The South African singer has wrestled with religion and faced down death threats. 2019 might be his most urgent year yet.
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Photos by Rhiannon Adam

When Nakhane released his album “You Will Not Die” last year, it introduced the world to the kind of artist who comes along once or twice a decade. With a giant, emotionally attuned voice, Nakhane’s music is both atmospheric and intimate at the same time, as if he is singing directly to you in a huge cathedral.

We tend to typecast such rare artists quickly. Media outlets rush to make the person sound as if they just walked through a star gate into our world. If you are an even rarer queer artist who has made it into the public consciousness like Nakhane, articles will describe you as mysterious, fragile or “feline,” as he has been called.

This is unfortunate because it makes the 31-year-old South African singer, actor and author sound humorless and dour, which he is not. On the phone, he is actually quite funny and cheerful, with an easy laugh. “My formative years have so many twists and turns. It’s kind of fun to read the articles. But it’s OK, they get the overall idea right,” he says with a laugh.

Nakhane’s backstory is a compelling one: He was born in Alice (a small town in Eastern Cape, South Africa) to a large, conservative, religious family, and left his biological mother at the age of 8 to live with an aunt in Port Elizabeth, taking her surname, Touré. (When asked, Nakhane says he is not ready to talk about why he had to leave his mother, other than to say there were “problems.”)

At 15, his new family moved to Johannesburg, where his aunt, a music teacher, encouraged singing and gave Nakhane a classical musical education, mixed in with a lot of soul music. By 19, he had come out of the closet to friends and family, but a year later he joined a Baptist church and renounced his sexuality.

At the same time, Nakhane began singing and playing guitar around town, composing the songs that would eventually become his first album, ”Brave Confusion.” When that came out in 2013, he came to terms with his sexuality and left the church. He released a novel, ”Piggy Boy’s Blues,” in 2015.

Then things ramped up. In 2017, he appeared in the award-winning film ”The Wound,” about a secret relationship between two Xhosa men in Eastern Cape who reunite during the annual Ulwaluko ceremony, a circumcision initiation ritual. The film became a flashpoint for its depiction of queer love in the Xhosa community (as well as for its portrayal of Ulwaluko). Screenings were canceled in Eastern Cape, and the crew and cast, including Nakhane, received death threats.

But the artist continued writing songs throughout this tumultuous time. His manager got him in touch with the singer-songwriter and producer Ben Christophers, who had helmed Bat for Lashes’ Mercury award-winning album, “The Bride,” in 2016. “[My manager] knew that he would be a good fit for what I was doing. After one phone call, I knew it, too.”

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By 2018, Nakhane had moved to London. ”You Will Not Die” was released to worldwide acclaim. Madonna announced he was one of her favorite artists, and he released a song with Anohni (formerly the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons). Now Nakhane has the mind-scrambling schedule of an in-demand artist.

When I mentioned that I heard he was coming to New York City to perform in May, he laughed. “Um. Sure. I think so? I never know what I am doing or where I am…. Basically, I just need to know when to be on the bus on time and when to be on the stage to perform.”

Your aunt sounds like a major influence.

She named me. She came to Alice and basically told everyone to not name me because she had the perfect name for me. She would joke that my mother was nothing but a surrogate. She had always been my mother, she said, and she often fetched me after school and such. By the time things had not gone so well and she decided to basically adopt me, I had spent so much time with her and her husband, they easily became my parents.

It sounds like she gave you quite a musical education.

Well, my family is quite musical. I remember when we were younger ― Christmas, New Year, whatever time all the family was together ― we would basically be sitting around in the bedroom talking about who had what talent. And the one or two cousins that couldn’t sing were tortured endlessly. We would say, what are you good at — sports? It was a consolation prize. God didn’t give you a real gift, God gave you… sport!

That makes sense to me because your voice is so trained. So, from a very early age you were encouraged…

My aunt was a music teacher. My mom and aunts all sang in choirs, singing Handel, Mozart. When I sang my first solo, she said, “I taught you well. You know you sound good because of me.” The talent I had was fostered at a really young age.

To her, either you were a classically trained singer doing recitations or you were a soul singer like Marvin Gaye, the Manhattans, the O’Jays. Everything else wasn’t “musical.” But as a teenager, I learned about new acts from Myspace. Artists like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan were appealing to me because my voice broke. The only two musicians that my mom liked that I liked were Radiohead and Rufus Wainwright. Everyone else she thought was bullshit.

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I know that you had always been a reader, but I heard that James Baldwin came into your life around the age of 18.

“Just Above My Head” was the first I discovered of his. It’s so messy, it feels like he’s throwing himself into it, not really concerned whether it looks perfect, just enjoying the process of writing. And, of course, when you read someone you have to read everything, so I went back to “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Another Country,” “Giovanni’s Room.” You look at the publishing date and say to yourself: “1957? How? If someone could do that at the time, what excuse do I have?”

He influenced you to come out?

I had a party in my house and came out and continued having a party…. Coming out to my family was a bit more complicated.

So when you joined the church and were in the closet again, what did you do with James Baldwin? Did you have to close off parts of yourself that you had opened?

In a way, yes, and in a way, no. I continued reading Baldwin and [Michael] Cunningham and the others. The political stuff and personal work had to be put on hold for me. I worked very hard not to be moved by the work in that sense, trying to learn from the artist but not trying to be the artist, which was really difficult at the time. My mentor at the church didn’t want me to read anything that wasn’t Christian-centric.

I would think that when you were renouncing your sexuality, that you were also not pursuing your life as an artist. But you were.

Oh, completely. Still, the truth is always the truth. I was trying to get rid of my queerness, but my artistic world was always about honesty. My artistic world was a place where I felt safe. The work was beyond me sitting on a pew.

It’s interesting. It’s like, however painful and self-hating as that time was, it was still a training in how to speak in metaphor.

Completely. You learn how to speak code in a weird way. My Christian friends love those songs on the first album because they were shrouded in metaphor, they were shrouded in code language.

But on ”You Will Not Die,” I could speak as clearly as possible. In the room I was writing the album in, in Jo’burg, I had sentences written down. “Clarity first beyond everything else” was one of them. Those days of obfuscation were over.

It sounds like ”Brave Confusion’s” release was lumped in with the folk trend at the time, even though it doesn’t sound at all folky.

Yes, that was the time of Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, which eventually led to the watered-down versions, Mumford & Sons, etc., etc. Technically it was just the music I was writing because I just had a guitar. I always wanted to make music that was fuller and bigger, I just didn’t have the tools ― so I worked with what I had. I started listening to Leonard Cohen but was also interested in Björk and David Bowie. That first album wasn’t that widely heard.

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Then you published a novel and then you do ”The Wound,” which causes a huge reaction. And you received threats mostly through social media?

Yes, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… all of it.

So then you moved to London—

No! I didn’t flee. That’s not really the way it happened. While all of this is happening, the album was getting mixed and mastered. I knew I was going to do a lot of press in Europe. So it made sense, practically, to move.

Also I needed a change. I was 30 years old. It just happened at the same time people were being lunatics.

But you took these threats seriously?

Oh, yeah. Very seriously! I did cancel a visit to Eastern Cape. I took the threats seriously, but I didn’t leave my country because of that.

In ”The Wound,” your character becomes a mentor for a younger person who is considered “soft.” I’m wondering if you had the same label applied to you when you were younger.

Of course. You can only front so much till people are suspicious of your desires, how you speak. It’s like that scene in ”Angels in America” where Prior talks about “the sibilant S.” I remember when I went to initiation rite to become a “man” and thinking, “Oh, I want to be a man!” and other initiates kept asking me if I was gay all the time. And I was like, “Jesus Christ, is my performance not convincing?”

I’ve been bullied since I was a child. I was interested in musical theater, in orchestral music. I liked spending time with my mom and aunts more than my uncles and dads. But now, on some level, I think that emboldened me. My mother never made me change my behavior or listen to what the men of the family said.

“When my 30th birthday was approaching, I didn’t want to be a bitter person, angry at everyone they once loved.”

Before ”The Wound” came out 2017, you reconciled with your birth mother.

Yeah. It’s been great. My mom called me, and we had a long talk. We straightened out some things. Then some things we agreed to disagree on and move on. But the big thing, which is the love, that almost trumps everything. The most important thing is that we want to be in each other’s lives and to love each other. If one is hurt by the other, they say it, see it and fix it. I’m one of the few black kids who can say, “Mom, I don’t like how you talk to me!”

There’s something about ”You Will Not Die” that feels like forgiveness, or a coming to terms at least with the church. It’s so hymnal.

When my 30th birthday was approaching, I didn’t want to be a bitter person, angry at everyone they once loved. So I started making amends with exes and friends and people in the church I had a big falling out with. I started apologizing. “I hope that if we are not friends going forward, that at least when my name comes up you don’t wish bad upon me.” I was really trying to reset ― to write about religion, spirituality without anger, without bitterness, without pettiness. Because as much as it doesn’t apply to me, a lot of people do, including the people that I love.

The song “Star Red” is one of my favorites. I love the traditional music that comes in at the end, like a memory.

Yes, the polyrhythmic traditional music. The song is about my grandmother, so I had to take it back there. It wasn’t always like that. It was actually a mistake in the studio. It was a sample of drums, and we were in the studio going over other samples of drums. It’s almost like the song itself asked to go there. A part of it was agency, a part of it was much bigger in design. Everything can be a source. You can’t be egotistical about where the song wants to go. You have an idea and you must open yourself up. Which is kind of scary.

What song was the scariest to write?

“You Will Not Die.” For a number of reasons. That and ”Star Red” are the ones that I have to catch myself when I perform. I can’t fake them. They pull it out of me, whether I like it or not.

Particularly ”You Will Not Die.” It’s very, very personal. About my biological parents when they sent me away. That song was easy to write. I wrote it very quickly. You can’t spend much time on a song like that. It’s one of those “first thought, best thought” kind of songs. They may happen quickly, but what they leave behind can be very moving.

So sometimes when I play it live, I have to collect myself for 30 seconds afterward. Goddamn song. It really fucks me up. I remember when I wrote it, I called my best friend and said to her, ”I’m writing about it,” and she said, “Are you sure? You know you are going to have to go on tour and perform it every day.” And I thought, “Oh, you know after the 15th show, these songs won’t have any destructive emotion to them.” But somehow when I sit down to the piano and play that song, it still shakes me up.

Yet it’s hopeful.

It’s hopeful. You are going to wake up in the morning; you will not be dead. I go to bed, I wake up, and I will not be dead. But there is a seething in that song. There’s a line, “and I’ll live just to see you die,” and I remember when I recorded it my friend was like “Jesus Christ.” I guess it’s about revenge. Even though the album isn’t. It’s just a little “Fuck you.” Pease allow me one little “Fuck you”!

What’s next for you?

I thought I would have a really quiet 2019. I am writing. That’s going really well. And doing a bit of acting, another film soon. I’m writing some essays for Another Man, Lotion magazine, writing some fiction. Tilling the soil. Opening ourselves up to experiences is a frightening thing. It’s easier to try to keep still, but something compels me to live.

Nakhane appears in John Cameron Mitchell’s podcast, Anthem: Homunculus. His summer tour dates include June 17 at School Night in Los Angeles; June 20 at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, New York; June 21 at the Toronto Pride Festival; and Aug. 14 at SummerStage in New York City.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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