Nakhane Toure and Nomuzi Mabena on style, culture and crossing boundaries
Words: Danielle Bowler | Photography: Jonathan Kope | Fashion: Kelly Fung
Nakhane Touré and Nomuzi “Moozlie” Mabena are stopping traffic… or at least causing a disruption. Standing at a busy Johannesburg intersection – the category-defying public figures are oblivious to the stares they elicit.
Cars slow. Gaits drag. People linger, wondering about the recognisable figure standing in a red Missguided bathing suit in the middle of afternoon traffic. They do double takes as a familiar face crouches in enviable adidas Tubular kicks nearby. If this scene had a soundtrack, Rihanna’s ‘Pose’ would be it. Perhaps it would drown out the sound of screeching tyres, frequent hooting and occasional hollering that feels distinctly Johannesburg – even as it has worldwide echoes.
Nakhane and Moozlie shift from human form into certified flame emojis when faced with a camera. Their steely glances and deliberate gestures deliver a master class in serving face. “Moozlie and I have been doing this for a while,” Nakhane muses, in a post-shoot conversation. The statement is suffused with a simple recognition that this is work – part of the matrix of life in the entertainment industry, where a shoot day extends from 9am to 7pm.
Its undertones hint at the atmosphere of visibility that underscores their professions. Like others whose lives pivot on recognition, Nakhane and Moozlie exist under varying degrees of digital and real-life surveillance. Digital technology and the culture that accompanies it have shifted our lives in noticeable ways – including providing an ever-ready audience for the performances of ourselves, whether intimate or public.
Even as they both now reside in Johannesburg, and share territory in the music industry, the spaces that the two move in both intersect and diverge. Nakhane grew up in the small town of Alice in the Eastern Cape, while Moozlie calls Benoni – an expansive suburb on Johannesburg’s East Rand – home.
“We are from different worlds, but every time we meet up it’s just like…” ‘Easy’ is perhaps the word Moozlie was searching for, as the comfortable conversation between them attests. Laughter erupts over their first meeting – exploding with the kind of ragging you would find between siblings, served up with just as much tenderness. “The first time I saw you I was crying in a club,” Nakhane says. Moozlie follows it up with a cross between an explanation and defence: “You were an artist who was dying to be heard,” she says. “In 2012 I was like, ‘I just need to get a job, whatever job that is…’ and MTV was that job.”
The conversation turns reflective, as Moozlie says that, “For me, it’s always nice to just see somebody and just be able to look them in the eye and they know what you’re going through and they know what you’re talking about and they know where you’re at and they are with you.” Nakhane murmurs agreement. It’s a weighty recognition. Moozlie and Nakhane embody a limitless attitude to their creative pursuits. After a presenting turn on MTV Base, Moozlie has moved onto a rap career, co-hosting a new show on Vuzu with the ineffable Somizi, being a face of adidas and owning her own record label. It’s a heady, thrilling mix.
Nakhane, too, shows no signs of slowing down. While he first came to our attention with the release of his SAMA-winning debut album Brave Confusion, the multi-hyphenate soon flipped the script with the release of a debut novel, Piggy Boy’s Blues, in 2015. Just as we were catching our breath, he dabbed on us all with an award-winning turn as the lead in the controversial yet celebrated film Inxeba: The Wound. We better stay ready, as February’s real estate has his name written all over it: the motion picture’s release coincides with the arrival of a new album through BMG Europe.
These boundary-defying dispositions nod to the shifting of 21st-century careers no longer devoted to singular, life-long professions. They also bring to mind the philosophical doctrine that declares ‘You have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé’.
It was precisely this fact that prompted Moozlie to leave CashTime and start her own label, Nomuzi Mabena Music, specifically catering to the diverse spaces she and others occupy. “We live in a time where people don’t do one thing,” Nakhane explains. It prompts Moozlie to co-sign: “We live in a ‘slash’ generation.”
Nakhane locates his understanding of this reality within the galaxy of a deeply-rooted and culturally-defined spirituality. “Before white people got here, if you were imbongi, you had to be able to act, because you were speaking to the ancestors. You had to be able to sing. You had to be able to be a poet. You had to be able to dance… This whole thing is not new to us. Africa has always been a ‘slash’ sort of place. Actually the worst was trying to limit us.”
Their primary meeting point, however, is music: “He is a rockstar”, Moozlie says, multiple times, over the course of our conversation. Speaking on her transition to music, Nakhane muses: “For someone as talented as her to be in it, I thought it was incredible. I mean so many girls, my sisters and cousins, look up to Nomuzi, so for them to see her killing it in such a male-oriented space is important.”
“[Music] was definitely not something I saw myself doing as a kid,” Moozlie says. While it began with entering multiple presenter searches, and eventually winning MTV Base’s competition, she continually demonstrates a profound resilience and the kind of self-belief that has you wishing it was available at a store near you. As she spit on the single ‘Recipe’: “Moozlie don’t need the buzz / she got the heart, and the stomach and the guts.”
Similarly, Nakhane’s journey was not without its own roadblocks. “I auditioned for Idols four times”, he says. The moment he performed his collaboration with Black Coffee, ‘We Dance Again’, on the Idols stage in 2015 felt like a triumphant middle finger to a television show that had dismissed his obvious talent multiple times.
As the conversation shifts to their style, Moozlie tells Nakhane: “You had that Braam look before it became cool.” Nakhane laughs: “It was actually just my mom’s clothes… I used to wear my mom’s cardigans. Now it’s a theme.”
He later shares that his aesthetic was rooted in the belief that fashion was inconsequential – aiming for an ‘authenticity’ rooted in music alone, that he now disdains, “You realise that identity is a performance. We are always performing, and when you go on stage to perform, make it worth it! I started thinking about where I wanted to take my music and I think it all started with the change in style, when I started adding more electronic stuff... I wanted to make it a little more dangerous and a little more feminine… a little bit more challenging, because I understood that me being queer was a challenge by itself, just nje in general. I wanted to embody that danger.”
Nakhane’s upcoming tour will feature custom looks by Rich Mnisi. Sheer turtlenecks, suits and sequins collide in an onstage ‘uniform’ that we have seen hints of in his recent Instagram posts and performances. Moozlie name-checks House of Velour and Swanker as local fashion brands that excite her. At this point, Nakhane, acknowledges that danger in fact influences both of their approaches to style, albeit in different ways. “That’s why I love your aesthetic as well,” he says, referencing a beaded wig Moozlie wore. “People were like ‘you look like a sangoma’, I was like ‘good!’ and they were saying it so negatively as well because looking African was seen as bad.” Moozlie jumps in: “and now it’s the coolest thing ever.” This moment in fashion does feel like we are actively embracing the parts of our heritage that we’ve been taught to reject and view as lacking. Moozlie attributes her style evolution to a trip to Tanzania that happened in a “transitional phase” of her career. “That’s when I came with that really strong aesthetic because I got that from East Africa and I even tattooed ‘asante sana’ on my arm. It was just like a really beautiful experience… I was definitely having my music calling during that time…” The Skhanda Queen’s style keeps us guessing as she continuously pushes limits. She acknowledges this: “Sometimes I take it too far, but I’ve always been that girl anyway.”
The creation of a distinctly urban look was influenced by a desire to embody the image she wanted to see, in a world of sweeping ballgowns and high-key elegance. “I grew up on the internet and hip-hop and aesthetics… I really just wanted to see that in the music scene. And now it’s really great that I’m not the only one…” Mentions of Nadia Nakai, Gigi Lamayne, Rouge, Sho Madjozi and Lady Zamar follow in the wake of these words. When thinking about what influences their style, Nakhane and Moozlie concur on mood as a major factor, and rebel against the idea of anything being ‘extra’.
“I always have this situation in my head,” Moozlie responds:
“Imagine Rihanna comes here for some random reason…”
“…and you’re looking crusty,” Nakhane replies.
“…and she’s just going to pick ten people from this room just based on what they look like. I’m definitely top two,” Moozlie emphatically states.
It’s a relatable modern style mentality: What Would Rihanna Do? Still, we form our styles against the backdrop of a world that has its own demands.
Gender, among other factors, influences the way we’re perceived – creating its own set of rules. While we can and must rebel against these, flooding the world with new imagery, ideas about how we ‘should’ look still have power.
“Do you feel pressured to always look good?” Nakhane asks. “Yes. I’m on HD television, do you understand?
I pride myself that when you see me in person, I look the same. I’m uncompromising. It’s extremely important,” Moozlie answers.
“People don’t expect as much from me – which is bullshit. If I can get up on a Sunday, hungover, and go for breakfast, why can’t she, without judgement?” Nakhane asks. The question hangs in the air. Sharing his own approach to daily fashion, Nakhane says, “Sometimes, apparently I overdress, and then sometimes I don’t care… that’s that male privilege of being able to put on jeans, a T-shirt and dirty shoes and go to the shop.”
Nakhane’s words often shift between slowly-released phrases and swift responses that hold back little. They are infused with careful thought that considers the weight of language. Moozlie speaks with the delicious swagger that infuses a certain part of rap’s cultural mode of being – it’s rapid fire, quick-witted and unapologetic. Placing these two artists in conversation with each other produces compelling results. It leaves me wondering about what’s possible when you truly believe in your multiple abilities and pursue them with fervour: acknowledging setbacks and obstacles, but striving anyway.
The light gives way to a balmy evening, spring is masquerading as summer, and the season invites us to bloom. The words of Nova Masango’s poem seem to hang in the air, commanding:
“Johannesburg / let my people glow.”
Both Nakhane and Moozlie have frequently shown that they need no permission to do just that.