Hot off the heels of his infectious new single Paradise, MNEK takes a break from finishing his highly anticipated debut album and invites us into his hit-making studio where we explore the intersectionality of race and sexuality, self-care, the journey we
We’re walking through Hackney on an inconsequential sunny September morning when our phone comes to life with noise and vibrations.
The Daily Mail – purveyors of hate and merchants of division – have essentially put a sociological hit out on transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf with a story that reads: “L’Oréal’s first transgender model claims ‘ALL white people’ are racist in extraordinary Facebook rant that could see her lose lucrative cosmetic campaign.”
Munroe – who actually made comments about systemic racism weeks prior to the Mail’s story, in response to the horrific white supremacy rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia – did indeed lose that lucrative L’Oréal campaign. She also came under fire from transphobic abuse, racial slurs and death threats. The Daily Mail had struck again.
It’s somewhat serendipitous then that while our phone is blowing up with tweets and texts about this grave injustice that’s been dealt to Munroe, the reason we’re walking through Hackney is to meet with singer, songwriter and record producer extraordinaire MNEK. When we sit down to chat in his studio – adorned with gold discs and awards in honour of some of the chart-topping tunes he’s produced in that very room – he’s as dismayed about the news as we are.
“I know Munroe and I think she’s such a visionary, but it’s not surprising”, he sighs. “This is really the situation at hand: we may be a group of people – the LGBT+ community – but there are still minorities within our minority. Everyone has similar gay experiences, but people of different races are going to have some experiences others can’t relate to; different races are always going to see life from different perspectives.”
All you need to do is boot up a dating app to see that the systemic problem with racism very much extends to our community too. You’d think we’d know better, wouldn’t you? But while we’re often looking for allies outside our community, when we ask how the White Gays™ can support our BAME brothers and sisters, MNEK quite rightly points out that we inside the community have a role to play as allies, too.
“It’s as simple as supporting”, he explains. “If you agree with what we’re saying, then cool, that’s amazing. If you don’t agree with it, then what’s your problem? We just need allies and people in support of equality, because that’s what everyone wants. When Munroe’s saying what she’s saying, sure, here tone might be aggressive or a bit angry – but it’s all because there’s no equality. If there was equality, there’d be no anger.
“It’s not hard to want everyone to have the same opportunities! For everyone not to see colour. For everyone to appreciate everyone’s experiences and treat each other with respect! Do I agree with some of the things Munroe has said? I think there are some things in there which are very much exacerbated. At the same time, I see where she’s coming from. And if the Daily Mail is sensationalising what Munroe is saying, and making her seem like this ‘villain’ that didn’t have any validity to what she was saying, then, like – who else is next? You know what I mean?”
There’s a wise head on MNEK’s broad shoulders. So much so that it’s easy to forget that he’s only 22 years old. And if it feels like MNEK has been around for years, it’s because he has. He’s been active on the music scene since 2011, when he co-wrote The Saturdays’ best single All Fired Up (don’t @ us). He’s also co-written number one hits for dance artists like Duke Dumont and Oliver Heldens, been nominated for a Grammy, and worked on tracks with Madonna, Kylie, Clean Bandit, Stormzy, Dua Lipa, Little Mix, and a littleknown up-and-coming artist called Beyoncé.
When we were 22, we were still dicking around with a journalism degree and drinking too much down the student union.
“I’ve been around for years”, MNEK laughs, “but the thing is, because I started so young, only now am I actually trying to take care of myself, because before it was so much about trying to make tunes for people, but I was always neglecting myself. I was always here in this studio, but I was always working on everyone else’s songs and neglecting my own music. It’s not like I’ve finally cracked it, but I’m learning not to apologise for things all the time. I’m learning to be, like, ‘I’m doing this now.’”
The “this” that MNEK is doing now is finishing his debut album. In 2016, he released infectious single At Night (I Think About You) as well as the multi-million selling track Never Forget You featuring Zara Larsson, and in the midst of summer he gave us a little tease of what his first LP might sound like with Paradise; a provocative and lyrically thought-provoking R&B song sampling the iconic guitar riff from Ultra Nate’s 1998 dance smash Free.
“Paradise kind of came from slight venom”, he confesses wryly, “because around the time I wrote it, there were a lot of dance tunes sampling or covering R&B songs – some of my favourite R&B songs of all time! – and it all felt a bit reductive and shit. So I wanted to turn it on its head and sample a dance song for an R&B tune. Not only that, but I wanted to pay tribute to that sample while giving it a deeper meaning.”
The deeper meaning that MNEK is talking about is how the message of the song is based on what’s going on in society today, and how sometimes escaping the harsh realities of the world can be a freeing and cathartic experience.
“I’ve never really done anything like that before”, he explains of the message. “Something that was deeper than a love song, and it was cool that I was able to convey that. That’s the cool thing about this album, because it does show various sides of me. There’s a lot of people that see me – I get clocked on the street, I’m this person that’t can’t play down who I am – and a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you’re MNEK, you’re that guy who sings’, but by releasing this album I want to show different sides of myself and give a realistic idea of who I am.”
He’s been working on the as-yet-untitled album since he was around 17, and as such there’s going to be a lot themes that listeners can relate to – first relationships, first
“It’s not hard to want everyone to have the same opportunities. For everyone to treat each other with respect.”
breakups, falling in love, falling out of love, growing up, and even just learning to love ourselves as queer people. “I only came out when I was 18 or 19, so it’s still quite recent”, MNEK tells us. “I grew up in Catford, in
South London, and I went to a predominantly black school – and it was tough because conversations about being gay were never had. It was more normal to say things like ‘batty boy’ and say derogatory terms to gay people. I remember there being a gay guy in my church and it was odd to me. I’d never seen a gay person as a kid. I was a late bloomer when it came to dating, but I quickly realised vagina wasn’t for me!
“As I spent time in London, turned 18, experienced night life, and really got to know myself, I figured it out. Me coming out and telling my parents was more of a result of me deciding, ‘Right, I’m a gay man, but I don’t want to hide it anywhere.’ I’d just signed my deal and I needed to tell my mum that I was gay and that I’d be writing songs about boys.
“I’ve grown up so much within that time, and I’ve grown up as far as my mind set and how I view the world, and how I view love, and how I view men. It’s developed so quickly to a place where I feel really comfortable now.
I’m in my grove now and I’m figuring out what makes ME and what makes me complete.”
Although it’s still difficult for LGBT+ people to break into mainstream entertainment industries, we’ve seen significant success when it comes to gay pop stars – from George Michael to more recently Olly Alexander. But we put to MNEK that he has an even tougher challenge ahead because not only does he have to fight prejudices about his sexuality, he also has to fight prejudices about his race; when it comes to BAME queer pop stars, he’s pretty much drawing his own blue print.
“Yeah, and I have to make something that works for me”, he agrees. “For instance, the same thing that works for Olly Alexander, who I love, isn’t going to work for me, because I don’t have the access and I don’t have that appeal. Not everyone is going to be looking at simple old me and say they can relate to me. And that’s cool. I’m not built to have everyone relate to me – but as a result, yeah, it means I have to create my own template. But that also makes it more exciting, because it means there are no rules.
“I don’t feel alone by any stretch of the imagination. I feel empowered that I get to make music for a living on a massive platform – whether it be singing, whether it be making tunes for others, I know where I stand. And I know what I can do for people. I know that I’m not just doing this for vanity, or to just give myself a fun music career. I have a purpose and that’s helping people, that’s being visible and that’s normalising the concept of being black and gay.”
MNEK makes no bones about the fact his album is going to be coming from the perspective of a gay man, and unlike some gay pop stars topping the charts these days, he’s not going to shy away from using male pronouns: “It’s bound to happen. I’m going to be talking about gay things. All I an say from my perspective is I don’t give a fuck. I have a song on my album called Girlfriend that’s literally like, ‘If your girlfriend new about me and you, what would we do?’”
And when it comes to other queer BAME artists that MNEK admires, he’s quick to name friend Leo Kalyan [more about him in next month’s Gay Times] as an inspiration: “He’s an amazing artist in his own right, but he’s also another gay artist of colour and it’s cool to have him as a friend because we inspire each other.
“When it comes to writing music we come from similar points of view, we just channel it in different ways. And there’s another gay black man, Ryan Ashley, who’s written a bunch of my album with me, and it’s been cool to grow up with him. It’s so inspiring having gay men of colour in my ether.”
As our interview comes to an end, shortly after we shut off our dictaphone with MNEK, we begin having a casual chat about mental health and self-care – a subject that needs to be talked about so much more than it already is – which prompted us to extend our interview a little longer.
“The word ‘health’ is there in mental health and everyone has different degrees of it and grapples with it in different ways”, he tells us. “My thing recent has been making time in the morning to work out – I have some weights and I’ve been doing these YouTube dance tutorials. They’re really fun! I wake up, I catch a sweat and then I shower and I’m like, ‘Cool,’ and I feel good for the rest of the day. And cleaning my room, too! Have you heard the thing that, ‘If your room is messy then your head is mess too’? Ever since my room has been so much cleaner, everything just feels so much cleaner.
“You can be mentally unhealthy, but sometimes it takes simple routines – like exercising or meditating in the morning – to help get you healthier.”
As we leave MNEK’s studio – a medal he received for being nominated for a Grammy hanging from a pair of antlers on the wall, spray-painted in silver – we think about how he’s getting ready for world domination next year. Unashamedly black, unashamedly gay and unashamedly himself. 2018 ain’t gonna know what’s hit it.
MNEK’s debut album is due in 2018, mnekofficial.com, @mnek