When I first began reading about Nakhane, the 30-year-old South African artist slash actor slash writer, the dominant narrative surrounding him was that of cultural oppression. Many the articles I could read on him centred on the fact that, after starring in short film The Wound, which depicted a gay relationship in South Africa’s Xhosa community, Nakhane received numerous death threats, forcing him to free persecution. It’s a compelling and sad story.
Actually, though, it’s not the truth. Not exactly. “I left South Africa because it was going to be way too expensive to keep touring Europe,” he explains to me, visibly bemused at the idea of Western media spinning such a white saviour-y narrative. “I was turning 30. I needed a change.”
Nakhane is sitting with me in Launceston’s Hotel Grand Chancellor, the cavernous and hyper-colonial hotel in which he is staying during Mona Foma, one stop on his Australian tour. There’s an immediate disconnect seeing Black, queer Nakhane in a building that so clearly represents everything he fights in his music—colonialism, status quo, white power. From his press, you’d think he might be a deadly serious figure—but in reality Nakhane is chatty and excitable, often bursting into booming laughter or lowering his voice to whisper so that whatever he’s saying sounds vaguely scandalous.
He’s just released “New Brighton”, a collaboration with noted Nakhane fan ANOHNI, and is obviously riding high from the song’s reception. As Nakhane sips on an herbal tea and takes bites of a peach, we discuss his forthcoming record You Will Not Die, as well as all that white saviour bullshit.
NOISEY: “New Brighton” centers around this manta of “never live in fear again”—do you think that applies to your life as it is right now?
Nakhane: Yeah, in many ways. I guess sometimes you write something and you’re not sure how important it is going to be for you in the future. I’ve felt that words are particularly prophetic, for me at least. That particular phrase was the last thing I wrote on that song—it wasn’t on the original demo. It does apply to my life, I suppose. Because I’m afraid of everything. So, it’s a cool reminder, I’ve just got to put it out there.
Your work deals with the ongoing effects of colonialism, and state sanctioned violence. How do you think that translates, say for example when you come to Australia, even Tasmania specifically, which is a country that is still very intensely dealing with ongoing colonialism and violence.
It’s so funny that you say that. When the tour was finalised, I had an interview with someone, and I was in Lisbon—I was writing in Lisbon for my next album—and she asked ‘Do you know anything about Tasmania?’ I said you know what I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about Tasmania. All I do know, or I’ve heard, from Australians and Australian friends of mine, is that colonisers pushed all the Indigenous people off a cliff. She kind of just laughed, and said goodbye, and then put the phone down—she couldn’t even handle that remark. Like, oh! She couldn’t even have the conversation about it…she was so, I guess confronted? I think that’s as close as you can get. Which I found both funny and sad, you know. I wasn’t even right in front of her—it was over the phone, thousands of kilometres away, and I made that remark and she couldn’t even engage with it…that make me worried.
Everything is racialized. So coming to Australia, and coming to Tasmania… I did a press tour last year, in September. And people were like ‘So…what do you know about Australia’. And I’d respond saying “Its racism! I’m sorry but that’s all I know.” And then they’d respond saying, “Oh we’re not so bad…” Like, coming from white people? I’m sure I can trust your experience of it. But yeah, as a black queer body I know that everywhere I walk, and every room that I enter, those things are so visible, particularly my race. It’s always something I’ll have to deal with, and something I’m very aware of, especially when I go on stage, and what I sing about.
It’s so funny—I was telling someone about my second book, and they said “Do you want to be that artist that’s known for queer work?” and I said “Do you realise how homophobic that is?” She said “Oh wow that’s sort of problematic,” and I said “Yeah, would you ask a straight author that?”
Why is that queer artists, and artists of colour always have to transcend their gender, their race, their sexuality, to be as adaptable as possible and likeable as possible? I’m not really interested in scrubbing myself down for anyone.
I guess it’s that mindset of white colonizers wanting to temper your identity.
Yes, completely. I remember having this argument with my best friend—it was not the right time to have an argument, because we were both drunk. He was like, “No I don’t see you as a black artist, or an African artist or a South African artist—you’re beyond that. You’re universal.” I was like, fuck that! No, I’m not. I’m a black South African artist, and that’s something I’m really proud of, and people must know that. An artist like Nick Cave—white Nick Cave—can sound as American as he wants and no one will bat an eyelid. But let’s say for example, a South African artist could move to America and start making trap music and everyone will be like ‘Oh, you know what, you’ve really changed. Because for some reason, those artists must always perform like in a style from where they come from, in order for them to be believable and authentic—they can’t just do what they like, they can’t just have fun. I don’t know if I’m challenging that consciously, but I know I’m doing what I want.
A lot of Western audiences, by the nature of the West, won’t truly be able to understand the nature of the homophobia and racism that you’re talking about. How do you navigate that culture clash?
Do you know what irritates me the most? The saviour mentality. Everyone is so obsessed with this idea that I left South Africa because I was afraid of being killed, so that’s why I went to live in London, and there I found solace and peace, and could finally be myself. I didn’t leave South Africa because of that. I left South Africa because it was going to be way too expensive to keep touring Europe, and going back and forth. So I moved because it was just going to be easier for me. I guess I needed a change, I was turning 30.
This idea that they’re not saviours, this idea that they’re not any better… I think that shocks [Western audiences]. I had an interview in Germany once—at the time, I had read an article about how crime towards queer people in Germany was on the rise. And this journalist was like, ‘You know we don’t have those problems.’ I was like really? That’s interesting, because this article says something else!’ There’s this idea [from the west] that every space in South Africa is a space of danger, and that it must be so bad there. That’s the clash that irritates me. And the clickbait of this death threat shit. Maybe I set myself up for this. Maybe I shouldn’t have talked about it.
What I find really difficult is protecting… It’s like when you’re annoyed at your mum, and you say ‘Ugh, my mum is being such an asshole,’ and someone agrees. And you’re like ‘Woah! You are not allowed to say that—you are not allowed to say my mum is an asshole. What the fuck.’ You know what I mean? It’s almost like that—particularly with the death threats around the film. Xhosa men were being such dicks, and they needed to know they were being dicks, but the way that I felt that some Western media was coming at it….
Like an excuse to condemn the whole group.
Exactly! I was like no! It’s not that—I love these people, first of all. I am those people. I may not believe in some of the things they do, but I came from them. Those men raised me, those men love me, those men hate me. It’s much more complicated than what [the media are] trying to make it. So you’re caught between a space where you don’t want to perform for Western media—this whole thing of like noble savage thing—whilst also knowing that the people back home that you’re trying to protect are the same people who don’t like you. It’s a very difficult space to be in. I find it very difficult.
Do you feel like pop music is an effective mode for political speech or political change?
Yes. Yes I do. I think if anything, I think pop music is the strongest vehicle for that. It’s the folk music of recent times. It’s got the widest audience. It should be reflective of what’s going on. You have to be like an escapist to not be aware of what’s going on around. On the other hand, it’s such a wide thing—it can’t be easily defined, can it? Like in the same way that Ariana Grande is pop music, and the same way that Radiohead is pop music. It’s different, but yeah, it’s still pop music. They’re doing different things, and have different messages.
I used to think that I could never like pop music—maybe the climate has changed. This whole idea that pop music is cheaper, I think that belief has become less strong. What do you think?
I think so.
For the first time in a long time, the interesting music that is coming out is pop music. I don’t think indie music really exists anymore, you know what I mean—something happened where that space is gone. I remember when I first discovered MySpace, and there were all these musicians that were seen as ‘indie’ musicians. Now it’s become much more muddied. And pop music is where all the experimentation is happening. Even down to the contracts and the labels. It’s kind of exciting. People forget—especially old men—that the bands they used to love were pop bands! The Beatles were a pop band. They were like One Direction! I guess 50 years later, people have a much more rose tinted view. Hindsight can do that to you. I’m so tired of middle aged white men and their obsession with guitars.
So, It’s been almost 10 years since you’ve come out- how have you seen queer rights change in South Africa over that time?
It’s much more visible. 10 years ago, someone like me, someone who is visibly queer, would not have any time given to them by the press, the people. The language was very different. No one was held accountable for homophobia. Queer people were seen as a joke, and their work was seen as a joke. Now it’s different, I’m certain of that. Because I think in the last 10 years, the work speaks for itself, on all fronts—film, photography, music, performance arts. That takes time! The implementation of laws doesn’t necessarily change people’s minds.
That’s the thing about South Africa—they’re so good at laws. But we’re very bad at educating the wider population. When same sex marriage was made legal, there were a few articles and that was it. The curriculum in school hadn’t changed. Queer kids still learnt by themselves about sex. Because it wasn’t taught at schools, so they kind of just fumbled through it. I think that can be very dangerous, because they feel like they had no one to turn to. I think it’s different now because of social media. Now with social media, there’s a democratisation of space. People can’t be ignored anymore. I still think that queer artists will never be mainstream though. That will still take some time.
Nakhane plays Melbourne on Friday at NOCTURNAL (Tickets and info here) and Saturday at Howler (Tickets on sale now).