Bloc Party's Kele Okereke On Being Gay and Black in the Dance and Rock Worlds
“I longed for the danger and the thrill I felt as a teenager when I first started going to raves.
Hello, my name is Kele Okereke. Most people know me as the singer in the British indie band Bloc Party. However, I have also released an electronic solo record called The Boxer and I am about to release another record in October called Trick. Some people might think it's odd that I work in two different fields, but I don't think so. Working with the other musicians in Bloc Party teaches me about musicality and the art of collaboration, whereas making music by myself means I get to fulfill a very selfish desire to create, which is also nice. I have been making music by myself off and on for the last five years; earlier this year I released two EPs on Damian Lazarus's label, Crosstown Rebels. In the middle of the year whilst promoting my second EP Candy Flip, I was was asked by a journalist how my experiences of being black and gay in the world of indie rock compared to my experiences of being black and gay in the world of dance music. It was a salient question and it stumped me; I hadn't once thought about the differences in my reception. But as I reflected on the question for days afterwards, I realized that my experiences in both worlds could not have been more different.
The topics of race and sexuality have never been far from the public discussion of me as an artist, something that at times I have found hard to deal with. The world of indie rock is a world that prides itself on fetishisation: Bands refer to bands past, who in turn referred to bands past, from the Beatles to Oasis to the Arctic Monkeys, everything is part of a lineage. That was something I am always trying to subvert with Bloc Party. We quickly identified that there was a conservatism in indie rock, a purism that seem to belie quite a dangerous logic. Rock music is one of the few areas in music where it seems diversity is not to be encouraged. Can anyone remember the last time a major British music magazine put a non-white face on its cover? When Bloc Party started, we were told that things would be hard for us because indie rock was a predominantly straight white male world, so we were as surprised as any that our records charted and our tours sold out. We realized that the fans of music didn't seem to have a problem with the color of my skin or sexual orientation, it was rock journalists, always white male rock journalists that seemed to have an issue with it.
From 2004-2006, in every interview I was asked what it felt like to be a black musician making indie music-the subtext always being that this was not a genre for the likes of people like me. In 2014 we see that there there are plenty of out gay musicians making music, from Sam Smith to the XX, but back in 2005 there was a dogged insistence for me to clarify my sexuality in the media, which culminated in Q, one the UK's biggest music magazines outing me. Coming out for any artist is a delicate experience and as a 20-year-old coming to terms with life the spotlight not being able to come out on my own terms was a painful experience.
I started getting a reputation for being difficult, like I had some sort of chip on my shoulder. I remember doing an interview with one well respected broadsheet journalist who's first question to me was: "You have quite a reputation as being difficult. Why don't you like doing interviews?" As a seasoned journalist, surely he knew that this was hands-down the worst question to ask at the start of an interview as it immediately puts the interviewee in a defensive zone.
Sadly this was the scenario that followed me around for the year and a half. I remember Michael Stipe calling me up and telling me to keep my chin up, but I found myself moving further and further away from the world of indie rock. I hated everything it stood for, I hated being interviewed, I hated the new bands that we were being compared to, I even hated the fact that I couldn't walk from one end of Shoreditch to the other without seeing guys in skinny jeans carrying guitars around. Let me clarify that I still loved the music I had grown up with-the Pixies, Mogwai, the Talking Heads; that hadn't changed, but I was over the indie rock explosion of the early 00s as it just seemed so sanitized and rigid. I longed for a different kind of experience. I longed for the danger and the thrill I felt as a teenager when I first started going to raves.
I have always been very vocal about my love of electronic music, from techno, to drum n bass, to garage, it was all prevalent where I where I grew up in London. Bloc Party guitarist Russell Lissack and I bonded over a love of house music, often frequenting clubs like Peach at the now-defunct Camden Palace or free Friday nights at Heaven. Looking back at my teenage years, I am so glad that I was exposed to so many different types of music growing up, it has made my sense of genre more fluid. I'm not scared to mash together disparate ideas and see what happens. This was very much the approach at the back of our heads when Bloc Party made our third record, Intimacy. We started experimenting with the studio, deconstructing how we played our instruments, not relying on tried-and-tested methods. A lot of people couldn't see why were we attempting to tamper with a formula that was so successful. I have always maintained that art has to go against the grain. Or else, what is it for? And although it's definitely flawed in places, Intimacy is the record that I am most proud of; I can see clearly how it has lead me to be the musician that I am at today.
It was around this same time that I started DJing again. I had done it for fun as a teen, but now I had a purpose. After making The Boxer, I learned how to make music that I could play in my DJ sets and those ideas went on to become the Heartbreaker EP. It was suddenly like a whole world opened up for me. I started DJing every weekend, all over Europe, the States, Australia, and wherever I went it seemed like a shift was taking place. Kids who had grown up with my music were also experiencing a desire for other sounds. The interviews that I did focused on my transition as a musician, the DJs I met on the road were awesome, not at all combative like rival indie bands. In this world, my race and sexuality were not a problem to be hinted at. They were to be celebrated. I think that's in part due to the prevalence of black and gay working DJs, but also as highlighted by Luis-Manuel Garcia's excellent article for Resident Advisor, house music "was born from gay people of color sweating their asses off at 5AM in a Chicago warehouse". No wonder the scene has been more receptive to me as a musician than the world of indie rock.
I think back to the immortal words of LCD Soundsystem founder James Murphy who played in various hardcore bands before becoming a DJ and producer: "I think every DJ should be forced to be in a punk band for a year." I feel that he is right, if not for the simple reason that DJing has given me an insight into how crowds work. When I DJ, the act of performing is different, the energy is introspective as opposed to the extroverted spectacle of the rock show. It's not, "I've got the mic, look at me!" It's more "do your own thing, no one is watching you."
For me now, the biggest thrill when I DJ is to look out into the crowds and watch people get lost in their own worlds to the backdrop of my music. The real test for me now as we start preparing the fifth Bloc Party record, is how can I take what I have learned from this world and bring it into another? How can I cross-pollinate? I'm not talking about recycling sounds-that would be reductive and crude. I'm talking about the experience. How can I make something so personal and transcendental translate in the world of indie rock, and is it even possible? I don't know, but therein lies the challenge, and thats a challenge I am excited to undertake.
Kele Okereke's Trick is out October 13 on Lilac Records. Pre-order the album here.
For Kele Okereke on Twitter if you know what's good for you - @keleokereke
Further required reading:
Kele Okereke Is Making His Mark On House Music
"I Pretty Much Grew Up Going To Sun Ra's House": an Interview With Fhloston Paradigm
Paradise Garage and the Fight for Larry Levan Way
In Brooklyn, Dub-Stuy Takes Sound System Culture Back to its Roots