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Umzabalazo: The complex duality of Umlilo’s new video

It’s first light in Johannesburg and atop the second highest point in the city, stands a figure wrapped in cascading cloth fluttering silently around their frame. Black and white lines dress their face while jewels adorn the more angular aspects. The lone figure is Umlilo, South Africa’s one and only Kwaai Diva, and they’re on set at the first location of a multifaceted new music video.

Photo by Smangaliso Tshabalala.

Photo by Smangaliso Tshabalala

The visual counterpart for ‘Umzabalazo’, a track off of Umlilo’s Aluta EP, is filmed and directed by Odendaal Esterhuyse and conceptualised by Siya Ngcobo aka Umlilo, Odendaal and ALV Corp. Umlilo has a history of putting out cinematic music videos and ‘Umzabalazo’ is set to be just as striking. Only with ‘Umzabalazo’, the world was given the opportunity to peek into the filming process in real-time.

It went like this: Over two days Umlilo and the team behind the video travelled to sites of historical struggle in Johannesburg. The schedule was tight and comprehensive. Umlilo, in full costume, would film atop the Northcliff Ridge, before heading to West Park Cemetery and Constitution Hill. From there it would be the vast, bricked Mary Fitzgerald Square and the gritty, animated streets of Jeppestown. Throughout it all, audiences across Jozi, South Africa, and indeed the world, could watch the process unfold live via Periscope, moving through time and space with the artist.

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Photo by Dave Mann

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Photo by Smangaliso Tshabalala

Social media and the millennial voyeurism that often comes with it, becomes a good lens through which to view Umlilo’s performance. Besides drawing attention to the historical sites, the performance-style video takes the premise of one character living two lives. The first is his perceived life – an affluent one involving a good job, a nice car and a lavish house. The second sees his desired life – the free and fluid lifestyle embodied by Umlilo.

“I mean when we came up with the idea for the video and the idea for the characters, I thought ‘this character is very close to who I am in a way’,” explains Siya in-between scenes. “I have a job and I have my music side. I go do a gig and then I have to go to work the next day, you know, it’s constantly not knowing if I should introduce myself as Siya or Umlilo.”

Siya recounts a day spent shopping in Sandton with a friend – a now well-known actress on Generations. She was a rising star who was growing used to being in the public eye, but only just getting to grips with her newly acquired fame.

“We realised we actually couldn’t go anywhere,” says Siya. “People were mobbing her and asking for selfies and autographs, it was out of control. You know when I was younger, that sort of life where you’re always being watched really appealed to me – living some sort of Kardashian life – I always thought that’d be okay. Then I grew up and realised I don’t actually like it that much and I prefer being behind the scenes or staying unnoticed and being able to walk through the street without people knowing who I am.”

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Photo by Dave Mann

The crew moves into Mary Fitzgerald Square around noon and as it goes with Mary Fitz on a weekend, the place is bustling. The crew sets up and the performance kicks off – a dreamy and hypnotic swaying, dead centre in the square. Passers-by crane their necks to get a better look while others stop in their tracks to take the shrouded character in. Siya is now garnering the same attention as the aforementioned friend, if not more so. Only with Siya, it’s a sort of infamy. Many laugh, either facetiously or out of pure bewilderment. A few younger onlookers whip out their phones to document the spectacle. Siya’s remaining cool throughout it all. Perhaps because it’s not really Siya that everyone’s gawking at, it’s Umlilo.

Photo by Smangaliso Tshabalala.

Photo by Smangaliso Tshabalala

“I think it really impacted the performance a great deal, because we didn’t know what was going to happen so we sort of went with the flow and responded accordingly. Overall it didn’t affect what we were doing though. While some people responded, others went about their business and carried on with their lives,” reflects Siya.

Then there are the online lives – the anonymous stares from behind glowing screens where lives are filtered, touched up, and shaped however we see fit. What we choose to watch, click on, share and like, also plays a role in these online lives we lead.

“Social media is a huge part of the message and story in the video as it speaks to the vicarious lives we live through a very curated lens,” says Siya. “We curate our lives on social media and choose what we post. We wanted that voyeuristic element to also be present in the making of the video. There’s something exciting about live streaming and having it gone in a few seconds.”

Photo by Dave Mann.

Photo by Dave Mann

The team wraps up in Jeppestown where a luminous sunset settles in to provide the perfect backdrop for the last few takes of the day. It’s been a long day, Siya seems tired and there’s more to come tomorrow. A quick costume touch-up and Umlilo takes the reigns again. More stares are attracted, more hearts and likes pop up online and Umlilo carries on – swaying, twisting, singing.

It’s rare for a music video to have so much impact before it’s even come out. What Umlilo’s done is essentially a merging of art and live performance, online and offline, for an audience that’s both familiar and foreign, hyperlocal and far-reaching. One can only wonder what the video will achieve once it’s out.  

Keep an eye on 10and5 for the upcoming interactive ‘Umzabalazo’ video.

Find more by Umlilo on Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud.

Photo by Dave Mann.

Photo by Dave Mann

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