It started five years ago in Sweden as a protest against homophobia. Now, Rainbow Riots is a global movement, encouraging LGBTIQ freedom through the transformative power of music. Along the way, songwriter and project leader Petter Wallenberg has stared down the barrel of guns but he’s making a real difference in Africa and India. He’s also getting drag queens to read stories to kids. What’s not to love?
DNA: What happened back in 2012 that prompted you to start Rainbow Riots? Petter Wallenberg: Rainbow Riots started as a protest. The Jamaican singer Sizzla was coming to play in Stockholm. He makes a homophobic style of dancehall often called “murder music” that’s infamous for lyrics about killing gays. I started a protest, lots of people joined and it grew into a national debate. His gig was cancelled and in light of this victory, the movement I had created needed a name, so I came up with Rainbow Riots.
How did you get from that to where you are today?
The whole thing started as a protest against hate speech in music so I got the idea to do the opposite – to use music as an antidote to hate and homophobia. As an artist and songwriter, I wanted to make an album with queer voices from some of the world’s most dangerous places to be gay. So I packed my bags and went out there. [Laughs.] It’s been one hell of a journey. Uganda and Sweden are a long way apart – and more than just geographically.
Yes. When I went to Uganda the first time I was scared. The country is notorious for its violent homophobia. It didn’t exactly feel like a gay dream destination. To illustrate this, the minute you enter the country Grindr automatically sends you a warning to be careful, but one thing all gay people have experienced is homophobia. So I just took the bull by the horns and went to Uganda, without any team or anything backing me.
What did you discover?
When I arrived I found my way into Uganda’s secret underground LGBT community. In the face of danger, they are brave enough to live their lives. I just clicked so much with them all. It felt like I already knew everyone.
So… Uganda is not really so different to other places in the world?
The fantastic and fascinating thing about queer people is that we are the same all over the world. Of course there are national and cultural differences, but something about our experiences shapes us to be very similar. The major difference, however, is that in my country our rights have finally been won, and that hasn’t happened in Uganda yet. Having lived through modern gay liberation in Europe, I know how quickly things can change.
Music is the international language of hope
and brotherhood. Discuss.
Music has always been an important part of gay liberation. Disco and house music came out of gay clubs in the ’70s and ’80s and were our freedom songs against homophobia and AIDS. Queer people have always used creativity and culture to fight against hardship. Just look at art history – we are all over it! [Laughs.] We fight hatred with beauty. Culture and creativity are extremely powerful weapons because they change the most important thing – people’s minds.
What response did the Rainbow Riot album get when released last year?
The Rainbow Riots album has been making waves around the world, with so much media support from the BBC to SBS Australia and other major players. My Ugandan and Jamaican crew and I have been invited to perform the music at both Stockholm Pride and EuroPride. It’s one big wave, which keeps going. It’s amazing.
I wanted to make an album with queer voices from some of the world’s most dangerous places to be gay. So I packed my bags and went out there.
What’s been the best thing about it so far?
The reactions from people. Since the launch I’ve been contacted by queer people from Africa and Asia, South America and Russia, who have all been inspired and moved by it. Recently, a teenage lesbian came up to me and told me she has our song Freedom as the alarm on her phone every day. I’m overjoyed that it brings hope and strength to people.
Even some of our “enemies” seem intrigued by this musical project.
The news about the album was picked up in media in some of the world’s most homophobic countries like Indonesia and Jamaica. That’s a major breakthrough. Maybe some people that wouldn’t normally support this cause will reflect on the message.
How will you be following this up?
My plan is to keep coming up with new creative ideas to fight this war for equality and continue to create new Rainbow Riots projects in new territories. This is only the beginning! One of the new projects that we’ve launched is our podcast, Rainbow Riots Radio, where I travel the world meeting queer heroes. Two of the episodes are actually set in Australia.
What about in other less gay friendly countries? A year back I started working on a new Rainbow Riots project in India. I’m making music and art with the LGBT pioneers who were instrumental in abolishing the law that criminalised gay sex. After 157 years of criminalisation it’s no longer illegal to
be gay in India. I’m right at the heart of that movement in this historic time and victory for our rights. It’s very exciting and going to be launched next year, so watch this space. You’re also planning to launch an LGBT+ centre in Uganda, we hear. In Uganda it’s illegal to be gay. Queer people live in fear of being arrested or getting beaten up or killed. There is no safe space. This is why my team and I want to open Uganda’s first LGBT community centre. The centre will be a safe space to welcome queer people and encourage and support them. It will be a place to do creative projects, like music and arts, to find ways to empower the community. We’ll also give advice on health and safety, which is much needed. It will, in essence, be a support system in a hidden secret location.
How do you plan to make this happen?
We need people to support the project. Check out our fundraisers on our website and see how you can help. I want everyone around the world to help us fight against the horrific injustice against queer people in Uganda. By opening this centre we can take a step towards making the world a better place for queer people.
How is the situation in Uganda improving? In the four years I’ve worked with Rainbow Riots in Kampala I can definitely see small positive changes, mainly in that there is a tendency towards more voices being heard on this topic and allies of the LGBT community speaking up. Social media is playing a big part. Some of our trans members are pioneering a new visibility, using social media as their tool. It’s a sign that times are changing one small step at a time. We’re surprised you haven’t got Madonna involved in this project.
If Miss Ciccone calls, I promise to pick up the phone. [Laughs.] Sweden is known for great pop music like ABBA, Roxette and Robyn. Does that influence Rainbow Riot?
Very much so. As an artist, and the songwriter and producer my musical taste is at the heart of what we do. The music I create for Rainbow Riots is a mix of my Scandinavian pop sensibilities and electronic music, with the influences of the singers’ own cultural heritage. We all also share a love of rap and soul and the end result is one big rainbow melting pot. Someone said it sounded like a Pride party in the jungle. [Laughs.] Do you ever face criticism that you’re the white face of a black movement?
I am fighting for our rights as queer
The fantastic and fascinating thing about queer people is that we are the same all over the world… something about our experiences shapes us to be very similar.
When the Ugandan police held us hostage they beat up a German lesbian… They want to stop anyone from outside supporting the local queer movement.
people, whatever race or region. This fight is happening in different ways all over the world. We are all affected by anti-gay laws wherever they are – it’s our human rights. Trust me, if you get caught in Uganda, the police don’t spare you because you’re white. When the Ugandan police held us hostage [see breakout box] we saw them beating up a German lesbian. They want to stop anyone from outside supporting the local queer movement. They really believe that there is a global gay mafia recruiting new vulnerable members.
This sounds familiar!
In most countries where LGBT people are discriminated against the rulers always say that gay people are from somewhere else. In Uganda they say exactly the same thing as they say in Russia – that it’s a Western import; a corrupt, decadent influence from outside. That’s one of the important things I wanted to tackle – to show that we are everywhere. We come in all colours. Homophobic forces all over the world may have opposing views on many things, but they unite in their hatred of gays so we need to unite and fight back. If they think there is a global gay mafia – let’s give ’em just that. [Laughs.]
How would you describe the music style of Rainbow Riots?
As a songwriter, producer and composer, I am known for making electronic music under the moniker House Of Wallenberg. Rainbow Riots is a total departure and new artistic direction. I work in countries like Jamaica, Uganda and India, which are big music countries, so it’s been inspiring to explore those influences. The first album had a mix of afrobeat, electro, soul, pop, rap, dancehall, gospel, spoken word and orchestral arrangements. In the Indian project I’m going Bollywood, baby! [Laughs.] The first single, Equal Rights, was chosen to be the signature of a campaign for the UN’s Global Goal. The track features vocals by Mista Majah P, a Jamaican artist fighting for gay rights and is inspired by Jamaican dancehall, which is normally associated with violent homophobia. I wanted to turn that around and use music styles associated with homophobia to make gay anthems. Talk us through Drag Queen Storytime. Bland drakar och dragqueens (Amongst dragons and drag queens) is a project where drag queens read stories to children in libraries across Sweden. I started it in 2017 at the Stockholm Public Library. The idea was to get drag out of nightclubs and into libraries, and nobody knew how it would go. With drag queens and kids, anything can happen. [Laughs.] I had hate mail saying I’m “perverted” for exposing kids to drag queens and stuff like that but most of the response has been amazing. All the shows of the opening season were fully booked and we are now taking the project on a national tour around Sweden.
Why do kids take so well to drag queens?
Kids really connect with it. Dressing up, glitter, transformation – it’s something they know and love. They don’t care that the storyteller is a man in a wig; it’s adults that read stuff into it. My favourite conversation took place between one of our drag queens and a four-year-old girl. It went like this…
Girl: Why are you dressed like a princess? Drag queen: Because I like it.
Girl: I like ice cream.
How can the readers of DNA get involved with Rainbow Riots?
The great thing about the concept of Rainbow Riots is it’s a model I can take all over the world. I want to come to Australia and do a Rainbow Riots project. All ideas are welcome. Your readers are welcome to contact me, and we want to come perform at Mardi Gras. Get in touch, Australia! Remember that we, as queer people, are still the number one targets of hate crimes around the world. We can’t sit back and think that just because things are better in some places right now, the fight is over. It’s far from over. We must never forget that our rights didn’t come without a fight. In the West and Australia we have won our rights – but they are never guaranteed; the pendulum can swing back. But if we band together we will be a strong force. Let’s stop all the petty fussing in the gay community and stick together and work for a world where none of our brothers and sisters will be in danger for simply being who they are.
Petter Wallenberg with Alicia and Javan; and (opposite) some of the Ugandan LGBT musicians involved in the Rainbow Riots project.
Petter Wallenberg with Paras and friend from the Hijra community in Mumbai, India.
Petter Wallenberg performing with Jamaican rapper Mista Majah P