Kele Okereke — The Beauty of the Writing, the Strength of the Performance

Reading time 6 min.

British rock singer Kele Okereke, on hiatus from the alternative rock band Bloc Party, hit the road for his first Solo European tour. After the June 2010 release of The Boxer, Okereke’s excellent début solo album, the 29-year-old singer-guitarist is proving that he’s not only a major songwriter but an amazing performer as well.

The Boxer features audacious, poetic songwriting, with Okereke’s stirring voice always on the verge of breaking, and a rough energy that makes you want to jump out of your seat without being sure if you want to dance or box. Despite playing very indie rock music with Bloc Party, Kele Okereke never really ceased challenging his own art. Some rock purists may be disappointed by The Boxer, which sometimes flirts with dance music. But for all others, Okereke’s solo turn is a confirmation of his capacity to stretch the envelope and his evolving talent into very personal songwriting without completely losing its rocked-out roots. Kele Okereke is one of the rare artists still able to defy all the clichés.

On the occasion of his European tour, Okereke agreed to grant a short but smart interview just before going on stage.

How did you come to music, and more particularly, to rock music?

My sister had an acoustic guitar in her room when I was about 14, 15. Whenever she’d leave the house, I’d always go into her room and take the guitar and play it. And then I got into writing songs. When I was younger, Britpop was a very big movement, the biggest musical movement when I was a teenager. So you couldn’t help but being exposed to it. That’s maybe where it started, the appreciation of guitars and guitar music.

There is an interesting musical progression from Silent Alarm (very punk rock), to Intimacy (more electro-rock), and now to The Boxer, your solo album, which oscillates between dance and indie-rock sounds. Do you see The Boxer as a continuation?

Yeah, I guess to an extent. The way we recorded half of Intimacy—songs like “Ares,” “Signs,” “Biko” and “Mercury”—were the more electronic sounds on the record. It was a new way of recording for us. We were doing a lot of editing and programming, and putting stuff together on a computer rather than us performing it live. I think that approach with that record is something I took into making The Boxer, for sure. I do see it as a start of that record.

jpg_Kele_xxxx.jpgAnd there is this picture of you with an Akai MPC1000 beat machine.

I’m getting more comfortable with it. If I’m making this record, I have to learn about basic recording and programming stuff. Luckily I had lots of people who were able to help me, engineers and stuff. I’m getting more comfortable with it, for sure.

Your parents are both Nigerians, Igbo. But you grew up in England. Can you tell us about your relationship with Nigerian culture and, more broadly, with African culture?

My parents weren’t very big music fans. They weren’t very big Western pop music fans. They had some Beatles records and some Motown stuff, but they weren’t really into British music. They had lots of African music. I had lots of those records growing up. Stuff like King Sunny Adé, some highlife stuff, some Fela Kuti, not much. It was weird though. Because it was the music of my parents when I was a teenager, I really tried to resist it. I don’t speak Igbo, and I don’t speak any African languages. I regret it a little bit, because I think that when you speak a language of a culture, you get to see into the culture. You get to see how they construct sentences, and how they think. My parents didn’t speak Igbo to me or my sister when we were growing up. They didn’t want us to get accents. They thought it would be hard for us growing up in the UK with a Nigerian accent, because of the problems that they had, living in the UK. And I understand their concerns. But I think it was a shame. I think it would have been nice to have had that experience, to have a different perspective on things.

Do you feel like it’s still an issue to be Black in England today?

Well, I’m a Black British man. It’s something that I am always aware of, especially in the UK. It’s something that I always pride myself on being, because we are a community. I’m proud of these experiences that I’ve had here. When people say things like, “oh, you’re a role model,” I always get a bit nervous about that term. All I’m trying to do is live my life the way I think is right and try to hurt anyone. If that means you become a role model, then I guess you are. I don’t like to think about that sort of stuff, ’cause I’m human.

Whatever labels people put on you, you defy the clichés. You’re from an African family, you play rock music and you’re openly gay

I just do what I want to do. I feel lucky that people respect that. I guess you’re right. I don’t really see it as that. I do what I want to do. I’m not hurting anyone. More people should do what they want to do rather than feel constricted; rather than feeling they have to fulfill stereotypes or clichéd ways of behavior if that’s not a genuine expression. There are so many ways to experience life. We don’t need to be put into boxes.

jpg_kele-the-boxer-7064529300-2.jpgYou said you’d like to produce Solange Knowles. We recently saw you with a Beyoncé T-shirt on BBC. Now that you’ve surprised part of your fans with some very dance floor tracks, should we expect some new directions again in your music, something more R&B colored in your next opus maybe?

No, not particularly. I think Beyoncé Knowles is an amazing performer, and that’s irrespective of my position as a rock performer. She’s probably the best performer I’ve seen in my lifetime. I know it’s not music people necessarily associate with something I do. But that’s kinda the point about me. There are lots of things you can be interested in.

But without using it for your own music?

What you hear when you hear my music isn’t necessarily what I hear when I make it. I’m a fan of pop music and I always have been. I don’t think you need to make the distinction between serious music and fun music. If music means something to you, then it’s worthwhile. I wear my Beyoncé T-shirt with pride.

Yes, but not long ago, if you were into indie rock, then you were not supposed to listen to pop music and maybe vice versa. So you’re crossing the borders one more time.

In this day and age, everyone has an iPod. Everyone has access to all their music in one place. You can be into Metallica, you can be into Run-DMC, you can be into Madonna.

But you particularly are really able to quote, like, RuPaul and James Baldwin and Grace Jones and Morrissey and Aiden Shaw in just one interview. And you wear Cure or Beyoncé T-shirts. That’s not so usual.

Well, I don’t know, I don’t think about it. I just think about the things that I like and if something moves me then it moves me.

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