Xander Ferreira has a gift for mass persuasion. A student of personality cults and demagogues, his imagery is full of oblique comments on race, power, and politics and how they influence populations. But he’s best known as electro-pop singer Gazelle. Singing in a mixture of Afrikaans and English, often dressed like Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Gazelle headlines festivals and stars on South African television. Currently in New York, Ferreira has turned toward American soul music. He reflected with Makeshift on his power as an artist to reach the masses—and how his rise mimics politicians back home.
Makeshift: There’s more to Gazelle than the music. Break it down for us?
XF: My first body of work was a research project on socio-political behavior called “The Status of Greatness”, a satirical look into how people come to power. How do individuals convince the masses that they should believe in them, even though most of them are really bad people?
What did you find?
There’s a similarity between modern day marketing—my back-ground—and how leaders condition people through repetitive forms of visual identity. The first step was to iconify my character through an image. That’s what every person, whether it’s Che Guevara or Barack Obama, can relate to since there’s a false sense of trust created with an image. When you choose who to support, the image that comes into your mind the most is where you’re going to go. And it worked. I took my character and made it famous.
So you discovered the formula for power and pop-stardom. Then what?
What I found through this whole process was, “Great, now I made something popular.” But once you are in power, do you use your voice for your own gain, like most people do, or do you make commentary—do you use it for something? And that was my choice: to do something good with my life.
How will your American record be different?
I played music, and white people liked it, black people liked it, all different kinds of people liked it. That’s all I wanted. To create something that brought people together. I stepped away from the electro thing and into the soul world because I feel that it touches people’s spirits in America beyond race.
How is artistic expression different from political?
I think you can only make commentary on politics if you’re not involved in politics. Otherwise you’re a hypocrite. Politicians are businessmen today, and for me, I don’t know what I am. I’m a philosopher. I dedicate my life to obstacles, to creatively solving challenges that I see are wrong, even if it’s a more difficult thing. I appreciate people who dedicate their lives toward a greater goal and not just themselves. For me, whenever someone in power is against a certain cultural identity, religious choice, or whatever, I fight against it. Through my actions I want to try and prove to people that they have to celebrate diversity in order to find peace within themselves.