If you search for Litha Bam on YouTube, he appears in blue-face, infectiously upbeat and belting out a string of self-penned clichés (“I write about my own experience”) over a catchy House beat. “Right now ... is the time ... We’re going higher than ever before. I want to reach past the ceiling, so let’s lift the floor. Can you feel it? Feel the music? Feel it moving grooving through your body...”
I’ll stop there, because Bam neither claims nor aims at musical profundity. But he is important. He’s important because he bridges many worlds with such agility. He is poised as a dynamic agent of change. And I’m watching his spot.
I first became aware of the 1.9m larger-than-life young Xhosa man when he performed in diva mode – he’s primarily an actor, remember – at the legendary gay club Therapy’s 21st birthday bash at Carfax in Newtown late last year. Bam performed over a House track in a blue velvet suit. “I can’t keep this feeling inside me any more, I need to let it out ... I need to scream and shout.” Pop clichés aside, an authentic narrative of self-liberation is unfolding.
The guy I meet for coffee wears neither blue-face nor velvet. He’s unnervingly easy going and dressed in a peaked cap, all khaki and muscles.
“I always knew I was gay,” he says, sipping on a glass of water – he forgot his wallet. “So it just wasn’t an issue.” He neither apologises for nor attempts to conceal the privileges of his provenance. “My father was a lawyer – a judge actually, and he’s passed now, but yes, we did have that conversation.” It’s only later, in an email, that he reveals that his father was celebrated activist Fikile Bam and, on his road less travelled, it’s apparent that the older Bam attuned himself to the universality of struggle.
This is privilege indeed. Money can only take you so far, but without knowledge and information, you can’t “reach past the ceiling”, let alone lift the floor.
Bam spent two years studying in New York and, from experience, I know what an immeasurable edge this gives one on a prodigal home run. What is admirable about Bam is his grace: he has carried the mantle of privilege on his own terms, without neglecting an opportunity to affect his generation. He’s come out in a country brimming with repressed homophobia, where black gay role models (and let’s face it, Somizi can’t do it all!) are thin on the ground. For any truly wise father he has done what the good son would do.
His potential as a leading man is immediate in his good looks and physicality but, more significantly, he is both globally and locally accessible – transcending race, sexual preference and nationality. It’s a shame his role on e.tv’s Scandal was typecast as a gay character, but this is the fault of blinkered casting agents. Gay film festivals aimed to broaden the scope of gay film, but achieved the opposite – a repetitive annual showcase of formulaic gay coming-out tales, lesbian romances and the odd, voyeuristic look at sadomasochistic fetish, with only a rare exposure of anything truly original and marginalised. Artists like Bam are victims of the same misled intentions but, at 33, he could well sit this out. He has played straight roles to critical acclaim at the Wits Theatre and has an ease on the small screen that will translate to a bigger one – again if not for a paucity of good South African cinema.
I have chosen not to listen to his latest release, Energy – his pop offerings are a feel good marketing tool amid a sea of millennial narcissists. How did they multiply so quickly!
One need only look at the Tambos to observe that the courage and hardship on the part of the parents, and the massive advantage of seeing this country from afar, earned their children the fundamental right to embrace their liberation – and principally the freedom to choose an apolitical life, show business or any life they dreamt of. Isn’t that, after all, what the struggle was for?