Musician, author and now acclaimed actor Nakhane has had an incredible year, his debut film Inxeba (The Wound) has won 12 international film awards and two awards at the Durban International Film Festival, and has also been shortlisted for an Oscar nomination for best Foreign Language Film. He recently headlined French festival Trans Musicales and in a few days is set to perform with several local and international musicians at Afropunk Joburg. He chats about what 2018 has in store for him, his forthcoming album, You Will Not Die and more.
You grew up in Alice, a village in the Eastern Cape with a rich political history, how did your childhood environment aid your creativity and hence the development of your artistic talents?
There was music everywhere. People sang all the time. People sang when they went to work, children sang as they walked to school. The radios were always playing music. But the biggest influence were the choirs. My mother and her sisters sang in choirs and were classically trained singers. So I spent a lot of time tagging along to choir practice. That was something I loved. 60 voices in a room is an experience one never forgets.
Your music is genre bending, and has elements of African Indigenous and Indie genres, which artists have influenced the conception of your sound?
The choirs have always been a huge influence on my music. You can hear that in my obsession with layering my voice in recordings. But beyond that: Brenda Fassie’s iStraight Le Ndaba is the first song I remember loving. My mother eventually bought me the cassette. Rebecca Malope was huge in my formative life. I used to sing myself to sleep with her songs. When I moved to Port Elizabeth, around 7, Marvin Gaye took over.
When did you realise you were multi talented and that music wasn't the only form of art you could excel at? And how did you delve into different art forms which require different skills and succeed at all of them?
I honestly don’t know. All I remember is that one night - I think I was 11 or 12 - my aunt-in-law had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said that I wanted to be an artist. She then proceeded to ask me what kind of artist. My answer was simple: “The one that comes first”. Music was a no-brainer. I knew I could sing by the time I was conscious of my existence. My aunt then went on to train me in certain techniques.
Writing was something I did secretly. It was inspired by my love of reading. My best friends and I used to borrow the same books from the school library and read them competitively. There was no actual prize for the person who finished them first. Just the joy of knowing that they were the fastest reader. I then started to write little stories and poems.
Acting was something I started in musicals in primary school. I studied drama in high school. Then spent a year in AFDA studying acting and film scoring. I never thought that I would actually act in a film. I had long given it up as a curiosity.
How did you prepare yourself for the role of Xolani in Inxeba (The Wound) considering, you don't come from an acting background?
I read the script. I needed to know what kind of person he was. I obsessively discussed his traits with the director, and also back stories, and his possible reactions to made up scenarios that were not in the script. If this were to happen how would he react?. But what really prepared me was that I spent time going to places I thought Xolani would go to. Then I watched people who reminded me of him. How did they sit? How did they walk. What was the volume of their voice when they spoke in a crowd. Did they smoke? Did they cross or fold their arms? I then bought the clothes, dressing this character I had created, and there’s something about clothing that shows us how pliable identity is.
You received tons of backlash from the Xhosa community regarding your role in the film and the narrative it explores, why do you feel it is pertinent to tell such stories regardless of how they are culturally perceived?
Human beings create culture. Human beings create traditions. And while some parts of the culture may not have been problematic a few years ago, they obviously are now. And since we created these cultures and traditions; we also have the power and agency to change them. They hurt people. They marginalise people. And these people are part of this culture too. They also have ownership of it. They also have the right to put up their hand and disagree because they love it. And because these are their fucking lives.
Earlier in the year, you released Clairvoyant, a single and music video from your forthcoming album, would you say you have evolved musically since you released The Laughing Son EP, and if so how?
Without a doubt. I’ve spent the last 4 years writing these songs, turning them over and over like a coin. There were limitations I had set up for myself from the time I stepped out of the studio recording Brave Confusion. And the first and biggest one was: NO ACOUSTIC GUITARS. And thank God I stuck to my word. That put me in an uncomfortable position, which I find pushes you to unknown territory. Of course, there will always be Nakhane musical traits because even though Nakhane is in unknown territory; he is still there with all his shit. My producer (Ben Christophers) and I shared this joke between us when we were recording the album in London: “You didn’t spend 9 hours in a flight, moving to another continent to make safe decisions”. And it was true. We made an album that we are both proud of.
You've had a busy year, Inxeba has been shortlisted for an Oscar nomination for best Foreign Language Film, and has won 12 international film awards as well as a few local awards, you've just performed at Trans Musicales festival in France as the headliner and are set to perform at Afropunk Joburg, what can we expect from you in 2018?
2017 has been strange. It has been, without a doubt, the most ‘successful’ year for my career. But there’s a cost for everything in this world. Tough decisions have to be made. One just has to ask themselves if they can live with themselves. And from where I’m standing, I’m fine. 2018 is going to be incredibly busy. I’m releasing my 2nd album, You Will Not Die, and we are going to be touring that like a motherfucker. I’m on a new label, and everything at this point feels like that moment in the morning when you open your eyes and you don’t feel exhausted. You don’t need anymore sleep. You draw the curtains and the light isn’t blinding. Everything seems to be ameliorating. And maybe it’s because they know how difficult yesterday was.
Interview: Sinalo Mkaza
Photography: Tarryn Hatchett