Average reading time: 6 minutes

In the middle of renovating their home in Joburg, “doing Bob the Builder things” as they jokingly put it, Desire Marea greets me with hands full of paint and an affable smile.

The multidisciplinary artist, club music queen, fashion icon, and queer superstar has a reputation for provocation, so there is something completely disarming about their cool, calm manner of speaking. Their soothing energy is infectious.


Marea invites me on a journey to their hometown, Amandawe – a tiny township on KwaZulu Natal’s South coast – as we time-travel to their childhood. They share a devastating memory. “The most prominent memory of my childhood was losing my mother, which happened when I was 6,” they explain, “It completely changed the trajectory of my life and I think it changed me on a soul level.” Marea elaborates on how all of their decisions as a teenager and a young adult are rooted in that moment and in that memory. All Marea wanted to do in Amandawe, the site of their overwhelming loss, was leave.

Fine art was their ticket out, earning them a scholarship at National School of Arts in Johannesburg. “It was a huge culture shock for me. I had what I like to call the linguistic remnants of KZN, so my accent was very much like a rural KZN child,” Marea recalls before confessing, “I was bullied a lot for that by Model C kids who had access to that genre of education.” Determined to assimilate and fit in, Marea quickly learned how to talk and behave differently, subsequently cementing themselves as being a worthy talent.

After two years of specialising in visual art, Marea switched their academic focus to performance. And, in a full-circle moment, following their graduation from NSA, Marea pursued a degree in Visual Communication at Vega School, where they learned to harness and perfect the power of branding and visual storytelling.

Desire MareaI admit that, before I was exposed to their music, their wildly fashion-forward self-expression is what initially drew me to them and Marea tells me about their relationship with fashion, “I think fashion, for me, affirms my identity.” Marea begins to open up about their role as a traditional Nguni spiritual healer and adds, “I’ve learnt the power of fashion there as well because there are certain cloths, certain regalia that affirms the identity of my ancestors. When I wear those things, [the ancestors] feel affirmed enough to come out and speak. When I do that for myself, when I dress myself a certain way, it is to get the essence of Desire out.”

In 2010 Marea stepped onto the world stage in stylish stilettos as one half of gqom duo FAKA, alongside Fela Gucci. Marea recalls the culture their music and expression tapped into, and the driving force behind their art. “We were interested in black people, and we were interested in queer people in a world where they could be anything,” they elucidate, “And the more we got into it, the more we realised like this is something that the world actually needs.”

Their global success saw them creating music for New York Fashion Week, touring internationally, and sprawled across the cover of iconic fashion publications like VOGUE and Dazed Magazine. They became queer icons, and I’m curious about this moment in their lives. “It was very affirming, and it was a dream come true, not only for us, but also for all the people that we really tried our best to represent. QPOC in general, you know? Third-World babes – those are the people that we represented, and I think being at the forefront of that was a huge privilege for us. It was a huge thing to carry, but we had each other.”

At the height of FAKA’s fame, Marea made “the most difficult decision ever” to disappear from the world stage and answer their spiritual calling. “I think the way a calling works, by the time you have to go, the world really doesn’t have anything to offer you,” they reason and further explain the repercussions of their decision, “My career did take a hit from me disappearing for so long, and I think the calling, in general, and in the way that it affected my life is still something that I am recovering from right now. I have no regrets, I am grateful that I honoured it, but it was a difficult thing to do.”

After completing their training as a traditional healer, Marea returned to music with a new approach, a new gift, and a deeper understanding of music’s healing power. Earlier this year, they recorded and released their album, On the Romance of Being with a 13-piece band, a cathartic experience Marea describes as unifying, and likens to making an offering as a collective. “I felt drained but energised [after the album release]. Recovering from that for me is like recovering from live shows – it takes a couple of days because I was in a trance for a whole two weeks. And then I snapped out of it.”

Marea’s latest single and music video, “If You Know”, marks the first release from their upcoming EP, The Baddies of Islandlwana, dropping on the 10th of November. Lyrics depict the escape from a toxic relationship and question God’s existence and omniscience, but what really piques my interest is the shiny new coat of paint that Marea gives to gqom. “Taking Gqom outside its textural environment was a decision that I made in order to contribute to the conversation of what actually defines gqom. Is it the rhythm? Is it a tempo? Is it a cadence? Is it an energy or a vibe?” Marea muses on their sonic exploration.

Their eyes flash with excitement as they conclude, “I think we can reimagine gqom in many multiple ways as long as we maintain the essence, but then play around with the textural manifestation of it. And I think that’s what I wanted to spark, and it was sparked purely because of my love for gqom and wanting to see it evolve into other different meanings.”


Words | Alden Clapper