ANTI-MASS’ queerness is in both genre and gender

Connecting singeli, gqom, techno and more, the Kampala-based collective draws lines between music, merging sound and politics.

“I like to treat genres in the same way I look at gender,” says Authentically Plastic, a member of the Kampala-based queer collective ANTI-MASS. “Corrupting and connecting disparate things is political.” 

A few weeks after the independent release of their thrilling debut EP Doxa, I am on a Zoom call with South Sudanese producer Turkana and Ugandan producers Authentically Plastic and Nsasi. The trio are a “three-headed monster” production crew according to Authentically Plastic, and are part of a larger collective that since December 2018 has been throwing quarterly parties across Kampala.

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Covid-19 saw the ANTI-MASS parties come to a halt and, faced with lockdown, the larger collective coalesced around the three producers. Listening to their recorded DJ sets, which can be found on their individual Soundcloud accounts, it is clear to see that ANTI-MASS have created a space that is both gender and genre fluid.

It is a space where New York ballroom DJ Quest?onmarc features alongside Shanghai-based Techno-wizard Tzusing, where Snap’s 1992 pop hit Rhythm is a Dancer plays alongside Master KG’s global hit Jerusalema. South African gqom flows into South American industrial techno, while Tanzania’s singeli rubs up against Uganda’s electro-acholi.

Sonic weapons

Authentically Plastic and Turkana both admit to being obsessed with singeli music, which emerged from the ghettos of Dar es Salaam and was brought to global attention by the Kampala-based Nyege Nyege label.

“I think it’s one of the most radical things to have come out of the African continent in the last few years,” says Authentically Plastic, who describes singeli as the voicing of the dissatisfaction of young people living in an African city and draws parallels to the rise of gqom in South Africa.

They say both genres speak to the aspirations of young Black people in Africa, wanting to create a “propellant space” for themselves. Authentically Plastic’s mix for Borshch Magazine from May this year is billed as “an exploration of gqom & industrial music”. The mix draws connections between industrial techno acts such as Cut Hands, Disociación, Slikback and Inca Pax, and gqom artists like Menzi and Phelimuncasi. In the mix is experimental electronics out of South America. 

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“I’m interested in this phenomenon of discovering the ghost of one genre in the other,” wrote Authentically Plastic at the time the mix was posted online. “All the industrial potentials of gqom waiting to be actualised, and all those ‘gqom tendencies’ in industrial and noise that usually go unnoticed… It has nothing to do with merging, or combining, but gliding; drawing a line between the two that is an expression in its own right.”

While genre is clearly a fluid concept for the collective, it is also clear they are drawn to dark, harsh sounds that contain hints of industrial music. Authentically Plastic, who has spoken in interviews about the concept of music as a “sonic weapon”, says the lived experience of being a queer person in Kampala feeds into the harshness of the music.

“It’s tied into the dissatisfaction of the moment,” they say. “The way the gaze is always acting on their bodies, how they experience homophobia, the harshness of the music protects us, drawing in a more open crowd.”

Raid on Ram

On Sunday, 10 November 2019, police and military personnel raided Kampala’s LGBTQIA+-friendly bar Ram and arrested over 120 people. Joan Amek, one of those arrested, later told Human Rights Watch: “They kept on calling us prostitutes and genderless people. They kept on making common mistakes on ‘he’ and ‘she’ and dramatically laughing about it, saying that they thought we didn’t care so why are we complaining.”

At the time, the Ugandan police said the Ram Bar served hookah and opium and that those arrested would be charged under the Tobacco Control Act of 2015, which bans smoking in public places. Activists argued that this was a smoke screen for the persecution of the LGBTQIA+ community and when 67 of those arrested were eventually charged, it was with “public nuisance”, not a contravention of the Tobacco Control Act.

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At the time, the raid on Ram was just the latest targeting of the LGBTQIA+ community in Uganda, with film festivals, pride marches and even workshops becoming targets for the Ugandan government’s crackdown over the last five years.

While Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, which criminalised the undefined “promotion” of homosexuality, was declared null and void by the country’s Constitutional Court seven months after being signed into law, Uganda’s criminal code still includes a law prohibiting “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with a sentence of up to life in prison. While the law very rarely leads to prosecutions, the police use it to crackdown on LGBTQIA+ events.

Beginnings of ANTI-MASS

In December 2018, less than a year before the raid on Ram that would result in the bar being shut down permanently, ANTI-MASS held their first party on the rooftop of the Five Horsemen in Kampala.

Billed as a “feminist dance party”, it would feature sets from Kampala DJs Kampire, Catu Dioisis and Authentically Plastic, and Kenyan industrial-techno producer Slikback. Drag artist Raldy, another member of the larger ANTI-MASS collective, also performed.

“We had already had run-ins with the police outside Ram, so there was already a sense that we were a target at that space,” says Authentically Plastic. “The police stopped us outside an event there and harassed us and wanted to take us to the police station.”

There were four more ANTI-MASS parties hosted in venues across Kampala in 2019, like the nightclub La Reference, live-music venue Playpen and champagne bar Casa De Roy. These parties featured performances by Somali twin sisters Hibotep and Houdini, Kenyan rapper MC Yallah and Nyege Nyege label associate Moroto Hvy Indstr.

Authentically Plastic says the final raid on Ram happened after the collective had already thrown a number of these parties. “In the beginning, maybe the whole thing about moving the parties from venue to venue was subconscious, but later we realised that we were moving around for security reasons, because of our experiences at Ram,” they said.

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Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the members of ANTI-MASS found themselves locked down.

Unable to focus on throwing parties, three members of the Anti-Mass collective began to focus on music production. “We had several get-togethers about production and numerous listening sessions, to share production techniques,” says Nsasi. “The songs for Doxa were selected out of these listening sessions.”

Turkana says the EP happened very naturally. “We spent so much time together, we were meeting twice a week in lockdown to listen to each other’s work, to critique and inspire each other,” they say. “That process was really amazing.”

Turkana says that Doxa is a reflection of the music the members of the collective play at parties; music like gqom, singeli and kadodi. Authentically Plastic agrees, adding that the collective creates music that exists in the overlap between the sounds they are drawn to as individuals. That is why it was important that Doxa featured individual productions and collaborations between members of the collective, they say. “We had worked on so many tracks and had so many listening sessions and it just occurred to us at one of those sessions, ‘Oh shit we should release these as an EP,’” Authentically Plastic says.  “We thought, let the world listen to some of this chocolate we are eating in studio,” adds Nsasi.

The sound of escape

Doxa opens with Galiba, a hard-hitting collaboration between Nsasi and Authentically Plastic that sounds like a militant, industrial hybrid of gqom and techno that is about to take off into outer space. To call it propellant would be as pointless an observation as pointing out that race cars travel fast. “I always think of music that is constantly changing as a way of escaping power,” Authentically Plastic says.

Another highlight of the EP is Diesel Femme, a collaboration between Turkana and Authentically Plastic. It blows the roof off with its menacing bass and haunted tension. Binbia Yei, a collaboration between Turkana and Nsasi is an industrial strength, percussion-driven take on Chicago acid house. It is a swarming mutant monster that feels like it could escape from the speakers at any minute. Then there is Authentically Plastic’s Sabul, which is almost hypnotic in its drum assault.

Turkana’s solo production, Influencer Convention, is a muscular banger that sounds like it was built to dominate dancefloors, with snares that slam. “My music is as political as it can be,” Turkana says. “I like to play with ideas and challenge things, but in a way that comes across as so aggressive you can’t touch it.” 

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During the Zoom call, Turkana explains that their music and DJ sets are very much driven by how they were feeling when producing or playing: “If I have a lot of rage, that comes out in the music.” This prompted Authentically Plastic to recall one of Turkana’s DJ sets in Kampala where they shut down the sound and had a man who was trying to sexually assault Nsasi on the dancefloor thrown out, only to return to play a blisteringly hard remainder of their set.

The anecdote and the power of Turkana’s production work speak for themselves. However what is most impressive about Doxa is the fact that these three producers, both in collaboration and solo, produce work that seamlessly flows together. 

Doxa is not merely a compilation EP, it is a statement. It is also the first of many. New York-based label Never Normal is preparing a compilation of collaborations between the three ANTI-MASS producers and the label’s artists, and is slated for release in January 2022.

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