Nakhane: The Wounds That Won’t Kill Us

Nakhane talks to EXIT about their music and movement, their current wellbeing, moving to London, rebirth and their evolution.

Words: Kgosi Motsoane
Images: Sergio Aparicio

During a performance at Young Blood Gallery in Cape Town Nakhane created a container and called for everyone to use the darkness of the room as the moment to become their aspirational selves, “we are all in the dark” I remember them saying as the room’s lights went out, leaving only their indigo silhouette with a guitar in hand.

Someone near the front of the crowd screamed out ‘I love you so much!’ breaking the silence of the room, to which Nakhane flashed a smirk barely discernable, while keeping the rest of us transfixed on their every word and sway. A blue light shone above them. I understood then that Nakhane was an artist who knows what they’re doing.

On memory and movement

Almost a year later, I’m working on this piece and my first reaction to the idea of writing about one of my favourite contemporaries was the fear that they might leave me disillusioned as many public personas have in the past. Either as victims of their own illusions or as fading echoes of social media rhetoric.

Nakhane, whose 2018 album ‘You Will Not Die’ now carries within it my prized memories of road tripping through the misty roads and hills of the Eastern Cape. It was lost on me at the time, that the music that filled the cabin of that rental car, whose sound waves bounced between gorges, buildings and habours had returned home. Where a young Nakhane first pressed their finger against the key of a piano, changing the sound of queerness in this country, daresay, permanently.

When asked about their childhood in the Eastern Cape held, Nakhane replied, “I used to be so sure about that time. But, the older I’ve become the more suspicious I’ve become about it. I think I trust my memory less. What I do remember is that it was a childhood of nature and music. I remember walking in the fields, by the river, picking up peaches and berries. I remember singing myself to sleep, listening to my grandmother sing with her friends”.

Working on this piece, I realized how movement, became in a way a large chord in Nakhane’s story, whether it be by their volition or the coercion of others, the 32-year-old currently residing in London, is a long way from home. Speaking about their transition from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, I began noticing how with each new environment Nakhane entered, they’d adapt by acquiring a new skill, “I knew how big cities worked. But nothing could ready me for the expansiveness of Joburg. I had never been in a city where my language wasn’t the most widely spoken. That was a culture shock. And then I had to sacrifice music because the school didn’t offer it. I’m an artist, so I set my sights on to drama, which I loved. It changed my life.

Drama, at the very least added to the fire and ice theatrics one expects from Nakhane’s live music performances, yet it was their elegiac screen debut role as the soft-spoken broody factory worker Xolani in the highly polemic film ‘Inxeba’ that exiled Nakhane to the UK.

Everything happened so fast. I didn’t have a chance to take care of myself. It was fight or flight. And I was taught to fight in things I believe in. When I was a child my mother always used to say to me, ‘I’m not on your side. I’m on the side of the truth.’ At first it was a shock as a child to understand that my relationship with my mother was not based on Hollywood ‘I would die for you no matter what’ romantics. It was based on what we believed was right. And with ‘Inxeba’ I fought because I believed that we were right.”

Consequently, the artfulness of Inxeba was eclipsed by the massive social debate between cultural preservationists and reformists, it mainstreamed a lot about what many South African LGBTQI+ people have tried to highlight; the fact that constitutional equality does not always translate into social equality and security. ‘‘That is what I didn’t like about the whole thing. It seemed to me that the artistry was being missed. Yes, the politics were important, but first and foremost this was art’’, said Nakhane, upon reflecting on the polarized public reaction.

Modern laws have yet to acquire the legitimacy of the customs that precede it. As queer people sophisticate their struggle, so artists like Nakhane emerge; using their platforms to amplify these issues – straddling art and activism; creating beauty and at once turning it against social injustice.

While in London, Nakhane, released ‘You Will Not Die’; a reckoning and reconciliation with their Christian upbringing. Nakhane describes the album as “me wanting to confront my childhood and Christianity. I had left both. I was nearing my 30s and it was time for me to close some chapters. As I always say to my best friend, ‘You can only blame your parents for so long until you have to take some responsibility for how you live your life’”.

This struck me, as listening to this album reminded me of my own upbringing and how the church, the choir, the conductor and little-me in the pews too small to withstand the might of the hymns, felt like an imposter dreading the day I’d be exposed. The songs gulp you down; ‘Interloper’ feels like an armistice between Church and Sin, my favourite line ‘Good Lord I see him now, tell me what happened to the opium of your word’ is a fall from grace and into a human love; a choice most queer people find themselves facing.

On [Well]-Being

“There will always be a connection between my identity and my work. And as my identity changes through my life, so will my work. It’s just that some of us are made targets for our identities, while others are not even made to think twice about theirs.”

I am among those trying to find words familiar enough to articulate the feelings and conditions that sometimes accompany me as life unfurls. Mental health and its infinite tendrils is a term too vast to be useful. For many queer people, mental health might come in the form of anxiety and depression carried over from years of childhood ridicule, which often evolves over into adolescent rejection and repression 1 of a myriad of experiences.

The constant surveillance over each movement, clothes worn and the body in them, company kept, tastes enjoyed, scents employed, and desires formed create within some of us a cognitive dissonance. Everything solid that is instilled in us to act against us, must eventually melt to achieve self-acceptance. ‘‘It’s a strange convergence of the public and personal. I know who I am and how I have chosen to represent myself. Having said that, that doesn’t necessarily always translate to my personal life where things are perhaps a little bit more grey or muddy. I find that I am angry a lot of the time. I live in a world where my life is always in negotiation’’ Nakhane says.

Coming to his own well-being, Nakhane leads me through the details of the daily rituals they employ to maintain good mental health in their life, ‘I wake up everyday, brew some coffee for us [referring to their partner], then take a walk in the park. I reach the peak, where I meditate and sometimes do some reading. I walk back home where I normally do some vigorous exercise, take a 30 minute bath, do some breathing in there. Come out and do my vocal scales while I’m moisturising. Then I start my work, which I’ve probably been thinking about since I woke up’. Vocal scales while moisturizing, I need to try that one.

Nakhane has also spoken widely about the importance of the chosen family; that kin which takes you in when the blood-folk turn their backs. “I have incredible friends. Incredible friends!! I’m feeling a little teary just thinking about them. Most queer people know the power of the chosen family: people who are in your life because they want to be. They love you. You love them. You deal with each other’s victories and failures with love”, Nakhane reflects.

The quality of the chosen family determines the quality, length and depth of one’s life; all elements required to achieve wellbeing. While In the USA, 40% of the country’s homeless people are LGBTQI+, the number remains unclear in South Africa; telling in itself about the government’s own implied uninterest in maintaining the wellbeing of its LGBTQ citizens. What we know, is that where shelters and safe houses are concerned, LGBTQ+ individuals face the added barrier of access based on such biases, particularly for asylum seekers and refugees whose exclusion is compounded by xenophobic rhetoric. Nakhane has spoken openly about coming out to their biological Christian family and for a time, having to rely on their chosen family for refuge.

In London, Nakhane leans primarily on their partner for emotional support, “my boyfriend is a solid rock. He’s been taking care of me for seven years. And I can be a handful”, a key figure in their chosen family.

On rebirth and evolution

“We are always in the process. We never arrive… I’m still making. I’m trusting being in the moment. Perhaps that’s the lesson in all this: to be in the moment.”

Always adapting, always moving, Nakhane has reminded me of a profound lesson, that even in moment of stagnation, where things can come to a complete halt, the importance of self-care becomes increasingly more necessary. And that the combination of chosen family, daily rituals and a view of the future goes a long way in maintaining wellbeing.

Consistency becomes a remedy to the volatility that the COVID19 lockdown has brought into many of our lives. “It’s been up and down. Initially I was really into the lockdown. I was working. I had lists. I felt like I was fulfilling something. Then it all just fell apart. It started to feel like each day was a grind and the hill was getting steeper and steeper. Now I’m back to where I was in the beginning. I’m getting shit done. I’m exercising daily, chipping away at work and taking care of myself.”

There’s so much to anticipate from Nakhane in the near future; a new album which, they say, may be be released early next year, will likely peel back a new layer of their enigmatic persona. We will them as Thandi in ‘Two Eyes’, a new film directed by Travis Fine in which will premiering on the 30th of August.

How artists with a global following navigate fame, influence, public scrutiny and sycophancy while tending to their mental health is a question worth further exploration. A lot is placed on these artists; many of us look to them for answers we have yet to find the questions to. When I think about Nakhane (which is more often than realised) I see them as a prism through which the white light of South Africa’s cultural, political and religious divisions is refracted in post-colonial queer technicolour. Whether it is a book, a film or an album Nakhane creates a scattering of new futures and ways of imagining ourselves.


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