Nakhane was twenty-years old when, in the eyes of his community, he became a man.
It was aged 20 that he travelled into the South African bush. It was aged 20 that he underwent circumcision without painkillers. And it was aged 20 that he recovered, in isolation for weeks and painted white, under the tutelage of a ‘caregiver’. Only then, after completing the Xhosa rite of passage known as ulwaluko, was he a man.
Today, however, the acclaimed singer-songwriter and actor has rejected the definition of male that his community dictated. Instead, he is openly homosexual and someone who revels in gay culture.
When we meet in Sydney one chilly autumn day, where he is visiting for the launch of his new album You Will Not Die, Nakhane sports expensive-looking dark blue leather trousers, purchased in Paris and matched with a leather jacket and leather boots. (Leather, he tells me, is a ‘code’, bearing with it connotations of bondage). In each ear is a delicate silver ring. His head is shaved, his lips full, and his grin is boyish and infectious. He is a beautiful man, and he knows it.
He is also unafraid to stir up controversy. In 2017 Nakhane made headlines for his star turn in The Wound, a film by South African director John Trengove that reveals the secretive circumcision ritual. But while ulwaluko is based on a rigid interpretation of masculinity – one which is hyper-masculine and homophobic – The Wound upturned this by making its three central characters gay. It also featured explicit male-on-male sex scenes.
Months-long protests followed in South Africa, where the movie was relegated to adult-only cinemas. Nakhane received explicit death threats. As he told GQ: ‘I was expecting some hate mail. I was expecting a “Fuck you.” I wasn’t expecting “We’re going to put two tyres around your neck and burn you”.’
The threat of violence still hangs over the 30-year-old star who recently moved to London and now tours the world (he will perform at both Sydney Festival and Hobart’s MONA FOMA in January). But while lauded abroad, in his home province on the Eastern Cape he admits he can’t take a walk on the beach ‘because I don’t know how safe it would be.’
Nakhane was born in the tiny town of Alice. When he finally came out to his family the reaction was so bad he climbed back into the closet and became a conservative Christian. He was, as he describes it, a ‘project’ for his church, proof that with pressure and a prayer you can he healed of homosexual tendencies.
A moment of reckoning finally came five years later when a gay man in his outer circle killed himself. ‘That’s going to be me,’ he thought. As he puts it with a defiant smile: ‘The desire is the desire.’
The ‘hole’ in his heart left by Christianity helped fuel his creativity. In his albums he merges folk, acoustic guitar, electronics and haunting vocals. Songs such as Presbyteria and Teen Prayer weave in, and subvert, the traditions of gospel music.
Nakhane understands why Christianity is attractive. ‘Because life is difficult. And it promises an afterlife that is better if you just believe in this one person. But it’s too simple. I want to look at life with all its complexities… and be judged on that.’
His albums, then, are as much an ode to where he comes from, as a departure from it. ‘By the time I turned 29 I was tired of being angry at Christianity and all those people,’ he shrugs. ‘Because it was eating me. Those people living those lives still believe they were right. And being angry at them destroys no one but me.’
For all this, Nakhane is unrepentant about his choices and the man he has become. This is particularly true with his decision to depict ulwaluko on film – an act that many in his native South Africa felt was a betrayal.
The initiation ritual is designed to teach boys to enter the community as upstanding citizens. Nakhane believes it has become corrupted. ‘As we know men are dangerous. And so it becomes less about them taking care of other people then about them being in power. Because it’s a secret rite of passage, it becomes a breeding ground for patriarchy.’
Female circumcision ‘is there to limit women and stifle them,’ he continues. ‘But here circumcision is used to give [men] privileges. When they are boys they get treated like shit. When they become men they become the lions at the top of the food chain.’
His depiction of the in-the-closet caregiver Xolani in The Wound shows a quiet, subdued man tortured by his sexuality – the opposite of the outgoing and mischievous Nakhane. He says: ‘I wanted to honour the character because I know that guy, I’ve seen him, I grew up around him. And he does everything to uphold this idea of what it means to be a man, but he is dying inside.’
‘A lot of boys who are homosexual are expected to be healed by the rite of passage,’ adds Nakhane. ‘Because you can’t be both. You can’t be a man and still desire another man. I made the decision to be part of The Wound because I really believed in it. That decision could have led to my death. From now on I’m going to live life the way I am going to live it – and the consequences are mine.’
Is this brush with violence – combined with a defiant ‘up yours!’ to the mob – why he titled his new album You Will Not Die? For Nakhane the name is optimistic.
It refers to the fact that ‘I have another day to create something. Another day to read another brilliant sentence by Joan Didion. Another day to discover someone who is amazing. Another day to travel and see things differently. Another day to put on another outfit.’
‘Do you know what I mean?’ he asks. His eyes light up and his shifts his whole body towards me. ‘To live life!’ he exclaims. ‘And far as I know this is the only time I will live. So I have to make the most of it.’
Nakhane will play at Sydney Festival on January 18 and MONA FOMA, Launceston, on January 19-20. His album You Will Not Die is out now.