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Rainbow Riots
Rainbow Riots short filmvia Youtube

The LGBT artists making music where it’s dangerous to be gay

Rainbow Riots, an album of artists from Uganda, Jamaica and more, highlights the grass roots movements in areas rife with anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and violence

Globally, LGBTQ people are still facing open violence and discrimination on a daily basis, just for living their lives authentically. And across parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, these acts are legitimised by law.

Rainbow Riots is the international charity releasing an uplifting album featuring LGBTQ artists from countries where it is seriously dangerous to identify as they do: from Jamaica to South Africa, Uganda and Malawi. The organisation was initially founded by Swedish artist and producer Petter Wallenberg to protest the platform given to those who explicitly support and incite violence against the LGBTQ community worldwide. From there, it became about bringing together music and culture from around the world in the fight for LGBTQ rights – the collective is striving to give visibility to those we don’t often see and voices to those silenced by oppressive regimes.

The line-up of the album includes queer Malawian rapper Ivy B, Ugandan singers and rappers Shivan, Kowa Tigs, Bad Black and Brayo Bryans, as well as Mista Majah P from Jamaica and Umlilo from South Africa. Exploring the feeling of displacement in home countries, a member of the group explains in their short film, “there is an urge to be free.” Their stories are varied and troubling: Ivy B has sought refuge in Sweden because of the discrimination she faced in her country of origin, Shivan wears a face full of piercings “for protection” and Bad Black was left completely abandoned by family as a teenager after suspicions about their sexuality.

The artists know how it feels to have their very existence seen as criminal. And yet when you hear songs like “Unmask” or “Pride and Prejudice”, there’s unrelenting poetry and a fight to prove their humanity – “we are different/but love is love/and it is no different” – they reject ideas of sin and damnation for freedom and coexistence. 

In their psychedelic video for the protest anthem “Equal Rights”, the political message is loud and clear. Hearing the words “equal rights to love” boomed by a thick distinct voice of dancehall could be the zenith of international queer activism. The single has since been picked up for the UN ‘Global Goals’ campaign: an initiative to end extreme poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030.

When a violently anti-LGBT artist from Jamaica was booked to play in Stockholm, Wallenberg and his friends took it upon themselves to start the conversation in his home country. He tells Dazed: “I don’t believe in censorship but I do believe in protesting when you think something is wrong.” And when lyrics can be directly linked to the growing assaults and deaths of LGBTQ figures in the Jamaican communities, Rainbow Riots took a stand to call out the spread of hate speech and challenge prejudice.

“If we keep on hiding and hiding, we shall hide until we are buried” – Shivan

The album elevates the queer work that inhabits the very same space that closemindedness had been thriving. To infuse the same dancehall – that some have taken and corrupted as a tool to oppress others – with a positive and pro-gay message, to exist within the same sphere of sound, would act as the ultimate affront to ignorance. It does the same with gospel too. A gospel choir makes an appearance, made up of the Ugandan LGBTQ community, lifting the message of love from scripture. It does so in the heavily religious Uganda, where religious condemnation is often used as a weapon against LGBTQ people.

Talking with Wallenberg purely about the logistics of such an expansive project, one incident in particular marked how hard it was to live as an LGBTQ person in Uganda. When filming the music video and short film in the east African country, he reveals how police held up the entire production for hours once they cottoned on. The vivid outfits and rainbow-inspired makeup have come to represent the diversity and pride of the LGBTQ community, while also marking them out for intolerant people. “It takes such bravery,” Wallenberg says when explaining the security measures, “everyone who sings on this record is a hero.”

While in Uganda, the team also staged a performance at Ugandan Pride. Minutes into the event, around 20 armed police officers raided the venue and arrested one of the recording artists onstage. People were ordered to the floor, guarded by police with machine guns and held for two hours, Wallenberg repeats intermittently: “we didn’t know if we were going to live or die.”

At some point during the tension, he even heard screams coming from outside the building. Later, he found out that someone had jumped from the fourth floor of the building in an attempt to flee to safety, and had broken their spine in the fall.

The one day of freedom for so many – to occupy a safe space and finally feel accepted – was shattered, and he describes the fatigued sadness he witnessed in the eyes of those around him. He says this life-changing experience only fuelled the project further. Ugandan singer Kowa describes the collective as “a vehicle for our struggle for equality” and now registered as a charity in both Sweden and Uganda, Rainbow Riots hopes to enact tangible change in the communities for LGBTQ people through political discussions and community infrastructures.

The Rainbow Riots group is taking in intolerant anger and unleashing positivity back – creating something life-affirming for the people who need it most. From the opening track to the close, the vibrancy of the LGBTQ spirit echoes in the beats and melodies, through pop, electro, afrobeats, dancehall and gospel creations. Even though the collective spans continents, the message is a unified one – a message of hope.

“We’ve gone from oppression to liberation in one lifetime,” Wallenberg asserts. Thinking of the strides the LGBTQ community has made in the fight for rights and representation in the last 50 years forces you to realise just how fast things can move. Does he thinks that this inspires people to try to enact as much change as they can immediately, with the knowledge that such change is possible? Wallenberg clarifies the contrary, emphasising just how recently oppression was deeply present in our communities. We have witnessed the vast progression of human rights and they continue to face adversity, and we cannot forget how fresh that is.

“(We’re) taking people who are marginalised in society and turning them into icons” – Petter Wallenberg

It’s often evaded that much of the same anti-LGBTQ legislation that is so stubbornly entrenched in the politics of some countries originated under European colonial rule. By staying conscious of it, we can understand the importance of continuing the fight for others and see the possibility of a better future for all regardless of place of birth. The ethos of the collective is one of transgression and empowerment, beyond the boundaries of LGBTQ rights. Kowa explains to Dazed: “Most of all I want to show a sense of pride and motivate others”. Wallenberg describes how the project is “taking people who are marginalised in society and turning them into icons”, and in pushing an agenda of joyous freedom of expression through a backdrop of oppression and prejudice, Rainbow Riots is doing just that.

When Wallenberg first visited Uganda, he was overwhelmed by the strength of the LGBTQ movement there. The media has yet to shine a major spotlight on these cultures, that thrive despite the fact it can be near impossible to survive as an LGBTQ person there. The presence is huge and steadfast against all odds, ready for the global stage. Many of the artists have put themselves in serious danger even being a part of the project, with some remaining anonymous until now. 

Much like the unapologetic presence of LGBTQ people in communities, just the mere existence of a collective work like this is an inspiring move towards change. Via aggressively prejudiced legislation and maltreatment, people have been left with no choice but to become more visible and less afraid to express themselves in the face of adversity. Ugandan artist Shivan puts it bluntly in the short film: “If we keep on hiding and hiding, we shall hide until we are buried.”

You can stream the album here.