‘I am happy, and I never describe myself that way,” Nakhane says. He’s in London where he has been completing his new album, from which the first single and video Clairvoyant were released last week.
“My happiness is like a bit of sunshine that peeks through as the clouds part on an overcast day,” he says poetically.
He’s not sure why he’s happy, “but there’s always a problem [in my life] which is [why] I make more art”.
He does say the happiness is welcome, following the few months after he won Best Male Actor at the Durban International Film Festival for his role in Inxeba, directed by John Trengove.
He was the target of hate speech that ranged from homophobic slurs to death threats. He sighs, rolls his eyes dramatically and then laughs: “South Africa was very stressful, mainly because I couldn’t tell which ones were real and which ones weren’t. There were just thousands of them, mainly on Facebook, and what struck me most was how descriptive they were — ‘Gonna put two tyres around your neck and burn you’ and ‘I hope you get Aids’. And what really scared me was people circulating my picture saying, ‘This is him, if you see him, tell me’, which meant I was then no longer just worried about individuals but potential mob justice.
“Having grown up in South Africa, I have seen how it works so I know not to underestimate mob justice.”
He says he was scared when the vitriol and threats really started coming in, ironically after his happy win at the film festival. He spent some days afraid and paranoid at home.
“At some point, though, I decided that I had shit to do, so I put on my blinkers and did interviews, including a TV interview on SABC 3’s Real Talk with Anele, which was terrifying because I knew there would be a huge response. But I couldn’t let them win by letting them victimise me, because they had been bullying and trying to intimidate me since I was four and I wasn’t going to let them do it to me now.”
He says the bullying and threats have continued, but it is not as bad as it was in August.
“I posted about my new single Clairvoyant recently and someone responded with ‘voetsek!’, which is still better than what I used to get. Patriarchy is a problem.”
Otherwise, Nakhane (who has dropped the Touré from his stage name) says “things are going great. I have a new movie and new music I am very excited about.”
Nakhane is an all-or-nothing kind of guy, as unhealthy as that might seem.
“I don’t know what moderation is, so either I am doing something, and doing a lot of it, or I am not doing it at all. I am either not exercising or I am super-healthy. I am either eating no chocolate or eating entire bars of the stuff. I am currently obsessed with red so I want it everywhere.”
He says this lack of moderation and self-preservation is why he chose to do Inxeba in the first place.
“I knew that there would be backlash, but the story is important and I knew that I wanted to tell it.”
Nakhane says he goes with his heart first, even before weighing up the costs, and that’s what informs his work, be it his music, his literary work or, now, his acting.
“Art is magic and the moment you start thinking about the costs of it, what people might say about it, it becomes maths, you sully it and I never want that for my work. I believe that, if I like it and it feels right, then I am doing it, and I have been this way since I was very young. And this stuff is particularly hard because it means everything I do matters, particularly the difficult stuff, but I believe it’s good because it matters.”
Like many artists, Nakhane is consumed by his work and he’s always thinking about what could make a great lyric, a great arrangement or a potential line for whatever is his next book.
“I am always working because I am always thinking about what I am experiencing could be something I turn into art. I was in France recently and there was a man who walked in a way I really liked and I remember making a note and sending it to Thabiso Mahlaphe [founder of BlackBird Books and publisher of Nakhane’s debut novel Piggy Boy’s Blues] because I thought I could use his walk for something.
“I was out a few days ago, and we were in a basement and there was so much happening and I was wondering how I would describe this basement, my friend is touching my arm and it feels nice, how do I describe that?
“The fact that I am always working means no one is safe. If you are in my life chances are you will end up in my art and that sometimes makes being in a relationship with me very difficult. No one is innocent in my creative world, everyone can be an asshole, and that applies to myself too.
“I always ask myself, ‘do you think you are good person?’ and the answer varies depending on where I am in life,” says Nakhane, who turns 30 early next year and feels as though he’s settling into who he is. Growing older and more self-assured is not without its anxieties.
“I still worry about peaking too soon. That’s one of my biggest fears, that and losing the ability to make art by losing my voice, hurting my fingers so I can’t play, dancing and then injuring myself and then I can’t perform. But I am not afraid of failure; technically, commercially I have failed in South Africa but my last album opened so many doors for me, it did what it needed to do.”
One of the ways in which Nakhane has lived his principle of all or nothing is through his relationship with the church. “When I was Christian, I was seriously Christian, baptised, Bible quoting and everything. So I was all in. Then I spent two years being gay and always wanting to be Christian but it wasn’t working for me so I got out of the church.
“As a result, I feel as though the music I am doing now is unencumbered because I can be fully myself, and that’s what the songs on the album [coming out February next year] and the EP [coming out in October this year] feel like — like being naked and taking more risks.”
His album will be the first work released under his international BMG deal, which he signed in 2015.
“I wrote most of the album in the tub, my favourite place, where I take scalding-hot baths. I love the bath because it’s still and hot and quiet and you can actually think.
“I’m excited about the new work because it’s the best I have done, because I am the most naked I have ever been, and I even go back to start from even before [the album] Brave Confusion, because I have felt a complete freedom since leaving church. How much I expose on the album is why I also have some fear about it.
“I am free but also afraid because of that freedom, because leaving the church has been a bit like leaving a long-term relationship. It’s like pulling the Band Aid off and it’s scary. Sometimes, while we were recording, my producer would say, ‘you didn’t travel thousands of kilometres to make safe decisions’. You have to be afraid; when you are afraid it means something.”
Nakhane’s EP is slated for release in October