Finding gay love in South Africa’s hypermasculine taxi gangs, the song arrives ahead of the musician’s forthcoming album, On the Romance of Being
For the last two years, the South African musician Desire Marea trained as a sangoma, a traditional Nguni healer that taps deep connections with ancestral spirits. “In my work as a sangoma, ancient songs and drumming sequences are used to invoke spirits who live in me so I enter into a trance state,” says Desire, who is also known for his work with the much-loved Joburg collective FAKA. “In my work as a musician, I heal people using music. It’s a different kind of medicine.”
On his new solo album, On the Romance of Being, this medicine takes the form of hypnotic beats, ancient melodies, and soaring, gospel-inspired synths and horns, recorded live with an ensemble of 13 musicians, from Durban-based jazz pioneers, to prominent names from South Africa’s experimental scene. “My ancestors gave me an instruction to record this with a live band,” Desire explains. “The reasoning? It was a way to ensure that the music carried the soul. We were all united in the most intimate parts of our consciousness. The music made us one.”
A taste of the resulting record – which will be released in early April – comes via the musician’s new single, “Be Free”. With a video directed by Imraan Christian, the track follows a romantic relationship between two Black men, whose sensually-rendered love plays out against the hostile backdrop of South Africa’s hypermasculine taxi gangs.
“It is important for me to tell a love story that carries all the nuances that paint a true picture of what it means to be a Black South African man, a Black South African gay man, a Black South African Zulu gay man,” Desire tells Dazed. “All these descriptors helped me navigate the cryptic cartographies of time in a quest to find myself in history.”
“Mostly, what I found were men at war. In each era of history. From the times when Shaka’s troops would lick their wounds in mountaintops, defending their people against the colonisers, to the times when men were bundled up in hostels far away from their families, fighting a losing battle against apartheid’s capitalist war.”
Desire adds that love among men, “whether platonic or erotic”, has always been intertwined with violence, and the idea that men have to navigate life-threatening conditions “to get radical love out of each other” is perhaps “ingrained into our collective spiritual DNA”. The taxi gangs of South Africa are just another incarnation of this “militant spirit” he suggests, and reflect a “perpetual crisis of masculinity” in the country.
“Be Free”, on the other hand, “is a song about breaking away from all of these afflictions and learning to imagine a love that does not need the violence, trauma or despair,” says Desire. “It’s an affirmation that things can be good, things can be light, and we are worthy of that. In the lyrics, I say ‘love as though it’s a prayer / love like you’re a believer’ because in order to pray for something you have to imagine it, and believe it, even if there is no rational reason for it to even exist. For many of us who struggle to see our love reflected in history, this is how we have to approach love.”
On the Romance of Being will be released via Mute on April 7. Watch the video for new single “Be Free” above.