrate the very tricky and intricate ways privilege and oppression play out in everyday life. It’s rarely cut and dried with clear, unblurred lines. It’s often complicated and messy and uncomfortable and the only way to undo any of it is to speak openly and honestly about it.
YM: Speaking of The Veld, I couldn’t sleep without picturing the really graphically described image of that young girl’s body and that savage ghost-dog that belonged to the racist, Boer family. Thanks! Why did you decide to write about racism in the context of Apartheid in South Africa and what in particular inspired this story? Because I think, after having the story twists their insides into knots, many readers are going to want to know how it came about.
X: Oh shit! [Laughs] I know I’m supposed to feel more guilt than joy about you not being able to sleep, but I think that’s literally the best possible reaction a horror writer could ask for!
So The Veld was conceptualized in 2014, while I was walking to work and just thinking about how heinous racism is. I was thinking about how there are so many stories we don’t know about from the Apartheid era because; once the laws were repealed everyone was just sort of expected to pretend this really horrific thing hadn’t happened and move on. That has always been the wildest thing about living in South Africa, for me. Speaking to Africans from the other parts of the continent, is like, everyone understands the role white people played in things being the way they are in the present; no one has this weird pretense and masquerade going on, the way we do. So I think I wanted to just release my frustrations about that. I wanted to find an outlet for the trauma that still feels so fresh and tangible despite me being born years after the fact. That pain, the horror of having millions of people treated as subhuman, killed with impunity, disappeared and incarcerated for no reason and no one paying for any of it, is something I feel on a visceral level.
Beyond the movies and documentaries that exist, listening to some of our family members –even our mother- talk about it; makes me pretty pissed off.
So I really needed an outlet for that anger, and I needed an outlet where I could control the narrative and where there’d be justice. That character, Tshiamiso, her name literally means justice in SeTswana and I was very deliberate about naming her. And conceptualizing her character too; black women in this country bore the brunt of so much unimaginable violence in that regime and they continue to, today. Giving her vengeance and justice, felt like the right thing to do, because it is so often denied to people like her in real life. I also wanted to show that there is so much violence in private servitude, that nasty step child of slavery. That just because the women in our families were working as housekeepers that didn’t mean they somehow escaped brutality at the hands of racist people.
YM: So The Veld is about justice?
X: Yeah. The Veld is about remembering how fucked up the past is and giving these hypothetical people some tangible justice, because we haven’t had much of that in reality.
YM: I also noticed how you used children in ways that complicate ideas of innocence and said privilege. Moreover I noticed how you cast children in the roles of villains in the stories about oppression and privilege, can you expound more on why that is?
X: So, for me, horror is a genre I enjoy because it always conveys such a complicated relationship between good and bad. Anyone or anything can become the ‘bad guy.’ In Stephen King’s ‘Cujo’ the bad guy is a dog, a Saint Bernard, who gets rabies from a rabbit and kills a bunch of people. The dog is not inherently bad, but is used as a horrific tool to wreak havoc in the lives of the people around it. Children are innocent, in my opinion, but they can be taught to do bad things or hold bad ideas and to be cruel. I also kind of wanted to play into the trope of classical horror films, where children are possessed or used by sprites and or specters to be scary. The horror in the first two stories is oppression, with a supernatural twist. But just because the horror is political so to speak, that does not mean it is any less horrific and in that way positioning the children as vessels or weapons of oppression was in keeping with a very common tradition of the genre.
YM: Let’s talk about Emadadeni for a moment; the 3rd story in the anthology. The story fits well into the collection but it also audaciously sticks out and allows for a great amount of curiosity to brew in the minds of your readers. The mysteriousness of the characters’ disappearance but also the tragedy of people going missing makes it one of the most subtle yet jarring stories of them all. How did you come up with that? Also the newspaper article that accompanies it adds so much to the aura of the story is that why you have it there?
X: Of all four stories in 4, Emadadeni is the most personal, in terms of my experience of horror as a part of real life, oral story-telling. When I was like a toddler and Gogo Minah was still alive, she and I would take one of those long distance taxis – not unlike the one described in the story- to New Castle because she had a beautiful little house there. One of her nephews, our grand-uncle or something like that, uMkhul’Jabulani would always tell me these scary stories about the things that happened to people travelling in those long distance taxis. Particularly through the mountainous area called Amajuba, which is also a part of the story. The tales would vary, sometimes a person –usually white- would appear in the road and cause an accident, by merely being there. Other times the same specter would hail the taxi down and ask for a lift, and there would be this ominous idea that something awful would happen to the driver and the passengers if that specter’s beckoning was adhered to. A few years ago this really friendly bus driver, also from eNatali reiterated the same kinds of stories when he was dropping me off, so it felt like some part of those stories must be true. I’m getting chills just thinking about them. [Laughs]
But yeah, Emadadeni was my attempt at exploring what the awful thing that could happen in one of those scenarios could be, if it wasn’t an accident. Imagine a whole taxi of people inexplicably going missing? I shared the newspaper clipping at the end of the story as a kind of epilogue to the story, so that it would be clear that those who went missing would be missed.
YM: So it was written as an ode to those stories? I think that’s incredible because authentic South African stories are so rich in culture and history; do you see yourself dabbling in that form of storytelling more in the future?
X: I think I’m really fortunate to have had so many varied experiences of what an authentic South African life can look like, so everything I write stems from all of the different things I’ve been exposed to. And that will always be the case, so there are definitely more stories in me that pay homage to the folklore I’ve been blessed with.
YM: What was the inspiration behind you putting those four stories together and packaging it the way you did?
X: To be honest, I didn’t know I was going to write 4 until I started writing it. Each of the stories in it occurred to me separately and independently of each other. I didn’t think they could be made into a cohesive and joined body of work until I decided I wanted to self-publish an anthology and I didn’t even know I had the range for horror until Love poured out of me in one sitting. After I wrote Love, months later, I remembered that I’d had these dormant ideas about scary situations that I could turn into stories which might be great companions in an anthology.
YM: You have written this poignant body of work and will inevitably leave readers wanting more. What else can your reading audience look forward to from you? Are we going to get more horror anthologies to sink our teeth into?
X: Right now, I have a short story thing going on, on my blog. I write and share at least one fictional short story about various LGBTQIA + (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual) realities, every month. So folks can definitely tune into that while they wait on the official arrival of 4. I kinda launched it last year but I didn’t really have it set up anywhere; as in the process of acquiring it wasn’t full-proof. Emailing me to say you wanted a copy and then receiving the pdf and then paying me was like…no [laughs]. I was really rushed and unprepared and didn’t really believe in the work as much as I should have, and that made it a really eye-opening failure for me. So I’ll be re-publishing it on various eBook sites on October 31st, 2018.
I have a document with all of my ideas and plots for my literary works and there will definitely be another body of horror stories coming from me in the future. I also have a full-length novel in the works, which I’m not going to self-publish. So once the manuscript for that is done, I’m going to shop around for publishers and maybe, hopefully, acquire an agent or something like that from that process.
There’s a lot of new work in the pipeline.
YM: I’d like to divert the conversation for a moment and talk about X as the creative. I say creative and not just writer because I know that you do so much in the creative space, I would like to open that up for a moment and unpack your other work. You sing and draw as well right?
[Cover art for X’s debut EP Curly Black Wigs & Cheap Cigarettes, created by X]
[Artwork for X’s EP Curly Black Wigs & Cheap Cigarettes (Deluxe Edition) created by X]
X: I sing and illustrate too, yeah. I’ve had an easier time carving out a literary identity than I have finding my signature as an illustrator and musician to be honest, so there’s more writing by me in the world than there is of any other medium of art. That is not to say I haven’t been making and sharing things pertaining to those other mediums. I have an acapella EP out called Curly Black Wigs & Cheap Cigarettes (the deluxe edition dropped a few weeks ago) and a few covers on SoundCloud. I’m also part of a collective called Phuma Sathane Records and have work in the pipeline with them. My illustrations at the moment are mostly used as the packaging of my other projects, I illustrated the cover for 4 and did the artwork for my EP and some of my short stories on my blog have my artwork attached to them. I’ve started taking and editing photographs as well so I’m interested in seeing where that takes me, creatively and professionally. I’m also really keen on adding ‘acting’ to that list soon and extending my skills towards film-making and television writing.

[‘Getting Ready’ illustration by X, 2018]
[Crushed Tea-leaves in my Water, illustration by X, 2018 which accompanied their short story by the same name]
[Untitled photograph taken by X which accompanied their short story Some Boys Pray with their Eyes Open ]
[Untitled illustration by X which accompanied their short story The Girl in the Prayer Room]
[Untitled illustration by X which accompanied their short story Aunty]
[‘Pretty Swamp’ photograph taken by X which accompanies the short story Tshepo]
YM: You clearly are not afraid of making statements, I mean your debut book is a horror anthology, and your first EP (Curly Black Wigs and Cheap Cigarettes) has its own unique sound and influences. You have all of these eccentric elements to your work, does that translate to who you are? How much of your personality is shown in your work and why?
X: I don’t know? To be honest, I think my everyday personality is super awkward and a little boring. It’s as though all of my flavor gets poured into my creativity and a shell of a person is left behind. [Laughs]
I’m kidding, I’m not that far gone. My work is an extension of me, for sure; my feelings and some of my experiences (not to the Tee) are laced throughout. My fascination with all things morbid and passion for social justice is evident in my writing; my EP deals with identity (Bend is about having to feminize your appearance to be appealing to queer lovers), complexity (Contradictions has layered refrains at the end that say ‘time spent, only thinking about love – I could love you if I wanted to – you know that I could never fall in love’) and my mental illness issues (Flip is a sonic suicide note). The additional songs that came in the deluxe edition of the EP detail the ways in which my views around love and romance are evolving, somewhat. No More George is an ode to the joy of newfound love that feels good and fortifying. Run speaks to the scariness of vulnerability, how it can be a form or source of power between lovers and how love that has been around for a long time can start to feel like home. I also have a mini-gospel thing on my SoundCloud called 4LUNDI which I dedicated to all queer and trans folks who are not religious but are still moved and soothed by spiritual music. As a queer and trans atheist who grew up in the church, my relationship with religion is complicated as fuck. Church was my very first experience of community and my first reference point for how to mitigate and manage life’s hardships. My skepticism hasn’t fully erased that for me. My personality, I think, is really layered and complicated and big. And despite not being widely known yet, I’m already super prolific with my output.
So all of me seeps into my work one way or another, the work still comes from a very personal, vulnerable place. I think the reason for that is that creativity has always been the thing I use to express and process my feelings. So whenever I create, I’m working through some shit I’ve gone through in the past or am navigating in the present. I also think it’s important for me to show up in my work as much as possible because who I am – pertaining to my race (black), sexuality (queer) and gender (non-binary, agender, genderqueer)- is still made out to be an anomaly in the society we live in. So being myself and making work that reflects all of who I am, I think, gives room and hope to folks who are just like me to exist as themselves fully and proudly, too.

YM: What do you want the energy around X to be like from your fans? Who do you want to be in their eyes?
X: I want people who love my work to enjoy loving my work. I hope that they are also affirmed by it. I don’t think I can control how I’m perceived by people; but I’d really like them to be able to enjoy my shit guilt-free. I want to be like, an ‘unproblematic fave’ so to speak; or at least, an accountable fave who moves with integrity. I want the people who love my work, to know that loving my work means admiring the artistry of someone who understands their positionality in the world. I’m a middle/working-class black person who speaks English in a way that is rewarded in this society and has access to things (a laptop, semi-regular internet connectivity, resources and information about how to create things and share them) that make creating independently a viable option for me. I want them to know that I’m never going to be the kind of person who overstates the political significance of my work despite being a marginalized person myself. Until I do things to tangibly mitigate the most severe kinds of material violence marginalized people experience in this society (homelessness, poverty, susceptibility to brutality & death with no recourse); all I’m really doing is raising awareness and possibly shifting mindsets. And while that is politically valuable, I’ll never lie about it being radical or revolutionary.  I guess I also want them to know that I care about being dope and will always be committed to improving.
YM: Why X? I understand ‘x’ to be a variable but I would like you to elaborate on your name and why you chose it and what it represents both artistically and to you personally.
X: I love this question! So the X moniker is two-fold: on the one hand I wanted to embrace my Jack-of-all-traits-ness by allowing myself to grow each and every one of my creative and political passions. I didn’t want to leave any parts of myself behind. I wanted to embrace the ‘variable’ symbolism of the letter and also embody infinite possibility in who and what I could become. The other part of it is that I felt that the significance of the letter ‘x’ as an affirmation of the existence of non-binary people was being erased in many ways; so I want to retain its importance to me and always subtly take up space as an enby whether or not people are going to affirm and respect that part of who I am.
YM: You bleed into your work, I have not come across a single thing from you that isn’t well thought out or carefully planned for and that must take a lot of emotional labor. How do you cope? I know being a creative is natural to you but do you ever feel like sometimes the work is more than you ‘signed on for’ per se? How do you replenish your energy and emotional wellbeing?
X: I’ve been thinking a lot about this; particularly since I started reading that book I’ve been raving about Freshwater by the fave, Akwaeke Emezi. Among many pivotal and poignant lessons, that book has made me really re-examine my relationship with myself and my power. It’s extremely scary to be vulnerable and create art and share it with the world. Before the fear about how the world will react to it is like, a quieter fear about being “enough”. In the past I didn’t think I was smart or talented or even important enough to create the things I’m creating now. And even the way I’ve treated my work once it’s been made has been really trash. I’m almost always ashamed of it. But a thing I found super impressive about that book [Freshwater] and the author of it themselves, was how they just stood in their power, (re)claimed their sacredness and kept it moving. So I’m learning to incorporate a genuine appreciation of my talent and budding discipline and creativity into how I make art. I’m honest with myself about things not being up to the standard they’d be if I practiced more or had better equipment, but I also give myself props for the magic that comes from my mind and through my hands or like, my mouth. Having that self-appreciation definitely alleviates some of the emotional anguish of creating vulnerably and pushing past a lot of fear. It also helps that I have a lot of support, from loved ones and strangers alike. Every week for the past few months has revealed a new person who’s discovered what I do or had someone show them and expressed not only that they dig my shit, but that they are interested in working with me. Having people be open to putting their own reputations and credibility at stake for me is deeply humbling and affirming.

YM: I am going to be a bit sneaky and use Love as a point of entry into your love life a little bit. [Laughs] Do you have a love interest? A crush perhaps?
X: [Laughs] Didn’t we talk about this story like eons ago?
I have a really rigorous and wonderful ‘love life’ with all of my platonic friends. They are affirming and attentive and warm and supportive and fortifying and the kinds of homies I think everyone deserves. They teach me so much about how to show up for people, fully and conscientiously and how to love deliberately and thoroughly. We’re all in that super precarious stage of young adulthood where we’re starting to really understand who we are as people and starting to carve out our dreams and destinies. And there is just so much support and encouragement that flows between us. Even though my friends aren’t a joined collective or squad, they all sort of know each other and share mutual respect and admiration.
But as far as romantic intimacy is concerned; I’m single. (Mostly) happily so; I’ve been single since like 2015, and 2011 before that, so I’m definitely accustomed to it now. I have very ephemeral crushes because I’ve become exceedingly picky. I want the next time I share romantic or even casual sexual intimacy with someone to be sweet and soft and not a lot of people seem to prioritize that. My experiences with romantic (and casual sexual) intimacy have taught me that people can be cruel and unkind in an effort to assert (non-consensual) dominance over their partners and I want no more of that energy in my life. I also don’t want to be forced to dim my light or shrink myself for anyone, another thing the people I’ve met don’t seem interested in. I despise the idea of having to play small so as not to be “intimidating” to people or even worse, the experience of being ‘put in my place’ by someone who thinks I need to be humbled because they think I take up too much space. So, for now, I’m enjoying a delicious love affair with myself.
YM: I’m really pleased to get to announce that you have a new video out for the 1st song on your EP, Bend. Talk me through the creative direction behind it and what kind of message you hope it conveys.
X: Okay, so Curly Black Wigs & Cheap Cigarettes exists because these house DJ’s living a few rooms from me while I lived in Thembisa lent me a really dope microphone they had for a few days and my sib, Sihle wanted to hear new music from me. So it started out as like this fun, take-advantage-of-your-good-fortune situation. I’d already been singing the hooks on each of the songs for various lengths of time respectively, but when I had the microphone and had the necessary auxiliary apps set up on my ancient pc, they each turned into pieces of art I hadn’t imagined I could make before. I was a little apologetic about putting them out initially, because they were acapella and like, really personal. Bend started out as a drunken rant I was singing while walking home at 2am from a tavern known as Timothy’s (s/o Ebony and Ivory Park) one night. I was in my feels a little and I just started thinking about how so many of the people I’d been in relationships with in my past heavily policed my expression as their partner. I was coercively "encouraged" to present more femininely, to quiet my masculinity, to wear make-up, to be sexy in a way that meant contending with the occasional dysphoria I feel about my breasts. And because I wanted to be wanted, I’d bend into the whims and desires of those partners. When I sat down to record the song, when I finally had the microphone, I added the verse about also bending into various letters in ‘the acronym’ (or ‘alphabet soup’) because of all of the places my journey with sexuality and gender had taken me. So the song took on two dimensions; being wanted by lovers and also being wanted by me, seeking that feeling of inner peace and affirmation and being fluid enough to bend into it.
In the video, I’m like up close and personal with the camera, because it’s a confrontation. “You only like me when I’m wearing lipstick or a dress or when I show my breasts.” And even when I’m in the dress, I’m sitting in a low chair and almost squatting and still just shooting these questions at this hypothetical someone who desires me in a very limited and contrived way. Then in the second bit, about bending into the colors of the rainbow flag (which each have meanings by the way!) I have a small little beard and moustache. I’ve always sort of loved the idea of me having a face like that, with facial hair and still retaining my full cheeks and plump lips, you know? Embodying that image of myself felt like sitting inside my final form so to speak. And the prevalent color in that part of the video is red (which means life according to the meanings of the colors of the rainbow flag) which is what I get from embracing my non-binary identity; life. Then there’s a moment where I wipe off the lipstick like “fuck these expectations” but then I’m crying and looking into a mirror because like “am I desirable enough, as I am?” And the refrain to “bend yourself to desire” in the end with me back to having the lipstick on and being in a binder is sort of a point of reconciliation between what’s expected of me and me reaching a kind of comfort in my skin in that moment.
YM: This is what I was getting at earlier about how your work is always so well-thought out. Can we look forward to any more visuals from you for this EP? And are you going to enlist other directors for any of them?
X: [Laughs] You didn’t lie, shame. But yeah, after I made the video for Bend and it turned out the way it did and I realized I liked it, I almost immediately started conceptualizing how to make videos for the other songs. I’m relatively broke so my ideas have to work with like the janky little android phone I have and several video-editing apps on my second hand android tablet, but now that I’ve done the thing, I feel confident about making more videos. I would definitely love to make videos with other people, but I don’t have any money to pay them and I don’t want to be exploitative, you know? So I’ll just put off my dreams of doing that collaborative work till I can figure out how to make it beneficial for everyone involved.
YM: Would you ever invest in collaboration, whether for a book or musically? What kinds of art would we see from you if you were to work with other people?   
X: Absolutely. I mean 4, is collaborative in that poet and writer, Saint Sdumo wrote the foreword for it and my sib, Sihle helped edit it. I’ve done features on projects like Nudes on 3rd by Letters Fitzgerald and Black Rivaldo by Irrelevant Papi. I love collective creativity so much! I low-key used to wanna be a part of a group or band for a very long time as a younger person. Shit, I was in a trio in Grade 7, even! But I don’t know that band/singing-group life is for me. So, I wanna for sure keep working on things with folks, like making films, writing stories and also doing more feature work on folks’ musical projects.
My ultimate goal is to found several art centers around the country that groom and nurture creative folks on the margins and create really massive creative collectives whose work I contribute to and who will hopefully be down to contributing to mine as well.
YM: Creatively, where do you see yourself in 5 years?
X: Hm. A lot less unknown? [Laughs] I hope to have attained a wider reach for my work. I hope to be better at everything I’m currently doing and to be good at the skills I still intend on acquiring. I hope to have a tour or two under my belt; maybe even a short film or TV stint. I definitely hope to have set up a solid foundation for The Letter X ‘brand’. Within weeks of choosing that moniker for myself and unpacking its significance to me, I realized that it’s something I want to be bigger than just me and my work. But I know that, in order to be able to help people in the ways that I need to; I have to become credible as a creator, first. So I hope to have attained that credibility. And, to be honest? I’m hopeful. I definitely think there is room in this world for me and what I bring to the table.
Look out for the re-release of X’s horror anthology, 4 on October 31st, 2018.
And take a look at their very first music video below:

To keep up with the rest of their work:
Twitter: @leavexalone

Ind. Mercy Thokozane Minah, who also goes by the moniker X; is a queer and non-binary multi-disciplinary artist developing skills in audio-visual and literary mediums. They have had their work (short fictional stories and a non-fiction creative essay) published in the award-winning, Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction (MaThoko Books, 2013, Lambda, 2014); Writing the Walls Down (Trans-Genre Press, 2015) and Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity (bklyn boihood, 2016). They have written articles for websites such as bklyn boihood, HOLAA, Queer of Gender and Black Girl Dangerous and will be re-launching their self-published anthology of South African-based horror stories, 4 (foreword by Saint Sdumo) on October 31st, 2018 (The Letter X Publishing House, 2018). They have been featured in the albums of Letters Fitzgerald (Nudes on 3rd) and Irrelevant Papi (Black Rivaldo) with whom they form part of the Phuma Sathane Records collective. They also have an acapella EP out called Curly Black Wigs & Cheap Cigarettes (with a recently released Deluxe Edition) and directed and filmed their first music video for the song, Bend. They have had their illustrations utilized in WSW and IPV campaigns for GALA (Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action). They are passionate about equity and believe through the ‘justice of compassion’ and rigorous and thorough transformation; a new and just world is possible.


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