Gay South African Singer Nakhane Talks His New EP, Leaving Christianity and His Thoughts on the Closet
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Gay South African singer Nakhane and I recently met in a Parisian café not far from the Place de la Bastille. Born in 1988, Nakhane is in France to promote his new EP, Clairvoyant, released a few weeks ago. This EP — which includes two original songs, a David Bowie cover and a remix — is meant as a prelude to Nakhane’s forthcoming sophomore album, due in 2018.
The singer/actor/writer speaks in a soft voice and with a candor many artists lose after doing too many interviews. Since we were there to talk about music, I first asked him to describe the songs on his new EP.
“‘Clairvoyant’ is a sober love song,” he says. “When it comes to love songs, you either have ‘Oh, I love you and I can’t live without you’ or ‘Go fuck yourself, you left me, you cheated on me.’”
He goes on, “No one talks about the mundane idea of a relationship or love, how it feels to love somebody very much but that week you’re not sexually attracted to them, how you can love someone very, very much but he’s driving you nuts for the day and you literally want to kill him and you look at him and think, ‘Oh, it’s the best thing in my life right now.’ … Those little feelings that no one talks about. Most of those feelings are in literature. It’s rare that you get them in songs.
“This is why the video [for the song ‘Clairvoyant’] ended up being some sort of snippets, a couple in their apartment, doing things that people do when they’re home. They fight, they fuck, they take a bath, they eat, they’re mostly naked. A friend of mine said, ‘You never want to get dressed anyway!’”
The title of the song is a reference to French poet Jean Cocteau. “There’s a line in Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau that says ‘Love had made them clairvoyant.’ Love does not make me clairvoyant! It just makes me more of an idiot. When I’m in love I become a fool, for better or for worse.”
Watch the very sensual music video for “Clairvoyant” by Nakhane:
“Sweet Thing,“ the cover of a David Bowie song featured on his 1974 album Diamond Dogs, was a commission for a tribute album. Nakhane recorded it on his own in his home studio. In it, he plays several instruments and even adds some lyrics. “How arrogant of me!” he laughs.
He wrote the third song “Hey, Lover” after he was mugged in a park. He talked with the mugger for close to an hour, and then the guy pulled a knife on him. “I was like, ‘Are you serious? After we’ve had that discussion, you deceive me?!’”
“I don’t know why I wrote that song,” Nakhane wonders. “As a way of taking away the pain from it and making it almost romantic?”
“This album will be about no longer being a Christian,” Nakhane says.
According to him, his forthcoming record will be very different from his debut album, Brave Confusion, released in 2015 under the name Nakhane Toure.
He says that first album “was me trying to make sense of being gay and Christian because that’s what I was at the time. This album will be about no longer being a Christian. Because there’s this idea that when you leave the church, you’re free, you’re happy. But when you’ve been believing in something for 25 years of your life and suddenly you say you don’t believe in it, there’s a void, you know?”
He continues, “Because this thing was part of everything of your life — before I ate, I prayed; when I went to the house, I prayed; when I slept, I prayed — and suddenly this thing doesn’t exist anymore. So it’s a time of extreme anxiety and depression, which is great fodder for art!” He laughs.
Nakhane says he’s not a Christian anymore, but one can’t help but notice the Virgin Mary necklace he wears, and his cross-shaped earrings.
He smiles. “I love the iconography. The Baptist church I was in was very staunch. You see that American church that pickets?” I assume he means The Westboro Baptist Church. “It was like that church, without the picketing. That’s what I know of Christianity. I don’t know liberal Christianity. We looked at liberal Christians and were like, ‘Oh, poor things!’”
He adds, “I thought I was cured of homosexuality. I used to preach against it. The necklace and the earrings are almost a reminder of the fact that I got out.”
As an artist, Nakhane was never in the closet
Nakhane belongs to that generation of artists who didn’t need to come out because they never were in a closet in the first place. “I didn’t want to have a coming-out moment,” he says. “I saw what they did to people. I saw what they did to George Michael. I saw what they did to Elton John.”
“I thought my music was going to be niche,” he says. “I thought it would be just maybe hipster kids in JoBurg. I never thought I’d get signed. Being in Paris doing a week of promotion is strange. I never thought that enough people would care and that the people who would care would be queer-friendly.”
“So,” he continues, “there was no need for me to be hiding [in my music]. Also, I spent my entire life hiding this shit. So by the time I wanted to come out I just left the church. I just wasn’t bothered.”
Many have heard of Nakhane thanks to his role in The Wound, directed by John Trengrove, released in 2016. The movie revolves around the rites of initiation of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa. Nakhane — who is also a Xhosa — plays a closeted elder.
The rites of the Xhosa tribe are sacred and are supposed to remain secret. Prior to its release, the movie was harshly criticized, and Nakhane received a lot of death threats and insults. He was accused of desecrating the rites and of being a traitor to his own people.
“All those people who were angry realized it wasn’t such a big deal when they saw it,” he says.
According to him, The Wound showed black characters who look like real people. “We have one of the most liberal constitutions. Queer people are not represented, especially black ones in the culture. And when they speak about their experiences, they’re seen as perverts, liars or traumatic. The film was going to cancel all that bullshit.”
On a lighter note, he also recalls an awkward screening with his family:
“There was a teenage part of me that wanted to watch my mom while I was getting fucked like laughing at her,” he says. “My mom is full of contradictions. She’s a devout Christian, but she’s also very liberal. I knew she would laugh, but she would also be like ‘Oh! I can’t believe you did that.’ My boyfriend was there as well, hiding. And my sister left because she thought it was boring!”
“I spent my younger years just wanting to be Marvin Gaye,” Nakhane says.
How to describe Nakhane’s music? There’s no simple answer, and his answer isn’t simple either.
“I call it ‘soul music’ because that’s what I wanted it to be,” he says. “I spent my younger years just wanting to be Marvin Gaye, then I realized I couldn’t be Marvin Gaye. He’s been done! It’s a mixture of so many things. In South Africa, they call it alternative music. I call it pop music.”
He continues, “My friends laugh at me when I call it pop music. They go, ‘Oh, you think you make pop music — that’s cute!’ I’m not offended when people call it other things. My music teacher hears so much George Michael. I don’t hear George Michael at all in my music, but he was such an important figure in my life when I was in high school because he was the only gay musician I knew.
“If people told me, ‘I hear Britney Spears,’ I would be like ‘Come on! You’re stretching!’ But I’m not ashamed to name my influences. Prince is one. David Bowie is one, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, a lot of South African women like Brenda Fassie.”
Talking about his vocation as an artist, he thinks of African culture before colonization.
“You didn’t wake up in the morning and say ‘I wanna be a singer, I wanna be a dancer,’” he says. “You were chosen. And it was a calling. You used your talent to communicate what ancesters and elders said and you dedicated your entire life to that. People think sometimes I’m too serious about it, and that’s OK. I never chose this. It chose me.”
Photos of Nakhane by Xavier Héraud