June 15, 2020
#Culture | Being An African Drag Queen Within a Conservative Culture


A drag queen is most likely a male who dresses as a female, but in a very exaggerated manner mainly for entertainment purposes. It is important to note that being a drag queen has nothing to do with someone’s sexuality. However, most drag queens are not likely be heterosexual men, neither would they be transwomen. In general, a drag queen is a man who simply performs as his female alter ego and at this moment, drag culture has become bigger and more popular than it's ever been.

Although the drag culture is almost perceived as a caricaturization of women’s appearances and mannerism, within many cultures, man have always been as extravagant as women. Within the Mbororo culture for example, men wear elaborate make-up and lots of embellishments, to impress marriageable women in a tradition called Yaake. From the Zulu’s animal skin to Egyptian’s eyeliners, across the entire African continent, most folkloric celebrations were performed by men in extravagant garments, jewelry and makeup. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the first drag queen noted in history is actually a former slave in America, and the most famous one to date is also black.
But what does it say about African behavioral cultural background? Is drag naturally part of our human puzzle and how does it link to our sexuality? In virtually all African cultures there has not been open acceptance of alternative genders or sexualities. Recently, the world has witnessed a strong movement for black equality and with this, arose the issue of inclusion for all sorts of black lives, even those who sometimes fall in the hands of other black people. Do transgender black lives or albino black lives matter as well? And if that’s the case, is Africa ready to progress in its inclusivity?

In America, back in 1969, the LGBTQ+ rights movement started and to celebrate that pivotal moment in history, June is now Pride Month and features parades across the country, rainbow flags and of course drag queens.

And in order to size up the popularity of the drag culture in the world, let’s just take the example of the drag queen superstar since the 90s, RuPaul. Back in 2009, his TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, searched for “America’s Next Drag Superstar”. Ten years later, the show has grown tremendously, helping to make drag a mainstream art form. In the US, there have been 15 seasons of the show including All Stars series, which feature the return of ex-contestants. Today, Rupaul has won a total of 13 Emmy awards with a show that reaches out now far beyond LGBTQ+ viewers, but all ages and sexualities. RuPaul is also making the franchise international with two series of Drag Race in Thailand, and the launch of Drag Race UK; Drag Race Canada and Australia.

But in Africa, there is hardly such drag excitement and the Africans who still perform are either doing so hiding behind conservative African norms or expressing themselves freely in other parts of the world.

Bebe Zahara Bennet, a Cameroonian-born living in the US, is probably the first drag queen to famously flaunt her “African-ness” in drag. As the winner of the very first season of RuPaul Drag Race, Bebe did not shy away from her origins.
Early this year, she put an emphasis about where she’s coming from on her EP entitled “Broken English”, “I wanted to create a body of work that represented the two homes that I have, which is my birth home, … as well as my chosen home, which is America.” The EP is a descent bridge between drag and African cultures through music. Bebe has also been vocal about the recent Black Lives Matter movement and has taken a stand particularly for black trans people.

Bebe Zahara Benet | Instagram

While talking to OkayAfrica about being a drag queen from a conservative country like Cameroon, Bebe said,
I feel like my culture has a huge part to play with who I am as an artist, and I want people to be able to see it, and celebrate it, and love it, and be aware of it, be aware of where we come from, the richness of where we come from. But I think that when it comes to the culture itself, because it's so conservative, there are a lot of artists like us that are scared of even being who we are and being the kind of artists we want to be.



Cameroonian drag queen Shakiro who performs her art through viral commentary on social media is probably more aware of the oppressive climate against drag in her country. However, she seems determined to keep slaying. For Shakiro, her drag performance is about tackling controversial topics such as sex, prostitution, skin bleaching and more on social media while releasing scandalous catchphrases.

Shakiro | Instagram

Shakiro has become a local celebrity, whose followership mainly includes teenage girls who seem entertained by her shenanigans. She has also appeared to represent some brands locally. But Shakiro has sometimes been insulted and beaten for being who she chose to be. She even laid low for a while before resurfacing online on March 2020. As per her new image, the young drag queen is hoping to become a huge influencer in the Cameroonian online community. Seventy-six countries in the world criminalize homosexuality, but Cameroon is one of the few to actually enforce these laws, according to a March report by Human Rights Watch.

In Nigeria, LGBTQ+ rights are not recognized either and being openly gay is also punishable by jail time. That is what prompted Son of a Tutu to become a Nigerian drag queen in most of her impersonations. Born in the UK from a Yoruba family, Son of a Tutu went back to Nigeria where he overcame beatings and family expectations.





After completing national service in Nigeria, he moved to the US and provided for his family by working in the financial sector in New York on a six-figure salary, but was unhappy. A turning point in his life happened when he was meant to be in the twin towers during the September 11 attack in New York,but chose to stay home that day. He then quit his job and decided to become a drag queen after 30 years of unhappiness. Son of a Tutu’s dream is to perform at a gay pride parade in Nigeria.

In South Africa, some men dare to sometimes parade in drag. In townships of Cape Town, drag queens are attempting to reconcile their African identity with their drag persona. #BlackDragMagic is the name of a photo project that showed drag as an art form in Africa but different from the glitz and glam of RuPaul’s and other popular stages in the West.

South African drag queens from townships deliberately chose to celebrate their roots while challenging dress codes for men and women through their traditional apparel. "We cannot separate our queerness from our Xhosaness," says Ka-Fassie, a drag queen and activist. During the photo shoots, in a group, proudly and unapologetically, the models strutted the streets of the township of Khayelitsha, which means "new home" in Xhosa. "I carry my African-ness and my queerness on my sleeve because it is who I am," says Mandisi Dolle Phika, one of the photo subjects.

picture by Lee-Ann Olwage

However, the reality is that drag in South Africa is still an unrevealed subculture. Drag queens must often suppress their queer identity in their communities for their safety — traveling into the city for pageants and parties, then de-dragging before they go home.

Hiding while in drag is also a common thing in Kenya. According to BBC, gay Kenyan men who like to crossdress hold secret drag parties to express themselves. Although crossdressing is not illegal in Kenya, homosexual acts are and people remain intolerant of such alternative lifestyles. Drag queens in Kenya are often seen as prostitutes, beaten and blackmailed. They just see drag as a way of expressing themselves and maintain that their sexuality or the way they dress should not define who they are.



Still, being different seems to have no place in African cultures. There are not even words to describe the LGBTQ+ community or the culture of drag in African indigenous languages except the derogative ones. The identity limbo faced by African queers and drag queens does not give them a place in society. Ultimately is this lack of recognition strengthening or weakening our humanity. How could African culture benefit from new forms of gender and sexual representations in its conservative climate?

Source:
NPR
BBC
BBC
OkayAfrica
Instagram

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