Saturday, January 13, 2007

The darkness on the edge of town centres

It's a bit of a shame that Soundgenerator have chosen a rotten headline (one more worthy of the Mail) for their feature on Kele Okereke ahead of the new Block Party album.

They've chosen Bloc Party star 'fears' multicultural Britain as a heading, which seems to imply that Kele is going to be endorsing a UKIP policy or something, whereas what he really seems to be saying is quite the opposite: the bits of Britain which frighten him are, it appears, caused by the failures of multiculturalism. The original interview appears in the Observer (not, by the way, The Guardian as Soundgenerator claims):

No, Okereke will say with some vehemence, he is not proud to be British. But nor does he consider Nigeria, which he last visited when he was 14 (his strongest memories are of begging on the streets and police corruption) as somewhere he belongs.

There are his ongoing concerns about personal safety. As a black teenager growing up in Essex he 'always felt something nasty could happen in the pub'. On the streets of Bethnal Green, where he now lives, he feels that racist aggravation is, daily, a heartbeat away.

Harsh realities are also rammed home on other new songs. The words to 'Where is Home?' begin at the funeral of Christopher Alaneme, the black teenager stabbed in small-town Kent last April. Okereke describes him as a cousin, although they weren't related by blood; their mums, both Nigerian, were very good friends. Okereke says that ultimately the song is about the fostering, by right-wing newspapers, of a fear of 'The Other'. That is, black youth in hoodies. And how that then means opportunities denied.

'I just feel that every non-white teenager will know what I'm talking about when I say that certain avenues in this country are closed to you. Whenever I walk into a pub in London I feel frightened. There are certain activities that are still more predominantly white.' He and his flatmate, a white Austrian girl, have been abused by bigots who thought they were a mixed-race couple. The multicultural melting pot, Okereke concludes, is unworkable.

The original Observer interview explored the confused and sometimes uncomfortable coverage of Kele's sexuality, which Soundgenerator boiled down to half a sentence:

The much-championed indie rockers who release new single "The Prayer" on the 29th January 2007, [...] tackle a range of urban subject mater on the new record, with Okereke even penning a song dealing with his bisexual personality.

We're amused by the clumsiness of that phrase, making being bi sound like it's on a par with owning a rheumatic dog or rusting Nova. "Coming out tonight, Kel?" "Nah, I'm working on my bisexual personality."

Also, as part of his stated intent to create a 'warts-and-all account of where my mind is right now', there are the songs about sexuality. Is 'I Still Remember' autobiographical?

'Not really,' he replies, before adding: 'I guess, partially.' Can we call it a gay love story? 'Yeah, but is it a love story? It's one person longing for somebody they can't really have. But it's not consummated. It's not a mutual thing. It's weird - a lot of straight women that I know have confided that they've got it on with other girls. It seems quite a healthy part of their sexuality. Whereas it seems that the same impulse is apparent in heterosexual men but there's no ...' He stops again. 'I can't tell you how many times I've been propositioned by straight boys.'


'Yeah, yeah. It happened a lot before all this [the band] started happening. This is probably a contentious issue, but I swear that I could always see it in people, in the way that guys would need to be touching other guys. You could see there was something they couldn't say aloud. And I saw it when I was at school. And I guess 'I Still Remember' is an attempt at trying to confront that. I don't think that my sexual impulse is that bizarre or foreign. [But] the way that it's supposedly discussed in mainstream culture is [that] it's a crazy thing. But I know from my own experiences a lot of heterosexual boys had feelings or experiences when they were younger. And that's not really ever spoken about, that un-spoken desire.

'Not two gay boys,' he continues, '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?'

He's traumatised by the 'definite homophobic bias-slash-persecution' that he thinks informs most coverage of non-heterosexuals, and he mentions a particularly upsetting music magazine interview in 2005 which challenged him about his sexuality. He feels that an elliptical - but obvious - reference to his hitherto 'in the closet' status in the Observer Music Monthly's Gay Issue a few months ago is an example of the 'hounding' that still goes on.

He's aware that this is likely to be the most widely read interview he's done in the UK. Which is possibly why - despite him having given an interview to gay lifestyle magazine Attitude - he is now back-pedalling somewhat on any questions about sexuality.

'It's not something that I'd be inclined to talk about ...' His stutter is worse tonight. 'It isn't black and white. It isn't clear-cut. Britain has always had a love/hate relationship with gay public figures,' he says with some exasperation. 'They're treated as funny and inoffensive and camp. But then when a seemingly heterosexual person seems to display an inclination for the other team it becomes this real hounding situation. You're allowed to exist if they're [sic] seen as a kind of sub-class. Something ineffectual, a comedy Kenneth Williams character.'

Which is, of course, why Sean in Corrie is allowed to proposition Jamie, but never gets to take a man back to Eileen's. It's also why, arguably, Boy George did more damage to the movement for equality than any good he might have achieved - acceptance as a stereotype is not acceptance at all.

Kele shouldn't worry about being straight (as in honest) with a mainly-straight publication and keeping his other side for magazines aimed at the other side, but its understandable why he might be - just because you sing about doesn't mean you want it to become the key aspect of your personality, and you can already hear the Newtons and 3ams setting their autocorrect features up to ensure his name always appears as "Bisexual Kele, 25." After all, who would want their very personality to be defined by the sort of people they enjoy seeing in their pants?