Nakhane's Music Meets At Life's Intersections: 'There's Nothing To Be Ashamed Of'

Feb 23, 2019
Originally published on February 25, 2019 7:59 pm

South African author, actor and musician Nakhane creates art that reveals. He came out with his first album, Brave Confusion, in 2013, and now he's back with a powerful testimony of trial and redemption set to the sounds of electronic dance music from his home country. The 30-year-old singer addresses the intersectionality of queerness, blackness and survival in his latest album, You Will Not Die.

Raised among fundamentalist Christians in Alice — a small South African town in the Eastern Cape — Nakhane came out as gay at age 19, but fearful of God's rejection, he entered conversion therapy. But after years of suppressing his identity in fear of punishment, Nakhane decided to set himself free by embracing not only his sexuality but also his artistic ability. This self-liberation resulted in his first album, Brave Confusion, his first novel, Piggy Boy's Blues, and now the latest 18-track offering.

Nakhane talks with NPR's Scott Simon about the influences of his history, culture and identity in the process of making You Will Not Die. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link, and read on for interview highlights.


Interview Highlights

On finding and honing his identity

Being a queer person in general in any space in the world, whether you are supported or not, you are the "other." Then put on top of that, being born into a Christian family, put on top of that, being in a super masculine space where you're expected to perform in a certain way in order for you to be accepted as a man. And then now, you're queer. And then as a Christian, that means that you have to renounce a big part of your desire. That was part of it, about five years of me trying to be a conservative Baptist. Parts of You Will Not Die do deal with it, whether directly or not.

On finding guidance from author and activist James Baldwin

He represented me. Before then you know it was hard enough blending queer literature, at least as far as I knew growing up in the suburbs of South Africa. The people that I did find were white writers. Great representation on the queer front sometimes, but not so great in the sense of me finding myself. You know, I could find the sex I could find the desire. But I couldn't find my cousins and my sisters and my mom, you know, I mean those things are really really important. I'm not mad. And that's what he says to me. He says, "You're not mad. You have a place in this world. Go out there and create."

On the song "Star Red"

It's about my grandmother. She raised me from birth up until I was five years old. She loved me completely. Her love was pure because it demanded nothing from me and she taught me a lot. She was a drinker and a smoker, which was very bad ass. I mean, for a black woman in the '60s to be smoking and drinking during a party — can you imagine? She said, "Look honey, if you're going to drink, don't drink your alcohol under the bed. Because if you do, it's going to come out and you can be humiliated and it will cause you a world of pain. Do it out in the open for everyone to see."

YouTube

I mean, she was talking about alcohol. But I don't know if she realized how broad that was, because I implement that advice on almost every facet of my life. Do it out in the open so that you have nothing to be ashamed of because there is nothing to be ashamed of. If you are doing the right thing and you're honest and be truthful about it, there's nothing to be ashamed of.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The music of Nakhane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAIRVOYANT")

NAKHANE: (Singing) When I closed my eyes, I saw prairies. Someone out there was being buried, oh.

SIMON: He's an actor and a novelist, in addition to writing and performing his own music. His latest album, "You Will Not Die," has songs of trial and redemption set to the sounds of electronic dance music from South Africa, his home country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAIRVOYANT")

NAKHANE: (Singing) So I look to you. I look to you.

SIMON: Nakhane joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

NAKHANE: Thank you so much.

SIMON: You first came to London because you felt you had to flee South Africa.

NAKHANE: Well, that's the myth. That's the myth that the Western media wanted to sell. I came to live in London because I knew that I would be touring Europe a lot. And so it made sense for me to live in London. But it did happen at a time when, you know, times were not necessarily nice for me in South Africa.

SIMON: What was going on?

NAKHANE: I was part of a film called "The Wound." And it was a film about a rite of passage of the Xhosa culture from which I am from, where boys go to initiation where they get circumcised. It's a secret and sacred rite of passage. So anyone who has not participated in it is not supposed to know about it, including women from the culture themselves. And then we went and made a film about it and queered it. So people were very angry.

SIMON: Now, I have read - unless this is another myth of the Western press...

NAKHANE: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...That you went through conversion therapy.

NAKHANE: No. That's not a myth. That's gospel truth (laughter), ironically.

SIMON: We'll explain - discredited treatment to, essentially, try and convince a gay person that he or she is not.

NAKHANE: Yes, and that they can convince themselves through faith and suppression that they are straight.

SIMON: And what was that like?

NAKHANE: Awful. Being a queer person in general in any space in the world, whether you are supported or not, you are the other. And then put on top of that being born into a Christian family. Put on top of that being in a super masculine space where you're expected to perform in a certain way in order for you to be accepted as a man. And then, now you're queer. And then you become a Christian. And then, as a Christian, that means that you have to renounce a big part of your desire. And that was part of it - about five years of me trying to be a conservative Baptist.

SIMON: Does this end up in a song?

NAKHANE: It ends up in an album. It ends up in "You Will Not Die." Parts of "You Will Not Die" do deal with it, whether directly or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WILL NOT DIE")

NAKHANE: (Singing) And when I drank until full with no tear to cry, there was nothing to give up. And in the morning when I woke, I knew I would not die.

SIMON: Find that words of hope in the face of darkness.

NAKHANE: Oh, completely. And when I woke, I knew that I would not die. You know, you're going to wake up in the morning and - I mean, unless you die in your sleep (laughter). But you're going to wake up in the morning. And you're going to be alive. And there's another chance of you making it better for yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WILL NOT DIE")

NAKHANE: (Singing) I've heard there's a light that's invisible for the ones who do stray.

SIMON: I have also read that you have referred to James Baldwin as your...

NAKHANE: As my dad.

SIMON: Yeah.

NAKHANE: Yes, of course.

SIMON: OK.

NAKHANE: But I have to...

SIMON: I know you were being metaphorical, right?

NAKHANE: Yes. He was born - I mean, he passed away a year before I was born. He represented me.

Before then, you know, it was hard enough finding queer literature, at least as far as I knew, growing up in the suburbs of South Africa. And the people that I did find were white writers - great representation of the queer front sometimes, but not so - not great in the sense of me finding myself. You know, I could find the sex. I could find the desire. But I couldn't find my cousins and my sisters and my mom. Do you know what I mean? Those things are really, really important.

And so here was James Baldwin. And suddenly, it's a completely different world. I exist. I'm not mad, you know? And that's what he says to me. He says, you're not mad. You have a place in this world. Go out there and create.

SIMON: Recommend a cut to us on this album, if you could.

NAKHANE: "Star Red."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAR RED")

NAKHANE: (Singing) And I found you.

It's about my grandmother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAR RED")

NAKHANE: (Singing) I found you in the absence. I went back home to Alice. I remembered that moment, a worrisome fragment, when I read you the Bible because you were simply unable.

Star Red was her name. It was her nickname. And she raised me from birth up until I was 5 years old. She loved me completely. And she taught me a lot. She always used to say to me - because she was a drinker and a smoker, which was very badass. I mean, for a black woman in the '60s to be smoking and drinking during apartheid - can you imagine? And she said, Nakhane, if you're going to drink, don't drink your alcohol under the bed because if you do, it's going to come out. And you're going to be humiliated, and it will cause you a world of pain. Do it out in the open for everyone to see.

And, I mean, she was talking about alcohol. And I don't know if she realized how - I don't know - how broad that was because I implement that advice on almost every facet of my life. If you are doing the right thing and you're honest and you're truthful about it, there's nothing to be ashamed of.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAKHANE SONG, "THE DEAD")

SIMON: Nakhane - his latest album, "You Will Not Die."

NAKHANE: Until you do (laughter).

SIMON: I like that for an ending. Nakhane, thanks so much for being with us.

NAKHANE: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DEAD")

NAKHANE: (Singing) Well, there's one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.