Nakhane: “You Don’t Have to Kill Yourself Chasing Love”

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As their latest single Tell Me Your Politik is released, the South African musician delves into their new music, life, love, sadness and spirituality

When Nakhane speaks, the world listens. On their sophomore album You Will Not Die, the South African musician, writer and actor lets their vocals flow with a searing, commanding and often haunting force. The album was a critical hit, and their fans grew to include Elton John and Madonna, the latter of whom name-dropped Nakhane as one of the influences behind her 2019 album Madame X.

In the four years since You Will Not Die was first released, the 34-year-old’s star power has only grown. Nakhane’s practice has expanded, and they’ve turned to writing personal essays and criticism to flesh out their worldview. During the pandemic, they dived into science fiction for the first time in their life after coming across a copy of NK Jemisin’s work while packing for a move across London. As they rifled through its pages, they found themselves enthralled in the places the book took them, and the worlds that Jemisin built.

Now, Nakhane is poised to return to music with sights set on building a world of their own – one where they set the rules, and one where they get to decide how the story ends. With Tell Me Your Politik, their first new release since 2019, Nakhane’s introducing a new sound, a new direction and a few new friends as well. As they chat with AnOther on Zoom, they’re self-possessed and reflective, guiding us into the world in which they’ve lived over the last few years.

“I wanted Tell Me Your Politik to sound menacing, threatening, actually, chasing – you have nowhere to hide,” they say. It’s a full house, musically; to complete the track, Nakhane enlisted Chic’s legendary co-founder Nile Rodgers as well as Moonchild Sanelly, another South African powerhouse known for moving between electronic, kwaito and Afropunk styles with ease. The song is steamy but demanding, and Nakhane’s vocals come crashing into the chorus, where it’s layered into a choir drawing out the track’s title across the hot-blooded, stomping beat. Tell Me Your Politik is not a request, but Nakhane’s command.

Nathan Ma: Tell Me Your Politik is more danceable and rhythmic than You Will Not Die. What was it like to explore a new musical direction?

 Nakhane: We are habitual people, and we like to do the same things because they’re comfortable. But I knew that if I sat down, and I wrote music the way I wrote You Will Not Die, I was going to do the same thing. I’m not particularly interested in repeating myself because if I’m bored, you’re going to be bored; if I don’t believe in it, then you’re not going to believe in it. Initially, it was a way for me to find a new way to write again, to make myself an ingenue – a beginner – because I like the idea of not knowing how to do something. When you’re figuring out how things work, you can create amazing surprises.

I wrote this music on a bed of rhythm. Instead of chords and melodies, I would start with rhythm, and I could force myself to make the kind of album that I want to make. I also wanted to make an uptempo project – I have been threatening to make one since my first album came out in 2013.

NM: You also directed the video for Tell Me Your Politik yourself. How did you find telling a story across a new medium?

N: I had never really called myself a storyteller – it was not necessarily a skill I didn’t have, but it wasn’t a skill that I was particularly interested in cultivating. But I wondered if I was not interested in these things because I couldn’t do them, or because I was deficient. I like to put myself in uncomfortable situations because it opens up creativity. 

NM: And what did you learn from putting yourself in these uncomfortable situations?

N: That I like words – I really like words. If you listen to Oumou Sangaré or a lot of African musicians, they show how good they are by working with speed: creating meaning with intense skill, and quickly. I wanted to learn to work with brevity. I wanted to make music that was sharp, never boring, hyperkinetic. That reminded me of home, that reminded me of polyrhythms. I limited myself, and avoided working how I usually work. There was still a part of me that was cultivating – excavating – something that is always related within there; something that I was born in, or born with at least, which was a sense of movement.

NM: In You Will Not Die, your power was in your vulnerability. But in Tell Me Your Politik, you’re expressing your strength and your power from a different perspective: one of refusal.

N: Exactly. And it’s understanding boundaries, and that you don’t have to kill yourself to be seen as worthy of love. That you can receive love – that you can choose to receive love. That you don’t have to kill yourself chasing love.

It’s the same with not necessarily moving away from vulnerability, but understanding that I can explore strength. I can explore what masculinity means. And if I play with masculinity, will I fall into the same traps? It’s understanding I’m not going to fight and I’m not gonna cry over everything. Like, I know myself. The people I love know me. I know my boundaries. I’m strong enough to understand that because I’ve fought fucking hard to be here, which is why I’m not going to allow everyone in who doesn’t belong in there.

NM: I imagine these reflections also are a result of the past four years of your career during which your career has skyrocketed. You have accolades and co-signs from some of the biggest artists in the world. As you enter the next stage of your career, knowing what you know now about the industry but also about yourself, what does success mean to you?

N: Success means being able to make what you love, and still being able to take care of people that you love, and yourself. That’s the most succinct answer I can give you.

When it comes to my work, it’s an intuitive thing, and I take it very seriously. I think it’s quite spiritual. And I think it’s because of the sense of duty – not that I’m being messianic about it at all, but I have to make what I feel I need to make. That may be commercially successful, and that may not be commercially successful. But once it’s finished, I know that I needed to make it, and there was a reason why I made it. I create to figure things out; to understand things. I don’t create from a place of knowing, I create from a place of questioning.

NM: I imagine that creating You Will Not Die felt cathartic, like a release. How did you feel when finishing Tell Me Your Politik, and when finishing your other projects?

N: What is strange is that because I have been co-producing almost every song I’m working on, I have more power and more control. I was the one who decided when Tell Me Your Politik was finished. I remember tweeting this when I first started writing: ‘I am not going to beat myself up this time around.’ I used to believe that that was the only way to create something that is brilliant – that you have got to be the self-suffering artist. Although there’s a shitload of sadness in my recent work, there is still a sense of hope, that sense of movement that – just take one step forward, and another step. I knew when things were finished, when there was nothing else that could be added to it.

Having said that, I played this live once and my drummer did something in passing, and the song changed. I love that! I love the fact that it’s not finished, because songs live, especially when you perform live, which is why I love performing live. You allow the songs to exist in a different form almost every night, so nothing’s ever finished. There’s a sense of generation, almost like us. Our voices are always changing, our face is always changing, our skin is always changing. There’s a sense of generation so nothing’s ever finished. Nothing’s ever finished.

Watch the video for Nakhane’s new single Tell Me Your Politik (ft. Moonchild Sanelly & Nile Rodgers) below.