the queer gospel of nakhane

In one of the last interviews she ever did, Maya Angelou is asked what advice she would offer to the younger generation. “Tell the truth,” she says, “to yourself, and to the children.” Because truth is still scary —and even the best of us have to run from it at times. Truth about ourselves, and truth about childhood.

This is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Nakhane, for his music delivers truth in a way that makes you recoil. If you do not get it, he will spell it out for you, without a hint of shame. I wonder about where this ability to publicly tell the truth, with such ease comes from —to name the often-dark source of his inspiration to a world that claims to want truth but cannot take it. It is undeniable that the source of our adult expression, and all the darkness it carries, is linked to the kind of childhood we had. It is for this reason that, in therapy, we are encouraged to visit some of our darkest memories for they explain why we see the world the way we do. It is only through doing the inner work of revisiting those dark things we stowed away in a box somewhere that we can understand ourselves, our emotions and our world better. And hopefully, build healthier self-esteem. Nakhane’s music mirrors the inner work that one must do to be able to move better in one’s skin (or at least the work that my therapist is forcing me to do). The scars of childhood for black children don’t stop at home, for the rest of the world teaches us to be insecure from a very young age. This is why Nakhane’s music is a confrontation of, among other things, Christianity, whiteness and the ways our parents fail us. Things that start in our formative years and haunt us well into adulthood. My fascination with him led to a request for an interview. A Zoom meeting feels more dramatic now that we are in lockdown, but this is how we would have always had this conversation as he now lives in the United Kingdom.  

Nakhane, then Nakhane Touré, shot to popularity in 2015 when we heard him on the song We Dance Again with Black Coffee. Before that, he had been an artist who kept to the folk music scene. It goes without saying that this is one music form where the pioneering genius and contribution of black people is often overlooked. “I think I was misrepresented,” Nakhane tells me, “I think my agent at the time didn’t see my music as having any ‘blackness’ —my music was never pitched to black media when I started out. But I remember coming home after writing Abraham on Brave Confusion and asking my mom, ‘doesn’t this remind you of Marvin Gaye?” And on the song Christopher, Nakhane uses a guitar solo that boasts the influences from the sounds of Busi Mhlongo. It is amazing that an artist who adopted Ali Farka Touré’s surname wouldn’t be pitched to black media. 

But he undeniably loves the “white music” as well. Something he admits is not entirely of his own volition. “I went to white schools,” he says, “the only media I saw was white media. As a child, you’re a sponge. You’re taking things in —those things indent a mark on you. You fall in love with Björk and you think, ‘OMG! No black person has ever done this.’ And you grow older and realise that it’s not true. But that doesn’t take away the love you have for that music”

 There is something liberating about watching a young black South African artist not chase authenticity. It seems to me that “experimentation with sound” accompanied by something uniquely South African (often maskandi sounds) has become something of a gimmick in various forms of South African music. Nakhane occupies the space of alternative folk/ rock music unapologetically. His music boasts the influences of the Swedish rock band Sigur Ros with reckless abandon —on Violent Measures, the use of synths, and what is dubbed “ambient” sound,  produced by Ben Christophers and Lionel Buzac, creates that airy, melancholy feeling we have come to associate with the sounds of bands like Bon Iver and Sigur Ros. The full extent of his influences is realised on his EP, The Laughing Son, a project we both agree is his best work.  And while Nakhane’s writing is so sophisticated, his phrasing (accentuated by his use of the falsetto) is sometimes incoherent and forces one to lean in to listen to what he has to say. Another method of expression that remains popular in this airy, ambient rock form of music. These are things he doesn’t shy away from in his creation of an alternative sound. Nakhane’s contemporaries, acts such as Bongeziwe Mabandla and the BLK JKS have found a niche in alternative music that fuses alternative rock/ indie music with “indigenous” South African sounds and languages. Some have been more successful than others. 

But Nakhane’s music does not have a particular marker of explicit local-is-lekker authenticity. And it is the freedom from this artistic obligation that allows him to realise his highest form of expression -one that stays true to who he is and speaks to his experience as a black, queer man raised in black church in a way that we can still recognise even in its unrelenting use of the English language. And in songs such as Christopher, he lightheartedly gives a nod to one of his black alternative influences, Prince. 

Brave Confusion

His 2013 debut album, Brave Confusion, lifted its title from James Baldwin’s novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, where the narrator in the story describes items on a table: 

“The mantelpiece held, in brave confusion, photographs, greeting cards, flowered mottoes, two silver candlesticks that held no candles, and a green metal serpent, poised to strike.”

Nakhane discovered Baldwin when he was 19 years old. He saw the novel among his father’s university books. “I still remember after the first gay sex scene,” he says with a hint of humour, “I was like, ‘my dad has been reading this?!’ After that, I did all the research I could on him because before that, all the queer cinema or whatever I was engaging with was just white guys like Michael Cunningham with The Hours. When I think of it, I get goosebumps. Overnight, something completely switched. He [Baldwin] becomes a doorway because you think, he could never be alone. We are never in a vacuum.”

For him, the oxymoronic words, “brave confusion,” stood out and he related them to the state of South Africa. A people who can never return to precolonial times but also cannot make sense of where to place themselves and how to exist today.  But there was always something that demanded a closer look about an artist who would create an album centering his sexuality within Christianity. And that this album is called, Brave Confusion bears great significance in this context. 

I grew up in church too. And I often heard of queerness referred to as “a spirit of confusion.” Ideas about masculinity and femininity remained rigid in church. And those who could not move about the world conforming to these as binary were understood to be confused about who had God designed them to be. For an artist such as Nakhane, I can only imagine the confusion it created in him to exist in a space that was meant to carry love but rejected his true self. Or, to carry this sin that just wouldn’t go away.  

When Nakhane was outed as gay at 19 years old, he went back into hiding his sexuality. At 20, he dedicated his life to what he understood to be the good fight. During this time, he became fiercely Christian —attending Bible service twice a week, attending church twice on Sundays and spending a great part of his time at his pastor’s family house. He buried himself in the church to repress what had been taught to him as sin. It makes sense then that on Abraham, he sings “Abraham, father of my fathers/ I am the sand and I am the stars/ So don’t take me away” —his metaphoric use of the story of Abraham, who was told by God to take his son, Isaac, to the region of Moriah as a sacrifice, reveals the genius with which Nakhane can express the role of church in his life. After Abraham proves to God that he would sacrifice his only son if God asked him to, God says, “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore” (Genesis 22: 16-17). For Nakhane, the song is a love song to the patriarchs of the Bible. And he tells me that it is about making it personal, and going: ‘I know I’m going to mess up’. All the songs about me messing up in Brave Confusion are all about my sexuality.” He shares:

“it was very clear from the church I was in that, of all the sins I had, that one was the ugliest. I had to suppress and repress it as much as I could. I listen to Brave Confusion and I hear someone who is so sad. There’s so much shame. Oh, my God. There’s so much shame.”  

In The Dark Room expresses this exact shame, as he engages in the one sin that he has been taught to repress the hardest. “Come inside, he’ll say/ Come inside, he’ll coax” he sings of his temptation. “Hope you know I’ll hate myself in the morning for this,” he sings as he anticipates the feelings of shame. And when we talk about it, he summarises the thread between the songs as, “I know I’ll hate myself in the morning for this. Please don’t abandon me. Forgive me.” The first label Nakhane sent the Brave Confusion demos to was Maranatha! Music. A Christian record label. It was rejected. He felt that on some level, the album was a gospel album detailing what human beings go through. Shortly after recording the album, he left the church. “I had to go and sing songs that, some of which I no longer believed in,” he tells me, “those three/four years of touring Brave Confusion were difficult.”

I wonder aloud how a black artist who is so good at understanding their thoughts and questioning the world around them works with so many white people. He laughs. “One of the arguments I had with my manager, making the album I’m making now, is that I’ve been working with too many middle-aged white guys. I was like, ‘no. It’s uncomfortable”, he shares with me. It was for this reason that I was excited to see that Tshepang Ramoba, the drummer of the BLK JKS, worked on the Brave Confusion album. Something that excited Nakhane more as a black musician and a lover of alternative music. “I remember when Tshepang came to studio to do drums,” he reflects, “I didn’t speak to him. I was too nervous. Matthew (Fink, producer on Brave Confusion) did the directing. I was just sitting. So happy that I could transfer some of that energy into my album. He’s one of the best drummers I’ve ever played with.” 

Dealing with The Wound 

After We Dance Again with Black Coffee and his EP, The Laughing Son , the next big thing we would see Nakhane on was on his acting debut on the John Trengove film, Inxeba in 2017. As an obviously talented musician (and someone who had studied music film production for a bit at AFDA), Nakhane had been approached by Trengove to score the film. But somehow, he and Trengove decided that he should star in the film as Xolani, a lonely khankatha (caregiver for the boys being initiated into manhood) who has a secret, gay love affair with another khankatha whose closet is so deep, he has a wife and children. It makes sense that this love story of two romantically involved queer men in hiding would be a project that an artist such as Nakhane would come to be at the centre of. It is another tale of brave confusion. But truth is not that easy to speak in South Africa, and this truth brought with it a vitriol that nobody has accounted for, really. 

Nakhane’s decision to star in Inxeba was met with great backlash by traditional Xhosa leaders, and Xhosa men in general. The backlash was framed as a response to a white director revealing a sacred African rite in cinema -and Nakhane’s intentions were questioned for his participation in this act. However, the film did not actually reveal any sacred secrets, and black men, particularly Thando Mgqolozana of A Man Who is Not A Man and Malusi Bhengu had co-written the film. And Nakhane himself had the authority to speak on this as a Xhosa person who did go through the process of initiation. Instead, it seems to me that the real problem with Inxeba was that it portrayed homosexuality in a context that is understood as the ultimate pinnacle for masculinity in Xhosa culture.  This sparked protest, and the rage from Xhosa men was also expressed directly to him in the form of threats against his life. It was then reported that Nakhane had left South Africa as a result of this; he now resides in London. 

However, in his interviews, he shuts this idea down; clarifying to his interviewers that he decided to move to London because he had months of touring in Europe and it made logistical sense. But it would not be unreasonable to leave South Africa after all this. “On some level,” he opens up, “the difficulty of being a South African musician living in the west is that I still felt I needed to defend those people who are against me and The Wound.” 

This is a natural reaction to how the Global North tends to frame Africa with a singular story and makes that one story the dominant narrative – I understand that perhaps if Nakhane had opened up that portal, liberal western media would have written it with, “white saviour mentality,” as he spells it out for me at some point. But he is virtually home now, in this interview. And he is willing to admit that, while his move may not only have been about that, the timing of it was perfect for his protection. “You have no idea how happy I was that it happened during the time,” he shares with me with an ease that only hindsight can afford you, “not that I was running away, but I don’t think I could have handled what was happening if I was in South Africa at the time.” Gaining notoriety as an artist means one is hypervisible and cannot hide like the rest of us. This affected Nakhane’s day-to-day life. He describes a day where he went to the movies with his boyfriend: 

“We’re looking at the movies we’re going to watch and we hear, ‘ja, Nakhane’ and we turn around and there’s a [G4S worker] guy holding an AK47 and we both were [terrified, and thought], it’s because of The Wound! but he was like, ‘I love your music.’”

When telling the truth starts to affect one’s psyche in that sense because of the violence it has been met with, it speaks to a society that is not willing to hear it. 

You Will Not Die 

In the deluxe release of the album, on the song Medicine, Nakhane finally sings about the time surrounding Inxeba. “Heaven knows where we’ll go/ where they won’t follow me” he looks back, “Nothing like those dark days/ that we remember well/ damn the pain, the fire/ something like the great divider/ Praise it’s not inside us/ Now we know the feeling will go/ We’re safe against the medicine.” It is of an insurmountable significance that Nakhane’s sophomore album, released a year after the film had been released, is entitled You Will Not Die. The album title is the kind of defiant affirmation that he gives himself when he realises that he has not died from the pain in his life. He has survived the pain of being targeted with harassment over his contribution to a film that documents a representation of queer love stories in Xhosa culture.  You Will Not Die, he says, even as he comes from a country that looks past the killings and violence committed against black queer people. You Will Not Die, he says to Nakhane, the child who was abandoned by his biological parents. You Will Not Die, he says to the younger, queer Nakhane who had to suppress his being for the love of God. He did not die. 

This particular offering seems to me like an arrival to some kind of resolution. And this sense of resolution culminates itself on Teen Prayer, the final song on the album. Nakhane reflects upon a time when his home was repossessed, and the church was not there to protect him against that. “I left church because for the first time in my life, I was left to my own devices,” he discloses, “The people who were there for me were my queer friends who I was told to actually stop being friends with.” With this insight, it makes sense that the concluding song on the project begins with the words, “when I woke up, the room was dark/ when I woke up without a friend, no hallelujah.” His use of harmonies reminiscent of church choir, his titling of the song and the use of the organ in the song makes it clear that he has reached his final conversation as a Christian. Nakhane turns Christian respectability upside down as he croons, “when I wake with him in me/ Lord, Hallelujah.”

Regarding this song, he states:

Teen Prayer was the last song I wrote for the album. I wanted us to close in prayer, like we used to. Because that’s how we do it in black homes. But it’s also almost like an anti-prayer. It’s completely subversive. Using the language of hymns to celebrate anal sex. I had to make the decision to write a song that is that blasphemous. The fear of going to hell has gone now.” This kind of liberation from something that had held him back is unleashed in the very beginning of the first single of the album, Clairvoyant. A song that he best describes as his “gayest song.” And the final nail in the coffin on Teen Prayer? “oh, boy. White Jesus loves you now/ much more than he’ll ever love me” he sings with resignation. Reminding us again about the roots of Christianity and colonialism in Africa. 

But there is love on this album too. He still loves gospel music. He can still use the language, the music and the imagery. He proclaims this on The Dead, “Well, this time, I’m gonna love them unceasingly/ Sing hallelujah sort of willingly/ and dance in front of God like David did.” This time, he has the audacity and self-love to be queer in the light. And he will use Christian symbolism to express that if he pleases. This journey has created tensions in his old relationships, particularly around his race and sexuality. But he has grown to embrace them. “One of the things I really love about growing up and being in this age is realising that there’s nothing I love more than being just like ‘the rest of them’” he proudly tells me. “You know that black guy, or that black gay guy or the black gay women that you hate because they are just-? I’m just like them.”

When we end the interview, I tell Nakhane that what I most admire about him is his relentless need to tell the truth. To hurt openly, and to heal openly. “I really appreciate this,” he responds, “you doubt yourself so much and I’ve met a lot of my heroes this past year, people I never thought I’d meet. What I realise is, they’re all just people. They all have the same insecurities that you have. I think I’ve always hated this idea of the artist as a demigod. I’ve never been interested in that.” It is this humility, coupled with talent, that makes Nakhane such an honest and resonant artist. There’s so much I don’t cover. This is just a snapshot of a black, queer musical genius.