For someone who has been on the receiving end of hate speech, Nakhane Touré is looking decidedly relaxed. It could be the familiarity of the coffee shop we meet in or the therapy session he had just come from. “I like therapy. It helps me put a name on things I would ordinarily pathologise or catastrophise,” he says, laughing.
It could also be the fact that he is in the thick of recording a new album, produced by Ben Christophers, who has worked with Bat For Lashes, Marianne Faithfull and Françoise Hardy. Either way, the hate mail he has been receiving since starring in recently released film Inxeba —The Wound appears to have had little effect on the singer, author and now actor.
Directed by John Trengove, the film made its debut at this year’s Sundance film festival, before opening the Berlin film festival’s Panorama section, and is a ripe-for-controversy exploration of sexuality — more specifically, same-sex desire — within the context of initiation schools.
Touré spoke about some of his recent experiences.
How threatening have these messages been?
You know, what people have been saying since I was, like, five years old. But now it’s things like “you must be really greedy for money to sell our culture down the river”. I’m like “if you only knew how much I was paid”. (He laughs.) And then they always sign off saying things like “fucking faggot”, “stabane”, “moffie ndini [goddamn moffie]” or whatever. It’s like their little finishing flourish.
Do you think it’s because you’re Xhosa?
Yes, definitely, and also because I’m kind of in the foreground. But, to be honest, things kind of go over my head because I’m so focused on what I do. I never really think “oh, you’re going to be the target of something”. I’m just too busy working.
But you must surely have anticipated it?
I had prepared myself for a backlash of some sort, but I didn’t know it would be quite this homophobic. I knew it would be cultural and that people would be mad about that, but not this homophobic. I mean, people are swearing at my mom. I’m like “what did she do?” But I kind of understand why people are mad; why they’re so defensive of their culture. It is, after all, their culture. But it is also my culture.
You were initially approached to do the soundtrack and then John asked you to audition for this role. Was there ever a point when you thought: Is this really the right thing to be doing?
Never. I have been joking recently that maybe I have no sense of self-preservation. Initially, when I wrote Piggy Boy’s Blues, it was going to be around initiation. But Thando Mgqolozana wrote A Man Who Is Not a Man (which inspired the original screenplay, written by Mgqolozana, John Trengove, and Malusi Bengu) and I didn’t want to repeat that.
And I knew that if I wrote a book around initiation, it would include a homoerotic angle, because that is what happened to me. About a week after we had finished shooting the film, a few gay boys were tweeting about their experiences on the mountain and there were these straight guys being really hard and rude and callous in their responses.
Were their tweets related to the movie?
No, the movie was still under wraps. These guys were just having a conversation on Twitter. And I remember thinking: “God, this is such a good time for this movie to be coming out.” I sent that conversation to one of the film’s producers, saying: “Can you see this? Can you see how important this movie is?”
What were the responses to those tweets?
It was the typical things to gay boys: “Oh, you guys just like drama” and “Those things don’t happen in initiation school”. But I know it does, because it happened to me. I was hit on all the time. (He laughs.) And at that time, I was trying to be straight, trying my hardest to perform this idea of masculinity. I would be like “wait, is this happening?” Because, at the time, I was a really devout Christian, trying to suppress my homosexuality. So, when I went to initiation school, I thought it would be this space where there would be no temptations. I remember thinking: “Ah, God, what are you doing now? I’m trying to be good … I even smuggled my Bible in here.” But still, there were, you know, proposals …
You have distanced yourself from Christianity. Have you, in the same way, distanced yourself from Xhosa culture?
No, not at all. I am — if such a thing exists — a practising Xhosa person. When I became an apostate and left Christianity, because I couldn’t imagine myself being atheist, I knew that the only way to deal with this was to look at who we, as a people, were before being colonised.
So I threw myself completely into our spiritual practices and who we were as a people.
My aunt is a sangoma so, if I have those questions, I have those sources to go and ask, and to consult with my ancestors.
But that doesn’t mean I have to say “yes” to everything my culture says. No culture is perfect. Cultures evolve. There were certain things that used to be secret that aren’t secret anymore. I think a lot of people assume that, because I did the film, my Xhosaness is somehow lukewarm. But it’s not.
Was there an intention on your part to start a dialogue?
Yes, that’s the point of the film. The film is about same-sex desire. And this desire is set in a space that doesn’t see it at all, a space that finds it deplorable.
But it’s a space where men are allowed to be vulnerable. You put your life and your penis, literally, in the hands of other men.
I would never police someone’s feelings, though. People have the right to their anger. But let’s have a mature conversation about it. The dialogue has already started. It’s just that some of it is very violent.
So, the dialogue now started, where are you hoping it will go?
With everything I have done — my music, the book, this movie — I want someone who feels marginalised to feel that they’re not insane. I spent so much of my life trying to suppress who I really was. All I want is for people to be themselves.
Oh God, that sounds so fucking preachy. But I know how it feels to wake up in the morning and hate everything about yourself. To go to the mall, to work, to get up on that stage and have every single aspect of your life filled with self-loathing. Our lives are politicised, whether we like it or not, especially our intimate lives, because it is so much less performative.
That’s the great thing about art and creativity: if you’re honest about your life and your experiences, someone out there will relate to it. So a queer person might look at this film and say “hah, I’m not crazy”, because the world is telling us we’re crazy all the time — and we believe it.
You know how many queer people have killed themselves, because the world has told them that there is not space for them, that there is no space for them in this culture and that being gay is unAfrican?
I have committed to this film. I have made the decision. I’m not floundering now because certain people think it’s wrong.
I was telling a friend of mine, who is also an artist, recently: “Commit to your ideas.” There is always someone who is going to hate them. And just because that person hates it doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It’s just that person’s taste.
I have called a certain elder in our family and told them that, if you feel it’s your duty to try and get the film banned, then that’s your duty. I won’t take it personally. We can fight. But I don’t want us to not talk. Our views might not be the same, but let’s be mature about it. All I’m trying to say is let’s have this conversation.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation‘s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian