„I am someone that loves to be seen – so it´s only right for me to want for other people to be seen too.“
The multimedia artist and LGBTQIA+ activist Jordan Chanetsa from Zimbabwe currently holds an Artist-in-Residence at the Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne. This week Jordan is organizing together with Shapes & Shades „The Migration kiki Ball“ at the Kulturbunker Köln, next week Jordan is hosting a Listening Session at Kompakt Records – don´t miss out on those gatherings.
Thomas Venker met Jordan for a conversation.
Photos courtesy of Jordan Chanetsa
Jordan, thanks for taking your time for our conversation. You are holding since June a residency with the ADKDW (in joint venture with the DEMASK Kollektiv und Integrationshaus e.V.). As it will end next month, maybe this is a good moment to already look back on the experiences you made here?
Jordan Chanetsa: It´s been completely outside of my expectations, but not in a bad way. It´s been really good. i thought it would be much harder to come up with a program – but it came really naturally to me to do the things that I have done so far., because I have been doing it so long already in my home country. So it was more like coming to this country and interpretating what I have been doing there on this new playing field, within this new context. It has been an eye opening, great experience. Very social. I met a lot of beautiful people. It inspired me a lot to want to create more. What I have been doing here now, is more facilitating space for other people as opposed to creating space for myself. So, I think it will be good to see what kind of spaces can accomodate me and the things I create.
Did you apply for the residency or have you been appointed?
And how did you hear from the residency?
Through a friend.
Who was here already?
They were like: this is a good opportunity, you already do the work along these lines, so you will be perfect. So I just applied.
Why do you concentrate more on creating space for others right now and not your own artistic profile?
I don´t know. This is something I am really passionate about. Something I noticed in my life is, because of the skills I have, I am able to enter certain rooms that some people would not be able to – because maybe they are not able to articulate themselves. Or they don´t know how to do the things I know to do. Or maybe they are not received in a certain way. So as I have the opportunity to enter these spaces, it only feels right to me to open up the spaces for other people. I want to have more and more and more people in that space besides myself, because there is no fun in being the only person like myself in these spaces.
You know what I mean?
Sure. But then again: a lot of artists still say very often „me, me, me“ before they say once „us“ or even „you“.
Yeah. I think I am a social person. I love people. I love connecting, collaborating, learning from others as much as they could possibly learn from me. I love the magic that comes through collaboration and community.
Are you working on your own artistic material also while you are here?
Yes. I´m making music – I make experimental hiphop kind of soul / r´n´b vibe.
Will you perform some of it in Cologne?
Maybe. I will be playing songs that I enjoy on 29th of September at Kompakt – it is called „Learning to Listen“. I play things that I made, maybe I will play things that influenced me as well.
Will this mostly be music from Zimbabwe or….
… all over the place.
What music influenced you while growing up?
I think jazz, I always loved jazz. And I love old school hiphop.
That´s what I love. I love hiphop mainly probably the most.
Have you been socialized with US hiphop?
Yes. Very much United States – you know, the Western impact in media is quite large.
Which kind of hiphop are we talking about?
I always say Biggie is a God. Nas. Rakim. Tupac. Old hiphop, when they were rapping to old jazz sounds.
How did you get introduced to that music. Did your parents listen to a lot of music at home? Was this influential?
My dad was a club dj for many years. He transitioned to radio when he was starting to have kids. Because obviously it was harder to balance those hours in the club. We always had thousands of records around at our house, the vinyls. So I grew up listening to good music all the time.
Did he engage you to go into music?
No, he didn´t, I engaged. Because I love sound. I am only now recently figuring out that I love to produce sound, before I just didnt know how I fit in to music. You know what I mean?
You felt it was too hard to get in?
No, I just fear mediocrity, I don´t wanna be mediocre, I don´t wanna be simple – I am addicted to being extraordinary. I always wanted to be the best. I love to sing – but I did not think I was the best. And so on and so on. I played piano, but I did not think I was the best.
Where is this coming from to wanna be the best?
I don´t know. This is a deep question. This is gonna turn into a therapy session. Growing up was rough, people used to pick on me, because I was very different. I just didn´t act the way I was expected to, you know. I was bullied a lot for being myself when I was younger. So I think it comes from not giving people a reason to laugh at me, you know.
I understand that of course.
I just asked coming from you naming all those hiphop influences – a genre where men always say they are the best even tho they often are not. I mean, sure, Nas is great, Biggie is great, but you know what I mean.
But you say „I wanna be the best“ in a quite humble way. Most people that say things like that say it with much more…
… I know. Because I felt embarrased. You can say „I am the best“, but still you could be delusional. Or you can actually be the best and your work will speak for itself.
Is the music of yours already published?
No. I haven´t posted anything.
Cause out of fear.
So one has to come to the Kompakt thing to listen to your music.
Yeah, you hear something then.
You are from Zimbabwe, a country I have never been to – that said I am curious to hear about it. What should I know about your home country?
I grew up in Harare, that´s the capital city, that´s where everything is happening, politically, socially. But I wouldn´t say it is the artistic hub in our city, there is a city called Bulawayo – that´s where I was born. This is where the art is happening, where the cool people are. But I like a fast life, a big city – and Harare is the biggest city, there are a lot of people.
A lot like ….
… maybe the same as Cologne.
Which is small.
Yeah, maybe it is small, because my country is small. We only have like 14 million people, not densely populated. But for the city size it is quite populated. There are a lot of nice places. But the one thing that stands out the most is that it is not really safe for people who are not “normal” and typical and, you know. There is no room for you if you are outside of any boxes.
And being outside of any boxes already starts with having different political views and …
… and being sub cultural active and having significantly different ….
If you speak the language that is not one of the main languages, then they are tribalistic against you. There is a language called IsiNdebele which is from Bulawayo, the place I was born. They don´t respect people who speak that language. They respect people who speak Shona. There was a tribal war that happened in our history.
Is this a dialect or are these different languages?
They’re different languages.
So the people have to learn the other language to make it somehow through daily life – or are they not doing that and go for the conflict?
It is kind of colonial in the sense that everyone is forced to learn english or shona to get by.
You are a performance artist, writer and activist for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community and work as a Equality Diversity and Inclusion Workplace Advisor.
We already talked about your path into the arts. So how did your advisor job come up?
It came through my own experiences. I don´t know if you noticed but I am a trans woman. And I grew up in Zimbabwe – where that´s not a normal thing. People like me get killed in my country for the way that I am – even just being a gay man or a lesbian woman. It´s not accepted, it is not normal, it is not …. it goes back to that thing of me always wanting to create space for other people besides myself.
I always knew I am someone that is strong and stubborn – i can fight for my rights, you know? And by fighting for my own rights I started fighting for the rights of others. Because it felt natural. I now have access to that space – I now fight for others to have as well. It only makes sense.
It also makes sense out of a community aspect. You also have weak days where you think this fight is too big for me – to know there is a community around you helps.
Right. It is about wanting to have more people like me visible. I don´t think it is normal to live in a place where people are telling you who to be and who not to be. That is so weird to me. I don´t get it, I will never understand it. It is important to force ourselves not to be understood but at least to be respected.
There are sadly many regions in the world this is still the case, I just read the title story about Iran in the Taz newspaper, and a colleague mine, she was just in Belgrade at a pride gathering they are not allowed to call pride, and they got attacked. These things are happening more and more – things are not getting better.
They are not.
To come back to the question: There were already existing structures you work with, like worker unions?
There are no unions in my country for activists. It´s mainly based on awards – I am an award winning activist. I won an award for it from the Netherlands as part of a campaign: 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence“.
So you had to build it up by scratch.
There are other community structures in place, I am not the first of my kind, there are structures there that exist for a very long time, long before me. But one thing since I began: I don´t like hierarchies, I don´t like that I have to dance for an older person to get respect or beg to have a seat at the table. I don´t like that. And that´s kind of how it is. In this country the organizations and structures that are in place are held very tightly by older people who fought hard for those positions, and they won´t give it to the younger generations. Gate keeping. That´s not gonna do anything for me, my struggles are not the same as those of someone who is 40 something or 50 something. We don´t have the same struggles. or my struggle is not the same as the one of a gay man, we don´t have the same life. I think that my activism came out of a lack of structures to build on.
And how did the Harare Queer Collective (HQ) which you founded and that advocates for save spaces for the Zimbabwean LGBTQIA+ community came together?
The same thing. We hated structures. We didn´t wanna have to report to anybody, we didn´t wanna ask for permission to do things. So we created this collective because in Zimbabwe most of the programming is centered around HIV and Aids, cause that´s what donors like the EU or USAid are funding. That´s where the money in the past has been. We are artists, we are people, we have desires to see each other in communities. So, we created it because our wellness is important, you know, our mental wellness, physical, spiritual wellness. It is all important, and if you ignore these parts of a human being … are they still a human being at the end of a day? You know what I mean?
So I have this a bit awkward question: How well known are you in your home country? I mean you work for radio and television shows like “The Naked Truth Show” and produce podcasts like „Her Hour“ – and you got the mentioned award and much more.
I think so. I am, yes I am definitely one of the most outspoken LGBTQIA+ persons in my country. Yeah, I am pretty well known taking things into consideration.
Coming from that: do you get a lot of direct feedback from your listeners, followers – do you communicate with them on a daily basis?
Being seen and being known has definitely helped me continuing living and surviving and getting jobs. A big part of my life is always having to talk to people. I have done a lot of interviews; this is not my first time.
Let´s come back to the events and start with the Listening Session at the Kompakt Store on 29th of September that you host a together with Ella O´Brien.
Ella is moderating.
So you are the musical director of that night alone?
Yes. I am the one.
I am curious to learn more about the music scene in Zimbabwe. What kind of music popular? What do you like?
There is a type of music called Sungura – it´s like guitar music, a acoustic guitar sound. That´s what is big. Also afro beats, rap, hiphop, dancehall. Also Amapiano that comes from South Africa mainly.
As we talked before about the different languages in your home country. Are there musicians trying to rap or sing in those?
For sure. But as those languages are not tolerated, they are just not as respected. There are people who try their best to create a market for it. These tribal roots are very deep, so it´s very hard to get other people to listen to that, you know. Because they don´t know what it means. The majority of the country speaks Shona, if you wanna make it in Zimbabwe you need to make music in Shona or English. Like if you are in Germany you need to make German music.
Well. Nowerdays the younger generation speaks good English and is able to write music in English – not so much when I was younger.
To me it seems there is more pride in the German language.
Yes. But for a long time we had a critical position regards our language – as an effect of the Second World War and the terrible things the Germans did.
We wanted out of good reasons to step away from being German. it came back slowly…
Yes, reclaiming – but reclaiming by also talking about what went wrong in history.
But to come back to your country and music scene. Whats your latest favorite track and why?
Favorite track from Simbabwe? I cant choose between Roki, „Screenshot Gunshot feat Mr. Brown and Leon Lee“ – reason why: because it was a really beautiful sound from a Zimbabwean artist and it actually got really big. I love to see Zimbabwean music going mainstream –; and Holy Ten, „Bho Zvangu“ – reason why: I think Holy Ten has an amazing voice but I also think he truly is a master of his craft. He created amazing hiphop and it has a very authentic feel to it. I love that I´ve never heard any sound like his before.
And from outside the country: right now its Kelela, „Washed away“ – reason why: Because Kelela hasn’t released music in a long time and this is a beautiful way for her to resurface. I love Kelela.
A few days earlier, on 23rd of September you host „The Migration kiki Ball“ together with Shapes & Shades at the Kulturbunker Köln, a ball that is looking into the experiences of migrant people in Germany – and is is primarily aimed at participants with (direct) migration experience and/or those who locate themselves in the BI*PoC spectrum.
What is your personal connection with the ballroom scene, a scene that emerged in urban North American contexts by and for queer and trans* Black and Brown people.
I came into contact with the Ballroom culture when I was in Highschool. I went to the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg. There were a lot of dancers at my school, obviously, and they loved the vogueing style. My first contact with Ballroom was seeing Vogueing when I was very young. From there is started growing and growing – so when we started creating our events with the HQ collective we loved the idea of creating a runway and creating a space for people to come and show themselves off and be free and happy and make beautiful clothes to show off. I am someone that loves to be seen – so it´s only right for me to want for other people to be seen too.
So you also gonna participate?
No, I am hosting the ball. I am allowing others to shine.
What I always liked about Ballroom culture is that elementary definition of a family as a chosen union and not one defined by birth and blood and all that.
Yeah. It is very historical.
You organize those balls regularly in your home country, right?
Yes. With HQ we do our own balls, we just had one two weekends ago – I was not there, obviously, because I am here. A huge ball.
What does that mean in terms of numbers?
It was the biggest of its kind in our country. Like a few hundred people.
There will be a jury of judges at the ball consisting of Cinnamon Laveaux Blackpearl Solar and Lucca Louboutin. Those ballroom juries can be quite something. What will the habitus of them be like? What kind of ductus can we expect? Cause I know from the documentaries about the New York scene that they can be quite bitchy.
I hope that they are tough. Because I am a tough person. I don´t think people should get it easy, you know. Cause life is not like that. I hope so. But let´s see. I will advise them not to go easy. Because especially being a migrant is not easy, so…
Last question: on 10th of September you hosted an „Open Mic“-session for music, poetry and story telling for the QT*I*BIPoC-Community at Democracyspace im Integrationshaus e.V. in Köln Kalk. How was that?
It was the second one of its kind we have done in the city. It was very good. It was a space I enjoyed creating. Because I love to see people being vulnerable in front of strangers. Also just being given the opportunity to share. What I wanted to do with these kinds of spaces is to give people who are maybe not “professionals” an opportunity to perform. Cause one thing that we lack is opportunities to gain experiences in the artistic sphere. There are not enough spaces to go to and speak and perform – and then being able to say: I actually know that I like to perform now. It is about that: allowing people to perform, giving them an opportunity. Without pressure – you can be good, you can be bad, you can be anything, as long as it represents you and makes you happy. Feel free. But I don´t think anything was bad that the people shared.
Was it the first time for some of the people?
Yeah. Some of them were writing for a long time but never had a platform to share their thoughts. And I loved that. It is beautiful to give someone an outlet to share their thoughts.
Also you only learn by doing.
And seeing. Seeing other people being vulnerable.
Interesting to hear you say all this. Cause in the beginning of our conversation you said that you always wanna be the best. And now you are crisscrossing yourself.
Yes, yes, yes. I am. That´s life I guess.
I like an Open Mic space because there is no pressure – but even in an Open Mic space I wanna be perfect.
You never performed your music live, but …
I have performed it live. But in my country not here.
You remember your first time being on a stage performing your own material?
It was last year.
So it was not when you were very young.
No, when I was very young I used to perform in theatre. I love theatre. Until Covid I performed in theatre – but after that it became harder and harder to access theatre.
So I was performing before, but not my own material.
What kind of theater are we talking about?
Like musical theatre. A lot of musicals. We once did a revue of different Westend shows and I got to play one of the … I don´t know if you know the song „He had a coming“ from Chicago – I got to play one of the six women.
Anything else you wanna share with the Cologne people?
I would love to see more creative spaces that are not only for established artists. I want to see more experimental spaces.
Thanks so much.