Meet the Swedish musician fighting state-sponsored homophobia to build Uganda’s first LGBTQI community centre

BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE. IMAGE ALICIA, PETTER WALLENBERG, SHIVAN AND JAVAN BY TANIA MARTI

Activist and musician Petter Wallenberg founded Rainbow Riots as a creative international movement for the equal rights of LGBTQI people.

As the organisation release their latest album, the groundbreaking Rainbow Riots India featuring LGBTQI artists from India and released on June 14 2019, we share an interview with Petter #fromthevaults. Enjoy!

After releasing the album Rainbow Riots in 2017 – made up of a collaboration with queer artists from around the world – Wallenberg and the team are taking their activism a step further by building Uganda’s first LGBTQI community centre.

All the while, Ugandan minister Simon Lokodo has publicly condemned Wallenberg, Rainbow Riots, and the LGBTQI community…

“We don’t and can’t allow it. LGBT activities are already banned and criminalised in this country. So popularising it is only committing a crime”

Simon Lokodo, speaking to the Guardian newspaper

Petter Wallenberg and Rainbow Riots in Uganda. Photo by Tania Marti.

DIVA: How did Rainbow Riots begin?

PETTER WALLENBERG: Rainbow Riots started as a protest. The Jamaican dancehall-artist Sizzla, whose music incites murder of LGBTQ people, was coming to play in Stockholm and so me and a few friends protested his gig. From there, we grew into a network for LGBTQ rights globally, and so Rainbow Riots was born. As the whole thing started with hateful messages in music, I then had the idea to use music and creativity to do the opposite – spread empowerment.

What was the idea behind the album, Rainbow Riots?

As a songwriter, producer and composer [aka House Of Wallenberg] I wanted to make an album which gave a platform to queer voices coming out of countries where it’s most dangerous to be LGBTQ. And so, I packed my bags and went out there. I recorded voices from Uganda, Malawi, South Africa and Jamaica – it’s been one hell of a journey. 

The first single off the album, Equal Rights, was chosen as the signature track of a campaign for UN’s Global Goal. What’s the story behind it? 

Equal Rights features vocals by Mista Majah P, a Jamaican artist fighting for gay rights and inspired by Jamaican dancehall, a genre often associated with violent homophobia. Through the album, we turned that around by using music styles associated with homophobia and making them into make gay anthems. Music is a powerful form of communication, with Rainbow Riots we’re able to fight hatred with beauty. 

How did you find your artists for the album?

I had seen documentaries about Uganda and other places and how dangerous it is for LGBTQ people there, but I never felt I actually heard the voices of those queer people. It was as if they were invisible. Uganda, Jamaica and South Africa are all big music countries and I wanted to explore that – using music as a tool. So I travelled there, without any label or organisation backing me. I met my collaborators through travelling, meeting people and taking chances. Some are singers in their country, others are refugees or marginalised members of underground grassroots queer communities.

And the album – how did you record it?

We recorded in secret little studios in hidden locations – it’s been like being a resistance movement in a war. There’s been constant danger. During the filming of the videos in Uganda, the police tried to arrest the team because we had rainbow flags. That’s how forbidden it is. 

Shivan, Petter Wallenberg, D Black and Kowa. Photo by Tania Marti.

You were held hostage during Uganda Pride. What happened?

It was one of the defining moments of my journey with Rainbow Riots – if not my life. In 2016, me and my Ugandan friends were celebrating Uganda Pride in a venue with a few hundred LGBTQ people. Suddenly the police stormed in with machine guns, and ordered us down on the floor. No one could leave the venue and they held us all hostage for two hours. This was only weeks after the massacre in the gay club in Orlando so we couldn’t help but think – are we going to die? Everyone was silent. All you could hear was someone crying. I’ll never forget that night. 

What effect did that have on you?

I decided to dedicate my life to fighting for change. Although we had machine guns pointed at us, I didn’t feel scared – I felt sad. During the raid I looked at the rainbow flags torn down and thrown on the floor and I looked into the eyes of a stranger – it was the saddest pair of eyes I’ve ever seen. When you are in a situation like that, the things that matter in life become very clear. 

After that happened, you and the team organised a secret Pride in 2017. How risky a thing to do was that? 

Very. Nobody got to know the address in advance and we seized all the visitors’ mobiles to ensure that the address did not leak and get in the wrong hands. We managed, despite the danger, to make sure our Pride Party was full of joy. We gathered all of our amazing Ugandan members, Ugandan Pride committee and international guests and danced all night. It was the only Pride related event in Uganda in 2017. It really felt like a triumph. 

You’ve now set up a Crowdfunder to build the first LGBTQI community centre in Uganda. Tell us more?

In Uganda it’s illegal to be gay. Queer people live in fear of being arrested, getting beaten up or killed. There is no safe space. This is why me and my team want to open Uganda’s first LGBTQ 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. 

What will this centre mean to LGBTQI people living in Uganda?

Rainbow Riots get a lot of hate messages coming in from Ugandan homophobes saying that gay people will burn in hell. Amidst all that hate, lone voices speak up. Today a message came from Uganda, stating simply: “I have hope that one day we will be free. No matter how they treat us.” That’s what it will mean.

Ugandan minister Simon Lokodo has publicly condemned the building of the centre. Was that expected?

I feel saddened by it, but no, I’m not surprised. After the police raid of Uganda Pride in 2016, the same minister made a statement on national TV in Uganda saying, “We will continue to suppress them”. When hate rears its ugly head, I think of the risks involved. Sometimes you wonder whether it’s worth continuing but if we don’t do something, nothing is going to change. As a gay man who has lived through modern day gay liberation, I have seen homophobia in many shapes and forms before. However, we tend to forget that these kinds of homophobic attitudes were normal in Europe and the US not long ago – they changed because we fought back. We can’t sit back and think that just because things are better in some places right now, the fight is over. It is far from over.

We must never forget that our rights didn’t come without a fight. 

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of DIVA magazine – order yours now!

Find out how you can support the project at www.rainbowriots.com

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