Nakhane is the global queer pop star the planet needs
Once in a blue moon, a queer artist comes along who makes us stop, listen, think, and reconsider what we thought we understood about the world. We love our divas, and we love a good gay bop, but Nakhane goes beyond these categories, creating global pop poetry that gives us a glimpse into a world we don’t hear enough about.
The South Africa–born artist, who moved to Johannesburg when he was 15, now lives in London and is playing Adelaide Hall on August 28, touring his second album, You Will Not Die. Thanks to collaborations with folks like Black Coffee, the record is a bit dancier than his acoustic debute. His music digs deep into a gay existence in South Africa, particularly Johannesburg, and into the journey of self-acceptance and pride. He no longer hides who he is, and though that’s got him into some boiling hot water back home (he also starred in The Wound, a film that was protested all over Africa and for which he received death threats), he now sings as a fearless, free queer man.
We sent Nakhane some questions via email to learn more about him, and here’s what he had to say.
Can you tell us and our readers about the queer scene in Johannesburg? How are things there these days?
Joburg is exciting. Queer people are doing such amazing things. They’re setting up safe spaces where they can flourish: parties, exhibitions, film, poetry, politics, fashion, etc. There’s a certain fever, an itch to create and to do it yourself – and not to some abstract idea of what it or you should be.
When you tour, are you inspired by other cities and queer communities?
When I tour I become a monk. I barely drink and I eat healthily. I can’t afford to become ill, so I have to take care of myself. The voice is a tricky instrument. Its quality is determined by so many variables that I try to take control of what I can in order for my voice to be at its best. This is a long-winded way of saying all I do is sleep when I tour. But the audiences, meeting people after the show, that can be really inspirational.
OK, so we’re into your more acoustic stuff, but we’re SO happy you’ve headed into a dancier direction with your music. We know Black Coffee sort of started this switch for you – how are you feeling about it today?
The collaboration with Black Coffee was what pushed my dancier tendencies to the mainstream, but even in my debut album, one can hear the electronic and dance influences pushing through the acoustic guitars. As a South African you have to be very wilful to not allow house music to influence you somehow. That music is so ubiquitous, and I’ve always loved all kinds of dance music. I think my love for it is now starting to become obsessive.
Thanks to your work in music, film, and books, do you feel more at home in yourself than ever?
In a way, yes. But having said that, I’m always changing things, moving furniture around, changing the colour of the paint, extending certain rooms. There’s always something going on.
The inspiration for your last album cover (influenced by Chinese photograher Ren Hang) is so touching and important. Did you think you’d become a voice for people of colour around the globe, not just in South Africa or Africa as a whole?
Long live Ren Hang. I’m wary of electing myself as the voice of other people. How could I possibly speak for other people? As similar as our stories are, they are so different and unique.
Who are some artists or musicians you admire?
God, I have so many favourite artists that when I declare someone one of my favourites, my boyfriend always says, “Yeah, one of a thousand.” So I’ll give you a list: Marvin Gaye, Busi Mhlongo, Anohni, James Baldwin, Wong Kar-wai, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, TKZee, Brenda Fassie, Yasunari Kawabata, Fela Kuti, Patti Smith, Stereolab, Édouard Louis, Mbongwana Star.
Can you describe your main style influence?
I always say that my style at the moment is “My mother in the ’80s if she had a penchant for fetish wear.”