With his spine-tin­gling voice, stage pres­ence and evoca­tive song-writ­ing, Nakhane should be the next global gay su­per­star.

DNA Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Marc An­drews

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?

Short board­shorts.

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 nakha­ne­of­fi­ or on Twit­ter and Face­book @nakha­ne­of­fi­cial. His al­bum, You Will Not Die, is avail­able on all mu­sic ser­vices through BMG.

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