As a child, South African artist Nakhane (they/them) was always cast as the lead in their school choir. But one year, the teacher decided to give the position to someone else. “I was really upset. I went home and I was like, ‘I didn’t get the solo.’ My mom looked at me and said, ‘Are you the best?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ Then she said, ‘Give me a pen and paper.’” Nakhane’s mother wrote to the school and demanded that her child be cast in the lead or else they quit. “Long story short – I got the solo.” Recounting the memory, two things are apparent to Nakhane. While it was great for them to have that much self-belief, they realise it should have been an opportunity for them to “learn how to take a fucking loss”.
Now, aged 35 and living in south London, the singer, songwriter, novelist and actor is working to temper their inner competitiveness. “I can get ugly,” they say, showing me the wrist fracture they got from playing rugby with some jocks during the second lockdown. “It doesn’t matter what it is – it’s life or death. I have to win,” they say with a laugh. “Everyone’s going to forget about it in 20 minutes, but I’m not. The next time I see you, I’m going to remember that you beat me.” These kinds of anecdotes embody Nakhane’s tenacity. Over the last 10 years and after overcoming obstacles such as conversion therapy and death threats, they have become one of South Africa’s biggest music artists, whose fans include Madonna, Elton John and former collaborator Anohni.
We are meeting today to discuss Nakhane’s third album, Bastard Jargon, a pop, disco and funk-laden record signalling yet another departure for the multifaceted artist. Nakhane is wearing a blue bomber, with high cheekbones contoured “sharp enough to kill someone”. They exude a soothingly self-aware disposition and a dry humour that is as entertaining as it is enlightening. Bastard Jargon features the likes of Perfume Genius, on the hedonistic, synth-filled Do You Well, and Nile Rodgers, who Nakhane says was a joy to work alongside. “Sometimes you can work with people and be tuned to believing that their way is the way, but [Rodgers] was like, ‘Hey, I’m here to help you find your vision. It’s your album. You have to live with it for the rest of your life.’”
Nakhane’s need to be the best isn’t simply about egotism – that much is obvious within minutes of meeting them. “I’ve always been trying to perform ‘exceptionality’ because my biological parents were not into the idea of having me.” Nakhane was raised by their grandmother and later adopted by their aunt and her husband at age seven. “My understanding was that you got chosen to be adopted because you were exceptional,” they say. “I was always praised for being clever and talented. After years of therapy, [I realised that] I could never just be. That was never enough. Now, I’m trying to come to terms with the idea that I’m lovable, just being.”
Nakhane Mahlakahlaka was born in 1988 and raised in a fundamental Christian rural town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. They were academically adept, but it was always obvious that they were creatively inclined. “My father wanted me to be a chartered accountant or a lawyer. I said, ‘No, I want to be an artist.’” Nakhane moved to Johannesburg, aged 17, and began performing in Cape Town’s open mic scene. In 2013, they released their debut Brave Confusion, an acoustic guitar-heavy record that won best alternative album at the South African Music awards. Two years later, they made a track with South African house legend DJ Black Coffee called We Dance Again. It became an instant club hit. “It was massive. The expectation was that I would carry on making house music. There was this disappointment about the fact that I didn’t. I took that in a little bit. But also I liked the idea of being oppositional,” they say with a laugh.
Instead, in 2018 they released the tender sophomore album You Will Not Die, featuring songs that Nakhane describes as “devastating”. It showcased their operatic vocals on ballads containing intimate storytelling that explored their experience of leaving Christianity behind.
When Nakhane was 19 they came out as gay, but after feeling shame about their sexuality underwent conversion therapy. “At the time, when I went into the church, I was strangely enough leaning into my queerness, but [I had all of this] conditioning as a child about how it was a sin and how I was going to go to hell. So when someone told me I should go to the church, it touched on all those things I was already so scared of. I wanted so badly to go to heaven.”
When Nakhane eventually left the church, the journey to their true self wasn’t as simple as they had imagined. “I thought it was going to feel so free. I felt unhinged. I felt like I had nothing holding me because that was the thing that held every facet of my life. The question was, who are you? I had to start almost over from scratch.” The aftermath of the conversion therapy is something Nakhane is still dealing with today. Recently, they were watching a TV series about a Christian cult and something clicked: they began noticing the similarities between the show and their own experiences. “My closest friends – I was told over and over again to let go of them in the church. That’s what they do, right? Isolate you from those people so that you only depend on them completely? Maybe this was a cult.”
Organised religion is no longer of interest to them (“If your only tool is fear, you’ve lost me”), but spirituality still is. “Everyone has a right to God or whatever you want to call it. How dare you think that you own [God]? I’m sure God is thinking, I’m so much bigger than this. I’m not this boring.” Since those dark times, Nakhane is getting closer and closer to their truest self. They came out as non-binary in 2021, an experience they say felt like unlocking a door. “Gender is big, wide, old and ancient. There’s nothing new about it. There’s nothing perverse about it.”
In addition to music, they have also tried their hand at other art forms: in 2015, they released Piggy Boy’s Blues, a novel about a Xhosa (the second largest cultural group in South Africa) royal family, and in 2017 starred in John Trengove’s The Wound. Despite favourable reviews, the film received a backlash from those back home in South Africa and in the Xhosa community for interlacing ulwaluko, the secret rite of passage into manhood observed by the Xhosa tribe, with homosexual scenes. Nakhane received death threats on the film’s release, which prompted their move to London. When they arrived, they had expected London to be a “volcano of sensation”, but instead found it anticlimactic. “The queer scene in Johannesburg is much more exhilarating. There’s a sense of experimentation that doesn’t exist here.”
They consider London home now, but also see the UK as a place that refuses to reconcile with its history and its current state. “When I lived in Port Elizabeth, it was a British colony. British culture was something we learned all the time, how much better it was,” they say. “But I do not aspire to whiteness or European culture. What I have been given in South Africa is so fulfilling.” Still, they want to stress that they love living here. “I’ll tell you why. You know that old painting that you always wanted to see? You can go and see it. The band that would never come to Africa? You can go and see them here.”
Bastard Jargon is the light at the end of the tunnel in many ways. It’s about sex, morality, politics and identity, but it’s also a project of joy, embarking on a new sonic and stylistic journey. The process of creating the album was different too. “Instead of writing to chords, I would layer drums first. It was this sense of a new beginning.” Lead single Tell Me Your Politik, featuring Nile Rodgers and Moonchild Sanelly, is uptempo, hyper-percussive and features South African gqom and kwaito. Nakhane had known since 2013 that they wanted to make a rhythmic dance album, but it wasn’t until touring wrapped for You Will Not Die that the timing felt right. “That album was based on so much trauma. I just couldn’t make that kind of music any more. I was exhausted from singing sad songs. The only way I was going to be creative again was if I swung to the other side.”
There’s a level of stubbornness an artist must have in order to be great, according to Nakhane, who cites Erykah Badu, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye as people who always followed their hearts. “Shabaka Hutchings [who announced on Instagram that 2023 would be his last year of performing publicly]. Am I mad that he is putting down the saxophone? Hell, yes. But if that’s what he needs to do, who am I to argue?” The idea of success is forever shifting for Nakhane. They’re not interested in accumulating excessive wealth, because “do we need any more billionaires?” Still, there was a time when their self-esteem was attached to quantifiable things, like money and fans. They are learning to let those kinds of ideals go. “I want to be able to pay my rent, I want to be able to go on holiday. I want to be able to have a cup of coffee, but I always try to remind myself, I don’t want to be a super-rich artist. I’ve never seen one who makes anything worth noting.”
Bastard Jargon is an opportunity for Nakhane to reach new heights and audiences. This “existential sex album” leans more toward pop than past projects, but it’s also their loudest and most queer. “I always have to remind people – you know those queer people that are in your face and that you think are too much? I’m just like them. I’m not any better. I’m never going to be a well-behaved token.” One thing they know for certain is that they no longer want to compete with people who look like them. “I had a conversation with myself that I shouldn’t compete with other people, particularly Black artists, particularly Black artists from South Africa. I don’t want to be the only Black, queer person in the room. I want us all to be there.”