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

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - WORDS ryan butcher

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, mnekof­fi­, @mnek

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