NAKHANE’S BEAUTIFUL STRANGE DREAMS
With his spine-tingling voice, stage presence and evocative song-writing, Nakhane should be the next global gay superstar.
With his spine-tingling voice and evocative music, he should be the next gay superstar.
Born 30 years ago in a small town in The Eastern Cape province of South Africa, Nakhane has been blessed with a glorious, once-in-a-generation voice. His dazzling second album You Will Not Die has received an extraordinary amount of high praise from critics: “a real star in the making,” “unlike anything else you will hear this year,” “makes the dancefloor a place of tenderness,” and “as a musician, his wit and style emulates Prince and Bowie”. MTV called him a “South African singer, actor and LGBTQ trailblazer”.
He’s written a novel, Piggy Boy’s Blues (2015), which explored the delicate subject matter of a relationship between a young man and an uncle who he discovers is in a same-sex relationship.
He starred in an acclaimed and controversial gay-themed feature film, The Wound, which examines homosexuality in the African Xhosa community and was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Oscars.
Musically, Nakhane has been inspired by mould-shattering musicians including Anohni, Busi Mhlongo, David Bowie, Mbongwana Star and Nina Simone. He started writing songs on his acoustic guitar and playing them on the folk circuit in “grungy little pubs where everyone would talk over you” in Johannesburg, he says.
Soon enough, he was spotted performing in an acoustic competition by the boss of a record label who signed him. 2013 saw the release of his first album Brave Confusion which, Nakhane admits, “took a while to catch on”.
Two years later his collaboration with South African DJ Black Coffee, a pulsing dance record called We Dance Again, became a hit at home and abroad, convincing him of the necessity to relocate to London to follow his dreams.
You Will Not Die has seen him feted by Elton John. Madonna has taken him to lunch. Have the planets finally aligned for Nakhane?
We always need some joy, a thrill, because life is much bigger than pain. That’s why joy is so important in my work.
DNA: Congratulations on your sensational new album, You Will Nor Die. It sounds like a record that has been a long time coming. Nakhane: Thank you very much. Yes, it took about four years to write. I didn’t think it would take that long but I was also doing other things in those four years. I published a novel (Piggy Boy’s Blues), released an EP (The Laughing Son) and acted in a film (The Wound). It took some time for the songs to settle.
You’ve gone for a very electronic sound, as opposed to the folk field you had been working in. Why?
The simple answer is I got bored. [Laughs.] I never really thought what I was making was folk music. Yes, I had an acoustic guitar, but we were playing with programmed drums and dance rhythms. An acoustic guitar was all I could afford so I wrote on that. For the next album, I had a laptop and a keyboard, so in order to shift gears and to challenge myself I put the acoustic guitar down.
Many of the songs touch on delicate, notoften-spoken-about subjects. Do you feel you are opening up a new way for people to talk about such things?
I don’t know. The first thing you learn in any creative writing class is “write what you know”. I hope it touches people. I don’t think my story is unique, I’ve just had an opportunity to use art to talk about it.
Is the next 18 months all mapped out for you career-wise? Oh, God, no. I wish. [Laughs.] I’m not as organised as that. I’ve also realised that chance plays more of a role in our lives than we would like. I do my best to steer things but mostly I float down the stream and see what happens. I definitely know what I want to do and that is to create, to perform, to be better.
The record reminds us a lot of Seal’s early forays into electronica, like Killer.
Strange that you say that because we’ve just started playing that song live.
Growing up, who were your idols?
Marvin Gaye, my music teacher, my mother, Brenda Fassie, The O’Jays, Miriam Makeba, Handel, Mozart and Kool And The Gang. When did you realise you were gay and how was that growing up in South Africa?
Being queer is difficult everywhere, and everywhere there are places where we feel we can be free and there are places that are remarkably more conservative, so we adapt. Did you face bullying and a lot of opposition as a gay teen?
Not at all, actually. Looking back, I realise I was probably a difficult child to bully. I knew who I was. I had a mother who reassured and validated me. I was focused. I knew I was going to be an artist when I grew up, so I concentrated on that.
You attempted to “pray the gay away” for a
number of years. Talk us through that period. I joined a very conservative church when I was about 20 and it started there. I was always open about my desires and because I had always been in a Christian household was told it was a sin. I thought I would be able to somehow rid myself of being queer. I fell deep into that church and they were supposed to help me pray the gay away. It obviously did not work. [Laughs.]
At what point did you realise you needed to live your life as you wanted?
My life fell apart and I realised I had nothing else to lose. The earth waits for no one.
You’ve written a book and acted in film; the creative drive is very strong in you. When I was 12, my aunt asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be an artist. She asked me what kind? I said whichever came first. I was an avid reader as a child; I have always been obsessed with knowledge. I didn’t watch much TV. My only friends were school friends so when I got home I wrote poems, read and practiced my instrument – I studied trombone. If I wasn’t doing that I was probably in the school play. Later on I studied film music, composition and literature. These are mediums I have always been passionate about. That I realised all of those dreams is still so beautifully strange.
Is music where your heart really lies, or are you happy being a multi-tasker?
Music is in my body. My voice is literally in my body. I cannot escape it. It is my body, but bodies need clothes. You can’t go running around naked. The other mediums close to me keep my body warm and alive.
You left South Africa for London. Why the change of scenery?
I needed to be able to tour Europe in an inexpensive way. I knew I would be hitting that territory a lot. Also, my home label is French so being close to them makes work easier.
Do you see yourself alongside fellow out singers such as Troye Sivan, Ollie Alexander, Kelle, MNEK and Sam Smith?
I like some of those musicians. Some of them, the only thing I have in common is we are queer. Solidarity is important but there must be more.
Who would you most like to work with in the future?
Owen Pallett [award-winning Canadian composer]. He is a genius and a lovely human being.
Although your music is, at times, heartbreaking, there’s always some joy and hope there.
I definitely agree. I watch a lot of Toni Morrison interviews and there is one where she talks about writing her debut novel. She agrees that it is a dark novel but was always aware that as dark as it is it always needed some joy, a thrill, because life is much bigger than pain. That’s why joy is so important in my work. Music gives me joy. I’m writing a lot these days, so that’s been making me smile.
What else brings you joy?
Words, Edouard Louis’ novels, taking long baths and my boyfriend. [Smiles.]
At the beach… speedos, boardshorts or naked?
What issues are closest to your heart?
How to survive this white cis-hetero-patriarchal world without going crazy!
What’s the correct way to pronounce your name?
Nakhané, so not like McCain.
And why only one name?
I’m not joining the diva club, but I do like the assuredness of a mononym. Surnames are there to show where and to whom you belong. By removing that I say I belong to no one. What’s one thing that might surprise people about you?
[Laughs.] I spend too much time listening to different recordings of Handel’s Messiah. What’s your message to DNA readers?
Be kind. Everyone is having a hard time. I have a quote… “Some days, I feel like the end of mankind and some days the beginning,” from The Secret Seven by Owen Pallett.
I was probably a difficult child to bully. I knew who I was. I knew I was going to be an artist when I grew up, so I concentrated on that.
MORE: Find Nakhane at nakhaneofficial.com or on Twitter and Facebook @nakhaneofficial. His album, You Will Not Die, is available on all music services through BMG.