Kele Okereke is a remarkable musician.
An out (albeit not prominently at first), black frontman was unheard of before Bloc Party dropped their widely-lauded debut album, Silent Alarm. Soon, the four-piece were a prominent force in the noughties indie scene, touring relentlessly and producing a further three albums.
During this time, Kele worked on various solo projects – The Boxer (2010) and Trick (2014) – and began to speak openly about his sexuality, appearing on the cover of Attitude and giving an interview with Butt Magazine. Having been raised by Catholic Nigerian parents, he was taught to believe that homosexuality was a sin and was thrown out for being gay aged 20. He’s notoriously shy and has often avoided interviews; he restrained from opening up publicly about his sexuality for fear of his music being understood solely through his identity.
“The reason I’m doing [this interview],” he explained,” is that whenever I go out, I’m always stopped by young, gay kids who say that it’s really refreshing and encouraging to see someone like me being out in a relatively mainstream band. If I’d have had someone saying it’s okay to be you when I was a teenager, I’d probably be a very different person. That’s why I’m doing this now, after years of not doing it.”
But having a successful, queer, non-white musician was important for many of us as we grew up, listening to music from a predominantly straight, white alternative scene. Some of us hoped for music to identify with beyond the campness of pop divas or gay artists like Elton or George Michael. While the queer scene has now begun to embrace noughties indie – see parties such as Douche Bag – this hasn’t always been the case. For Kele to be a prominent, black, gay musician was significant for many of us – and continues to be.
His lyrics have always been poetic, often abstract, yet filled with references and citations; Ion Square, from Bloc Party’s third LP, quotes E. E. Cummings, for instance. A Weekend In The City was more personal and more political: Where Is Home? is dedicated to a family friend, Christopher Alaneme, who was murdered in a racist attack and explores the status of second-generation immigrants: “Second generation blues / Our points of view not listened to…” Many people saw this as too serious, as a killjoy, but Kele felt vindicated: “I think that record set me on the path of where I am now, of always expressing myself truthfully.”
I Still Remember is a semi-autobiographical ‘love story’, he explained to the Guardian in 2007: “Not two gay boys, but the idea of two straight boys having an attraction, or there being an attraction that’s unspeakable – that was the idea of that song. When was the last time you heard an interesting pop song that actually tried to give you a different perspective on desire?’”
Things have changed a lot since then: Bloc Party have released a fifth album with a new lineup (Okereke and co-founder Russell Lissack alongside Justin Harris and Louise Bartle) and Kele has had a daughter with his partner of seven years.
Fatherland, his third solo album, was written before the birth of Savannah and deals mostly with the anticipation of fatherhood: “I guess the record is mainly concerned with the thoughts I was having when I knew I was going to become a father, not the actual reality of becoming one. It’s hard to tell.”
He also addresses his relationship with his own father, who struggled to come to terms with Kele’s homosexuality. They recently took a trip to his father’s native city in Nigeria, Ibadan: “We went back to visit my grandmother before she died. I hadn’t been back in more than 10 years, and I and my father had never travelled alone together before. It was important knowing that I was going to become a father to have the chance to correct some of the issues in my relationship with my dad.”
There are folk influences on the new record, a more poppy feel compared to the heavier house sounds that permeated his previous solo efforts. Piano and acoustic guitar flavour the songs, but he’s by no means gone soft. There’s still depth to the sound, though, the lyrics still have a complexity, a bite: “The streets been talkin’ // By now you should have known // All that glitters is not gold.” This is a more mature record, gone are the angst-ridden, fast-paced tunes; it’s more introspective, more personal.
There’s a song for Yemaya, the Yoruba goddess of fertility and water, and a lullaby for his daughter. He is clearly smitten: “She makes me laugh. She wakes us up talking or singing to herself. I can’t wait for her to start talking properly.”
Then there’s teaming up with the lovely Olly Alexander for Grounds for Resentment, a rather upbeat duet about the breakdown of a relationship. “I feel very lucky I was able to work with him because I’d been a fan of his band and him really for a very long time,” Kele explained to the Guardian. “I remember reading something that he wrote about the use of pronouns in pop music for gay artists that I thought that was very perceptive and intelligent.”
He has hopes that the song might lead to more of the same, more romantic duets about same-sex love sung by gay musicians: “I was very happy to sing a romantic duet with him on my album, because I couldn’t think of a precedent of any out gay musicians singing a love song to one another without having to hide behind codes. It was nice to put that all out there.”
Fatherland is out today (6 October).
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