Born in Alice, South Africa, and raised in nearby Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg, Nakhane Touré (who performs as Nakhane) first came out as gay at the age of 19. At the time, his local community — comprised mostly of fundamentalist Christians — responded by sending him to conversion therapy, an experience that left his faith in question. “The older I got, we became very staunch, more conservative,” he says. “Like, if you have Jesus in your heart, this is a temptation that you can learn to live without.”
A umXhosa, the second largest ethnic group in South Africa, Nakhane came from a musical family: his aunt, who raised him, and her sisters sang in choirs. “My first musical memories are voices in a room singing Mozart and South African choral pieces,” he says. “And then when we moved to Port Elizabeth my mum introduced me to Marvin Gaye and the O’Jays. I didn’t really know current pop music until I was in high school.” The rising talent recalls singing as something that just came naturally to him. “With songwriting there was a lightbulb moment where I thought ‘Yeah, I can do this!’ But with singing it was like learning how to speak, you don’t realize you’re learning and then you suddenly can.”
After relocating to London to re-focus on his burgeoning music career, the powerhouse singer arrived fully formed with the release of his debut LP You Will Not Die in 2018 — an introspective and cutting take on his life experiences, helmed with producer Ben Christopher (Bat For Lashes) and featuring a collaboration with ANOHNI (“New Brighton“). A tour de force, the set nods both to the anxiety and depression that often accompanies coming out, as well the joy and validation that self-acceptance brings. Survival, above all else, is the rallying cry.
The album first came to Nakhane in a dream. “Suddenly, having forever lived in fear of divine punishment, I was certain I wasn’t to die the next day, or even 10 years later. It was incredibly freeing. I decided to catch up on lost time, to finally live my life,” he says. “It took a long time and a lot of complicated conversations, but over time I think the ice thaws. I remember being young, black and queer and having no-one representing me in the world. I discovered James Baldwin when I was 19 and I was never the same person ever again. So if my album can do something like that for someone, then my work is done.”
To help toast Billboard’s Summer of Pride, Nakhane shared a Pride-themed playlist that speaks to the resiliency of queer artists, and featuring cuts by serpentwithfeet, Frankie Knuckles, Chaka Khan, Grace Jones, R.E.M. and more.
Give the playlist a spin below.
“Queer people have existed in music since time immemorial. That’s just a goddamn fact. But they have been subterranean, unable to live their lives freely and truly,” he tells Billboard. “Laws have been placed to silence them, to force them to adhere to dysfunctional heteronormative values. In the 21st century, we have seen artists lifting their middle fingers up to that. Constitutions in certain countries have had no choice but to evolve (a possibly problematic word). But there’s work to be done. Mainstream culture still assumes that an acceptance of a queer person is a favor. The queer person enjoying fame or commercial success should be grateful because at the end of the day, they’re still a faggot, a trans person, etc, whose rights could be taken away at any moment.”
Art is a sacred space, he says, where human beings can express themselves freely — “even when policed by governments.” “We, as queer people are resilient. We have always found joy even when fear was the only rational option. We created. We carved spaces and inspired the same heteronormative society that hates us,” he adds. “On this playlist I created, there’s humour and irony, too. It doesn’t all have to be earnest and frown-face serious. We can create change while still having some fun. Life is short.”