'Inxeba' controversy has left Nakhane bruised but not broken

The defiant star of 'Inxeba: The Wound' talks to Thembalethu Zulu about his mental health, his new album and why he's a 'problematic Xhosa guy'

18 February 2018 - 00:00 By Thembalethu Zulu
Nakhane has a new album out in March.
Nakhane has a new album out in March.
Image: Tarryn Hatchett

Nakhane is running late. He has postponed our meeting twice already. When he finally arrives, he is hard to miss in a retro-inspired combination of high-waisted pants, black and white striped shirt, and silver and gold skull and dagger earrings.

He ran late at the doctor's, he explains, where he was getting a Vitamin B shot to boost his energy. "I go to the doctor for stupid things ... like 10 HIV tests, I check my testicles, like I check that stuff out."

Nakhane is expressive, gesticulating with every utterance. "I've been working nonstop for the past four months," he announces, words tumbling out as fast as the next thought enters his brain. "So last year was a tough year for me mentally."

He stops to collect his thoughts. "It started off okay, it was very positive and everything was going really well," he says, referring mainly to the reception of his performance in the critically acclaimed (and controversial) film Inxeba: The Wound.

The film follows the story of a lonely factory worker (Nakhane, in his film debut) who joins the men of his Xhosa community in caring for the young men who are about to undergo the cultural tradition in the mountains of the Eastern Cape that marks their initiation into manhood. The role has garnered him numerous accolades, including at the Palm Springs Film festival, the Valencia International Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival.

"Everybody was so proud and then there were a few murmurs ..." he trails off. Rumours of boycotts and banning of the film started to do the rounds with his clansmen (Nakhane tells me he is from a Xhosa royal family) feeling that the film, and his involvement in it, were an abomination to the closely guarded initiation practice of ulwaluko. Even the Xhosa king weighed in on the festering wound.

WATCH | Inxeba: The Wound trailer

"And then I won best actor at DIFF (Durban International Film Festival) and I posted a picture and ... hhayke, from that moment on, I got thousands of death threats."

Initially, Nakhane - who's dropped the stage surname Touré because he "doesn't need to belong to anyone anymore" - was ready to face the heat head-on. "I was like: fuck that, let's do the interviews, ndi ready, I'm not scared of them!"

But the mounting pressure and growing threats to his life took their toll as death threats ranged from promises to put tyres around his neck and burn him in a field to hostile dares to come to the Eastern Cape and Cape Town.

Nakhane became paranoid, which led him back to antidepressants. The first time he was on the pills he was 19, but he won't talk about it. This time, he "was having dreams where I'm being chased and my cousin is saying [my name] and I'm like, 'No, you can't say my name out loud in the EC!' I even cancelled a shoot there, so psychologically it was very difficult."

As a queer person going to the police … good luck
Nakhane

A visit to the police station was scoffed at. "They laughed at us," he says matter of factly as he tucks into his omelette. "As a queer person going to the police … good luck."

Self-described as "difficult" because he doesn't typically change his viewpoint, the singer-songwriter says he understands the furore around the film, something that has further entrenched his "problematic Xhosa guy" status.

"I understand them completely. People have a right to protect their culture. Like James Baldwin said, we can disagree until my disagreement is about my right to be me." He's paraphrasing. "So we can disagree but if you're being homophobic or misogynistic then it's not a disagreement anymore because it's about human rights now."

He admits to being more considered in his answers these days. The lengthy pauses that punctuate his responses are testament to this. "The homophobia I got was kind of funny because half of it was like: you guys have been saying this to me since I was like four years old. It doesn't hurt me anymore." So what was it that was hurtful? "These were the people that were supposed to be my people. This was my family."

LISTEN | Nakhane's track Presbyteria is from his new album You Will Not Die, which is due to be released in March

The last time Nakhane experienced such a mainstream spike in his profile was when the 2015 single he co-wrote with Black Coffee, We Dance Again, was anthemic on the dance floor. He begrudgingly admits to a pre- and post-We Dance Again Nakhane. He wasn't happy that the song had come to define him despite the body of work he'd previously produced.

His second album, You Will Not Die, which he recorded in London under his new label BMG France, is set for release next month. The 11 tracks are a melancholic exploration of some of the artist's most intimate experiences. Ideas, he says, come from a zeitgeist which one needs to tap into before they go back into the ether.

"The ancestors or God or whatever you believe in, give you stars of ideas and as an artist, you have to plug in." He pauses dramatically, head bowed, index fingers pointing to the skies, plugging into the universe for a moment. It's enthralling to watch.

Then as quickly as he fell into the spiritual trance he snaps out and says that there's an ocean of ideas floating in the ether, but if you don't tap into them and do something about them, it might be too late: "And maybe you have three months to work the idea or else Frank Ocean is getting it. Do you know what I mean?"

One time he immediately tapped in was when he wrote the album's title track. He wrote it in one go. It took him an hour. 

"That's a song about abandonment. Not relationship abandonment..." He pauses, eyes clouding over as he starts to recite some of the lyrics. "'When I woke, I knew that I would not die. And I'll live just to see you die. Because I was easy to give up and in the morning when I wake, I will not cry.' The chorus is 'you sent me away'."

His light-brown eyes tear up. "It's the darkest song I've ever written."

Collecting himself, Nakhane continues on about how one of the songs is a tribute to his grandmother (Star Red), how the album cover with its striking imagery against a red backdrop is meant to provocatively engage the audience, and how he will take a year out to tour and promote the album in Europe (where he is relocating to), with some tour dates in the southern hemisphere.

"There's nothing I'm lacking in my life right now. So whatever great shit is happening is a bonus," he says, getting emotional again. "All I ever wanted was to be able to afford my own coffee, you know. I used to go to church when I was a Christian and I used to say to my friend, 'Oh my word, I just want you to not buy my coffee for me'. And now I'm eating an omelette that I bought with my own money, I have my coffee ... with my OWN money. I can afford my own rent. In the greater scheme of life, what more do I need?"

6 THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT NAKHANE

  1. 'Touré' was his stage surname as a tribute to late Malian desert blues guitarist Ali Farka Touré.
  2. His debut album, Brave Confusion, was released in 2013 and won him a Best Alternative Album Sama.
  3. In 2015 he released an EP titled The Laughing Son.
  4. His novel Piggy Boy's Blues was long-listed for the prestigious Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2016.
  5.  The book was also included in the US Rhodes College course 'The Contemporary African Novel'.
  6. The UK Guardian featured him on its list of 2018's rising film stars.