Nakhane’s vocals fill up any space they occupy. His singing indicates a stint in choral music, as he ensures his alto is followed by other pitches and ranges.
It’s why one tends to get lost in Nakhane’s flair, and why it’s easy to overlook his adeptness as a songwriter. Contributing to this is the detail in the instrumentation and the layers of symbolism in his writing; he tells stories within stories disguised as metaphors.
This is how, in the summer of 2015, he had an entire nation dancing unknowingly to a queer sex story in his collaboration with Black Coffee, titled Dance Again. He only revealed the meaning behind the song in a recent interview with Red Bull Radio in the United Kingdom, where he’s been based for the past few months.
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Black Coffee only picked up on what the song was about after his label asked Nakhane to submit the lyrics because fans were wondering what it was about.
“And then he read and said, ‘This song is filthy,’” said Nakhane during the radio interview. And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, I know, right.’ And radio stations were playing it. So, I was really happy to sort of sneak some queer sexuality into South African national radio."
Nakhane said We Dance Again was “about another lover bringing another lover out of depression by fucking”.
On his latest song, New Brighton, Nakhane writes with the same rich imagery – and the meaning of the song is just as elusive.
The first verse is a recount of two incidents. Nakhane reminds a person who is, as deduced from the lyrics, a feisty white man, a colonialist. “I slipped on the pebbles on the way to the gate. Held my balance on the cuff of your shirt. You were upset,” he sings.
When Nakhane’s turn to be upset comes, it’s the reminders of colonisation that get to him:
We were going to the Port Elizabeth port
Up on the hill, you did point was Frederik's fort
I was upset
The artist muses on how architectural structures such as Fort Frederik, memorabilia and place names still reek of colonialism and apartheid.
“For the December holidays, I was in New Brighton, a township in Port Elizabeth on the east coast of South Africa,” Nakhane recently told The Fader about the song he wrote on New Year’s Eve in 2013.
‘Eyes of a tourist’
“For the first time ever, I decided to look at my city from the eyes of a tourist. I couldn’t ignore the many colonial names and monuments that were triggers and oppressive reminders everywhere one went. Even the township New Brighton is named after Brighton in England.”
In the song’s chorus, Nakhane asks where God was when black people were suffering the atrocities of colonialism.
And all the seraphim
And all the cherubim
(Did they burn their eyes?)
He asks why the place he calls home doesn’t pay homage to black women, but to white men.
Never knew them before, don’t know them now
What about my mother and her sisters?
Where was their name?
I was upset
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The music video for New Brighton shows the artist using body language to convey his emotions. When he gets up on the beach in the video’s first scene, he stares at the ocean with smouldering eyes before walking into a Eurocentric building that could pass for a missionary school or convent.
In the building, he examines the artworks, the furniture and the architecture with the same smoulder. This could represent the anger he expresses in the song’s lyrics about history’s erasure of black women.
The above-mentioned scenes are intercut with the artist’s physical performance, which is delivered with conviction (you may know him better as the actor Nakhane Touré from Inxeba: The Wound). It could signify the refrain “Never live in fear again”, which he sings alongside veteran British artist Anohni, who features on New Brighton.
Entrenching social awareness
Nakhane prides himself on making pop music with messages of social awareness embedded in the lyrics, even if you have to dig deep to fully understand them.
“I think pop music is the strongest vehicle for [advocating for political speech or political change],” he told Noisey last month.
“It’s the folk music of recent times. It’s got the widest audience. It should be reflective of what’s going on. You have to be an escapist to not be aware of what’s going on around you.”
New Brighton is the lead single on the deluxe version of You Will Not Die, Nakhane’s 2018 album. The album was released on 22 February.
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[Thumbnail image] 11 May 2018: Nakhane at the screening of ‘Ash is Purest White’ at the Cannes Film Festival. (Photograph by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Kering)