DNA Magazine - - FEATURE - By Marc An­drews

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

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