Album Review | Desire by Desire Marea

Desire’s self-titled debut album is the start of a long game for the artist, who is crafting an intimately intergalactic sound that stretches our musical palates.

The first time I heard about Desire Marea was through my best friend. While they studied at Vega School Durban, she described Desire Marea, or “Bu”, as soft-spoken, shy, sincere and massively creative. Fast forward a year and there Desire was in the flesh, performing to a pulsing club beat at a sweaty venue in downtown Johannesburg.

With a booming voice and wearing a brash leather outfit, it was difficult to reconcile the performer with their description. But that is the magic of Desire, the persona and the album. They live between two worlds and command power in both. One world is all bright lights and boundary breaking, the other vulnerable, retiring and reflective. In a global society characterised by fragmentation, with multiple offline and online selves, Desire’s self-titled debut is the sound of right now, in all its complexity.  

Since the album’s release, it has rapidly gained praise from listeners, niche critics and the mainstream press. It made the cover of the Mail & Guardian newspaper’s arts section, where Zaza Hlalethwa aptly describes the album as a “solo homecoming” in a story that traces the physical, emotional and geographical journey that accompanied Desire’s musical path. 

Their debut album also made the cover of City Press newspaper’s #Trending supplement, featuring the beautiful and jarring image of Desire by Sir Zanele Muholi. And elsewhere, FADER magazine welcomed the solo project from the FAKA band member. 

This is an interesting response from such a diverse, but historically bifurcated South African music scene. One Twitter user captured the mood perfectly, writing: “Started with ‘Uncle Kenny’ Desire Marea’s album is sounding [like] what you’d expect from the year 2020. Futuristic and otherworldly.”

An intergalactic project

It’s a feat considering there’s nothing cookie-cutter about the project – no pretence, no palatability politics. And neither is the sound. If anything, it’s intergalactic, drawing in sounds from beyond our regular listening and stretching our musical palates. The project starts the way it means to end, with the word “honestly”. 

“It’s exciting … because I wasn’t even sure that people would listen,” says Desire. “A lot of people are relating to the work, and that’s beautiful. As artists, there’s always pressure to make a hit or a commercially palatable work, and my commercial background [in advertising] means that a part of me is always aware of that. So initially I was insecure about how the work would be received, and so I did what I wanted to do anyway, which is maybe a little self-indulgent,” they add, chuckling. 

This focus on the self, not necessarily a bad thing, is evident throughout the album. It is clear Desire is in conversation with their emotional self, expressed through lyrics and sound. Desire is living in a hypermodern world while trying to stay rooted in their Zulu heritage. Elsewhere, on tracks like Studies in Black Trauma, there is a wrestling with history, identity and the intersectional bind of being black, queer and fiercely unique in a world that rewards the opposite. 

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After the loss of a precious hard drive full of music, even the production of the album became an urgent, necessary collaboration of ideas and sounds. The album also seems to reflect the willingness to speak in a different voice from the one so easily recognisable from FAKA. Drawing together different producers, artistic influences and the artist’s internal emotional metronome, it’s a journey through sound as opposed to a marker of where Desire has “arrived” in their life.

Listening to tracks such as You Think I’m Horny or Tavern Kween for the first time inspired greater volume and dancing. But on the second spin, the mournful elements of these ostensibly groove-friendly songs came to the fore. Apparently, this strange emotional response is not unusual.

“That makes sense. I’m a Cancer Sun with a Gemini Moon and Gemini Rising. So my experience of life is like that, with two sides always. Sometimes I’m about to cry in the club, so that’s what comes out,” says Desire.

Simple, sonic truths

In many ways, even long-term Desire fans get to know the artist in a more intimate way through this solo project. As part of FAKA, Desire’s internationally acclaimed duo with Fela Gucci, the sound was supercharged and consistently high energy. This project feels like a kind of slowing down, the work of an artist who has explored their craft (and toured the world) and come home to share some simple sonic truths. And for Desire, the journey has been as gratifying as this destination.

“I’m proud of myself because I did the work. I went in and I confronted the darkness, and I went in with faith even though I didn’t know I’d come out with any light. I’m proud of myself for facing my demons head-on. For allowing myself to be guided by these forces that I can’t see or prove their existence. I’m proud of surrendering and listening. I left all of that in this work,” they explain.

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Desire says they’ll celebrate this moment “by doing more”. While the album is a complete living work in and of itself, the mission is deeper. So while they feel excited about the shine of this moment, Desire is playing the long game. They mention Alice Coltrane, Princess Magogo and Meredith Monk as their pillars of inspiration, not only because they made great music but also because their works have had cultural impact. 

“I know they don’t sound like my music at all, but I’m talking about long-lasting impact,” says Desire. “I don’t think about it in an egotistical way, but I do want to create work that can be studied. When people think about music from Zulu people, from KwaZulu-Natal, from Africa, I want to be in that category. Music has always been central to our history-making in Africa, and I want to make work that can be positioned and thought through differently in different times.”

It’s not an unrealistic objective. While Desire is the first step in what will likely be a long-lasting career, it has offered a glimpse into the multidimensional heart of the artist. With all its frantic beating, optimism, frustration and hope, it is a heart that not only makes music for its audience but also uses music to heal and transform themselves.

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