South African Singer Nakhane on Channeling Resilience on U.S. Debut, DMing With Madonna

“Someone like me didn’t even exist 5 years ago."

The world needs an artist like Nakhane now more than ever. The U.S. release of You Will Not Die excavates his religious upbringing, periods of depression and anxiety, as well as love, joy, and self-acceptance—all in the realization that despite past trauma, he’ll survive.
 

NewNowNext spoke with the South African queer pop star about the evolution of his music, the themes explored, and the value of representation.

The album title, You Will Not Die, seems like the perfect four words to introduce a story of survival and of hope. Why did you choose this title?

At about 20 or 21, I was still going to bible study at the time studying proverbs. There was a verse I would read over and over again about continuously punishing a child for bad behavior that I began to personalize and appropriate. I knew that life was going to be difficult, but that I would still wake up in the morning and be OK knowing that despite everything, I was not going to die.

For the deluxe album, every song felt so cohesive. What was it like writing for this album and the integration of six new tracks for the U.S. release?

We had to ask ourselves, do we want to go with the same order as last year or do we integrate these songs. It was 11 songs at first, and fucking around with the order could ruin it. The way the songs are arranged is very deliberate. I said to my manager, after “Teen Prayer,” I want to rearrange those extra songs as if they were their own thing. Like an epilogue in a book, the story is finished, but there’s more and it could stand alone.

What is the music scene like in South Africa and what is it like being an artist there?

When my first album came out, there were a lot of acoustic guitars and beards. At the time, I was playing in a post-punk band. When I was doing solo stuff, people were talking right over me and not paying attention to me on stage. I was working toward incorporating a greater power dynamic and volume.

After my debut album, I abandoned acoustic guitar. It was like some sort of armor on some level, every time I went on stage, it was like combat and it takes time for people to warm up. I started performing with a backing track and electronics to get a full sound. To some, this was deemed inauthentic, but I did not want a band. It was a very deliberate decision to see if I could be alone and capture people.

Then I got signed and knew these songs weren’t going to be solo, but more complex. By then I had proved my point and wanted a band.

Yann Orhan

There are so many messages of resilience on this record which I think everyone needs to hear during difficult times. What has been the feedback from your fans on sharing such a personal journey?

It really moves me, when you think maybe you are just filling the world with noise, but then someone sends a message that completely changes your mind. I don’t want to present that I set out to do that. Most art comes from a very selfish place and then moves to a much bigger thing. Your personal story may not be unique in its particulars, but it can help people feel like they can take up space and that someone like them can exist in the world. I really don’t take that lightly.

As queer people of color, it’s very challenging trying to find positive reinforcement while coming of age. In pursuing music, who has encouraged you and have you always felt there was a place for you?

I was just laughing with a friend because I had once submitted some of my demos to a Christian label and they rejected them. I didn’t know there as a place for me until I discovered James Baldwin. Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde are inspirations, as well as Zakes Mda, a black South African novelist and legend who changed my life.

Up until 19 or 20, I had never read a book by a South African before, let alone a black one. This cleared the sky for me and I could recognize my family in the characters. It was a big deal. Someone like me didn’t even exist even 5 years ago. I also remember when I discovered Mykki Blanco and had initially rejected the music so violently, only because it had really touched a nerve.

 

What are your thoughts on representation in music and the lack thereof for queer musicians?

Representation shows kids that they have a right to exist and that there’s nothing wrong with them. It starts there. If you don’t see a thing done, you don’t believe it can be done. The reason straight white men can be so confident is because they are represented everywhere. They can’t imagine not existing in a space because they are everywhere.

You’re a man of many talents, not only a musician, but in film and literature as well. For those who have not seen The Wound, what is the story being told and how has the reaction been since?

It’s about a right of passage—a Xhosa initiation ritual of boys moving on to manhood. No one who has not gone through the right of passage is supposed to know about it. So, we made a film about it that also includes a queer storyline.

People were very annoyed to say it lightly. We won many awards—but it was initially given an X-rated rating in South Africa.

Now, my fellow gays will kill me if I don’t at least ask, but how did you end up connecting with Madonna?

We initially spoke on Instagram, and then had dinner together. We basically slid into each other’s DMs.

I would have died…

You will not die (laughs).

What’s next for you this year? Will you be touring the U.S., hitting music festivals?

I’ll be hitting some music festivals, and I am currently writing for the next album, another novel, and doing some acting stuff later on this year or next. I thought I’d do something not music related in the next 4-5 years, but when given the opportunity, you should always say yes and not be afraid of what you haven’t done before.

You have to jump in and see what you’re capable of or not. I never had an interest in blowing up overnight, but more interested in a slow bleed. I’m interested in projects that really feed my soul and help me grow bit by bit. If you are open to receive, you will learn new things.

Jay writes about music and pop culture since us LGBT folks pretty much run these kinds of things.
@theglimmerist