Strange Angelsby Brandon Edmonds / 13.11.2013
When black male singers are vocally trans-sexual (their voices zinging with ease between male and female registers) and they cover “white” hits, something weird happens: the song’s guts spill out like pomegranate and the singer transcends a mundane biological rut like “sex”, becoming, in his flights of song, whatever escapes definition; fluid, open, inchoate, an angel of history, until we might, just by listening, imagine new possibilities for ourselves and the life of society. Their risk, beauty and talent can free us to try love and see politics anew.
Music sweetens life under Capital: ravishing perception in the gift of itself rather than renting out experience (games, meals, trips) at pre-calculated prices. Let’s explore this.
Jimmy Scott is an 88-year-old jazz singer who played with Ray Charles and Charlie Parker, crafted many doomed romantic songs, and even sang a David Lynch number on the terrifying Twin Peaks finale. He’s been singing professionally in a crushed, haunting contralto for over 65 years. Jimmy had Kallmann’s syndrome as a kid, a genetic disorder that prevents puberty, so his voice never broke. It just aged. Hence the de-centering nobody-ness, the-is-he-a-she or isn’t he, uninhabited quality of his best singing. Jimmy Scott sounds unclaimed by own his body – homeless in himself. It means nobody better conveys sadness.
Here he takes an already sad song – Prince by way of Sinead “put some clothes on Miley” O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” – and slows it right down. He sounds like a thousand year old woman on a bus in Atlanta. Like all of human experience written in stone by Cormac McCarthy. Emotionalism is held back by technique and dignity – an old man looking over a love life that broke him in two. The point is when we’re as old as Jimmy will we still be as strong, pure and true?
Let’s get even more sublime.
Maxwell, fatherless early, singing in choirs as a kid, once covered Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work”. Talk about ravishing perception. Neo soul as vivifying as rain on a face upturned. Electrifyingly sincere, totally open, elevating whoever hears it. Marines at Guantanamo couldn’t put this on a torture loop because just one listen makes you wonder why we don’t just live inside its overflowing generosity of spirit. High as Neo, this is the sound of human compassion opening to us, beckoning us, and offering belonging like the earth. “I know you got a little life in you yet,” Maxwell sings. This is how love sounds and happiness feels. I mean, my God.
Michael Jackson. Prince Rogers Nelson.
In the video, the song turns the pavement to water, seeing the beach under the street like the Situationists in 1968, keeping open the possibility of an un-alienated life, which matters more than ever, as the 1% gets richer and the rest of us are abandoned to credit servicing and biometric data provision.
Smokey Robinson. Usher Raymond.
How good it is for “SA culture”, then, that fibreless brain-lite smattering of tunes, gestures, soapies, fonts and shoes, that we have our own vocal trans-sexual, our own black male seeker slipping boundaries, looking to marry Jimmy Walker’s “strangeness” with Maxwell’s commitment to desire, to a life shared. Our guy’s on the cover of Rolling Stone SA this month, with a voice that may be a portal to Jeff Buckley beyond the grave, the preternaturally talented 25- year old from the Eastern Cape, who grew up on Mozart and Motown, Nakhane Toure. Whoop. Whoop.
His burgeoning debut “Brave Confusion” (stream it here) builds impressively from radio friendly (“Tabula Rasa”), shimmering nu folk (“If My Heart Were a Field”), to operatic power pop (“Be Moved”), and art wank bonkers (“The Hours”). It ought to be everywhere this summer like bikini tans, gin & tonics, flops on tar. Just say yay okay.
“My songs are so frighteningly personal,” Toure says. “But I can’t censor myself.” Songs like the propulsive, wonderfully constructed “Christopher” (for a British dude he met online). Vampire Weekend finds Grimes’ “Oblivion”, the Hidden Cameras with heart and soul, it manages to be new and South African and up front, sated and clingy all at once: it is also the local song of the year by miles.
Nobody in pop in this country has ever sounded as fervent or convincing about the fears and hopes of a great fuck turning into something more. “When he’s let go and I’m all alone / what will I do? I can’t live without you.”
“Christopher” is so good you want to yell Nakhane Toure is exactly what was missing from post-apartheid culture. “People don’t know where to place me,” he says. “I see myself in the middle of nothingness.” What a bracing antidote to the asphyxiating chauvinism, the xenophobia, the tribal Zuma macho kak pervading the governing culture!
How badly we needed the awkward, anxious voice of an outsider, a young black gay male who believes in God, insideoutside, nursing lusts tinged with sorrow, daring to reach out only to retreat, riddled with uncertainty, living in dread, craving love, and saying it all from the heart because that’s what’s true. Toure is the human something that all the hollow branding and corruption and rainbow bullshit keeps trying to swamp: he’s sharing his life with us because…what more can a poor boy do?
“I’m Xhosa,” he says. “There’s a huge spotlight on masculinity and what it means to be a man in the Eastern Cape. So I did everything. I went through the rites of passage. I went to the mountain.”
To get his dick snipped with a dirty razor because of history and belonging. That’s in his music, too. Wounds you take on to be complete, wounds you learn from, wounds that make you whole or less whole. Wounds of blackness and belonging and acceptance – there in the voice that climbs registers looking for a promontory, another mountain. It’s that questing and curiosity and that trans-sexual voice that makes Nakhane Toure a genuine thrill in a crowd of nobodies.
“I think we’re in a place that’s bravely confused,” Nakhane says. “We can’t go back to pre-colonialism and we can’t completely forsake everything that’s happened afterwards – so we’re stuck in this strange middle ground, and I’m stuck in a strange middle ground.”
Strange middle ground is as good a phrase as any for life here now. Elections coming, the Alliance a crony factory, Nkandla getting probed, Malema tilting his fucking beret in the mirror when the only hat he needs is made entirely of ass.
At his launch party, if you weren’t already convinced, Toure went and did this to the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”. Holy macaroni. The intimacy, the soaring ease and range of a once-in-a-generation kind of voice, it’s enough to make you want to stay despite etolls and price hikes, despite everything, Toure’s grave, disarming music almost makes shit worth it. You realise his strange middle ground is really our home.