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“Its Nice To Be Nice”: Angel Maxine and LGBTQIA+ Activism In Africa

Angel Maxine at Christopher Street Day Berlin 2023

Comment editor Ruth Otim discusses LGBTQIA+ activism in Africa during Pride Month through queer creative activists across the continent.

Can you finish the lyric? “Your driver could be LGBTQ, Your Tailor could be LGBTQ,…” If you can’t, you may be a part of the majority who doesn’t know about the song Wo Fie. However, for those in the LGBTQIA+ community, and followers of Ghanaian musician Angel Maxine, the song has become a Pride month anthem.

Angel Maxine, the first openly transgender musician in Ghana, released the song Wo Fie in 2021 alongside other Ghanaian musicians Sister Deborah and Wanlov. Together, they amassed widespread love when the final verse, sung by Sister Deborah, was clipped and shared all over social media platforms from X (formerly Twitter) to TikTok. The title Woe Fie originates from the Akan phrase “Ebi wo wo fie” which translates to “the same thing is in your home.”

So, when Sister Deborah lists the numerous people who surround us in our day-to-day lives including drivers, tailors, hairdressers, plumbers, etc. who could be a part of the queer community, they are informing Ghanaians, and everyone for that matter, that queer individuals are present in all aspects of our communities. Their message emphasizes that queerness is not distant nor abstract, but that queer people are integral members of our everyday lives that deserve recognition, understanding, and acceptance.

The release of the song came at a time wherein the rights of queer Ghanaians were at a heightened risk. Maxine said that her song was a response to the closure of the LGBT+ Rights office in Ghana which had also led to a rise in homophobia that she felt needed to be combatted. The message of her song and its timing reminds us that Pride month is not celebrated the same way internationally. Queer people outside of the Western world still face persecution by their governments such as in the case of Ghana.

However, queer Africans such as Maxine still show their pride and tackle homophobia in diverse ways. It’s important to draw attention to the current state of queer rights in Africa, but also highlight the immense work queer African activists have done during Pride that may go unnoticed this month.

The state of queer rights and welfare in Africa

Early on this pride month, two Senegalese men were jailed for spreading “disinformation” about Prime Minister Ousmane Sonko’s tolerance of homosexuality. The Senegalese legislature criminalises homosexuality with laws that carry a penalty of up to five years of imprisonment for engaging in “acts against nature with an individual of the same sex.” This stigmatisation and criminalisation of homosexuality is rampant within the continent and countries such as in Ghana.

Amnesty International, by January 2024, recorded that 31 African countries criminalise homosexuality which contradicts the African Union and African nations’ stances on the maintenance of human rights standards. The criminalisation of homosexuality within these countries is not the only form of violence against the queer community, the subsequent stigma created continues to endanger the lives of queer Africans.

Violence remains a constant when such discriminatory laws and attitudes are commonplace, even in supposedly LGBTQIA+-friendly countries such as South Africa; which legalised same-sex marriage back in 2007. In 2021, the Human Rights Watch reported that in South Africa, at least 24 people were murdered under reports of bias-motivated attacks. It is nowhere near enough to simply decriminalise and legalise, the protection of queer Africans is dependant on the ability to destigmatise, educate, and support.

As reported in previous Roar articles on Ghana’s anti-LGBTQIA+ bill and the unjust criminalisation of African women using draconian anti-homosexuality laws, colonialism haunts queer Africans to this day. The Council on Foreign Relations highlighted how Africa’s past of European colonial penal codes remains in their legislatures and how the continent’s present has also been shaped by U.S. evangelical organisations worsening homophobic sentiment.

The repression, discrimination, and violence faced by queer Africans has been persistent but so has the activism that musicians such as Angel Maxine have spearheaded in their respective countries.

Angel Maxine and her activism in Ghana

Angel Maxine did not begin her activism with Woe Fie nor will it be her last. She has been increasingly vocal about Ghana’s recent anti-LGBTQIA+ bill this year. The bill would impose a maximum of five years in jail for either establishing or financing LGBTQIA+ groups. Sentences increase for those accused of involvement in LGBTQIA+ advocacy campaigns targeted towards children, carrying a sentence of up to 10 years. In an interview with Le Monde, Maxine said:

“If the law passes, I will go to prison. For five, maybe 10 years. A men’s prison, of course, and I’ll be forced into conversion therapy and hormone treatment. They will break me.”

Angel Maxine, Le Monde

She has always been outspoken about her activism for 20 years as a performer who aims to tackle homophobia through her music. Maxine had grown up in Ghana having to conceal her gender identity and sexual orientation. According to an interview she gave to the Global Citizen. The outside world that she saw was cruel to queer people before she came out and was further intensified recently when the recent Ghanaian anti-LGBTQIA+ bill became law.

Her advocacy has grown since then, stressing that the bill be removed completely so that Ghanaians can live in “harmony, peace, respect, and love for each other.” She believes that this hope, for a free Ghana regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, is one that is conveyed through her music such as in Woe Fie.

Although her music is not widely publicised such as on Ghanaian radio, her song Woe Fie is mainly heard online, within queer gatherings, and in other safe areas such as within Ghanaian homes. Through its online popularity, her activism has garnered mass attention on platforms such as TikTok, resulting in Maxine receiving many messages in solidarity with her activism. Her activism as an openly trans woman in Ghana, for which she left the country over fears for her safety, challenged the status quo that many African countries with homophobic laws still uphold. She states in an interview with the Global Citizen

“I thought, “How can I send the message to people that your brother could be LGBTQ+, that your sister could be LGBTQ+, so show them love?” I wondered how I could tell Ghanaians and the world that LGBTQ+ people live everywhere and everywhere you go you can find an LGBTQ+ person. I thought about how I could, as a transgender musician, do something to send out my community’s message.”

Angel Maxine, Global Citizen

Angel Maxine’s resistance against homophobia in Ghana, the continent, and internationally transcends her music. Her resistance starts with her living openly as a trans-Ghanian woman, unquestionably secure in her identity which she says no one dares to test anymore.

Important queer African activists forging a path

Music is not the only form of media that queer Africans and their allies use to advocate for the rights and welfare of LGBTQIA+ Africans. Although there are many Africans paving the way for LGBTQIA+ rights, here are two other noticeable creative figures bringing Pride to the continent.

Zanele Muholi

As a visual activist in numerous mediums from installation art to photography, Zanele Muholi’s art as a non-binary activist has brought the African queer experience to London in their latest exhibition at the Tate Modern which began on 4 June 2024. Zanele roots their art in the “desire to create a Black queer and trans visual history of South Africa”, they told Time Magazine.

As the only country in Africa to legalise same-sex marriage, the history of South Africa’s LGBTQIA+ community is a complex story that Zanele intends to illuminate through their art. 

Their art acts as a form of resistance, they put it, to the homophobia, racism, and colonialism that the LGBTQIA+ community experiences in their country. Their most notable art series, Somnyama Ngonyama in Zulu and ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’ in English, began in 2012. It presents the lasting remnants of apartheid and its present injustices through self-portraits wherein subjects directly face the camera, exploring different personas and layers of oppression with it. Another series of theirs, titled Only Half a Picture, illustrates the intricacies of gender and sexuality for the LGBTQIA+ community on topics from love and intimacy to visuals which touch on trauma.

Their exhibition in the Tate Modern includes numerous self-portraits from Somnyama Ngonyama to other series such as Brave Beauties and Being, the former exploring the empowerment of non-binary people and trans women, and the latter embracing queer, black love in defiance of white supremacy and heteronormativity. I highly recommend visiting their work this month if you’re currently in London.

Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim

Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim is a Nigerian filmmaker whose identity as a gay woman has propelled her to bring the queer identity into Nollywood such as through her famous movie: Ìfé. Ìfé tells the story of two Nigerian women, Ìfé and Adaora, whose love is tested by the harsh realities of being lesbians in Nigeria. As the first film to centre two women in a romantic relationship in Nollywood, the film highlights how queer Nigerians face challenges from familial to social expectations. Through Ìfé and other works by Ipke-Etim, her films give space for LGBTQIA+ stories to explore what it means to be both queer and African at the same time. 

Throughout her filmography, Ikpe-Etim hopes to express two main points on colonialism and joy. First, that queer identity in Africa is inextricably linked with colonialism. She states in an interview with AutoStraddle that:

“With colonisation, we’ve lost a lot of our culture and so we’re mixing it up. We think that the Western culture is our culture but we don’t even know what exactly our culture is, and that would be a great starting point to start the conversation from.”

Uyaiedu Ipke-Etim, AutoStraddle

Second, representation and joy are important, especially within the African context. She notes how queer people have watched films centred on the straight experience which disregarded how queer people interact with romance from how to go on dates to interacting with one another, etc. With Ìfé, she intended to normalise “the romantic experience of a queer person”. An experience that, crucially, centred on “the joy of the queer community.”

Queer African pride through African art

With the ever-growing homophobia throughout the African continent, it is awe-inspiring to see activists from Angel Maxine to Zanele Muholi and Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim challenging what it means to be queer in the continent. Their diverse artistic mediums, socio-cultural contexts, and queer identities continue to give pride to queer Africans and their allies to support and reprimand the growing trend of homophobic legislation as well as stigma.

The rights of LGBTQIA+ Africans are ignited when queer songs are made, when portraits are put on display, and movies garner audiences. Artistic activism plays a central role in shaping African politics. By hearing queer people in songs, seeing their stories on screens and their faces in museums, the African citizenry is reminded that queerness is not distant nor abstract; the rights and welfare of queer Africans are as integral to our politics as they are integral to our communities and lives.

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