Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke: ‘This is not a time I’m proud to be British. It’s an ugly time’

Every day in Brexit Britain feels like “living on a knife edge”, sighs Kele Okereke. The Bloc Party frontman spent a lot of time pondering the divides caused by the country’s messy departure from the EU while creating Leave to Remain, an absorbing new musical co-written and scored by the 37-year-old. Accompanied by a tie-in album of brooding new songs, it tells the story of Obi and Alex, an interracial gay couple whose future together is thrown into uncertainty by today’s tense political climate. “It’s not a time that I’ve been proud to be British,” says Okereke. “It’s an ugly time. The opportunity to tell a story about people from different cultures coming together and finding love in the shadow of that is an important thing to stand up for.”

It’s a chilly January afternoon a few days before Leave to Remain is set to debut, and Okereke is trying to remain calm as a frenzy of preparations go on around him. “I haven’t done this before, but everyone says what we’re experiencing now is very normal?” he laughs. “So, I’m just keeping my eyes open and mouth shut.”

At first glance, “Bloc Party singer writes LGBT+ Brexit musical” sounds slightly surreal. Can this be the same Kele Okereke we still remember as the wiry, Telecaster-pounding 21-year-old that a generation drenched themselves in snakebite while dancing to in 2005, when Bloc Party released their debut album, Silent Alarm? Okereke may have delved into dark electronic beats and soul-searching folk on intrepid solo albums over the past decade, but like Hot Hot Heat deciding they owe it to their band name to solve climate change, there’s still something jarring about a man who soundtracked a million students’ boozy nights out taking on Brexit.

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Okereke in 2013 (PA)

Look a little closer, though, and Okereke is perfectly placed to tackle Brexit. Born to Nigerian parents (his mum a midwife, his dad a molecular biologist), Kele grew up in Essex before moving to London, where he found himself surrounded by people descended from immigrant families, contributing to a melting pot of music, food and art. “It’s one of the most diverse places in the world. I know lots of people from different parts of the world as a result,” he explains. “In my social circles, Brexit is a reality for people. The uncertainty is real and it’s frightening. We don’t know how this going to land.” Some of his friends, like the protagonists of Leave to Remain, are unsure where their futures lie. It’s not just personal experience that gives Okereke a unique perspective on the subject. 

That “knife-edge” feeling Kele describes? His music has existed on the pinpoint of that blade for his entire career, frequently detailing emotional states in which tension is palpable and characters are being pulled in separate directions. “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep, I can’t dream,” he sings of a paralysing inner purgatory on Silent Alarm’s opener, “Like Eating Glass”. The group’s breakthrough single, “Banquet”, full of antsy call-and-response guitars, climaxes into a chant hinting at simmering sexual desire at odds with his Roman Catholic upbringing: “I’m on fire! You know I’m on fire when you come”. Even Fatherland, his last solo album, written in the aftermath of the birth of his daughter Savannah, found him in states of unease. “Maybe this is payback for a youth on the run, for all the hearts I did break,” he contemplates on “You Keep on Whispering His Name”; parenthood failing to fix his uncertainty within.

Leave to Remain’s music “couldn’t be more different” to Fatherland’s folky, finger-plucked acoustic guitar ruminations, Okereke admits. The play was first envisioned seven years ago as a television pilot about a marriage under strain, written with screenwriter Matt Jones. Then the EU referendum came and went in 2016, Brexit emerged as a backdrop that might underline its themes of division, and it was reworked as a musical. Okereke went about incorporating a collision of musical ideas that underlined its culture clash. “This idea of west African values versus western culture was an idea I wanted to be present in the music – a sonic crash and confusion between those things. So I went back to my parents’ old Nigerian highlife records, immersed myself in those and tried to bring some of their aesthetic touches to a western, electronic kinda clubby palette, kinda marrying those different worlds.”

The result is a collection of tracks like “Not The Drugs Talking” that bubble with synth-pop intensity and African percussive flourishes, pivoting around lyrics that reflect the emotional toll of Brexit, rather than descending into Michael Gove disses. “The British political landscape is a backdrop to the action in the narrative,” he says. “First and foremost, it’s a story about relationships and what happens when different people from different parts of the world come together. It’s a story about who we give personal residency to in our lives, rather than just residency.”

‘Leave to Remain’ cast members Billy Cullum (left) and Tyrone Huntley

This isn’t the first time Okereke, one of the few openly gay artists in British indie, has addressed issues surrounding homosexuality and race in his music. I tell him that Bloc Party’s second album, A Weekend in the City, in a time before social media, was the first I learnt of the deaths of Christopher Alaneme, a family friend of the singer, murdered in a racist attack in 2006, and London bartender David Morley, who was beaten to death in a homophobic assault two years earlier. At the time, Bloc Party were one of the biggest bands in Britain (Silent Alarm peaked at No 3 on the UK Album Chart, going on to sell over a million copies). In an overwhelmingly white, heteronormative Noughties indie scene, did it feel like a risk to address those injustices?

“Hmmm. Silent Alarm was a record people seemed to like all over the world. But there was a part of me that felt really uncomfortable with it. A lot of the lyrics on that record were… well, there wasn’t really a masterplan,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was singing about or where a lot of it was coming from. People liked it, but a part of me felt awkward that it wasn’t real or authentic from me. So with A Weekend in the City, I knew I was gonna talk about my experience and own the space I was occupying. I don’t remember there being any fear or the landscape that this music was gonna be seen on. It was really about expressing myself.” The album failed to match the critical and commercial performance of Silent Alarm, turning the band from “icons in waiting” as The Guardian put it prior to A Weekend in the City’s release into indie also-rans. Was this a factor? Was that white, hetero-dominated scene not ready for what Kele was ready to discuss? Another hmmm. “I’m not sure.”

I wonder if it frustrates him that Bloc Party are often lumped in with Noughties UK indie scene acts like The Kooks and The Young Knives when talked about in 2019. When the Kaiser Chiefs were writing about eating crisps for tea over laddy guitars, Bloc Party were surging into pulsing synths and writing socio-political lyrics. “To be honest, I don’t really have any opinion on the opinion other people have about me or Bloc Party. I don’t really pay attention to it. I only really engage with that side of what I do in moments like this, speaking to people like you. I don’t read any press. So I don’t really know what cultural opinion is of me and I’m thankful I don’t have to know. That’s in part ’cos anything you read about yourself, good or bad, always feels like a caricature or a reduction of the things you do. Why do you need validation from other people?” He sparred with Razorlight and Kasabian as well as Oasis in Bloc Party’s pomp. Does he think in retrospect that was his frustration bubbling over, of being seen as part of a scene he didn’t feel any sense of belonging to? “Belonging is something I’ve never really felt in any aspect of my life. It’s my default setting to want to stand on my own.”

‘Anything you read about yourself, good or bad, always feels like a caricature or a reduction of the things you do’ (Rachel Wright)

It’s surprising to hear him speak of Silent Alarm as “embarrassing” – not least because Bloc Party took the album on tour in 2018, playing the record in full to packed-out rooms (they’ve just announced further dates for 2019). Did the tour help him come to terms with the album at all? “I actually really enjoyed going back to that space and inhabiting those songs again. Being forced to do that I can see there’s something intense and powerful as an experience. It’s physically and emotionally intoxicating.” It sounds as if it has actually recharged him: Bloc Party are due to get back in the studio later this year, while another solo album is also in the works that’s Okereke at his “most angry”. In the meantime, he’s hoping that Leave to Remain follows in the footsteps of pop-culture phenomenons like Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name in proving there can be different types of LGBT+ storytelling than the ones society is used to seeing.

“As a gay man, it’s incredibly important to me to see stories about same-sex love and feel that it’s something people are cheering. When I was growing up, I was used to the idea of the gay figure as tragedy or comedy but never the hero of the story. As time has gone on, and in some ways culture has developed and progressed, there needs to be more of these stories, more representation, more visibility. I feel that that’s important and I feel happy if I’ve been able to contribute towards that,” he says. “On a second level, it’s a story about marriage, about two people from different cultures coming together and their families coming together, in an ugly time of division and general ugliness. With what’s happening in America right now with Trump, it’s important to celebrate the idea of people from different cultures coming together in love. How do we stop fearing people who are different to you? How do we understand and exist in the same space?” It’s a question Okereke intends to answer.

Leave to Remain is showing at the Lyric Hammersmith in London until 16 February. The accompanying album is released on Friday 23 January

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