This article was first published in Attitude issue 288, October 2017.
Words by Adam Duxbury
Back in 2005 Bloc Party released Silent Alarm, a multi-award winning, certified platinum debut album. Critics loved them, their listeners loved them, but it would have been easy to write them off as just another British indie band in a sea of Razorlights, Kasabians and Arctic Monkeys. Except that the band’s frontman was the then 23-year-old Kele Okereke. And he was black.
In a musical genre dominated by white men, Kele was a refreshingly different kind of indie icon. But then he came out as gay and went from unusual to unique. A black, gay role model in indie music; it was a label that, at the time, he didn’t love. And you don’t need to look far to find several “difficult” interviews in which he tried to explain that he was more than just a label. Since then he’s gone through several metamorphoses; striking out on his own as a buffed-up pugilist on his first solo album, becoming a DJ and channeling his love of Berlin house music, before disbanding Bloc Party then reforming the band with a new line-up.
As we chat ahead of the release of Fatherland, that “difficult” reputation seems to have melted away. And it’s his latest guise, as a folk singer-songwriter who turns 35 in October, and a father, that seems to suit Kele best.
When your first solo album came out you said that the reason for releasing it was that all your Bloc Party band mates wanted to stop and have babies but you wanted to wait until you were 35. So, have all of your plans fallen into place?
Did I say that? Wow. I guess that is quite impressive to see that that is what has happened. I’ve always wanted to be a father, but as a gay man I didn’t know if it was possible. Luckily, my partner felt the same way. But, yeah, it’s interesting when things like that happen.
And how has having your daughter influenced your music?
First, the music on this album came before we had a chance to meet Savannah. I recorded the album in the summer of last year, and Savannah was born in the winter, so lots of the record is concerned with becoming a father, and what that would actually feel like.
You’ve done house music, indie rock and now folk. How do you fit all those different genres together?
I don’t give it too much thought and I don’t give it too much care. The fun thing about being a creative person is seeing how ideas come together. I’m not super reverential about certain disciplines. If I’m going to make a folk singer-songwriter album, how can I do it and still be me? If I’m going to make a tech-house electronic album, how do I do it and still be authentically me? That’s the only game plan really. It is just trying to make sure I’m still authentically expressing myself even though the backdrop might have changed.
When you’re making music, what would you say your top concern is: being creative and making the music that you want, pleasing fans, or commercial viability?
I have to be honest, and it’s probably going to get me in trouble, but I’ve never really worried about pleasing anybody other than myself. There are people around me who want me to be more concerned about what my audience wants but I’ve never done that. I’ve never been able to do it. I started this journey as a musician in my early twenties and there was no game plan. Once you start in this industry, there are a lot of people telling you what you should do to reach more people, and it can be difficult to resist those voices, but I’ve always been quite stubborn. It’s worked out, I still feel creatively excited, I still feel like making music, I still feel there’s something that I need to say. It’s not just about it being a pay cheque, it’s a form of expression, and it’s something that I don’t take for granted.
You collaborate with two other singers on this album, can you tell me more about how you ended up working with them?
I sing with Corinne Bailey Rae on the track Versions of Us. I’ve known Rae a long time, and I’ve always thought she had a beautiful voice and a beautiful energy. She took the song to another place which I wasn’t expecting. And Olly [Alexander] from Years & Years is on Grounds for Resentment, which again I’m very pleased about because it’s the first time I’ve ever sung a romantic duet with another boy, and that’s important. I feel, as a gay man, as a gay singer, you can fall into a habit, fall into the trap, of thinking we’re not really allowed to express desire. That as a gay man singing about love and desire everything has to be coded, has to be kind of hidden. Being able to sing honestly with Olly, someone who I know understands this kind of struggle that gay singers have to go through, is liberating.
Speaking about Olly, I would say that you’ve definitely paved the way for a new generation of young gay singers. Is that something that you’re aware of?
No, because I’m not so connected to what’s happening right now, if I’m honest. I’m kind of in a bubble of my own music. I feel there are lots of gay singers in bands, or gay artists and that’s kind of great. It is great that their sexuality is an issue in terms of their careers. I will say though that I’m not that excited about the fact that, of the mainstream gay artists working who I can think of at the moment, [it doesn’t] seem as if many of them are taking the mantle and trying to push our community forward. I don’t want to call people out, but I think that’s kind of why it was such a big deal for me to sing with Olly. It felt real. I was able to be real. I don’t see many gay artists in the mainstream being that real, to be honest. There’s still a long way for gay artists to go in terms of being fully realised and being able to express themselves in the way that heterosexual artists do.
Do you have any fears around bringing your daughter up with two dads; about how far society has come in accepting gay parents?
For sure, it crosses our minds. I know kids can be cruel and I know that there are a few people who don’t understand how this works. But what’s important is for us to show her that the world isn’t set in stone and she can choose any path she wants. We’re going to do all that we can to make sure she has the strength to stand in her own convictions so that it doesn’t matter what the people around her think or say. That’s the example, that’s how I’ve lived my life. I’ve had to go out and be myself in spite of what everyone was telling me.
And looking back at your past, is there anything that you would have done differently?
Apart from various haircuts, there’s nothing that I would have done differently. I feel blessed to have got to this point, to have got to where I am and to have love in my life, to have a family, to have a career, to have money in the bank. To be honest, I’m just excited about this next chapter because my life has changed. Everything has changed in the past eight or nine months, and I’m curious about what the next chapter is going to bring.
Fatherland is out now.