Admiration Can Be Violent Too: An Emerging Artist’s Notes on Visibility.

I think I have the energy and vocabulary to talk about this today.

I wanted to start this with a quote by Vuyelwa Maluleke, but I can’t find the quote, so I’ll try and paraphrase what she said because she summed up all of my feelings in one facebook status. In the status, she basically told people who consider themselves ‘fans’ to stop feeling entitled to the person whose work they admire. I am sure there are many versions of this, and articles and and and. But Vuyelwa’s words strung a chord with me because they came at a time I was struggling with a guilt I had been feeling, a guilt caused by toxic messages people had been leaving in my inboxes,  messages at the time I did not see as toxic, but as ‘admiration’, ‘support’ and positive ‘attention’.  When you are emerging and celebrated, no one warns you about the toxicity in hyper-visibility. Haha. Let me tell you now. It’s a blessing and a bitch. And it wears many costumes, beguiling and attractive ones, But the one I’ll try and tackle here is: ADMIRATION!

A few days ago I had to address a rather intense and awkward situation with an ‘admirer’. I won’t get into details about this particular situation, because the person is a colleague and acquaintance too, and the matter is still unresolved. In hindsight, my response to this person may have been harsh, but I think my response at the time stemmed from my being gatvol of the many incidences that keep popping up with ‘admirers’ both in public and private spaces (private here being inboxes or one on one encounters). Lying on my bed this afternoon and reflecting on The FEES MUST FALL poetry session which took place last night, which was so lit by the way, I remember an encounter I had with someone at the session, an incident that may seem like not so big of deal for the person who claimed to be an ‘admirer’ of my work and for those who were standing around us at the time.

The scenario:

I am standing outside; there are a bunch of people milling about, having a smoke, chatting etc. Person x is drunk or tipsy (I get the sense from how loud and ungovernable he was) fine. whatever. be drunk and ungovernable, actually live your best life whilst being ratchet, we all must.  I endorse it 100%. Person x comes over and asks for a hug, I give him one. He proceeds to want to talk to me about what is currently happening in his life,  I am genuinely interested and I want to engage him, but he was too loud and I was scared the noise would make its way inside and disrupt the session, so i say to him we’ll talk later or during the interval, he says he wants to hug me again and comes in for one, I say but I have already given you one, plus I am wearing white and I don’t want this wine to spill on my top. He proceeds to tell me how much he ‘admires and loves me/my work’ I say thank you and try to make my way inside. Then we go back and fourth for another a minute/two with ‘Him: I want to hug you again, I love your work. Me: No. Plus I don’t want the wine to spill on my top. You are going to make me spill the wine.’ and at some point in between all of that the wine spills on the floor (like. it was bound to). Now I am slightly irritated,  but I shrug it off and have a giggle with the people I was standing with. I then turn around and say to a friend, what is it about me, that invites this kind of shit EVERY TIME! This afternoon I think about my use of the word ‘invite’ and how fucked up that word choice was because people’s lack of boundaries or respect for other’s people’s bubble or ‘no’should not be something i take responsibility for.

Reflecting on this incident today took me back to many other incidences like this. These are all recent:

  1. I am leaving the theatre the other night, a colleague/acquaintance comes up to me and says “I really love your work’, sometimes I just want to fuck you and have you say poems to me while I do.” I stood there for a good minute shook and confused. I then said ‘wow…ok’, not really sure what to say. He then moved on to talk about the show we saw, and I said I have to get home. I remember needing to take a shower that night quite desperately.
  2. I arrive at a poetry session/also declared as a conscious space. I was scheduled to perform later in the evening. One of the organizers offers to get me a drink. 5 minutes later, she brings me and my partner at the time a glass of wine. A few minutes later this womxn comes up to us and greets us quite politely (I pick up that she is slightly tipsy). She does the whole admiration of my work spiel. I say thank you. She leaves. The evening continues. I perform. I come off stage. The womxn returns and says thank you for the performance, she is tipsier now, I say thank you for coming etc etc. She then asks if she can have a sip of my wine, I say “I can get you a glass”, she says no she wants a sip of mine. I say “ok. actually take the whole glass, I’ll just get myself another glass”.  she says no, she wants to share one with me…my (then) partner laughs. I give her (the tipsy womxn) the glass and get up to get another one. Moments later, ughel returns and takes my glass out of my hand without my permission and starts sipping on my wine. I say “excuse me?” and strus god, her response was, ” Koleka, oh  my God, I really love you, and your work….I want to know where you live, I want to come over and do your laundry, I want to wash your underwear” still sipping on MY WINE!  I still remember her response so vividly because my partner and I visited that encounter often after that. After a few minutes of telling usisters why she had been problematic, my partner intervenes and at some point it comes out that she is my partner…Ughel then starts to rub my partner’s thigh while complimenting her. My partner and I left immediately. I later learned that this womxn is as ‘conscious’ and as ‘lit’ as they come. But caba sana iconsciousness iyavanisha xasinxilile.
  3. Another tipsy case with another lit and conscious sister. I am at a poetry event, a womxn comes up to me, she pulls me outside and starts telling me about how much she is an admirer of my work (notice the pattern?). I say thank you. She then comes in for a hug without warning. I reciprocate. Because also I know how awkward I am and can be in such situations, so I never really know what is appropriate. After what seems like forever I pull away. She then starts caressing my face while repeating over and over how much she loves me. I pull away. I Leave the event immediately (I am now srarting to notice THIS PATTERN) I call a friend crying and not being able to really explain why.
  4. This is the last one because I can feel myself losing energy already just recounting these scenarios. But it feels like I have the vocabulary and the willpower to talk about this today, so I will, with the help of Miriam Makeba. So, Four: I decide to go to this party and twerk my face off because it’s been a long and draining week. I’m not one for turning up like that, so when I do I mean it. Like. Don’t mess with me when I have decided to go out and dance. Right. This party is at the sugar hut which is not necessarily one of my favorite hangout spots, actually I rarely go there. So you know this evening was an exception. I get to the Sugar Hut, and pay the door. My friend and I go to the bar to get a drink, 5 minutes later I hear someone screaming “WATER! WATER! WATER!” the first thing that comes to mind is “Shit! someone is choking to death or dying” second thought is “Damn someone must be really thirsty”. I continue to order a drink and this desperate plea for H2O moves closer and closer, within a minute, someone pats me on my back screaming “WATER! WATER! WATER!” in my ear. This person and I know each other, he could have just said Hi Koleka, or ‘Coco’ (the name I went by when being woke was not fashionable), So I turn around and ask him jokingly, Are you thirsty bruh, What’s happening?, he then says oh my God, water! You are here. I then say to him, you know my name is not water, why are you calling me that? I knew why, but I wasn’t about to condone or entertain it.  I then grab my drink and leave the bar.  About twenty minutes later I am on the dance floor with my friend and Mr WATER! Returns and starts dancing in my bubble screaming “Water! Water!” he then says….wait for it…wait for it…yes you guessed it….” I really ADMIRE YOUR WORK!” I can’t remember if I said thank you or if I just smiled and left. But I left the venue immediately after that because he just killed my whole vibe.

Here’s the thing. I can’t even begin to express to you how #WATER has changed my life,  it has been the craziest year. It has been blessed, challenging and beautiful. 80% of the doors that have opened for me I owe to #WATER (for real).  90% of how my life and politics has changed is because of #WATER. One day when I have the energy and vocabulary I will write about this too. So trust me I understand, I understand how #Water has/continues to move you…Even me babes. There is no other piece that holds me accountable and continues to pour into my life like #WATER. But You cannot, cannot, absolutely cannot and will not call me #WATER, or shout #WATER a million times in my ear while you are trying to grind with me during a turn-up… all because of admiration. What even is admiration in the face of disrespect and being fucky.

Listen. I also understand that we are all fucky shem. Each and every single one of us, particularly when we have had one or two, or smoked some. But I also know that self-control and respect, if it is genuinely part of your character, does not get diluted or lost in the process of getting drunk and so on. I also say this recognizing that I have behaved fucky a number of times with people I admire (and I have tried to rectify those situations or at least I think I have tried) because I don’t just expect those I admire/have admired to get over it or take it because they appear strong or “used to it”.

I remember seeing Lebo Mashile for the first time. I wanted to jump on her back and tell her I love her and her work like a gazillion times. She changed my life. She was one of the poets who inspired me when I started. So when I met her for the first time, my first response was not to sip on a drink she was having, it wasn’t to scream “I smoked a spliff with Jesus Christ” for 15 minutes in her ear in public or to caress her face in a creepy kind of way. I simply asked for a selfie, and an autograph and moved on with my life.  And thereafter in my spare time, I had fantasies of us becoming besties. But she didn’t need to be bombarded with all of that because it was mine.  Years later the universe would bring us together in a more organic and beautiful way, which I am grateful for. I’m sure she doesn’t even remember our first encounter. But I do. And I have held onto it because I “ADMIRED” and still do ADMIRE her a great deal.

Just because you have access to the people whose work you admire it does not mean you have the right to violate or infringe on their space however and whenever you want. It’s funny that 60% of these weird and ugly encounters have been with people I know, and have had multiple conversations and hung out with a few times.

There are many more incidences like this. Some have made me lock myself in bathrooms at events because I didn’t want to face these so-called fans that have no sense of boundaries. Some have made me come home tired and wishing I had responded differently, and I understand on some level the victim-perpetrator power dynamic that is at play here but knowing these things does not change the fact that we expect better from others and from those who should know better. Some of these incidences  have even made me want to stop sharing my work publically. And some have made me wonder if there is something about me that ‘invites’ these kinds of situations. Often, I want to say to people, it’s not me you are after, you have a connection with my work, and that’s beautiful, and I appreciate that. I am living my dream right now. There was a time I was praying for the days when I would share my work.  And those days are here and unraveling. But I don’t find this level of  human/artist consumption romantic,  affirming or flattering at all. It’s creepy and violent. Violence can come dressed as admiration too. Violence can come dressed as love, as praise, as oblivion, as a drunk ignorance that does not and will not take responsibility. Expectation and demanding someone’s attention and time despite their telling you ‘no’ or ‘wait’ is an act of violence. I am not obligated to answer to your email or inbox at your convenience. I am not obligated to hug you, in the same way, I am not obligated to hug that uncle at the family Christmas gathering.

We destroy and break the very people we claim we love/admire by consuming them in unrealistic and unhealthy ways. Drunk or sober we need to start being more conscious of our relationship with entitlement, power, and admiration.   A question that comes up a lot in interviews and QnAs is “How do you protect your space?” I love this question. But I also never know how to respond to it because I am still trying to figure out rituals and practical ways of surrounding myself with a light and armor in spaces loaded with all sorts of parasites. I have a squad of people who hold me down and fetch me from events when such things happen. Those people ground me. Those people are some of that light and armor. But whilst I figure this out, I need people to know that when you touch me in public without my consent, or grind up on me in a turn up, or send me an inbox calling me arrogant or a bitch because I didn’t respond in the time you wanted me to, or when you tell me ‘my poetry makes you want to fuck me’, understand that you are being violent. Understand that it’s not a compliment or flattering. It’s creepy. It hurts. It’s tiring. It’s not acceptable.

To be honest, I LOVE HUGS, you guys. I seriously love hugs and kisses. I am probably one of the most intimate and affectionate teddy bearicajl-humans you will ever meet, but these incidences are slowly building a wall that I cannot allow to make a home here. Because I really love hugs, I think Hugs are healthy for you. But don’t force a hug on me otherwise I will punch you in the face, that’s just where I am at right now. We can admire people and their work without making them feel like they are not human or visible. Your actions are not making me feel seen, actually it’s quite the opposite. When you don’t hear me or respect my space or resistance to your advances, you humiliate, dehumanize and make me invisible.  And surely you can’t admire something or someone you can’t see.

Engage me as a person first. Then as the poet/person you see on stage. I am not a mannequin you can toss your shit on or hump on or caress as you please. On the other side of these poems and dope punchlines there is an actual person who must sift through your violence masquerading as admiration.

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