The South African singer sits with Popdust to discuss his new single and how he approaches the work.
"Convenience and ease are your enemies, in my opinion. It's not Instagram, it's a work of art that's gonna outlast your little life."
Nakhane speaks with an easy poise, excitable with a dazzling energy. He's been compared to queer luminaries like James Baldwin and David Bowie, and the comparison becomes clear when talking with him—the casual, almost-devilish way he articulates his brilliance.
Not to imply there's any pretension or artifice to the South African artist or his work. In fact, his music cradles an unshaken honesty in the way he forces his past and his future into dramatic conversation. His latest single, "New Brighton," a collaboration with English singer Anohni, unfolds in a characteristically dreamlike reverie: a warmly dancing drum anchors the track's symphonic electronica wave, as Nakhane's angelic voice soars above: "Never live in fear again / No, never again." Nakane is as serious about his craft as he is loving, and the effect is nothing less than mesmerizing.
Popdust was able to speak to Nakhane before his June 29th performance in Sao Paolo's Dogma Festival, in a conversation about his influences, his artistry, and (unexpectedly) the fashion sense of the Catholic Church. ("Look at the Pope! He looks great. All the colors? So camp! He's basically in drag!")
How long are you going to be in Brazil for?
Oh, God. So we arrived today, and then we play tomorrow, and then we leave the next day. So, about two and a half days?
God, so you're going to be frazzled for a while.
Yeah, but I'm really used to it now. I think I know how to best take care of myself. Because I'm a singer, I know that I can't go out and do things. I'm in the country by name only, by passport alone. [Laughs] My mind could be anywhere, my body's here. I get to the country, I drink lots of water, I don't drink alcohol, I try to eat as healthily as possible, I exercise, I play the show, and I get out.
Has the idea of taking care of yourself been something you've had to work on?
I suppose. You know, my first album was only released in South Africa. I didn't understand how much of a toll not taking care of yourself would take on your body. Maybe not on your body, but on your voice. […] When I released my first album, everyone was talking about "the voice, the voice, the voice," and then after we released You Will Not Die, everyone was talking about "the voice, the voice, the voice." It's really moving that people like my voice, but it also puts such a responsibility, such pressure, on me to take care of it. Because some people, at least this year or last year, are seeing me for the first time playing live. So they'll come to a show, and maybe I've had a rough night, and [I'm] hoarse, not hitting notes, flat, sharp. And they'll think the whole thing was made up, and that it was all the studio! We can't have that.
So you have to take care of the equipment, basically.
Exactly. And I'm so jealous of my band and the crew. They can do things. They're out now, gallivanting and sightseeing, having glasses of wine. If you drop a guitar, we can get you a new one, or if you fuck up your drums, we can get another set. If I fuck up my body, if I fuck up my voice, that's it. You don't get a second chance.
Your most recent single, "New Brighton," was made with Anohni. What did Anohni bring to your vision for the song? And how do you think about collaboration in your own work?
This song took so long to get right. It was the first song I wrote for the album, [from] I think New Year's Eve of 2013? And then we recorded You Will Not Die, and it was released everywhere except for the United States and some other countries, and ["New Brighton"] still wasn't in that version. And then I performed it on some TV station in South Africa, and the label saw it, and they were like, "What song is this? This song is amazing!" And I said, "Well, it was part of the demos that you didn't care for."
So we re-recorded it, and re-recorded it, I think we recorded like three times. And still something wasn't quite gelling. [And then] I had the idea of asking Anohni to sing on it. It was the perfect thing to get it right. […] She grounded it, you know? Even though her vocals are really massive. I wanted her to sound like an ancestor, to make me feel like I can take up space in the world. And she really brought the sense of urgency, but also comfort, love, validation, et cetera et cetera.
So, she helped put you in conversation with an ancestor over the course of the song?
Oh, my God, yeah. Completely. It's almost like a call-and-response. She comes into the chorus, and we're singing together, but she's mixed higher. We tried different ways of mixing it, but our voices have similar timbres, so her vocals would just get lost. So I said to the engineer, "Fuck it, just blast her." I used the example of the Iggy Pop and Cat Power song, "Nothin But Time," where [Iggy] comes in and he just sounds like a Greek God.
And the fact that she understood that in your collaboration, and the song came out like that…
Well, she's a genius. She's one of the kindest musicians I've ever corresponded with in my life.
You've written a novel, you're working on a second one, you've released a meticulous and cinematic album with You Will Not Die, and you've starred in a gorgeous and critically-acclaimed film (The Wound, 2017). What's the significance, to you, of the variation of roles you take on as an artist?
Nothing's different and everything's different, right? What I like about being an actor is relinquishing control, and just being bossed around by a director. I like that it's not about me. Nakhane doesn't even exist, I'm not even Nakhane onscreen, I'm someone else. Whereas with my music, with my writing, with my literature, it's so represented by my body, by my politics, by who I am, or I guess who people think I am. With acting, I get to put that away, and be of use to someone else's ideas, to have no ego. I like that.
Music for me has always been there. It's in my body. I was singing myself to sleep since I was four years old. I used to sing and walk to the bus station. I still do that, even though I live in London and people give me looks. [Laughs] And words gave me a sense of belonging, you know. I realized, "Oh, okay, I can read something, and it can make me feel something." Written by somebody who's next to me, like a love letter, or written by somebody who died 200 years ago, from a different country, generation, gender, sex, whatever. But somehow it travels through time and still touches you.
Would you say it's about a degree of agency? Someone else's work versus yours, in different artistic registers?
It is completely about agency, but it's also about representation. Toni Morrison said if you have a story that hasn't been told yet, you have the responsibility to write that story. With my novel, at least, what I was trying to make, I hadn't seen, I hadn't read. I could be wrong, because I haven't read every book in the world, right? So there's a little bit of an ego thing, like, "Oh, I've never seen this before. Let me write it, finally." But I hadn't seen the people that I was writing about in the way I wanted them to be. So I took it upon myself to do that.
Are there any contemporary artists, in South Africa or the world at large, that you feel are working in the same kind of space that you are, either in concept or in sound?
Oh, yeah, completely. I'm not in any way isolated, or special. There's so many incredible musicians. There's a performance duo called Faka from South Africa, they were performing in Sao Paolo as well yesterday, but I think they've left now. Two friends of mine, actually. They are incredible. They make me feel brave, you know? One of them, actually, I used to date, like ten years ago, and he taught me so much. To see them doing so well now in their work, it makes me feel…You know when you're growing up and you're twenty years old, and you all have these dreams, and then they do come true, but they come true for all of you? [Laughs] It's really rare, but it's really beautiful. And the work they're doing is so different, that there's no competition, that's what I like about it. And yet driven by the same principles: freedom, visibility—but so completely different.
There's another musician, called Thandiswa Mazwai. She's a legend, she's been around for a while, you know? But she shows you how incredible it can be for an artist to evolve through time, and still be relevant like 25 years later. And still be dangerous!
So that idea of evolution is important to you?
Yeah, what are you doing being stuck in—[Laughs] Okay, this might be a little bit problematic, but I'm going to say it anyway. When we were in Athens—there's this idea when you go to European countries that have kept their things that they did in antiquity, because they destroyed other people's stuff. They kept their shit, but destroyed everyone else's, so it seems like they're the only ones who are doing stuff. But I was in Athens, and a friend of mine—who is from Athens—said, "You don't seem very impressed." And I said, "I'm not. This was created 3,500 years ago. That's great. Amazing. But I care about the now. What are you doing now, man?" And this friend had said, "Us Greeks, you know, [we] created culture 3,500 years ago." And I said "Well, you mean like everyone else in the world?" What the fuck? This whole idea that certain civilizations were more elevated than others, which is complete bullshit. But in terms of evolution, and being interested in the now, that's what I'm trying to be. I'm trying to live now. The past may help us in reminding us of what not to do, but it can also be dangerous in that we get stuck there.
I think one must always grow. I'm lucky…I'm 31 years old, and this stuff is only starting to happen for me now. For a long long time, in my twenties, I was really depressed. Like, "Oh my God! All my friends are getting married, and having babies, and their careers, buying houses. And I'm working in a bookstore." Not that there's anything wrong with a bookstore, but I have dreams, you know? Around 27, things started to really unify and collect. So, now, I'm a little bit older. I don't need to party when I'm performing. After this, I'm gonna go home to England, I'm gonna be free for a week. I can party as much as I goddamn want to. [Laughs] But I have a project now, and so I have to be focused on that now. I take my work very seriously. I don't take myself seriously, I think I'm an idiot, but I take the work very seriously. It's a vocational thing.
There's a sense of being called to it.
Completely. I really believe in that. I think it's shamanistic.
Oh my God, oh my God. Chimimanda [Nqozi Adichie, author of We Should All Be Feminists] wrote about the danger of the single story, [and how] people who grew up in that world, or were cultured in that world, start to believe that's the only story that they can tell, and that's the only story that has value. And that the faces they see making those stories, or realizing those stories…[You believe] "I'm not worthy, I have no value." People like me, queer people, queer stories, are not seen as having value. And that's not true.
What I find so exciting about these times, right now, as ugly as they are—I mean, they're also very beautiful. A series like Pose could not have existed in any other time but now! And it's not just some kooky, weird avant-garde thing on the left you watch with your friends, it's mass media. So yeah, there's Trump, and yes, there's Brexit. But there's billions and billions of other people, and there's billions and billions of other stories!
And there's room being made for them.
Pose is so good, man.
I love it so much.
Your first album, Brave Confusion (2013) was much more folk-leaning in its sound, but since then you've transitioned into a more electronic, orchestral sound that showed up on You Will Not Die. What did you find in electronic music that you couldn't find in other genres?
Well, it wasn't necessarily much of a genre thing as much it was a tool thing. When I made Brave Confusion, all I could afford was my shitty acoustic guitar, and that's all I wrote on. So when I recorded those songs, I was so naive that I thought that was the only way I could realize those songs. And it's not that I dishonor those songs, because without those songs and without that album, I wouldn't be where I am now. But cut to me recording You Will Not Die, and now I can imagine much more widely, and wildly. I can go, "Ooh, I want a sea of synthesizers." And I can ask Ben Christophers [producer of You Will Not Die] to do that for me.
Whereas before I was a little bit more nervous to say that I didn't like something, to command what I wanted in my work. And I really wanted to make a grand album, I wanted it to be operatic. Because I was writing about my childhood, my family....and I couldn't write about my family in a timid way. The kind of music we were making was not timid, it was big and loud and over-the-top. It's not about me saying "I want to sound like Brian Eno," it's more me going, "Oh, I can do whatever I want! We can get the synthesizers, we can manipulate the sound—we can live in a sound world now."
You're very open about walking away from Christianity, but it's interesting to see how religious imagery and references to prayer crop up in your work. How does the faith you grew up in affect your storytelling, and why is its presence important to you?
I call Christianity my mother tongue, you know? Before you learn other languages, you speak the language your people speak in. And you can leave the country that you were born in, but the language will always be with you. I may live in England, but Christianity is still in me, I'll never lose it ever. Whether I think it's beautiful or not, it'll always be there. Those were the first stories that I heard. They opened up my imagination. There's some incredible storytelling in the Bible. So I use it now, instead of it using me. I have power over it, instead of it having power of me. That's the difference. Because for so long, I was its tool. Or at least, people used it as a tool to manage me. To manage entire populations! What I'm interested in now is ,can you step away from it and still use this mother tongue, without it being so heavy and hateful and bitter?
The most interesting thing you do on You Will Not Die is how the lyricism about love and queerness—I mean, correct me if I'm misunderstanding, but it's not really about juxtaposition with religious imagery, it's like they're inextricable.
Exactly. Exactly. I'm not interested in being clever about it. That's nice, you can pat yourself on the back, but it doesn't touch anybody, no one's moved. If it doesn't connect with me emotionally, because I make it, then it's not gonna connect to anyone else. And since this is the language I'm using, then there's no time for me to try and outdo it in this cleverness. You can't outrun it…I'm interested in the romance between those languages, between life and the language of the Bible, and saying, "Okay, we're divorcing, but I understand why you matter to so many people." My mother is still a very conservative Christian, and I may not agree with her on certain things, but I understand why she's still there. [...] There's always this idealized form of living, and then there's the real one beneath it, which is what I'm interested in.
I really appreciate how You Will Not Die explores love, as something lacking, something sought, or something found, in yourself or in other people. What's been the biggest part for you of bringing that sense of exploration to life?
That love is boundless, love is bigger than the constructs that we were born into, that we construct for ourselves. Since it came out in Europe in 2018, that's been an exploration of mine—What is love to you? What can you do to make sure it's something that you can pass on, with your work and in your life? It's easy to sing about it and just live a different life, but I'd feel like a complete hypocrite. Lots of artists have been fine with that. Where they write the most beautiful, loving things and then they're monsters in real life. So I've been trying not to do that.
Of course I fuck up, because I'm a human being. But again, the bigness of love, the malleability of it. It can withstand anything. And that can be really problematic, but it's also really beautiful. This is so bad, and my poetry teachers would kill me, but it really is like water, in that it fits into any shape. Until it freezes over, and it's done. But before that…before that, it's life itself. How it allows itself to be used, but also how it uses you. How you may think it has no power over you, but it does. I've stopped trying to understand it.
At the end of the summer, you're playing SummerStage in New York City. In your live performances, you have this really commanding stage presence, but you're also creating this very safe environment, just in how you as a performer take up that space. What do you care most about communicating to a live audience?
That they feel like they can be the version of themselves that they want to be. I think Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] wrote an essay about how people go to a show so that they can believe in themselves, because they believe in that artist. So that safe space is really important to me, that a person can lose themselves, forget all their bullshit outside the door for that hour. Sometimes there's such a distance between the audience and the performer. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in us feeding each other.
The quarterback said "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." And then he tried to apologize. And only made it worse.
Drew Brees, a man who makes literally millions of dollars for throwing a ball, has come under fire for insensitive comments he made about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.
"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said in the interview with Yahoo Finance. He clarified that this was in part because he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II, during the National Anthem. He continued, saying, "And is everything right with our country right now? No. It's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution."
This isn't the first time Brees made it clear that he cares more for the idea of a make-believe unified America than he does for actual human lives. In 2016, he criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem, saying it was "disrespectful to the American flag" and "an oxymoron" because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.
Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of racist police brutality
Of course, the flag's alleged ideals have been proven to only be applicable to wealthy, white men—men like Brees. Sure, his grandfathers did a noble thing when they fought under the US flag during WWII, and no one, including Kaepernick, has ever said that sacrifice isn't worth respecting. Thanks to the sacrifices of many people (including the enslaved Black backs upon which this country was built, including the scores of routinely abused Black soldiers who fought for American lives), America has offered opportunity and peace for many, many people. In particular, Ole' Glory has been very kind to men like Brees: rich, white men who still control the majority of the power and the wealth in the United States.
But what about the rest of us, Drew? What about George Floyd whose neck was crushed by a police officer who kneeled on him so casually that he didn't even take his hand out of his pocket? What about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot for the crime of being Black and going for a jog? What about Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was murdered by police in her home in the middle of the night for a crime that had nothing to do with her? What about Tony McDade, Drew–have you heard his name? Have you heard about the 38-year-old Black trans man who was gunned down in Florida last week? Do you understand why these people's family's may harbor just a bit of disrespect for your precious flag?
Is it possible for you to realize, Drew, that your wish for "unity" is not a wish for progress, but a wish to maintain the status quo? When you call for unity under the American flag, you're talking about your flag, the flag that represents a long, sordid history of racial oppression and violence. There is no unity where there is no justice. When you say that "we are all in this together," what you're saying is that we all have roles to play in the version of society that has served you so well. For your part, you'll be a rich, white man, and for Black people's part, they'll continue to be victims of state-sanctioned murders– but hopefully more quietly, hopefully in a manner that doesn't make you uncomfortable?
When you say, "We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution," what you mean to say is that POC and their allies are at fault. Sure, you probably agree that Derek Chauvin took it a bit too far, and you probably feel a little self-conscious that he's brought all this "Black rights" stuff up again. But when you say "all," you place blame on the victims who are dying under a broken system. And what, exactly, do you expect POC to do differently, Drew? Ahmaud Arbery was just out jogging, and still he died. George Floyd was just trying to pay a cashier, and still he died. POC and their allies try to peacefully protest by marching in the streets or taking a knee at a football game, and still white people condemn and criticize. Still the police shoot.
After much criticism, Brees did attempt an apology on Instagram, where he posted a hilariously corny stock photo of a Black and white hand clasped together. His caption, though possibly well-intentioned, made it even clearer that his understanding of the movement for Black lives is thoroughly lacking.
Highlights of the "apology" include his immediate attempt to exonerate himself from culpability, claiming that his words were misconstrued, saying of his previous statement: "Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character." Unfortunately, Drew, white people like you are the "enemy," as you put it, because by default you are at the very least part of the problem. No one is accusing you of being an overt racist, Drew; no one thinks you actively and consciously detest Black people. But your lack of empathy, your apathy, and your unwillingness to unlearn your own biases are precisely what has persisted in the hearts and minds of well-meaning white Americans for centuries.
Next, you say, "I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the Black community in this movement." No, Drew. Just no. Black people don't need white people's savior complexes to interfere in their organizing; what they need is for us to shut up and listen. What they need is for us to get our knees off of their necks.
Finally, you say, "I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy." This, Drew, is suspiciously similar to saying, "But I'm one of the good whites!" The fact of the matter is that feeling the need to prove your allyship is not about helping a movement; it's about feeding your own ego. Not only that, but your emphasis on "ALWAYS" does a pretty good job of making it clear that you don't think you have a racist bone in your body and that you have taken great offense at any accusations to the contrary. I have some news for you, Drew: Every white person is racist. Sure, the levels vary, and while you may not be actively and consciously discriminating against POC, you have been brought up in a racist system, and your implicit biases are as strong as any other white person's. Your job now is to unlearn those biases and confront those subtle prejudices in yourself and in other white people. Maybe the first step in doing so is just shutting your f*cking mouth about kneeling at football games. Maybe you should even consider taking a knee yourself.
For other non-BIPOC trying to be better allies, check out one of these 68+ anti-racism resources.
We're glad they're on our side.
The world is up against a seemingly insurmountable threat, but luckily, we've got a crack team of heroes on the case.
Sure, there's already the girl with super strength, the guy who can fly, and the anthropomorphic, trash-talking animal tailor-made for merchandise. But this is a threat of intergalactic proportions, and we're going to need all the help we can get if we want to survive.
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