Nakhane on spiritual rebirth, Grace Jones and the “underbelly of sex”

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November 8, 2018
Nick Jarvis
Catch him in the Spiegeltent while you still can
South African musician and actor Nakhane has been through some epic life changes of late. For new record You Will Not Die he’s ditched the guitar-led singer-songwriter style of his previous two albums in favour of queer glam-electro pop and neo-gospel ballad vibes, bringing together the spiritual tenor of Anohni with the sexual power of Grace Jones.

He’s given up his last name Touré in favour of the mononym; and moved from his homeland of South Africa to London, in part for work – at his record label’s insistence – and in part because of the barrage of death threats that followed his starring role as a queer man in 2017 South African film The Wound (shortlisted for the 2018 Best Foreign Language Oscar).

The Guardian named Nakhane ‘One to Watch’ for 2018, and Clash Magazine gave You Will Not Die 9/10 stars, calling it “extraordinary… an incredibly beautiful document of self-acceptance, a soaring ode to self-worth, a blissful, remarkably assured piece of creativity.”

Don’t sleep on Nakhane – catch his live show in the Spiegeltent at Sydney Festival this summer while you still have the chance to see him in an intimate venue.

Ahead of his performance, we spoke to Nakhane about his influences, his live show, writing new material and that silver suit in the Interloper film clip.

Tell us about the live show experience you’re bringing to Sydney Festival.

“Well, there's three of us in the band… I wanted three people on stage. I made a joke about it [at the media showcase] yesterday about how I'll be Jesus and they are the other people who are crucified next to him that day. 'Cause I grew up doing a lot of theatre, so I wanted a sense of the melodramatic – but sincere melodrama. 

“I wanted it to actually touch people, you know? Sometimes when I go to shows there's this, almost, really tactile disassociation from the crowd. Between the audience and the musicians. And it's almost like the musicians cannot be reached, because they're literally elevated, right? And I didn't want that. I wanted to have conversations with the audience. I wanted to have an exchange.”

A connection?

“Exactly. It's almost like sex, right? You give, and I get, and I give and you get. If only one person gives, then always one person feels compromised. So, I always try to work up the crowd to a point where they feel like they're in a safe space to be whatever version of themselves they want to be that night. And, number two, to do whatever they want. To even ask questions. 

“When I was developing the show I was thinking a lot about what performance is in different spaces. All over the world. [For instance] pre-colonial performance in South Africa, where it's all about participation. There's not much difference between the ‘performers’ quote unquote, and the people who are watching, because they are always allowed to be part of it. 

“Because it was, for them, a way of communicating with the ancestors. And the ancestors are not talking to the performers, they are talking to the people through the performers, so the people had no choice but to interact. And I almost wanted to have that ritualistic take on it.”

And channel the communion between the performer and the audience?

“Oh, completely. They can hate it, but they won't leave unchanged.”

Do you have any touchstones with other live shows that have inspired you?

“Grace Jones... Grace Jones… Grace Jones. She's incredible. You know what I really love about Grace Jones is a sense of commitment. If you want people to believe you, you have to believe it first. And that takes a lot of commitment. 

“It’s easy to be a punk band that can pretend they don't care onstage and they have nothing to lose, because they're like, ‘Well, I didn't care anyway.’ But I care. Otherwise I wouldn't be on the stage. And they care [punk bands]. They're just insecure for some reason. People will pay whatever they pay to believe in something for one hour, right? 

“There's something that my friend and I, who's a director, always talk about – that we want it to be stylised and we want it to be stylish, but we also want it to be incredibly honest. You can be stylish and still be vulnerable. When you put on your clothes in the morning to look good, there's a sense of vulnerability, you know? This is armour.”

“Grace Jones's A One Man Show. Have you seen that? It’s just her on stage, and [there’s] this version of Feel Up where there's a different version of Grace Jones on stage and she's beating this drum and cymbals. What she does with just turning her head. I remember showing my friend and he was like, ‘But she's not doing anything’. And I was like, ‘Exactly’. Somehow her just standing up and looking at the crowd like that, and turning her head, is's so big.

“Who else… Nina Simone. Because she meant it. She meant every single note and every single word. And she really followed her muse, whether it was a good muse or a bad muse. And you never knew what you were gonna get that night. I mean, shows are choreographed, shows are performances, and I think people should never forget that. But in every art form you give up the disbelief in order to believe, right? So you believe in the lie in order to find the truth.” 

Any other major influences on your work right now?

“James Baldwin. Full stop. He was just everything. Him as a person, him as a writer, of fiction and non-fiction. Him as a polemicist. Up until that point, it was just white guys [such as] Michael Cunningham and Colm Tobin, who are fantastic writers that I still love, particularly Colm Tobin…or not so much anymore, 'cause he’s just writing about rich white people who are complaining about their lives.

“Whereas with James Baldwin, I just felt I could be anything I wanted to be because there was such a broad representation of blackness. And queerness. And just gender and sexuality. He gave me freedom. Also, because our history is so similar. Growing up in the church, and then saying, ‘Nah’.”

Can it be emotionally draining, performing? Because it's very personal, a lot of your work.

“Yeah. It's my job. I know what I'm getting into. I've done this since I was seven years old. The first time I got on stage I was seven years old. And yes, emotionally draining. You drink water and eat spinach and you get back on stage. And it's the only time I feel completely free. It's not a power thing, because performance in itself is quite humiliating. You've elected yourself to go on stage and be a puppet for people. Yes, sure, there's power because you can control things. But people could turn against you. They could walk out. They could boo you. So, there's always such a possibility for failure, and that's exciting.” 

In the Interloper video – where did you learn those dance moves? 

“I do movement classes. And strangely enough, [that dance] is almost like a horse stance in martial arts, being able to balance yourself in a squat. Most of my dance moves, or at least performances, this year have been around that particular position, and being able to slow it right down. Each movement matters and each movement is thought out. And that's been interesting. 

“It's all about angles, right. It's almost... Imagine your body is a Cubist painting, you know, that's like…your elbow's doing that while your head is doing that. Finding yourself in uncomfortable situations and seeing how you can pull yourself out of those in the slowest, most deliberate way possible. That's exciting, 'cause it's hard to master and I've not mastered it yet.”

Also, that incredible silver suit in the Interloper clip. Who's your tailor? 

“Rich Mnisi. He's a South African designer, he's incredible. We made four suits: silver one, black one, red one, and a pink one. I wanted a simple high fashion look on stage. I wasn't gonna go for that whole jeans and a leather jacket thing, just because it's a costume. There's something informative about going, ‘Okay. I'm putting on something in order to go on stage’." 

In character, in a way. 

“Completely. I was going back to my childhood, again, 'cause a lot of this album is about that. I remember putting on a costume and that guy who I was in my school uniform left the room. And to get on stage, even if you are nervous, in order to get on stage those clothes are a reminder of what you are there to do and what you're supposed to be doing. And that excited me, you know? Putting on a different face, which reveals a true face to you.”

Like RuPaul says, one's born naked and the rest is drag. 

“And the rest is drag, exactly. And it’s the power, as well. I'm putting on a structured suit with shoulder pads and wide leg – it's ridiculous, right? But if you're secure enough to own that ridiculousness then...if other things are fading, they don't matter so much.”

In the current show, we're looking mostly at material from You Will Not Die

“Just that. I see this one as my real debut album. You know how Björk released an album called Debut in 1993 but she’d already released like five albums before then? She was like, ‘Now this is me. Now I know what the f*ck I wanna do. Now I know who I am.’ And I guess it took a long time for me to get to that place. And owning that is really important, that's why I see this as a beginning. And maybe I'll always feel like that about each album. 

“Not that I'll disavow albums, I don't disavow Brave Confusion and I don't dishonour it, because I wouldn’t be where I am now had it not existed. But there's something about a renewal, a rebirth, it’s almost Biblical. In the same way Jesus would take his disciples and say, ‘Your name is this now. You’re a new creation. Your name was behind everything that made you a cynic before, and now you are a saint. And here's your new name’. Right? You're absolved.”

Are you thinking about fresh material? 

“I'm already writing fresh material.”

What sort of things are you working on? 

“The surprising thing about art is you can go into it so sure of what you think you want to do, and then it looks you in the face and says, ‘F*ck you. I'll tell you what you're going to write about’. I was so sure this next album was going to be about the underbelly of sex, which is the real power of sex. Most songs about sex are so vapid. Right? I'm interested in the sweat and the stink and the stickiness know what I mean. So, that's the jumping off point. 

“The songs I've written so far have nothing to do with that. If anything, they pull out the subterranean parts of my psychology. Which is a surprising thing. If you open yourself up, then you surprise yourself. You go, ‘What? No. No. I'm not like this.’ And then your work shows you what you really are like. But that's only if you really become vulnerable.”


Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Festival Garden, Hyde Park
18 January


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