Interviews

Battling Racism and Homophobia Helped This South African Artist Find His Voice

"Things changed when I started to receive detailed death threats last year. But nonetheless, my first response was still: I will now fight even harder for the LGBTQ community."

by Bo Hanna
24 May 2018, 3:10am

Photos by Tarryn Hatchett

This article originally appeared on Noisey Netherlands.

South African-born writer, actor, and singer Nakhane Touré (30) received death threats last year after he played the lead role in The Wound, a South African queer film. The film tells the story of two men who put their lives on the line for love and criticizes a tribal ritual called Ukwaluka, during which boys get circumcised and initiated into manhood. Because of this controversy in his home country, Nakhane was forced to move to London. His new album is called You Will Not Die.

For years, Nakhane was afraid to be attacked on the street by homophobes. He didn’t get recognized or acknowledged as a queer person of color and was forced to leave his religious community in South Africa. He came out as queer at age 19 and is now determined to use his repertoire about homosexuality, colonialism, and religion in the fight for equality and freedom. He's currently on tour in Europe. After his show in Paris, I spoke with him at his hotel about his music and the battle against racism and homophobia.

Noisey: With your music, you fight for equality and freedom. Do you believe artists and musicians have an obligation to be engaged in this way?
Nakhane: How could you not be engaged? To me, artists who can afford not to stand for something are definitely making a choice. If, for instance, you refuse to fight against racism and you think everything is fine the way it is, you are indirectly saying that you do nothing because you have white privilege. It’s good when people with a big following speak out about inequality. I don’t know why people get so worked up about other people’s decisions or their way of living. Leave each other be!

Speaking of which: you received death threats after you starred in The Wound. How did that affect you?
I definitely expected negative reactions because of the controversy and sensitivity around the film in South Africa, but this went really far. When I was a kid, I was often scared to be attacked by homophobes when walking down the street. Sometimes, I feel that fear again, and let’s not forget that many LGBTQ people are still not able to walk around safely. Luckily, I wasn’t susceptible to bullying as a child, my parents taught me to stand my ground. Of course people would call me a faggot at times, but bullies soon realized they couldn’t break me down. Things changed when I started to receive detailed death threats last year. But nonetheless, my first response was still: I will now fight even harder for the LGBTQ community.

In an interview, you said that your work isn’t gay or straight. What do you mean by that?
My work is queer: I prefer to identify with that term than with ‘gay’, because it’s more political and doesn’t exclude anyone. I’m not just talking about sexuality. When I play shows, I want to create an atmosphere, even if it’s just for one night, in which people feel like they can be safe and be themselves without someone hating them or judging them. Life is hard enough as it is, we need to enjoy the moments in which we are free and safe to the fullest. I’m glad more and more young people identify with the term queer.

You sound optimistic about the future.
Yes! It makes me mad when people say that the current generation doesn’t do anything besides staring at a screen. This generation knows a lot about themes like inequality, racism, and feminism, and works hard to create a better world. You see groups of like-minded people creating environments, even if they’re just virtual, in which they can support each other and offer both recognition and acknowledgement, and that’s very important. But I’m no missionary—I’m not here to convince people of my beliefs. If you have to come looking for me, you’ve missed what my work is essentially about. Because it’s not about me, it’s about you. I hope my work means something for others!

In the past, did you miss out on recognition and acknowledgement?
Yes, absolutely. From the time we’re very young, queer people come up with a way to fly under the radar: we have to hide and act a certain way to avoid being attacked or bullied. When I was young, the only gay artists I knew was George Michael and on top of that, due to the HIV epidemic, homosexuality was very stigmatized. Gay people were ‘dirty’. James Baldwin, who has inspired me tremendously, provided the recognition that I craved so much. When I came into contact with his work, I thought: I exist! I’m allowed to be! I could even become successful! In the video [for my song] "Clairvoyant", you see the love between two black men. It’s important to create content in which queer people of color can recognize themselves, because it’s hard to become something you never see.

Aside from representation, what else is needed?
It’s very important that we don’t wait for others to legitimize and recognize our struggles. It’s ghetto until it’s fashion: white people and straight people don’t have to talk about our thoughts and problems or legitimize them. Look at the discussion surrounding Black Pete, in which black people have to explain a hundred times why it’s not right. Before, queer art was nonsense and sinful, now it’s fashionable. Our predecessors have at times died for this fight and our freedoms, we shouldn’t forget that.

During your show yesterday, you talked about your religious background and how hard it was to rhyme that with your homosexuality.
Yes, and I speak from a personal perspective here, but for me the two were hard to rhyme. I grew up in a religious and conservative family. When I was very christian, I read the bible daily and hated myself because I thought I was a sinner. At some point, I stepped away from christianity, because I think that religion is often misinterpreted and misused. In the song "Presbyteria", for instance, I try to talk about how British colonizers forced a religion upon South Africa that didn’t go along with our culture. This lead to homophobia and gender norms that weren’t there before, for instance.

What was it like to break away from your community?
My family and my community didn’t have bad intentions, they often just didn’t know any better. In your battle for freedom and emancipation, you should never lose empathy for those who don’t get it quite yet. I had doubts early on because my sexual orientation didn’t fit in. Not everyone in my family is religious, I have aunts who are shamans and because of that, were deemed demons by other family members. They were there for me when times were tough, when I was fighting with my parents. These days, I’m lucky to have a lot of people around me who accept me and appreciate me for who I am, and with my music I try to help create a better world that is free of racism and homophobia. I have hope!

This article originally appeared on Noisey NL.