“If you take away the drag, and the costume, hair, makeup, I still have all the gifts I was given as a performer, as a makeup artist, as a singer, as a musician, without the drag. The drag is just the icing on the cake. A lot of mainstream artists use the art form of drag to add more to their art. I’m here to tell my story and I’m here to tell you so you understand and use your platform to educate others”.
Cameroonian-American drag artist, Bebe Zahara had her first tryst with fame back in 2009, after snagging the title and the cash price of America’s Next Drag Superstar on the first season of Ru Paul Charles competition. Regardless of this, she doesn’t want to be solely known as a drag queen, and she does not hesitate to tell me that during our Zoom conversation: ‘First thing first, I need to set the record straight that I do not identify as a drag queen. I identify as a drag artist or an artist who uses the art form of drag’.
Born Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa, BeBe has been making music for as long as she can remember. “Growing up, I was very into the arts, I grew up with music. My dad played the guitar, my mum loved to sing and for us, it was never about the right notes or the right harmonies but the idea of music just connected us together as a family. I later joined the choir at our family church, before becoming the choir director and then later teaching music’ she excitedly explains to me.
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Growing up in an African house hold, you can imagine how far away from her mind anything like drag was to her. In fact, BeBe didn’t even know or understand drag until a friend introduced her to the underground world of sensual performances and late night shows one evening while she was at university. Music and performance were second nature to her, and once she came across drag, something clicked and her love for fashion, theatre and music all began to make sense – she realised her calling.
“The little boy in me was telling the older mature boy ‘you were not crazy when you were growing up’. Back in Cameroon, I never knew what it was called and I had never seen drag before. In my mind, growing up I would go into the bathroom and play Whitney Houston or Diana Ross and I’ll lip sync my heart out and create this huge stage that people are there clapping for me”.
From then on, BeBe began to look for how to merge her passion for entertaining with her new found love for drag, and then landed her first show performing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for Cindy Lauper during one of her shows.
At first, she struggled a bit to reconcile the different parts of her persona; her voice was tenor not soprano, her clothes and style weren’t quite ‘on trend’ since she was African, and her accent also proved to be difficult at first. Of course, she had people who offered unwarranted advice, telling her to be more this or more that, in order to suit a more westernised gaze, however, luckily, these things didn’t get to her. She tells me “I realised what I was being told to do differently was actually what people were appreciating and celebrating me for – being authentic, living my truth, celebrating global drag and most importantly being Bebe Zahara Benet.”
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From then on, an urge to fit in was never on the cards for her, and now she’s living her entire truth both in self and in music. BeBe is fresh off the release of her latest pidgin-inflected number “Banjo”, and is set to roll out her new EP ‘Broken English’ in a few days. Beyond that, she’s booked and busy, preparing to grace the stage of TLC’s new show ‘Dragnificent’ with her drag sisters Thorgy Thor and Jujubee.
Her upcoming EP, is coming after two years since she released any original music, and with this, she wanted to represent her vision of her two homes, Cameroon and America. She tells me that with her music, she wants to create a fusion “which is like a melting pot of melodies, afrobeat rhythms and also with a touch of pop sensibilities”, however, the most important thing to her is for her music to be an ambassador of global drag.
“Broken English’ is really part of this journey. It’s really just saying this is who I am, and this is how I talk. Broken English or Pidgin is how people converse where I come from, it’s not a make-believe kind of language, but rather it’s a whole part of our culture and I am going to do justice to it in this way”.
Global drag became BeBe’s focus after meeting her current band mates ‘Afro Chord’, a group in Minneapolis who take pop music and reinterprets them with a world beat. ‘What people fail to understand is I don’t only represent Cameroon and West Africa, but I try to represent what we call global drag where there is just diversity. Because if you have not travelled enough or opened your mind to experience different cultures and different kinds of music, then you are missing a lot. There is just so much talent and creativity and the gifts are endless from where we come from’.
“When you come to my shows and see me perform, it’s always a melting pot of different kinds of people.”
While the entire world has become more accepting of Africa in general, thanks to ‘Black Panther’, we still in some ways have to create a version of ourselves which is pallatable to the worlds’ tastes, and people like BeBe are a beacon of light in this sense. In addition, our thoughts and beliefs are typically backwards driven, and without even trying BeBe just existing and being successful is very important to our LGBT community, who are very oppressed over here.
“We still have a lot of work to do back home and here in America, you don’t stop living your truth and being authentic because of everything else that is working against you. Being authentic about who you are and the music you want to make, it will never ever fail you’.
For now, BeBe wants to bridge the gap between her two worlds, having drawn influence from artists like Yemi Alade, Whitney Houston, Yvonne Shaka Shaka, Paul Simon, Diana Ross, and many others who are dominating their respective genres.
BeBe’s EP ‘Broken English’ will be out tomorrow, and while we wait in anticipation to listen to her take on fusing pidgin English with melodic tunes and afropop drums, it’s very comforting to know that she’s not using it as a gimmick for sales. ‘My sista I dey talk broken english all the time. I sabi am weh weh, I grew up with pidgin ehn. You sabi am too?’.
Watch the video for her latest single “Body on Me” below.
Featured image credits/BirdLambroPhotography
Tami is a lover of women, music and astrology. Tweet your fave female artistes at her @tamimak_