My name is Petter Wallenberg and I am an artist and activist from Sweden. I’m passionate about making art that makes a change.
A few years ago I founded the organisation Rainbow Riots where I create music and art projects to advocate for LGBT rights around the world, especially in countries where it’s illegal to be gay.
In 2017, I created the album ‘Rainbow Riots’ featuring queer voices from Uganda, Malawi, Jamaica and South Africa – some of the world’s most dangerous countries for LGBT people.
After the release of the album, I was touched to receive messages from LGBT people who live in hardship around the world and felt that this gave them hope. So I wanted a new challenge. I decided to go to India.
It’s the world’s largest democracy, yet when I arrived in India, as a gay man, I was a criminal. It was still illegal to be gay under the British colonial law Section 377 against same-sex relations.
When I stepped off the plane, I didn’t know anyone so I just had to go out and find people – it was a big challenge. After some detective work, I discovered the undercurrent that I became a part of – Bombay’s underground queer scene.
I started making music with India’s first openly queer singers, on what has become our new album ‘Rainbow Riots India’. On this album, you’ll find Sushant Divgikar, India’s first gay celebrity drag queen, Rainbow Voices Mumbai, India’s first LGBT choir, Pragya Pallavi, India’s first openly lesbian singer, Tropical Marca, India’s first queer rapper and Dancing Queens, India’s first transgender dance group.
Some of the dancers in this project are part of the hijra community, Indian trans women. Hijras are believed to have divine powers, yet are very marginalized and often forced into sex work or begging. Through dancing and creativity, they create a platform to show their talent, which is a ticket out of poverty and discrimination. This is the epitome of what I love to work with when it comes to Rainbow Riots: to fight adversity with creativity.
A great deal of what I make is dance music, which is something we as queer people love all over the world. Often because our only chances to meet each other without the risk of homophobia is usually on a dance floor – whether you are in Berlin or Bombay. So although dance music is often considered frivolous, I want to show how political it can be. To the mainstream world it’s just party music – to us it’s deep. It’s the freedom to be who we are.
The music I have made with these incredible Indian collaborators is a mix of house, pop, rap, soul and disco mixed up with Bollywood sounds, classical Indian music with English, Hindi and Bengali lyrics. I wanted to create something completely new, and mix my musical roots of Western club music, rap, pop and soul with Indian styles.
I also direct all the music videos for the project, so it’s been really interesting to capture the visual contrasts of India. The glamour of the Hindu Gods and Bollywood mixed with the grittiness of real life in the slums of a big tough city like Mumbai. Extreme riches and poverty right next to each other. It’s all here, side by side, in this project.
‘Rainbow Riots India’ started as a protest. Like me, everyone involved is an activist, so it became bigger than just music. A mission to break new ground and smash stereotypes, to widen musical landscapes, expand horizons and open minds. Now when the album is finished and released, so much has changed.
A year into the project, the movement I had joined achieved the biggest victory for human rights in our time. In September 2018, the law against homosexuality was abolished. After over 157 years, all Indians are now free to love. Suddenly I was part of a revolution!
In February I was invited as one of the speakers at India’s first legally recognized Pride in Mumbai. I shouted: “Love is what?” and the crowd responded with “LOVE!” – the atmosphere was electric. So many people came out into the street and showed that they were no longer afraid to show who they were. You could feel the wind of change in the air.
India’s decriminalization of homosexuality sent a powerful message to the world that love is love, no matter who you love. It’s the Stonewall of our time.
After years of stigma and criminalization, the lid is off around LGBT issues in India. The country’s media are championing and celebrating the album, calling it “the sound of India’s rainbow revolution”.
Many LGBT people from all over India have contacted me and thanked me, saying this gives them hope and helps them feel good about themselves. I feel so happy that this message is really getting out there. That music can empower people and make them feel less alone.
This project has been such a journey for all of us, and it’s not over yet. A week ago we performed the music from the album at South East Asia’s biggest queer film festival. In August I’ll be inviting my Indian collaborators over to Sweden to perform with me at Stockholm Pride. This means they will be the first Indian performers to headline an international Pride event. Yet another milestone!
Through my work with Rainbow Riots, I have been thrilled to experience how we as LGBT people instantly understand each other in every culture. We are all connected, across every border. We exist everywhere, even where they don’t want us to exist.
That’s why it’s more important than ever that we keep standing up for ourselves and our brothers and sisters all over the world.
Sometimes we move mountains simply by daring to be who we are.