Music has the power to build community, entertain, help you unwind and introduce new lingo; Kat Kai Kol-Kes examines how one song is playing a potentially dangerous role in defacing queer people in Botswana.
It’s usually not a bad thing when a quirky radio hit single talks about something you can relate to; the key word here being ‘usually’. However, in the recent rise to fame of a song titled, Robete, performed by the snazzy new band, Sereetsi and the Natives, I have realised that queer people of Botswana might end up suffering from this chart topping tune – which chronicles a traditional family’s squabble when faced with a same-sex marriage – rather than gaining nationwide recognition.
When my neighbour – a self identifying bisexual – got his hands on the band’s debut EP titled Confessions on a Four String, it didn’t take too long for me to become very familiar with the folk jazz ensemble and this song in particular. Needless to say, the more I heard it in the wee hours of the morning and the late hours of the night the closer I listened, and the closer I listened the more obvious the problems this song poses to me as a queer, trans* identifying Motswana became.
The first of the problems comes from the very nature of the writer’s relationship to the subject matter presented. When performing the song, Sereetsi speaks from the position of a heteronormative member of the society the protagonist, Rankokomana, lives in. Just to give you a quick summary of how the story unfolds: Rankokomana goes to Johannesburg, South Africa, and returns after some years declaring his intention to marry; when the family hears this they are elated, but their joy is short-lived when they discover that he wants to bring Robete to their homestead, an act which is neither recognised nor accommodated in traditional Setswana marital rites.
Recent conversations around race politics and storytelling have generated a broadly popular movement which proposes that black people should be the ones to tell their stories. This movement is one that seeks authenticity of voice and experience. When we listen to Viola Davis’ emotional acceptance speech at the 67th Emmy Awards, her statement: “Let me tell you something, the only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity”, acts as the hammer to the walls of male dominance and privileged whitewashing which we have seen happening across the world – not just in the United States of America. I watch videos like Cameron J Awesome’s You’re Cute For A Black Guy which looks at how black and mixed race gay men are treated by white love interests and how they in turn treat other dark(er) skinned gay men, and I realise that there are many stories which queer voices need to tell before handing them to the heteronormative voice to meddle with.
Unlike songs like Mary Lambert’s “She keeps me warm” or Frank Ocean’s “Forrest Gump” which also speak of homosexual love and attraction, this Setswana song chooses the traditional form of comedic storytelling to relay one adamant young man’s struggle against a culture and family who are inherently homophobic. Botswana inherited the anti-sodomy law – which criminalises “sexual activities against the order of nature” – along with many British colonised African states and has held onto the clause to vilify homosexuality. Though very little has been done in the way of chronicling pre-colonial occurrences of homosexuality in Botswana, scholars have motivated that such relations existed within Bantu tribes in the region. A term like ‘Robete’- a sissy/subservient man who was coupled with a heterosexual mine worker for the sole purpose of sexual relief – is one which has fallen away with the gold mining travel culture of the 20th Century when Batswana men went to seek better livelihoods in South Africa. Though ‘bo-Robete’ may not have been completely accepted by the heteronormative majority, principles of botho (humanity/compassion) and tlotlo (respect) guided the society to treat every member as a dignified equal – unless they committed crimes such as murder or theft – and so, even those known to have had same-sex sexual relations whilst at the mine weren’t ostracized.
By writing this story from his point of view, a spectator to the activity, the writer joins the heteronormative majority that is the greater population of Botswana. This is where the second problem arises. The song is really for the majority and sidelines the minority through their voices, words and opinions of them. This minority, to which I belong, is treated as an entertainment feature – much like a dancing coon or a cat meme – whose presence is noted but never interrogated by the viewer (or in this case, the listener). The song speaks of these young men’s homosexual attraction as completely impossible and in some ways self indulgent and worthy of ridicule. These opinions are then transferred to the real life Robete-alikes disregarding their constitutionally enshrined protections against discrimination.
The third problem for me comes with the overall approach to presenting the facts of the story. Though the song could be seen as provoking traditionalists to query why our contemporary Setswana culture refuses to let two men wed, Sereetsi pre-emptively derails this argument by using heteronormative language to refer to Rankokomana’s partner. The term ‘segametsi’ in Setswana is used to refer to a bride. The term alludes to the bride as a gourd, a water carrier, therefore giving her attributes of sustaining the community she is brought into by way of domestic labour and child rearing – these are emasculating features in Setswana culture. In the first stanza, Robete is described as having a slender waist – something which is traditionally praised as it then shows off the broad derrière of a woman – but in this case it’s used as a setup to a punch line which ridicules Rankokomana’s misguided attraction. There are also subtle references to the couple’s sexual practice which surprisingly hit the sex-positive mark, but these sink beneath the blanket mockery of the ‘only gay in the village’ – to reference Daffyd Thomas from Little Britain.
My fourth issue with the song comes with the fact that homosexuality in Botswana is framed as being influenced by external forces. By way of Robete being brought to this traditional Setswana family from Johannesburg, this reinforces that Rankokomana was coerced into homosexuality by these foreign forces. He couldn’t have possibly been a homosexual before he left Botswana.
The fifth, and final, issue arises from the fact that before the song’s release I, a trans identifying woman, was used to hearing people hurl slurs like “bona le-gay lele” (look at that gay) or “di-gay tsa Gaborone ke tseo!” (there go the gays of Gaborone!) and, though I have never been comfortable with this form of verbal abuse, I knew there would be nothing done beyond that. However, since the release of the song, not only have I been referred to numerous times as ‘Robete’ – a micro-aggression in itself – but I have also been physically attacked and told it’s people like me who have caused Botswana’s drought. I am not blaming the writer for instigating homophobic/transphobic attacks on people, but I do believe that with the song’s popularity many people’s bearings on where they stand in the ‘homosexuality in Botswana’ debate have been shaken and some furies roused.
This is where I’d blame the comedic approach. In as much as humour can be used to offset discomfort, I believe that there is very little discomfort being offset with this song’s popularity. I’ve seen people playing it from their cars, their apartments, in their offices and even singing it at random occasions; I have also heard radio jockeys praising the song – yet they too approach it from a comedic stance and so push the widespread notion that same-sex sexual attraction is to be derided in Botswana. By ridiculing the subject at the heart of the song, Sereetsi allows listeners to apply this mentality to anyone they may recognise as being the same as Robete and Rankokomane – who somehow maintains his cultural privilege and mainstream masculinity by being the one to marry rather than being married.
Admittedly, I can’t expect those who listen to this song to apply the same form of reading as I have, and so I do not hold Sereetsi or his audience at fault. I, personally, think the song is a great movement toward the imagining of new contemporary musical expressions based in folklore and our cultural heritage. However, bright side or not, I also can’t simply overlook the fact that queer identities (which are painstakingly being uncovered) are now at risk of erasure and renaming according to a popular song – which is showing the staying power of the Macarena.
Who knows, maybe I’m wrong; maybe the term ‘Robete’ might fade again tomorrow but, as ‘tjoma’ and ‘bae’ have proven, in Botswana some words don’t need popular culture to fuel their widespread usage be it as historical weight and contemporary relevance. Perhaps things will change. Perhaps this marks the awakening of Batswana to more people like Robete. Perhaps my attackers were just having a bad day and thought me easy pickings. I don’t know, but I can definitely say that I know that this song is redefining the course for LGBTQI persons, activists and advocates in Botswana; yet we don’t know where this road leads.
Kat Kai Kol-Kes is a 2016 Queen’s Young Leader, 2015 CACE Africa Writivism Fellow, 2013/14 ‘Best of Botswana’ Performing artist, a pioneering transgender ARTivist, writer, and theatre producer. She is a WITS Graduate; sings and writes for her band – Chasing Jaykb; founded Queer Shorts Showcase Festival, and hosts the “Queer Me Out” podcast on Niche radio. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Blade, Huffington Post, AfroPUNK.com, the Kalahari Review and EliteDaily.com. She authored a collection of poetry concerning queer livelihoods titled “…on about the same old things” (UK. 2016).
Viola Davis Acceptance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=685jYZGcFh8
You’re Cute for a Black Guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnTWOjQ4bcQ
Mary Lambert, “She Keeps Me Warm”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhqH-r7Xj0E
Frank Ocean “Forrest Gump”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNgkxa61eJQ
Daffyd Thomas (Little Britain): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrlzaBNgz-M