In the past few years, I’ve heard a lot of people say: “You don’t ever get over grief; you just get better at dealing with it.” This is one of the few things that have stayed with me during this pandemic and when overcoming my own grief, mostly from losing the quintessential figure in my entire life: my mother, Nompumelelo. Nompumelelo is the Xhosa feminine version of Mpumelelo, which means success. My grandparents, like any parents, wished their daughter to be a success one day. In the Johannesburg East, South Africa of the late 1950s, this was the hope and dream of many Black migrants coming to the city for opportunities during a harsh apartheid system. In many ways, that journey is what got me here today—a Black trans-femme in Africa writing and producing electronic songs about the different stages of grief in my native tongues mixed with English. This is a story about how a musical project about grief has helped redefine my experience of the world through sound healing. It has accelerated the death of the old me and the regeneration of a new version of myself.
No one can deny that the pandemic, with its constant surprises, reveals, and outfit changes like a true drag queen, has really impacted our inner psyche in a big way. Spending time by myself revealed so many different layers that I didn’t know existed before. I finally came to terms with my Black trans-feminine artist existence in South Africa, a country of extreme paradoxes. There is nothing I can do to change my origin story; it’s happened. It’s tough to plan for the future too much in this pandemic because things change rapidly, so the only moment that matters is the present. This is what has helped me unpack and change my approach to making music especially when it came to making my debut album, Mpumi.
Mpumi started during the toughest year of my life: 2019. Some of the songs were written in different cities around the world during a very turbulent period when I was juggling my career and my family in crisis. The biggest relief was that everything was happening in real time, and I had no time to process my mom getting sick, losing her after a long illness, and then my uncle (her younger brother) passing away a month later. The realization that I had lost six family members in a space of five years didn’t hit me until the pandemic—after losing even more loved ones. In the moment of stillness amongst the chaos, death quickly forced me to face my own fears, loss, and grief. It catapulted me into a deep nostalgic dream-world of sounds and visions beyond space and time. I wanted to make an album about grief through the lens of an Afro-queer intergalactic diva. With the help of my collaborators—Akrobat, Jumpin Back Slash, and Leon Erasmus—we began to shape this unique sound through an investigation into my past traumas. The most important part of the process for me was to go back in time and rediscover songs I grew up with—songs that connected me with my loved ones—and sound frequencies that brought me relief.
As a kid, I always had an overactive imagination; it becomes a great source of strength when you’re a queer kid in a small town in Johannesburg. Sound, fashion, music videos, films, and TV shows fueled my escapism and showed me what could be possible from a young age. I was in a musical movie, Sarafina, at four years old, and being surrounded by iconic artists like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Brenda Fassie, and Whoopi Goldberg at such a young age made me fall in love with music, film, dance, and art. Fast-
forward three decades to the making of Mpumi, and I had to adopt the same child-like curiosity, which was scary.
The aim was to try and overcome an overwhelming sense of pain and heartache through sound and writing. I had immense writer’s block at times, and some ideas would pour out in the written word or through melodies, but I was too depressed to catch all of them. I like to play with different instruments: electronic toys, plugins, and anything that makes an interesting sound. During lockdown, I could give myself time to flesh out an idea as it happened. When a memory came, I wrote it down, sang its melody, and archived it in a sound bank. Before the pandemic, all I could do was record on my phone because life was busy back then. This time around I could immediately record and play in my home studio—even at three in the morning—and this is how many of the ideas began to blossom. The minute a song would come and go, I felt a great sense of relief, which helped to keep the process moving.
For this essay, I decided to put some of the songs through a frequency-analyzer plugin to see what kind of vibrations each song was emitting and unpack a few of the songs, their origins, and the emotional state of being that inspired them. These are songs of my childhood journey, my internal struggle with my gender/sexuality, my community, my family’s grief, and the death of my former self and my loved ones. These are also songs about rewriting herstory, protest, culture, regeneration, and the rediscovery of one’s roots told through an Afrofuturistic lens. The reason I gravitated to this form of expression is because Afrofuturism evaluates the past and future to create better conditions for the present generation of Black people through the use of technology, often presented through art, music, and literature. I wrote these lamentations in hopes of creating a new language and sound in which we express our unique experiences in life as modern-day queer African people. By sharing our common grief through music, maybe we can find solace in this unpredictable world we live in.
• UMLILO: Mpumi (Future Kwaai, May 2022)
• Other music of UMLILO’s can be found on their Spotify channel
Though their eyes are telling, I can see the hate, yeah you wanna love me, but then you kill me. Why is my life a regret to you? You want to off me.
“Senzeni Thina” is the album’s opening song and recorded a capella using vocal live-looping. It is inspired by an anti-apartheid folk song titled “Senzeni Na?” (What Have We Done?) Its overall frequency is 396 Hz, which transforms grief into joy and guilt into forgiveness. It is traditionally sung at funerals and was important during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa because the implication was “What did we do to deserve this?”—so many people were dying at the hands of apartheid police and acts of racism. In modern day South Africa, we adopted the song at funerals of queer or LGBTQ+ people who died from HIV/AIDS or at the hands of homophobic or transphobic killers. The amount of people in our community that are raped, assaulted, and murdered is staggering. And it keeps rising every year. The song made me realize that it’s almost become normal to bury our people since the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in the 90s.
Grief is a huge part of my community’s history and still continues to be. Being Black, femme, and queer comes with a huge weight on our shoulders. I wrote this song as a response to this type of grief: the impending fear of living as your authentic self because of a violent society that can take your life in a heartbeat. In many ways, it’s a provocation: when we die, we multiply, so they could never get rid of us. My Black struggle is congruent with my trans and queer struggle; both have to be uplifted. The meditation on this helped me understand the fight-or-flight response that many of us carry within our community because we live in constant fear of dying. Add a pandemic to the mix, and this response is exacerbated; depression and suicide rates also, inevitably, start to rise. It becomes a vicious cycle.
The fight-or-flight response is described as an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee. If you are constantly in this mode it can lead to General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). GAS is the process your body goes through when you are exposed to any kind of stress—positive or negative—for a prolonged period. It has three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. If you do not resolve the stress that has triggered GAS, it can lead to physical and mental health problems, among other serious illnesses. Death, or fear of death, can trigger this syndrome, and many of us wouldn’t even know it. I learned about it because my aunt was hospitalized the same year her sister, my mom, had died. For weeks, the doctors couldn’t figure out why her body was depleted—partly because many doctors do not try to find the deeper causes of our health problems in order to come up with holistic solutions. My aunt was lucky to be able to recover. It made me think of how many people in my family and community have suffered for long periods in silence and how their bodies would eventually cave in. The trauma we hold in our bodies is real. I had to look into my own suffering—carrying the trauma of being bullied, othered, hated, abused, rejected—on top of the current trauma of losing so many loved ones. My body became the site of struggle that needed to be released. The more you peel the layers the more painful it becomes, but you have to keep going because this is only the beginning of processing the grief and understanding yourself more. For me, daily sessions of yoga and meditation before making music helped me connect to my body and the being that existed beyond my mind and body.
He wena awuyazi intoy’funayo, Ngoba ndikunikile isandla, ndakunika nengalo, ndakunika amabel
Translated: Hey you, you don’t know what you want
because I gave you my hand, gave you my arm
and gave you my breasts
Once I had discovered the source of eternal grief that I carry from generational pain, from childhood, from my father passing away in a mysterious car accident when I was four years old, I moved into a new realm of understanding. How did growing up without my father influence the person I am today? It definitely shaped my relationship towards men. There’s a song my late sister used to sing when they’d come back from boarding school. You’d hear it at Xhosa weddings or umcimbi (party or ceremony), and recently we started hearing it more at protests against femicide in South Africa. The song’s name is “Bhuti,” which means mister, sir, brother, or man in Xhosa. As a very effeminate young boy, I never related to the masculine. My family made sure to add boys’ and girls’ toys in my arsenal, or I just wouldn’t be interested. I liked dresses instead of shorts and fought my mom a lot about what to wear at preschool and wanting long hair. Even from a young age, my gender dysphoria was real. Gender dysphoria is a term that describes a person’s sense of unease because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. This sense of unease or dissatisfaction may be so intense that it can lead to depression and anxiety and have a harmful impact on daily life. In many indigenous tribes around the world, the two-spirit person who has qualities of both feminine and masculine always existed and was recognised until colonization.
I had a good sense of who I was from a young age: a girl born in the wrong body. But over the years of being bashed down by society, family, friends, church, and school, I tried to adapt. Once I was honest with myself, family, and friends, it became a lot more bearable to live in this gender dysphoria because I had a label for it and could find my sense of belonging in a community. “I must be gay,” was the next step of realization in high school, where I truly discovered my sexuality. In university, though, I realized I didn’t identify as a gay man; I was way too fabulous for one gender. I was still reluctant to accept the masculine part of myself but finally had freedom to explore my divine feminine. It was a balancing of the binary scales. It had sad consequences for my love life because I never met anyone who truly accepted me as I am. I always felt lost dating gay men because of the self-inflicted misogyny in that specific community; many hated the fact that I am femme while others hated the masculine side of me. It was a mess as a teenager to even explore my sexuality, so I didn’t. Later in life, I got into some toxic relationships where I never saw my worth and kept giving until my glass was empty. I wanted to be loved and accepted so badly that I lost myself in the process. I became my own sacrificial lamb, trying to conform to society’s expectations. That’s a heavy burden to carry for all your life. In many ways, my meditations during the pandemic also helped me see that my relationship with men was toxic, and I needed to free myself from those
All of these layers made it hard for me to connect with men romantically. I don’t blame this on my dad passing away, but I know that the lack of his presence—and growing up with my late uncle’s aggressive and homophobic form of masculinity instead—shaped my idea of the kinds of men out there. “Bhuti” was inspired by this love/hate relationship with men as a trans woman. It became a reclaiming of my feminine body through the vulnerable confession that I can no longer give any more of myself or my body to please a man. It became a song about empowerment and being okay with being alone and loving yourself. I began to really unpack the trauma that I held in my body through tantric exercises, breath-work, and lots of crying—mourning the old me and allowing myself to release this trauma. The song’s frequency is around 700 Hz, which is meant to cleanse the body from all types of toxins. Seems appropriate.
Ndandine qhakuva emqolo nda qhonda ukuba ndiye kugqirha, ugqirha wandi xelela ukuba kutheni
ungaligqabhuzi iqhakuva elisemqolo.
Translated: I had a pimple on my back, and I went to the doctor and the doctor said why don’t you pop this pimple on your back that’s throbbing and causing you pain.
“Qhakuva” is a single from the album I released before the pandemic hit. It’s thumping low bass and an electronic mix of high and low frequencies with vocal layering and looping. Its frequency peaks around 800 Hz, which awakens intuition and helps return to balance. It’s originally a Xhosa tongue twister that simply translates to: “A doctor popped the pimple on my back that was bothering me.” I remember my siblings, cousins and I singing these tongue twisters in my childhood, and it brought such fun and laughter to our lives. We didn’t know the meaning—we didn’t even try to figure it out—the thrill was to make the sounds, twist the words, and get the clicks right. Singing and dancing together was a legacy of our traditional culture that survived apartheid and other oppressive systems. It was the one true expression that no one could take away from us. Later in life, it kept ringing in my head. I have always had problem skin, and acne was a huge part of turmoil as a teenager and adult. I felt that there was a hormonal imbalance that caused my skin to breakout more than the average person. In many ways, my gender dysphoria was exacerbated by my skin—being uncomfortable in my skin but not having the tools and language to fix this issue. I tried every skin product, including toxic ones that made everything worse. The metaphor of the throbbing pimple in this song spoke to my years of not acknowledging the growing pains that I carried for so long. For decades, I felt like my body had betrayed me and turned me into an alien both inside and out. Until I finally dealt with my situation head on and popped the pimple that was my gender dysphoria, I was never going to find healing or freedom.
I was with Jumpin Back Slash on a very inspired occasion at Red Bull Studios in Cape Town where we recorded three songs in one day. We were on a roll, and “Qhakuva” was the last song we recorded. It was never meant to become something more than a jam, but I got inside the booth and started singing these tongue twisters, and JBS was making the beat; we were in the zone and improvising. I didn’t think it would become a song on my album, but we loved the recording and developed it from there. The main crux of the song is that if you don’t deal with something (like a growing pimple), it will keep coming back bigger and worse. So, in many ways, grief is something we are forced to face because if this pandemic taught us anything, death is a huge part of life and rebirth. Death can play a huge role in helping us appreciate life.
Mama, oh, mama, you got the whole world on your shoulders, mama, oh mama, you carried the same burdens young and older
“Missing You” is a very low- and high-frequency electronic ballad that poured out of me during an emotional moment in Berlin a few months after the passing of my mother. The frequencies that range from high to low clear negativity and any subconscious blockages there might be. It’s become an important song to me because it was one of the first songs I wrote after her death. I remember going to the studio on the last day in Berlin in a very sad state—missing home but not wanting to face home. After my mother died, it took me months to be comfortable in her space at home; everything reminded me of her. What I realized while traveling and performing in foreign countries was that the feeling of despair followed me everywhere. Sometimes I’d forget for a second, and then I’d have flashbacks of being in hospital next to my mom—nightmares repeating themselves. And I felt really lonely. It was the first realization I had that I was now an orphan with no parents. While many of my peers could still turn to their parents for advice, help, love, or anything, I couldn’t. This song was me dealing with the loss, pain, and guilt. I asked myself: “Why I am I still alive when so many people I love are dead.” Some call it survivor’s guilt, which was synonymous with the AIDS epidemic where many felt guilty about being alive while their loved ones had died. I recorded this song with Akrobat in one take while holding back the tears, and it is still the most difficult one to listen back to. It did, however, help me come to terms with being alone and finding the comfort in the discomfort. Today, I see being alone as a gift; self-reliance and love can help facilitate healing.
Andikhoni umzimba uphelile kudala nditwele, nditwele kanzima, kodwa ndicela ungandikohlw
Translated: I am unable, my body is finished, I’ve been carrying heavy burdens for so long but please don’t forget me
“Remember Me” was inspired by a conversation I had with my mother on her deathbed. We had tried so many different ways to alleviate her pain. She had developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in the last few months of her life, which made her unable to recognize some members of the family. She was on heavy medication that made it impossible for anything else to work. She was unable to speak at times, and her body was pretty much paralyzed. I had tried sound-healing, meditation, CBD oil, and all kinds of alternative remedies but nothing was working. One morning in hospital, she had woken up and recognized me. She asked me to get an English breakfast. She was herself again for this moment, and we talked about so many things. She had accepted the fact that she was not going to make it, but I hadn’t. I was playing her a song I had made a few months before, and she asked me if the song was about her. We laughed for the first time in ages. She asked me to never forget her, and I promised her I wouldn’t ever. On my way home, I was a mess; I couldn’t hold back tears and cried uncontrollably. This was the end. The next day the doctors had told us she didn’t have much time to live, and the realization hit all of us hard. I was with my aunt and brother staring into space in silence. That was the last time my mother was able to speak to me, and in many ways, that was goodbye. “Remember Me” has mid-range frequency around 432 Hz: the miracle tone of nature. Sonically, it’s a feeling of machines pumping life into a person and eventually stopping. This song was my last goodbye, the lamentation of death, and the final countdown. My mother left this reality a few days later.
I hear symphonies and they lead me to a point of repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat. Dream paralysis, where my body is dead, but my mind is awake
There’s a lot of stories about people intuitively knowing the moment when a loved one has left this plane. Some people get a gut-wrenching feeling; others get a visit in their dreams; some actually have a vision of their loved ones in front of them or see a symbolic animal or insect. When my mother passed away, it was a feeling of extreme anguish, but also of peace. She had been sick for a while, and I could see how it was taking its toll on her and our entire family. When the end came, her suffering was gone; that’s all I could hold on to. The suffering of the ones left behind, however, was still there. The gut-wrenching feeling came and went at all times. I struggled to sleep for months and would have awful dream paralysis, which is a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. It can be very frightening. When I was a child, I’d get dream paralysis or nightmares and have to sleep with the light on or not sleep at all. It returned with a vengeance this time with images of my mother on her sick bed or in a hospital. The best way I could handle it was to describe it in detail—once I had calmed down—with voice-notes on my phone.
Every single day since my mom died there would be a lone bee buzzing around on my patio, trying to catch my attention. I’ve been stung twice by bees, so I don’t really mess with them, but the appearance of this bee like clockwork every single day reminded me that somehow there was a deeper meaning to this. The bee was giving me comfort that my mother’s spirit was still there.
This inspired the song, “Hamba,” with a frequency of below 350 Hz which influences the energy field and removes pain. It was written from one of the descriptions of my dream-paralysis state, where I got to meet a lot of my ancestors and wasn’t afraid to be stuck in a dream-like element anymore. It was almost a rite of passage to not fear death, to understand that somehow our souls live on another plane when we die. I created a ritual in the evenings before bedtime where I’d light some sage and candles and talk to the growing numbers of my departed family. Acknowledging them every day gave me a sense of relief; seeing them in my dreams gave me comfort; and almost dying in one dream made me fear death less. It was in those moments that I began to surrender to whatever the universe wanted me to understand about my life and purpose. I found acceptance of things that I cannot control and beauty in the boundless nature of our being.
Goodbye to the good times, lights out on the sidelines, watch life go and fall apart, it’s a good lie or a big surprise
Once you do find acceptance within yourself when you are grieving, the hardest part is how you negotiate your existence in the world thereafter. When you’re in a dark place like I was, the world seems like an antagonist in your story. I grew up with a sense of the world being against me, and I know exactly where that comes from. Whether it was school, friends, or family, there was always a feeling that I didn’t belong. So, in this state of grief, I was really lost, afraid, and angry. “The World” became the song where I assertively begged the universe to please give us a break, a reprieve. On the news, it was stories about increasing murders of LGBTQ+, femicide, Black Lives Matter protests. To add insult to injury, after spending the holidays with my family, everyone contracted Covid except for me and a few other members. The fear came rushing back, and everything around me spelled doom. Whatever lesson I was meant to learn from this needed to be revealed soon. I was tired of being in this fight-or-flight mode.
My family recovered, and no one was hospitalized or died. I soon realized that I had to let go of fear of the unknown and embrace it. This song was me raising the white flag and calling a truce with the universe—and within myself. This song, produced together with Akrobat, became an epic surrender with a bombastic bassline, strings, and intergalactic synths mixed with ancestral Zulu chanting in the background. The frequencies are high, and the vocals are reaching for the sky in a desperate plea for the universe to hear my pain. In that moment, I was ready to start the journey to heal and let go of the past. The upward turn had started; regeneration and reconstruction were imminent. The mix of high and low frequencies attracts a soul tribe and also facilitates change.
Everything’s written here in black and white, lost everything and the love of my life, my will to live and my strength to survive, but I got that power
The closing song on the Mpumi album is called “Power.” Its frequency sits between 70 Hz and 21 Hz which is meant to connect to light and spirit as well as repairing DNA. I thought it would be a fitting way to close a project about grief, pain, heartbreak, and loss. “Power” starts with syncopated synth over a deep techno bassline with ballroom drums and claps. The song is simply about empowerment, but the irony of it is that I wrote it at a time when I didn’t believe that this phase would also end. I wrote it as a prophecy to my future self, and only now does it resonate with me because some time has passed. It showed me that I have completed what the tarot card readers call the Fool’s Journey.
The Fool represents each of us as we begin our journey of life in tarot. He is a fool because only a simple soul has the innocent faith to undertake such a journey, with all its challenge and pain. At the start of his trip, the Fool is a newborn—fresh, open, and spontaneous. The figure on the card usually has his arms flung wide and his head held high. He is ready to embrace whatever comes his way, but he is also oblivious to the cliff edge he is about to cross. The Fool is unaware of the hardships he will face as he ventures out to learn the lessons of the world. The Fool goes through death himself and has to realize that death is only a process of transition and not a permanent state. When the Fool sees the sun at the end of his journey, it’s a sign that he has found hope and inspiration. This serene calm helps him move forward and find understanding. This is a process of rebirth and marks the last stages of grief. I’ll never understand why certain things happen to us in this life, but I can certainly understand the cycle of life. I am my mother’s child in every way; I carry her genetic features, her pain, her trauma, and her beautiful life. She would’ve wanted me to live happily in this life—authentically me, fulfilled and successful. I have the power to change the course of this story from tragedy to triumph, and this song is the beginning of the triumph.
When I discovered this truth I cried for days. I decided that I could no longer live my life to please others. I felt the strength to carry on and to be my authentic self. With that came the decision to transition mentally, emotionally, and physically to a new chapter. I needed to try match the person I knew inside with the body outside, and with my environment. It was a profound relief that brought so much clarity. I remember a conversation with my late mother where she thanked the universe for giving her a son and daughter in one child. If she had embraced and come to terms with who I was, why couldn’t I do the same? I had to at least try. Since then, I have had amazing support from my family, friends, and community. It makes the light shine so much brighter at the end of the tunnel. The painful journey was meant to get me to this point of self-realization. I’m a different person and artist now.
This album, in many ways, has become a tribute to my late mother but also to this difficult journey of processing grief, understanding life and death, metamorphosing into a different version of myself through music, and most importantly, healing. I have experienced true love through the unconditional love of a mother, and for this alone, I am grateful.
There’s a hilarious ad on YouTube where this person is stressed with deadlines, a long to-do list in their head, and worry about the social media algorithms until they find an app to manage all of that. I always laugh at this ad because it reminds me of a time period before the pandemic where most of us had this level of stress over so many things. My mind would spiral into all directions juggling career, family, finances, friends, love. And was it worth it? No. The reason I can tell I’m healing is because where there used to be chaos, now there’s more peace; where there was fear, there’s confidence; and where there was turmoil, there’s joy. Secrets cause illness and the truth can set you free. This harmonious feeling of catharsis through music indicates to me that I am living in a different state than before. Or perhaps the way I am dealing with life has changed for the better. So, maybe that old saying about grief is actually true—we need death to appreciate life—and music can be a great vehicle to push that forward and bring a universal understanding that transcends race, gender, sexuality, space, and time. It is these frequencies that help us connect with each other and tap into our collective neurological pathways to heal. Today, I’m excited about sharing my story and the music that came from a dark time, and I can’t wait to release—perform these songs and start conversations with other people about grief and love.