The Bri­tish singer-song­writer’s de­but al­bum has fi­nally ar­rived – and he’s here to slay in his own pop lane.

Gay Times Magazine - - CULTURE - Pho­tog­ra­phy Dar­ren Black Fash­ion PC Wil­liams Words Lewis Cor­ner

“For too long I’ve been in the back­ground, baby, it’s time to step up to the front now, so you can hear me out,” MNEK de­clares on the in­tro of his lon­gawaited de­but al­bum. De­spite nearly a decade in the biz, the Bri­tish singer-song­writer has waited pa­tiently to launch his first full-length col­lec­tion Lan­guage, which is out on 7 Septem­ber.

The road to this mo­ment for the 23-year-old – real name Uzoechi Emenike – has been packed with ca­reer-mak­ing suc­cess sto­ries and flashes of frus­tra­tion. He’s re­ceived pres­ti­gious awards as a song­writer for other artists, walk­ing off with the ASCAP Van­guard Award aged just 21 back in 2016. But on the flip­side, work­ing as the pop­star known as MNEK (Em-En-Eee-Kay, say it right) it has been a much longer process. When I spoke to him in 2015 for the pro­mo­tion of his sin­gle The Rhythm, he was very hon­est about au­di­ences not con­nect­ing to him in the way any chart star would hope for. “It’s not as ac­ces­si­ble,” he said back then. “I don’t think a tall black gay man singing about the rhythm is go­ing to do as well as, like, some­one else in a suit singing about re­lat­able songs.”

When I sit with him at the Aloft Ho­tel in East Lon­don for his first ever Gay Times cover shoot, I read the quote back to him. “It took me a while to re­ally be OK with the lane I was in,” he says, “and to be OK that it’s not re­ally been prac­ticed be­fore. I’d drive my­self crazy com­par­ing my­self to Sam Smith. It made me re­ally sad at one point. I shouldn’t com­pare my­self to Sam be­cause he’s so tal­ented and de­serves ev­ery­thing in the world be­cause he’s earned it. His ex­pe­ri­ence and lens on life is go­ing to be dif­fer­ent to mine. So peo­ple will see his ex­pe­ri­ence as dif­fer­ent to mine. Same goes for Olly Alexan­der, same goes for Troye Si­van, same goes for all the boys.”

It’s true: there re­ally isn’t an­other artist like MNEK out there in the pop game right now. There have been mu­sic icons of colour like Prince and Sylvester who have ex­plored sex­u­al­ity in their work, while op­er­at­ing within the main­stream. More re­cently, Frank Ocean and Kevin Ab­stract are two names that come to mind when think­ing of queer men of colour re­leas­ing al­bums in­spired by ex­pe­ri­ences of same-sex love. But when it comes to a gay black man work­ing within the realm of sug­ary, bops o’clock pop mu­sic (see: MNEK’s lat­est sin­gle Colour), who else is there right now?

“When peo­ple are say­ing all this #20GayTeen stuff, it’s re­ally great and em­pow­er­ing, but I am one of the very few black peo­ple there,” MNEK says. “It’s great to hold that flag and be like, ‘Yass! Werk!’ But I shouldn’t be the only one.” This is a stark re­minder of the per­va­sive is­sues within the mu­sic in­dus­try, and a re­flec­tion of so­ci­ety at large when it comes to queer peo­ple of colour liv­ing at the in­ter­sec­tion of their iden­tity, and the chal­lenges, dis­crim­i­na­tion and in­equal­ity that this ex­pe­ri­ence brings. Again and again, queer rep­re­sen­ta­tion is of­ten fronted by a ‘palat­able’ poster boy to the wider world.

“I think the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of ‘gay be­ing okay’ is Olly Alexan­der,” MNEK says. “Olly’s my girl – I love him – so it’s awe­some that peo­ple see him, and they see some­one who’s so com­fort­able in him­self. But I think even he would say that the lack of di­ver­sity and the lack of va­ri­ety in that idea of what ‘gay be­ing okay’ is, is alarm­ing, dis­turb­ing, and dis­cour­ag­ing. It’s the world we live in.” He pauses. “I’m not a politi­cian, I’m not an ac­tivist, but my ac­tivism is my mu­sic. The best I can do is help nor­malise the con­ver­sa­tion via these videos and via my mu­sic and via this Gay Times cover. I’ll get some shit com­ments on the way, so I’ll just have to bite it and deal with it. That’s what comes with do­ing some­thing that peo­ple aren’t fa­mil­iar with, be­cause so­ci­ety hasn’t told them that it’s fa­mil­iar or cor­rect.”

This is why it’s im­per­a­tive MNEK es­capes that back­ground he’s been stand­ing in for so long, and grasp his mo­ment – and what a step for­ward his de­but al­bum is. When MNEK re­leased Tongue and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing mu­sic video ear­lier this year, it was ground­break­ing on so many lev­els. The vis­ual for starters was un­like any­thing we’d seen from him be­fore, ooz­ing with sex­u­al­ity and con­fi­dence. There were scenes of same-sex lust be­tween two queer men of colour, while the song it­self is ear­worm pop more smooth and se­duc­tive than an espresso mar­tini at 5pm on a Fri­day.

“When I made the song I just lis­tened to it and was like, ‘This can’t be what I was do­ing be­fore,’” he smiles. “It was around the time I was los­ing weight, I was work­ing with PC Wil­liams [his stylist], and I al­ways wanted to dance in my videos but my la­bel were against it, and so when I played them the al­bum and they wanted Tongue to be the first tune, I was like, ‘I’m danc­ing in this video!’ That had to hap­pen.” It saw MNEK turn a cor­ner in his ca­reer. After years fig­ur­ing out who he is as an artist, he fi­nally knew ex­actly what he should be putting out.

“It was fun to work on be­cause it let me ex­plore the pop­star side of things where I was creat­ing mo­ments,” he adds. “I’m so proud of that video. It’s my favourite video I’ve ever done. I hated all of my videos from be­fore – ex­cept for Wrote A Song About You. Like, Never For­get You wasn’t my video re­ally, it was Zara Lars­son’s and my video. But ev­ery­thing else, I’ve def­i­nitely had a con­ver­sa­tion

with man­age­ment be­ing like, ‘I don’t want to put this shit out.’ So when Tongue hap­pened, we got it shot and edited in a week, and I was so ex­cited to put it out. That feel­ing I’d never had be­fore.”

The re­ac­tion to the song and mu­sic video was over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive – par­tic­u­larly within the gay com­mu­nity. “When I went to UK Black Pride, I came across so many young queer kids of colour who came up to me and said thank you,” says MNEK. “Even the video shoot I just did the other day for Cor­rect, this guy who was on set work­ing came to me after and was like, ‘I’m not go­ing to get emo­tional, but thanks so much, you did this for me and it’s so great to see an African gay artist out there do­ing pop shit, and not try­ing to be cool or edgy or un­der­ground. You’re re­ally just go­ing for it, and do­ing the pop­star thing.’ I call it the pop­star thing be­cause I’m still get­ting used to it. It’s not like I’ve al­ways done this, where I’m danc­ing in my videos and re­ally go­ing for it. I think it’s cool that it helps peo­ple. It makes it so it’s be­yond just the mu­sic.”

When it comes to the danc­ing, you’ll find MNEK flanked by his all-male troupe The KiKi – con­sist­ing of Bu­sola Peters, Daron Gifty, Kieran D-W and Ran­dall Wat­son – who are also part of this Gay Times cover shoot here. Whether it’s serv­ing moves dur­ing a Pride per­for­mance, ap­pear­ing in his mu­sic videos, or slay­ing a head­line set at venues across the UK, they’ve helped MNEK re­alise his pop­star po­ten­tial.

MNEK got his first big break in the mu­sic in­dus­try when he co-wrote The Satur­days’ 2011 floor-filler All Fired Up. He was aged just 16 years old when it came out. It served as a way to get into the biz to pro­gres­sively work on his own am­bi­tions to jump from stu­dio to stage. “I al­ways wanted to be an artist,” he re­calls. “When I got dis­cov­ered, it was off my own record­ings. So I’ve al­ways wanted to do that. How­ever, the prob­lem was, as a re­sult of me be­ing so young it was al­most dan­ger­ous for me to try and push be­ing a pop­star first. So I found com­fort in work­ing on my craft, writ­ing for other peo­ple, and do­ing it that way.” When he says “other peo­ple”, he means the likes of Bey­oncé, Madonna and Kylie. No biˆie. But work­ing with megas­tars meant that it started to de­flect from his own goal of be­com­ing a pop­star in his own right.

“But then I guess I shoot my­self in the foot that way, be­cause it means in ev­ery in­ter­view that I do, the syn­op­sis of it is, ‘MNEK wrote for all these big stars, but now he has trans­formed into an artist,’” he says. “But I’ve al­ways felt like an artist, it was just that it’s been a tim­ing thing about what I want to put out and I’ve never stopped. Be­ing an artist is tough. There’s a lot of things that come with be­ing an artist that I don’t have to think about when I’m writ­ing for an­other artist. In my case, I’m writ­ing the songs, I’m pro­duc­ing them, I’m record­ing them, I’m A&Ring my record, I’m pay­ing for half of the videos, I’m do­ing all this shit be­cause it’s what I love. This is a pas­sion thing. But that’s also come with grow­ing up and ap­pre­ci­at­ing it and un­der­stand­ing the things I like about be­ing an artist and what I don’t like about be­ing an artist. I’m be­ing pos­i­tive. I’m pos­i­tive that this al­bum is a great al­bum and that peo­ple will en­joy it when they hear it. I’m pos­i­tive about the vi­su­als I have made. I am pos­i­tive about the peo­ple it is go­ing to af­fect for the good. That’s what it’s all about. I’m pretty sure I went on a rant there...”

Amongst all of this pro­fes­sional growth, how­ever, came his per­sonal evo­lu­tion too. Very few are re­warded a stress-free com­ing out ex­pe­ri­ence, but the idea of do­ing it with the prospect of a pop ca­reer ahead can only add more pres­sure. “I didn’t know I was gay un­til I was 18,” MNEK re­calls. “I thought I was, y’know, I’d watch gay porn and I’d do all these things, but at the same time I never felt like I wasn’t at­tracted to girls up un­til I was 18.” He stops. “Also, I think my en­vi­ron­ment had a mas­sive part to play in it. At 14 to 16 I was still very much liv­ing with my par­ents in that Cat­ford co­coon.”

Like most com­ing out tales, a large por­tion of one’s self dis­cov­ery comes about when you’ve got the free­dom to ex­plore. After his 16th birth­day, MNEK moved to Lon­don and into a record­ing stu­dio with the Rudi­men­tal guys. All of a sud­den he had a he­do­nis­tic play­ground at his feet. “I was en­joy­ing nightlife in Shored­itch, and meet­ing all these peo­ple who were older than me, my eyes were opened. I was able to ex­plore that side of my­self the right way or the wrong way. There was a chance to do it. I couldn’t do it in Cat­ford or my par­ents’ house.

“En­vi­ron­ment has a lot to do with it, but it all starts from within,” he adds. “When it came to me be­ing out... I’ve al­ways been out in my ca­reer. I’ve al­ways been out when it comes to my record­ing ca­reer. I made a de­ci­sion to be out be­cause I didn’t want to have to be in a po­si­tion where I was singing about girls, or I wasn’t singing about what was real to me.”

But even on that ex­plo­ration for love things don’t al­ways go to plan – es­pe­cially when the restau­rant you’re on a date in starts play­ing your mu­sic. “It was re­ally nice and we were just talk­ing, and then Ev­ery Lit­tle Word comes on,” he laughs. “Then the remix of Ev­ery Lit­tle Word came on straight after, and I’m like, this is crazy. What do you ex­pect to hap­pen?” He rolls his eyes. “That’s why I just stay at home. I’ve got my weed, I’ve got my friends, I don’t need any of this hoopla! It’s fuck­ing stress­ing up my life!”

With just five min­utes of our chat left after a long day on set, con­ver­sa­tion finds it­self on the topic of gay dat­ing apps and the is­sue of sex­ual racism. Un­for­tu­nately it’s all too preva­lent in 2018. “We’ve all faced it in dif­fer­ent shapes and forms as far as dat­ing apps and our work, y’know, where we don’t feel that we are as re­spected as our white coun­ter­parts,” MNEK says. “It’s not a fun feel­ing. But we’ve got to com­bat it with ex­celling at what we do. We’ve re­alised that we have to work twice as hard to be half as good. We’re work­ing twice as hard to be seen. So I am go­ing in, I am try­ing to make this work, and I do love what I do. I want to be vis­i­ble and I want to be no­ticed. Ob­vi­ously not just for the sake of vis­i­bil­ity, but it’s for the sake of my mu­sic be­ing heard and my mes­sage be­ing spread in that way. The mes­sage is to be your­self no mat­ter your cul­tural ob­sta­cles, no mat­ter your en­vi­ron­men­tal ob­sta­cles, your­self comes first.” He stands up. “When ev­ery­thing is said and done, it’s just you left.”

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