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How Nakhane wrote an 'existential sex album'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The South African musician Nakhane has a ritual. Every time they make an album, they first write a manifesto - a kind of sonic road map for the music. For their last album in 2018, the sound was almost rococo.

NAKHANE: Everything was so ornate and so hyperfeminine - curlicues and winding, you know, calligraphy, etc., etc.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET THING")

NAKHANE: (Vocalizing).

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

And so five years later, Nakhane wrote a very different manifesto for their new album, "Bastard Jargon."

NAKHANE: I wanted there to be less beauty. The word that I kept on using over and over again was rude. I wanted to make something that was ruder...

(SOUNDBITE OF NAKHANE SONG, "TELL ME YOUR POLITIK (FEAT. MOONCHILD SANELLY AND NILE RODGERS)")

NAKHANE: ...Something a little bit more oozy...

(SOUNDBITE OF NAKHANE SONG, "TELL ME YOUR POLITIK (FEAT. MOONCHILD SANELLY AND NILE RODGERS)")

NAKHANE: ...Something a little bit more like mmm, mmm, like, licking of the fingers; like, oh, this is a really sexy time.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAKHANE SONG, "TELL ME YOUR POLITIK (FEAT. MOONCHILD SANELLY AND NILE RODGERS)")

FLORIDO: In other words, a sex album or, as Nakhane calls it, an existential sex album. And there will be a frank discussion about that in this story.

SHAPIRO: It's percussive and made for the dance floor, but it also probes deep cultural and political questions through the music. Take the song, "Tell Me Your Politik."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME YOUR POLITIK (FEAT. MOONCHILD SANELLY AND NILE RODGERS)")

NAKHANE: (Singing) Kiss me if you want to. I wouldn't say no.

Maybe you've had this experience with someone - you've had sex with someone, and it was maybe good or whatever. But you didn't know them very well. And then, you start speaking to them after the fact. And then, you're like, oh, my goodness, how did I allow you to get near my person?

(LAUGHTER)

NAKHANE: So really, that song was sort of a way to - I don't know - for me to remind myself that - maybe have a longer conversation with somebody before you're getting in the sack with them.

SHAPIRO: This song sounds ferocious to me.

NAKHANE: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And one of the things that I love about it is that - I think that, you know, as queer people, as a nonbinary person, the world makes your existence political whether you like it or not. And on this track, it sounds to me like you're saying, fine, you want to kiss me? You want to touch me? You want to make this political? All right, let's go there.

NAKHANE: That's - exactly. I mean, especially as a South African, my entire existence has been politicized. So "Tell Me Your Politik" was just a song that I felt was supposed to sound ferocious but fun at the same time as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME YOUR POLITIK (FEAT. MOONCHILD SANELLY AND NILE RODGERS)")

NAKHANE: (Singing) The seer. Tell me your politic. Tell me your politic. Tell me your politic.

SHAPIRO: Because South Africa has such strong musical traditions - rhythmically, harmonically - even when you're making dance music that you might imagine is going to be Kylie Minogue- or Madonna-sounding, do those traditions come through?

NAKHANE: I think about those traditions all the time. I mean, house music was a very big touch point in this album when I was making it. South Africa is one of the biggest house music hubs in the world. House music is South Africa's pop music.

SHAPIRO: Is there a track where we can hear that South African brand of house music that you're like, yeah, this is where I come from?

NAKHANE: Oh, definitely. It's a song called "My Ma Was Good."

(SOUNDBITE OF NAKHANE SONG, "MY MA WAS GOOD")

NAKHANE: I wanted to bring those flavors that I would feel in South Africa, particularly in Johannesburg nighttime, you know, when people really dance, when - some people don't even put on makeup because they know that the makeup will be off their face in 20 minutes...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

NAKHANE: ...Because they're there to have a really good time. And I think it's because when I moved to London, it was at a time when "The Wound" was coming out in South Africa, the film I was acting in.

SHAPIRO: And this was a very controversial film that juxtaposed a gay love story against a traditional initiation ritual.

NAKHANE: Exactly. And I didn't leave because of that, but it coincided with things that were happening in my career that I had to come to the U.K. and work here. But when I came here, I just wanted to feel good. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to make a rhythm album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY MA WAS GOOD")

NAKHANE: (Singing) My ma was good.

SHAPIRO: You describe leaving South Africa, where there was a lot of controversy. I know there were threats against you, and I understand you had experience in a church that preached conversion therapy. And there is a lyric in one of the tracks on this album, "Hear Me Moan"...

(SOUNDBITE OF NAKHANE SONG, "HEAR ME MOAN")

SHAPIRO: ...Where you say, I did not envision that I would be allowed a glimpse of such a vision without contrition. And I think people who were raised to be ashamed of who they are often feel they have to apologize for their happiness.

NAKHANE: And for feeling good.

SHAPIRO: And for feeling good. And so as you create this album with the goal of feeling unfiltered joy, of not trying to be beautiful, but just trying to savor every flavor, do you believe you're entitled to that? Do you believe that you have earned the right to experience your joy without filters or apologies?

NAKHANE: I think all human beings are entitled to that. I think the media and tradition - not all tradition, of course - have told us that we shouldn't feel good, that we should be wary of our joy. And that's been quite detrimental to my mental health to the point where if I feel good or optimistic about something, I actually - I don't trust it. I'm like, oh, well, what if something bad is about to happen? Why am I so happy? - instead of actually just enjoying the moment.

And when I was making "Bastard Jargon," the album, one of the reasons was - that I made this kind of album really was because I wanted the process to be joyful. While I was looping drums or adding percussion or a bass line, I would stand up and dance to the music. And that was a clue, that if I am enjoying it while I'm making it, hopefully other people will be enjoying it, too, when they're streaming it or when I'm performing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAR ME MOAN")

NAKHANE: (Singing) You'll hear me moan. You'll hear me moan. You'll hear me moan. You'll hear me moan.

SHAPIRO: We've talked about some of the cultural and religious traditions that you were raised in. And this album features collaborations with other queer artists like Perfume Genius and Moonchild, and it embraces a legacy that is not passed down through generations, you know, a legacy of dance music, of nonbinary artistry, of something that you have to find and choose to carry on as an act of homage and respect to those who came before.

NAKHANE: That I take very seriously. I'm very cognizant and very vocal about who my influences are and my antecedents are. We can't move forward artistically or personally without actually paying attention to what was given to us. And for me, it's very, very tied to my spirituality, my Xhosa spirituality, which is ancestors are so important. When you introduce yourself - before you make a speech in a family meeting or when you pray, you have to talk about where you come from. You have to talk about your grandmother, your mother, your great-grandparents to show where you come from. And so for me, it doesn't become something that I feel like I should be shy of it. I should become something that is a necessity because I don't come from nothing.

SHAPIRO: We've covered so much ground.

NAKHANE: So quickly.

SHAPIRO: There is one track that I want to make sure we talk about for no reason other than I love it and want to make sure it gets included, which is "Do You Well" with Perfume Genius.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU WELL (FEAT. PERFUME GENIUS)")

NAKHANE: (Singing) I want to see you out there in the light.

SHAPIRO: And I don't know what to ask you about this song, but I just can't stop listening to it.

NAKHANE: I think it's the only track that succeeded at being a sexy sex song. It's just so much fun, and it just makes me feel good without any shame or guilt.

SHAPIRO: That is the multidisciplinary artist Nakhane. Their new album, "Bastard Jargon," is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAKHANE SONG, "DO YOU WELL (FEAT. PERFUME GENIUS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.