With its dark pop and soaring vocals, Nakhane Touré’s debut album is a favourite at the Samas tomorrow night. But when he released Brave Confusion a year ago, he was still in chains, he tells Charl Blignaut.
Now he’s really coming out What’s eating Nakhane Touré?
Weaving through the streets of Yeoville, dodging potholes and pedestrians, I arrive at the spaza shop to find that Nakhane Touré is still at the barber.
I head for the barber.
It’s the Saturday morning of the Easter weekend and the market in the Pan-African suburb adjacent to Hillbrow feels both hung over and hard at work.
Except for one guy, who’s still drunk from last night.
“Nakhane Touré! I know you from Kaya FM!” he shouts from across Cavendish Road at the singer-songwriter in the denim jacket with the word ‘CONFUSION’ written in big letters on his back.
Touré is shooting a new music video in the streets of the suburb, where he lives with his partner, Christopher, a UK-born TV producer with a lanky frame and a boyish smile.
Christopher is, in fact, directing the video for Touré’s first radio hit. It’s called Christopher.
“I wrote it before I met him. It was written as a joke a little bit,” says the candid, earnestly emphatic 26-year-old Touré.
“We had been talking online for about a year. The one time we were supposed to meet somewhere and it never happened. Hence the lyrics in the song ‘we’ll meet at the bar’.”
In the video, which will be released after the Samas, the singer’s getting a haircut before heading into Melville, where he buys a book (James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain) and then makes his way to a trendy bar in Braamfontein to meet Christopher.
“It’s my commercial video. It’s in colour. It’s me having fun. I’m actually not about death all the time.”
His first two videos – Fog and In The Dark Room – were stark and beautiful, in black and white, with lashings of identity crisis.
It’s interesting that the Prince-inspired pop song about an imagined hook-up was written after the rest of Brave Confusion.
When Touré decided to add Christopher to his demo, he had to cut some material to keep it to length.
“There was a part of the song that went ‘God kill this desire’ and I was, like, ‘We don’t need that’.”
It was only just over a year ago that Touré’s liberation began in earnest.
“There’s a lot I love about Brave Confusion, but after it was out, I’m like, I’m over it. I’m not that person any more. I’m not that confused Christian boy any more. I’m not asexual. I’m not bisexual. I’m gay.”
Born in a traditional Xhosa home in the Eastern Cape and later raised strictly Anglican, the most openly out South African singer since Nataniël grew up in choirs and developed a killer soprano that he puts to excellent use in his tracks today.
His family, he says when we meet for an interview at my home, was classically trained.
Even now when they listen to his songs, they are quick to point out the flaws in his astonishing voice.
“If I’m not hitting it, they’re like hm-mh uflat, Nakhane, uflat.”
It’s my cats. He’s allergic, but he likes them and so he’s been letting them sit next to him.
After he came out to his family at 19, Touré ended up back in the closet. The church was convinced they could cure him.
“I did this whole flip-flopping thing where I was out and then I was in and then I was out and then I was in. Do you know I actually once preached at a church against homosexuality?”
“I was preaching my heart out and saying you’re gonna go to hell. I’m still haunted by it actually.”
Apart from gospel group practice, and periods studying at Afda film and performance school and at Wits as his father’s fortunes rose and fell, Touré says he stayed in for 10 years reading and listening to music voraciously.
When he did go out, he was at war with himself.
“It’s like every day, every part of your being, it’s inside you and you’re fighting it. Like every time there’s a hot guy in the mall...”
He gestures looking at someone and then looks away sharply, staring ahead.
“Cos the rule is one look is not a sin, but if you look again, it is.”
Today his family accepts him and in December they even met Christopher.
My father is dead to me
But when it comes to family, it is a bit confusing being Nakhane Touré. Take his surname.
He adopted Touré as a tribute to Malian musician Ali Farka Touré. But his surname is actually Mahlakahlaka. Before that, it was Mavuso.
“Cos you know the story, right? I was born and then raised by my grandmother for five years in Alice. My mum got married and I went to join them in East London for a year and it turned out … the husband … didn’t quite like me … And then my aunt and her husband adopted me, and I changed my surname to Mahlakahlaka and things were going well, but then...”
He trails off, then changes the subject.
“I moved to them in PE and went to a multiracial school for the first time, which was interesting. I was so obsessed with English at the time. Cos I was so obsessed with The Bold and the Beautiful and wanted to know what they were talking about. They were kissing in a way that I’d never seen before and I’m like I wanna know what’s going on here.”
I ask about his biological mother and he says they’re good friends. “I have two mothers.”
I ask about his biological father and he says: “My father is dead to me.” He says it casually, but conclusively.
“I met him once. At bush. When I went to get circumcised. He asked me if I knew who he was. And I said they call you my father.”
Later Touré moved to Joburg with his new mum and dad.
But he left home at 25, just a year ago now, and found himself homeless.
He stops and puts a hand to his forehead.
“Aar, I seem so tragic,” he says, “Such a cliché.” Then he laughs. “So Morrissey of me.”
He was sleeping on friends’ couches while working on Brave Confusion. For five years, he had also been writing a novel.
Toni Morrison said
Yes, Nakhane Touré has written a novel. It’s gritty and allegorical, and biblical and Xhosa, and gay.
It’s really quite good, what I’ve read of it so far. It has hints of Thando Mgqolozana and of Sello Duiker.
More so, it has hints of the writer’s past, including scenes of circumcision ceremonies and of choirs, of sexual violence and domestic unease.
“The book on some level came from a place where I wanted to exorcise something. Like I wanted to remove it from myself and put it out there so maybe I didn’t have to deal with it any more.”
He’s imagined being interviewed about it.
“Is it autobiographical? Part of it. Which part? The good parts.”
He laughs again. Then he gets earnest and emphatic again.
“I’m an autobiographical artist, that’s who I am. I take from my life and I find a different way of telling it. That’s what poets do. They find new words.”
Frustrated by losing my attention as I chat to the photographer about her shots, I later hear in the recording that he’s leaned into the mic and spoken clearly to make his point: “Here’s the crux of it.
Charl. Toni Morrisson said if you keep on reading books and there’s this book that you wanna read and nobody’s written it … write it.
“And it’s the same with music – especially in this country. I kept listening to albums and I didn’t hear what I wanna hear. It’s kinda selfish, but I also know there’s someone out there who wants to hear it too.”
The morning was marvellous
After Brave Confusion, Touré kept on writing and now has enough material for a second album, planned for release in September.
Setting aside the guitar, he’s written on other instruments, including keyboards.
That’s a shift for Touré, who is easily cast in the Xhosa guitarist mould South Africans so love.
“I’m not that strummy strummy mall boy. I wanna make challenging albums.”
You can see it in his larger-than-life live performances.
At some point he goes Jimi Hendrix on it, molesting the guitar as if he’s trying to shape it into a keyboard.
The first of the new songs he sends me is called By The Gullet. It begins in church-like soprano.
Then in his clipped, beautiful voice, full of feeling, he unleashes every ounce of emotion he has in him. Like Björk or Kate Bush.
Later he sends me a love song called Clairvoyant. It has a hard rock guitar that turns jazzy.
The Morning Was Marvellous arrives with it on my email. It’s large and theatrical, and very Bowie.
It’s a hymn to the city. The biblical references are all there and the quiet violence of families.
The songs aren’t for everyone – something he knows.
“I’m in every newspaper and magazine, but my agent’s battling to get me gigs … My one friend asked if this is after the In The Dark Room video came out.”
Is there a backlash after releasing a flagrantly erotic gay video?
“I said no. Not necessarily. I don’t wanna make it a gay thing.”
He pauses, strokes the cat. Sneezes.
“I wanted to be the alternative to what everyone understood in the music world and the ideas of what a musician in this country should be. Some people will wanna escape and listen to Beyoncé and whatever, and I’m, like, no, let’s go. I wanna get my face in the issues.”
So is it political?
“Everything’s political,” he says.
.?The Samas will be broadcast live on SABC1 on April 28 from 8.30pm. Touré is nominated for album of the year, newcomer of the year, male artist of the year and best alternative album for Brave Confusion