Life As A Drag Queen in South Africa with Liyana Arianna Madikizela
Life As A Drag Queen in South Africa with Liyana Arianna Madikizela
The South African drag community is growing, and they are unapologetically telling their stories. However, there is a misconception that South Africans are just copying and pasting what they see on TV from shows such as RuPauls Drag Race. Whilst inspiration does indeed come from these amazing Queens, drag didn’t just emerge in South Africa, it has been part of the LGBTQIA+ community for years. So, for #LGBTQPrideMonth, we speak to a prominent activist and Queen, to shed more light about the culture and history of drag in the country.
Liyanna Arianna Madikizela is a drag activist, and a Pageant Queen who has been crowned Miss LGBT Cape Peninsula. Her love for drag led her to the path of activism as she wants people to understand that drag and queerness is African too. Madikizela talks to Meeting of Minds about her journey to becoming a Drag Queen.
How do you define drag?
Drag is an art form, a form of expression, and it means different things to each drag Queen. It challenges society’s normativity about who we are. I also look at it as a tool to educate people about the diversity that exists within the LGBTQIA+ community, we are not cut from the same cloth. This is why our flag is a rainbow!
When did you discover drag and how did it feel?
When I moved to Western Cape a friend of mine, Palesa, showed me a picture of Queen Enigma von Hamburg (EvH) and I immediately fell in love with the work she was doing for the community. EvH is a pageant Queen with over 70 titles, runs a modelling agency, does image consulting, and hosts pageants. Her story was the life I envisioned for myself, so I decided I was going to shoot my shot. I crafted a message, closed my eyes, and pressed send. The gods were on my side because when she responded she offered me a ticket to Mr & Miss Stellenbosch and added me as a special guest.
The event opened my eyes to unknown possibilities, one of the categories were Miss Gay and I felt seen. I also got to meet the Xhosa Drag Queen, Belinda Qaqamba KaFassie. I followed her around until I found myself carrying her suitcase. The conversations around drag, pageants and how we fit in as the LGBTQIA+ community opened the pathway to my life as a drag queen.The first step I took to realising my Drag dream was finding my name.
Liyana means “the rain is pouring”. I am the rain that will nourish the grounds of my community and free young people from the limiting beliefs that have been forced on us.
When did you participate in your first drag show? How was that experience?
My first time in drag was October 2018 when I attended the Stellenbosch Annual Pageant. I felt reformed, restructured, and renewed! Liyana is a rebirth and an extension of who Abongile is. Walking on that stage reassured me that I belonged there, and I’ve never looked back.
How did the people around you respond to your love for drag?
My family was and still is very supportive of me. At times I sneak into my mother’s wardrobe, and she absolutely loves it! I am also grateful to have friends that see me for who I am and are equally supportive of my dream.
When it comes to the community there is good and bad. I have been stoned and have had derogatory slurs hurled at me. It’s heartbreaking to watch the people you looked up to when growing up, turn around and treat you this way just because you are Queer. The road ahead is lengthy, but the work needs to be done so I carry on.
Within the community there are people like Mrs Sesanti, who asked me to host the Miss Valentines Pageant at our school. She showed me that inclusion is possible. Queer people can be counted and if this woman looked at me and saw my value, so could the next person. It was heartwarming. She saw me and I saw a ray of sunshine.
You use drag to shine a light on your heritage and culture. Why did you choose your roots?
When I met Belinda Qaqamba KaFassie, the first thing I noticed was how she always had a piece of Africa embedded in her outfits and I thought that was not only different but also powerful. Most times when you hear the word drag, you do not picture a person in African print clothing or an African neckpiece. I knew that if I was going to do this for myself, I needed to be as authentic as possible and represent my people.
When I took part in #BlackDragMagic, an internationally recognised, and award-winning photographic project which tells the stories of Queer people from townships, Belinda taught me more about ‘Decolonizing Drag.’ I stand for this cause and long for the day when people stop looking at it with a western eye. Our stories are valuable and should be included too.
What does ‘decolonizing drag’ mean to you?
Drag is associated with heavy makeup, wigs and big hair which is what we see in the western world. Decolonising drag means dismantling those frames. I chose to wear my natural hair because it is authentic to who I am, yet people will look at me and say I’m dragging wrong. I am not; this is Africa, and my hair speaks to that. I want African Queers to look at me and see themselves represented. I want African Queers to know where they are from even when they do drag.
How would you say drag has changed your life?
Drag has given me a sense of belonging; being around people who strive for the same thing as I do is truly amazing. I am self-aware and understand that people’s judgement does not reflect on who I am, but on who they are. Drag has also brought me financial stability and educational opportunities. It has turned my life around in ways I could not fathom, and I remain forever grateful to the people behind the scenes.
Then there is the flip side: being an African drag Queen feels like being in battle with the world. We are belittled, questioned, and undressed more than you could ever imagine. This fight has taught me that you can’t do life alone, you need a tribe. I’m grateful for my tribe and how they have helped me raise the flag and chase the change we all deserve to see in Africa.
How do you see drag impacting African culture?
African culture has always been backed by the word, ‘Ubuntu,’ which directly translates to ‘a quality that includes the essential human virtues of compassion and humanity.’ We can’t pride ourselves on Ubuntu today when hatred lives within us. As African Drag Queens, we want to remind our communities that we are a people of love and oneness. I see drag birthing love, empowerment, and compassion amongst our people.
Given an opportunity to make positive changes in South Africa, what would you do?
I have always advocated for Queer education in schools so I would most definitely implement that first. Sexuality is taught in school, but the books don’t tell the full story, so that needs to change.
I would teach people about the importance of not looking at clothing and colours from a gendered lens. Clothes are just clothes; we are free to wear whatever we please and whatever makes one happy and comfortable.
Another thing I would advocate for, is further representation on TV. It is rare to find a Queer person who has a leading role on South African Television and that needs to change. We need to see more people like us.
Header Image: Photo of Liyana Arianna Madikizela. Credit: Lee-Ann Olwage