Text: MATHIAS ROSENZWEIG
Nakhane’s life story begs a lot of questions. Not that it’s fully written yet, nor suspicious or deviant in any sense of the words. But when a boy emerges out of pseudo-homelessness and radical Christianity in South Africa, embraces his sexuality, writes a novel, stars in a film, and moves to London to become a buzzing musician…well, curiosity entails.
He balances solemnity and humor when discussing his past. “Those years were spent resisting who I was,” he says over the phone from Lisbon, where he’s shutting himself off to write a sophomore album. Homosexuality was a damnable offense to the church, of which he was an avid member. “I was told, ‘This is your particular groove of sin,’ that’s what they would call it. Some people like gambling, but mine was the attraction to the same sex, so I had to resist.” And resist he did. During a chapter of his life, he thought that he'd suppressed his so-called demons. “It was to the point where I had even preached overcoming homosexuality!”
Nakhane was born in a small town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape called Alice. He grew up predominantly in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg. He sang Mozart and Back in 16-voice choirs. “Saturdays were spent going to the city, or going to the choir. This was a huge event, right? Because everyone did it; everyone was passionate about it.” Somewhere along the way, he published his first novel, Piggy Boy's Blues. He went on to study classical music in school, playing trombone, piano, and steel drums, all while cutting his teeth on acting in school musicals.
He leaned more into acting after moving to Johannesburg. A born performer, Nakhane landed a starring role in Inxeba (The Wound), directed by John Trengove. The film mirrors the proclivity of men to inflict toxic masculinity on one another with carnal homosexual desire. The combination caused a whirlwind of backlash. To suggest that even a whisper of homosexuality might take place during Ulwaluko, the right of passage for the Xhosa tribe, was sacrilegious to many.
Baptized by the Presbyterian church, Nakhane grew up in what he calls a “Christianized” family, wherein Christianity was more of a culture than a religion. In his early twenties, he began delving deeper into religion, attending services twice on Sundays and going to bible study three times a week. While working in a music store, an acquaintance introduced him to a particularly conservative church.
“When I joined, I was about 22,” he recalls. “They were trying to break up my friendships with my gay friends, because they were ‘bad,’ because they’re ‘bad influences.’ But for some reason, I could not.” At 25, after releasing his debut album, his life collapsed. He was living like a vagrant, shlepping his backpack, CDs, and books around and staying with different friends. “What I found very interesting was that when my life did fall apart, these people who were ‘bad influences’ and ‘wicked’ were the ones who really stepped up and were there for me. And my church was suddenly, conspicuously, absent.” Now in the spotlight, Nakhane had to grin and bear his low point as if everything were fine. “I had to go to interviews, perform, and play the part while having no place to live—my life was literally in tatters.”
About a year ago, Nakhane moved to London. There, he’s been working on music and living with a boyfriend who, according to him, has helped Nakhane embrace himself. Just recently, he released the stunning and uplifting video for “New Brighton” off the deluxe version of his debut album, You Will Not Die.
And so, things are going well for the artistic polymath. But he still reflects on rockier times, when even his family had doubts about Nakhane's future. “[My dad and I] had fights and he finally said, ‘Don’t come running back to me when this comes blowing up in your face.' I remember looking him square in the face and saying, ‘Believe me, I won't.’”
Photo by Tarryn Hatchett