This article first appeared in Attitude issue 291, January 2018
The Wound is one of the best reviewed LGBT+ movies of the year.
Although being widely praised by Western audiences, the film caused numerous homophobic protests across South Africa.
It follows a closeted South African Xhosa man named Xolani (Nakhane) who returns home to mentor a westernised teen named Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) during a traditional rite of passage, which includes a ritual circumcision in the woods.
Xolani feels pressured to prove his own masculinity as the ritual proceeds, while his secret relationship with his childhood friend Vija (Bongile Mantsai) is soon put in jeopardy.
Attitude sat down with lead star and singer Nakhane – whose recent single Clairvoyant had an age restriction placed on it by YouTube.
Read the full interview here:
The idea for your involvement in The Wound was for you to do some of the music. How did that evolve into you playing the lead role?
In late 2013, after I’d released my first album, John Trengove, the film’s director, called me and said that he really liked my music and he explained about the film and asked if I wanted to meet to discuss possibly making the music for it.
We met for coffee and then a few weeks later he said, 'Can you act?' I’d done a little bit of acting, but I never really thought I’d do it professionally, because friends of mine who were actors told me about how gruelling the auditions are, and I didn’t want to put myself through that.
But John said, 'Well, try it, and if you’re not good, we won’t cast you.' And I’m very competitive.
Did he ask you that because of your demeanour and your own experience of the ritual?
Yeah, I think so. When we met for the first time, he saw how I speak and who I am, and that inspired him to think that maybe I could be the character he was looking for.
He sent me the script and I really loved it, so I prepared for the role in a two-pronged way.
One was a classical way of acting, where you put on the clothes and you behave like the person, and the other part was more method acting, where I was accessing things that I thought I’d never have to access again — trauma, really — and going back to hypermasculine spaces that I never thought I’d want to go back to again because I knew they’d be painful.
All the cast in The Wound went through the ritual themselves.
What was your own experience? You were from the city, so were you seen as an outsider?
Not necessarily, because my generation of black South Africans have had to navigate different spaces more than any other generation.
Most of us are not exclusively city kids, or township kids, or suburban kids, or rural kids. We’ve had to navigate all these spaces at different times of our lives, and we know how to put on an identity.
I was born in the rural areas, I grew up in a mid-sized city, Port Elizabeth, and then I went to live in Johannesburg. When I went to initiation, I knew all there was to know about it because I grew up in a rural area.
It wasn’t a shock, but I was a Christian and I thought that it was some bohemian practice that went against my beliefs. But it revealed a lot about myself — I realised how arrogant and judgmental I was.
How long is the entire process, and how old were you?
It’s a month. I was 20. I realised how much I’d learnt from it; I was humbled by it.
Every culture has its problems, but I do feel like we demonise it a little bit in Western culture, because Western culture sees it as mutilation.
It doesn’t understand that these men get some sort of power from it. All boys are groomed to look forward to it because after it you have a place in society, as a man.
If, for whatever reason, boys don’t go through the ritual, are they looked down on?
You’re not a man. Full stop. If you’re not a man, you’re a boy, and boys are not looked at in a very good light in our culture.
That’s why you have to go through the rite of passage in order for you to be taken seriously. advocate for choice, but I also understand that in certain communities, making a choice not to do something can be detrimental to you.
So as much as I’m pro-choice, I also understand why people don’t even think about it as a choice, because if they don’t go through it, they’re ostracised.
You’ve spoken about your initiation before, how there were passes made at you by caregivers and initiates, and at that point you were trying to repress your homosexuality. Was that because of your religion or your culture?
Mostly because of religion. I thought that it was going to be the safest space! I thought, ‘OK, alright God, you’ve allowed this to happen, at least I know that I won’t get tempted because everyone here is obviously straight, and I’m trying to be straight.'
I never thought in a million years that someone would make a pass at me. Which was why it was annoying when straight men were saying that it didn’t happen.
That’s when I put up my hand and said, 'How do you refute my own personal story?' It’s a complicated position to be in, to love your culture so much and see the good that it brings to the world, but also be one of its critics.
They’re not mutually exclusive…
Exactly. This film is quite local in its setting and its context, but it’s universal in the issues that it deals with.
Where do you go in the world where there isn’t homophobia or patriarchy? I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with European publications, and they ask, 'Do you think this film will open the minds of South Africans against homophobia?'
I say, 'Well, that would be great, but how are you guys dealing with it where you come from?' You know? There seems to be a certain, 'Ah, Africa!' mentality.
But homophobia is a worldwide problem. We [South Africans] haven’t had a mass-shooting in a gay club. No one’s done that yet. I’m sure there’ve been murders, but massacre, in a 'developed' country? It’s interesting to me how people see it.
You must face these stereotypes and those perspectives all the time. As an educated man with a lot of experience of Western culture, how do you keep your cool?
Oh, you have to learn to pick your battles. Some people really don’t know, and I’m not going to be angry at someone who really doesn’t know. But some people are wilful assholes. To be on the defensive all the time is not good for your mental health.
Is it frustrating to you that international press or audiences watch The Wound and pick up on this idea that the practice is barbaric, rather than seeing the film as a tale of toxic masculinity and a love story?
It is incredibly frustrating, especially in the age of information where you have a computer in your pocket.
You have no excuse to not know things any more. But, having said that, one has to be careful not to sound self-righteous as well, because we’re all fucked up and we all have our bullshit.
South Africans and Africans are not lesser human beings because of their practices. A lot of the problems that Africans have are because of colonialism.
A big part of the homophobia that we have nowadays is based on the fact that we were taught how to be homophobic, because we had the Bible shoved down our throats. So it’s hilarious to me that the people who shoved the Bible down our throats are the ones who are going, 'Oh, but guys! Get your shit together!'
Has the backlash from the Xhosa community surprised you at all?
The extremity has surprised me. Its existence? No, I knew it would happen, I knew what I was getting myself into. But I didn’t know it was going to be as extreme as that.
You mean the death threats…
Oh yeah. Those have made me tenacious as well, but not only me, but feminist black women, queer black people, they’ve been really supportive of the film and squashing the patriarchy, so for every 'I hope you die' text, there’s someone out there going, 'I’m so fucking proud of you.'
And that’s something that people don’t want to write about, because it doesn’t sell newspapers or magazines.
Coming onto your music, you’ve finished the second album. What’s the evolution been from Brave Confusion?
The new album’s coming out in February, and I’ve spent about four years writing these songs with Ben Christopher, who’s worked with Bat For Lashes, Françoise Hardy, Imogen Heap…
Sonically, it’s a little bit more electronic than my older stuff. The songs are better written, there’s better singing, more vocals, better lyrics.
It’s just better. Some of the songs on Brave Confusion were written and then I recorded them straightaway, whereas on this new record I was flipping them round and round to make sure that they were as well written as possible. There’s a certain power that I’m dealing with.
In terms of your lyricism?
Lyricism, representation, imagery. I’m no longer the kid who’s scared of being found out anymore. I’m going to live my life the way I want to live it.
What’s the focus of it?
It’s mostly about being an apostate and leaving the church, or being thrown out or whatever. I was thrown out after I’d left.
When the pastor called me to say, 'We have to excommunicate you,' I’d already left.
It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it was going to, but when you believe in something for 25 years and then suddenly go, 'I don’t believe in it anymore', there’s a void. Everything about my life revolved around Christianity.
When I was sick, I’d pray. When I was happy, I’d pray. When I was hungry, I’d pray. And then suddenly, that thing isn’t there anymore. What do you fill it with? Now I just practice Xhosa spirituality.
How did you find your musicality?
My family was musical. My mum and her sisters all sang in choirs; they were all classically trained opera singers.
I grew up around choirs and singing was always a big thing in my house; my mum and I used to harmonise all the time and we still have competitions about who sings the best! She sends me voice notes singing my songs saying, 'Redo it!' I knew I wanted to be a musician from the time that I understood that I was in the world.
Musicality by osmosis.
Completely. There’s never been a moment where I didn’t know what I was going to do. Ever. And when the time came for me to leave high school, my dad was like, 'Maybe you should get something to fall back on,' I was like, 'Why?! This is all I’ll ever do.' And it is.
The Wound is out in cinemas now. Watch the trailer below: