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