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Nakhane: “I’ve Always Promised Myself That I’d Make a Dance Album”

Nakhane has endured much trauma in life, as chronicled on 2018’s sombre and stunning album You Will Not Die. Now, the South African pop trailblazer is exploring pleasure on their dance follow-up, Bastard Jargon.  

Nakhane Mahlakahlaka, who identifies as non-binary, was raised by their aunt in a devout Christian home in Gqeberha on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. As a teenager, they moved to Johannesburg, where they were outed to their family and subjected to conversion therapy, causing them to leave the church in 2013. 

Having spent some time on the Johannesburg folk circuit, Nakhane released their defiant debut album, Brave Confusion, in mid-2013. They also published a novel, Piggy Boy’s Blues, and ventured into acting. “I got lured into it,” they told Music Feeds. They appeared in the 2017 film Inxeba (The Wound) about a young gay Xhosa man – “a quite intensive experience.” It caused a furore in conservative South Africa, prompting Nakhane to head to the UK.

Nakhane – ‘New Brighton’ (ft. ANOHNI)

It was here that they connected with British producer Ben Christophers for You Will Not Die. They duetted with ANOHNI and they were even courted by Madonna. But, after extensive touring, Nakhane questioned the creative process: “I think, for a long time, white men have made it seem like, ‘It’s a thing that should be suffered!'” 

Now, Nakhane is seeking pleasure in dance music. Inspired by Kwaito and the rhythmic connection between techno and jazz, they released the EP, Leading Lines, in December 2022, and their third full-length album, Bastard Jargon, is due this month.

Described as a “sexy ‘sex’ album,” they enlisted Chic’s Nile Rodgers – who’s worked with David Bowie, Madonna, Sister Sledge and INXS – as executive producer. Others credited on the record include the cult UK electronic musician Matthew Herbert, Massive Attack’s 3D, Raphael Saadiq and South African rapper (and Beyoncé associate) Moonchild Sanelly. 

Ahead of their Australian tour this month, Music Feeds spoke to Nakhane over Zoom from their new London pad – the musician theatrical, comical and digressive at 10pm: “I just came out of the bath,” they said.

Nakhane – ‘Do You Well’ (ft. Perfume Genius)

Music Feeds: Your last album, You Will Not Die, received an incredible response. How do you feel about that album now, especially since you’re moving into the next era?

Nakhane: Well, whenever I listen to it, which is rare, I listen to it when I have to relearn the songs to play them because I’ve forgotten the words. But, when I listen to it, I’m still very proud of it. I mean, I’m always having [thoughts like], “Ah, I shouldn’t have done that, that’s kind of iffy,” but that’s with everything you do. That’s why you make the next thing, right? But I’m still very proud of it.

I think it’s a very brave album. I can feel myself letting loose, you know? Not as much as I thought I was. I was still kind of conservative. But I can feel the leap from the first album, Brave Confusion, to the next one. I can sort of feel my form taking place, so to speak. I think that’s where I was like, “Okay, all right, so this is who I am.”

MF: You’ve described Bastard Jargon as “an existential sex album.” What can you say about this new music and where you’re at as a person?

Nakhane: I don’t know about anyone else, but I know that for me, mostly you create a reaction to the last thing. You Will Not Die was such [a raw album] – I mean, all my lyrics are emotional on some level, even if they’re not about me, but the music was also like a weeping, operatic, baroque thing – and I think for a number of reasons.

One, because it was about excavating the feelings from my childhood; my formative years. And that was how my life was so informed by classical music, and I wanted to honour that and I wanted to honour my mum and her sisters and the music that they loved and the music that they created, which was choral music. So that’s why the album’s so grand.

And so, for this one, of course, me being me, I had to sort of pivot, pull it back and just be about that moment in London when I arrived – which was all about pleasure. I lived quite close to this famous gay bar called Dalston Superstore and I used to go there a lot, but I used to go there during the week, which is when they played the best music. The weekend was fucking atrocious! But Tuesdays and Thursdays, they played amazing disco. And I was there with my phone, Shazamming.

I’ve always promised myself that I’d make a dance album, and I guess this is the one. I was like, “Okay, fuck, man, you have to commit – you have to commit and actually do this thing. Otherwise, it’ll never happen, it’ll never be the right time.”

Nakhane – ‘Tell Me Your Politik’ (ft. Moonchild Sanelly & Nile Rodgers)

MF: How did you find working with Nile Rodgers? I hear that he’s such a joyful person.

Nakhane: True. Nile loves life. [He’s] the best uncle who knows everyone that you love and admire and is so giving, but also serves the music. A lot of people say they serve the music, but actually, they serve themselves. But Nile, I think maybe he has lived so much that he actually does serve the music. And he kept on saying that to me – he’s like, “I’m here to serve the music.” I was like, “Yeah, right. I’ve heard this story and I’ve seen this spiel before.” But he actually does.

I remember when he finally said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll do this.” I was still living in Brixton at the time and I was going for a walk when he called me. I think it was the first phone call we had. I was like, “Oh God, should I ignore it and text him and say I’m busy?” But I was like, “Fuck, get over yourself.” So I said “Yes” and we talked for two-and-a-half hours.

MF: You’ve got a common acquaintance in Madonna. She’s a big fan of yours. What did that mean to you? Is it validating? Does it prove your cultural impact?

Nakhane: Yes! Hmm… Yes, I guess. Well, the truth is I don’t actually think about it that much because it’s dangerous to think about that stuff too much, ’cause you start to have this idea about yourself. Or maybe I’m just too wrapped up in my own fucking little world. Like, I’m too in this room. That’s my problem and that’s my blessing; I’m too in this room.

But I love music, and she’s made incredible music. She’s changed the culture of pop music. Initially, I didn’t think it was her. She followed me on Instagram and I was like, it’s not her, come on. How would she know who I am, right? Then it was her. She was lovely.

MF: What can we look forward to on this tour?

Nakhane: A fucking party. That’s what I want this album for. I wanted to do a party. I wanted people to feel good. I wanted people to dance. I wanted people to flirt. And I wanted people to maybe fall in love with a stranger for like an hour, ’cause I believe in that, you know? I believe in that moment when you meet someone, somewhere and you’re making out and it’s like the biggest moment of your life for that hour, but then you move on and you never see each other again. I wanted that.

Bastard Jargon is out Friday, 31st March.

Nakhane Australian Tour 2023

  • Friday, 10th – Monday, 13th March – WOMADelaide, Adelaide SA Tickets
  • Wednesday, 15th March – Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne VIC Tickets

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