Kele Okereke: “I’ve never experienced such widespread public racism”

Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke opens up about Brexit Britain, Brandon Flowers' comments on Morrissey, the artists failing to fight far right rhetoric, and his ambitious new album '2042'

On the face of it, Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke has a lot to celebrate. He’s soon to become a father for the second time, his anti-Brexit soundtrack and play ‘Leave to Remain‘ premiered to rave reviews earlier this year, and the first two single releases from his upcoming fourth solo album ‘2042’ have been praised as emotive snapshots of fractured political and cultural landscape in 2019. He also confirms to me that Bloc Party are heading back into the studio in January to start work on their sixth studio album, the follow up to 2016’s acclaimed ‘Hymns’.

Yet speaking to Okereke, it’s clear he’s not in any celebratory mood. Brexit divisions are weighing heavily on his mind, the multicultural London he grew up in feeling more divisive than ever – “a landscape drenched in animosity and racism,” as he puts it.

Born to Nigerian parents and growing up first in Essex, later London, Okereke was surrounded by families who, like his, descended from immigrants. Being brought up in an area rich in multiculturalism and surrounded by so much diversity created a beginning he says he “loved and cherished.” His next solo album, ‘2042’, will examine how the black experience has changed throughout his life; exploring race divisions and the divisiveness caused by Brexit, the album also looks at the role the artist plays in times of political upheaval.

To his fury, he tells NME, the lack of outspoken voices in the industry is making him question his own role as a musician.

Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke performs on stage at Afas Live in Amsterdam.

“The political backdrop that we’re experiencing right now is quite frightening to me,” Okereke explains solemnly. “The most powerful man in the world in the US is a racist and, in this country, the Prime Minister is an unapologetic racist too. Brexit has unleashed a wave of nativist patriotism and there’s been an unleashing of ugliness and a coarsening of the rhetoric. I’ve never experienced such widespread public racism and for it to be given the centre ground…” his voice trails off, distressed by the level to which Far Right rhetoric is being centralised in everyday life – from politicians, media and football terraces to, most depressingly he says, fellow musicians.

“I’ve never experienced such widespread public racism and for it to be given the centre ground…”

“This idea of a multi-cultural Britain, that there is now somehow resistance towards it, is something that I’ve never experienced in my life [until] now,” he continues. “And it’s not just the politicians and the media. It’s the artists too.” With the exception, he says, of artists like Slowthai, Idles and Billy Bragg who are continually questioning and holding discrimination to account, too many are complicit – many more, he says, are even encouraging it.

“I think of the comments that Morrissey recently made and his support for Britain First. It’s clear to me that there is an idea of Britain and Britishness that is supposed to exclude people who are non-white and this idea is becoming more and more prominent.

“As a black musician who was born in the UK and who lives in the UK, I found it very disheartening that none of my peers really came out to publicly counter Morrissey’s recent comments and behaviour. I found that personally quite dispiriting and even worse, the only comments by musicians seemed to be in support of him – like Brandon Flowers.” Ahead of The Killers headline set at Glastonbury, Flowers told NME that Morrissey was “still a king” despite his problematic political views.

The Killers' Brandon Flowers

The Killers’ Brandon Flowers

“Brandon Flowers is basically saying it doesn’t matter what Morrissey says, he’s still a revered icon,” Okereke tells us. “I think that’s bullshit and I think Brandon Flowers is bullshit. It does matter. It absolutely matters what people say and the fact that no one is willing to challenge him on this to me is quite disgusting. Shame on him and shame on Morrissey.”

“Brandon Flowers is basically saying it doesn’t matter what Morrissey says. I think that’s bullshit and I think Brandon Flowers is bullshit.”

On ‘2042’, Okereke explains that he explores his own black, British identity against this backdrop. He tells us that a growing “normalisation” of racist views will continue until more people speak out in protest. On one of his new tracks, ‘Let England Burn’, Okereke’s emotive imagery leaves little to the imagination about just how bad things have become: “There’s a new mood on the street / and there’s talk of Armageddon / Under the breasts on Page 3 / And they’re singing shitty songs / About staying in bed all day / While the terraces say ‘Go Home’.”

“Why aren’t more celebrated musicians that people are listening to – why aren’t they coming out to say: ‘this isn’t cool?’,” asks Okereoke. “Unless, possibly they think racism isn’t a big deal.  celebrated musicians that people are listening to – why aren’t they coming out to say: ‘this isn’t cool?’ I’m not accusing these people of anything but I feel that it’s disappointing that no one is coming out to deplore this kind of behaviour with the exception of people like Billy Bragg, who has a history of activism and being very vocal.”

He continues: “It’s making me think very hard about the scene that I’m in as a musician and as an artist. It’s making me question if it’s really the right place for me personally right now. Nothing is going to change if the responsibility of this sort of behaviour is left solely on black artists or artists of colour. It needs to be an effort from all sectors of the spectrum or you’re just complicit. I personally think it’s shameful.”

“Nothing is going to change if the responsibility of this sort of behaviour is left solely on black artists or artists of colour.”

On the first release from his upcoming album, ‘Jungle Bunny’, Okereke said: “There is a history of black entertainers feeling that after they have achieved a certain level of success they are above discussion of race but that idea is a delusion. As a person of colour living in the western world, it does not matter how much wealth one accumulates: race will follow you wherever you go.”

The lyrics clearly allude to West: “He’s trying to run / he’s trying to outrun a gun / he’s gone full Ye / and he’s starting to feel that shit might pop offyou go back to your home in Calabasas / with your wife and your kids / safe in the knowledge / on a gated street / where life is sweet / but no one looks like you.

Is it a dig specifically at Kanye West? It would have seemed so, but the answer is a complex one.

“I wanted to explore the idea of responsibility with the black entertainer,” Okereke says of the track. “There are some direct references in the lyrics to him, but I am a fan of Kanye West and I have been since ‘The College Dropout’. I’m a massive fan of his output and I was listening to ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ when [I] was making this record; he was definitely at the forefront of my mind.

“But like many people, like many black people all over the world, I felt a sense of heartbreak seeing those images of him in The White House and his comments on slavery.”

Donald Trump and Kanye West

Donald Trump and Kanye West

Okereke goes on: “It just seemed to me like a continuation of a particular strain of thought of celebrity that [race is no longer] an issue when you reach a certain level of success. I’m talking about Kanye here but I [remember] OJ Simpson famously claiming that people don’t see him as a black man because of the success he had. Even someone like A$AP Rocky, I remember quite vividly the comments he made about not being concerned with Black Lives Matter because he was rich and lived in an affluent neighbourhood. He wasn’t concerned about the struggles that people were undertaking to push his community forward.

“[The irony] is that certainly after what happened to him so publicly recently in Sweden, where he was arrested and held without bail – race was clearly a factor in his prolonged detainment. I wonder if his views have changed. I wasn’t just talking about Kanye in that lyric,” Okereke clarifies, “there’s just a long history of black entertainers making those sort of comments, and it needs to change.”

“Like many people, like many black people all over the world, I felt a sense of heartbreak seeing those images of [Kanye] in The White House…”

On the cover of ‘2042’, Okereke can be seen holding a picture of his grandparents. As well as exploring the state of race in the UK in 2019, the album also pays tribute, he says, to his own cultural heritage. “It was important to me with this album to present a real rounded vision of race and identity that weren’t just these two-dimensional caricatures of what people think a black music record should sound like now. It was important for me that there was a tender, romantic and spiritual perspective too: it’s about me trying to understand where I’ve come from. That’s why I’m holding the picture of my grandparents on the cover because it’s also about paying homage to the journey I’ve been on.”

One song on the new album, ‘Cyril’s Blood’, is directly about his grandfather. “Cyril was the only member of my family that I’m aware of who was musical. He had a guitar and he was a bit of a troublemaker in Nigeria,” Okereke explains, his tone beaming when recounting memories of his family. “He had two wives and at a time when polygamy was kind of frowned on and it caused a lot of problems in his community but he lived his own life on his own terms and that’s something I can relate to in my life.”

Having a two-and-a-half-year-old and a baby on the way has also caused Okereke to contemplate his heritage more on his upcoming album. “There was a real sense making this that this journey isn’t just for me, it’s for them too. Britain is going to be their home so I need to give them the tools to navigate this experience being black British children. I think there was a sense of wanting to claim something for them.”

Does he feel nervous for the future, with the looming uncertainty of Brexit and continuing divisions? Yes, he says, but young activists – like Greta Thunburg and and those involved in the Extinct Rebellion protests – give him hope that change is on the horizon.

“It feels like we’re approaching some kind of critical mass – and it’s what we need”

“I’m an optimistic person no matter what,” he replies. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life and I’m aware of that. I’ve been lucky to have the privileges that I’ve had and I’m lucky that I’ve had a voice that people will listen to. I’m inspired looking around at young people and I’m inspired by their kind of wave of radical activism, that people can sense something isn’t right now. It feels like we’re approaching some kind of critical mass – and it’s what we need.”

Bloc Party in 2005. Credit: Ed Miles

Thematically and sonically, Okereke says that his latest record has been influenced by his anti-Brexit soundtrack, ‘Leave to Remain’but that the project stands alone, even though he says, they fed into each other naturally. “I kind of finished them off roughly at the same time,” Okereke begins. “I was listening to a lot of African and Afrobeats music and especially to this kind of energised African dance music which was very much where ‘Leave to Remain‘ was focussed. I think that definitely bled into the first single, ‘Jungle Bunny’. On both projects I was also utilising the voice of my mother who sings on ‘Natural Hair.’ She’s singing these West African folk songs that I sampled and put into that track which again [harks back] to my heritage. There has definitely been some cross-pollination but ‘2042’ has a much more expansive, cosmic feel I guess.”

“I’m an optimistic person no matter what. I’ve been very fortunate in my life and I’m aware of that”

Okereke adds: “I was also conscious, speaking again about stereotypes, that it was about the black experience in a non-cliched way. It wasn’t about trying to make a rap or a grime record; it was about trying to take aspects of that world and weaving something new and relevant. As a black musician, I wanted it to say something about my world. It’s important to me that it doesn’t sound traditional, that it’s not what people expect it to sound like.

“I’m so fed up of seeing so many boring two-dimensional representations of black culture that reference like lawlessness or crime or violence,” he says, sighing deeply when he fires off a list of tropes to have dominated black culture for as long as he can remember. “I wanted it to be bigger than that. I wanted it to feel like its own world and [representative] of now.”

Kele touring his second solo album

Next year, when time away from his new young family allows, Okereke tells me he plans to tour his fourth solo album and, excitingly, start work on Bloc Party’s new album in January. Where reports suggested Bloc Party might be revisiting old material after celebrating seminal debut ‘Silent Alarm‘, Okereke says this isn’t the case and that the band and looking firmly to the future.

“I think we all agreed in the band that the next steps for us was to make a new record…I think we’re excited about what we can make together now but we’re getting together in the studio at the start of next year.”

“I’m so fed up of seeing so many boring two-dimensional representations of black culture that reference like lawlessness or crime or violence”

Before then, Okereke is firmly focussed on releasing his solo project. “I’m forever thankful that I’m a musician that is able to channel any uncomfortable feelings that I’m experiencing in my personal life into my art and share that with people,” he concludes. “Not many people have that opportunity. And certainly in these times of helplessness where people in this country and all over the world are feeling kind of wildly powerless, I feel very fortunate that I have an opportunity to at least counter that and funnel those feelings into something productive. This has been a cathartic experience but also a healing experience as well.”

‘2042’ is released on November 8.