Kele Okereke

Interview by
Alex Needham
Photography by
Wolfgang Tillmans


I first became aware of Kele Okereke sometime in 2004, when I worked for NME and Bloc Party was the hottest new band in the country. It soon became common knowledge that he was gay — I’d regularly bump into him at The Cock or Rebel Rebel in London — but his strict Catholic Nigerian parents were far from cool with their son’s sexuality, so Kele never talked about it in interviews. Since then, Kele’s gradually inched his way out of the closet and today stands before me, with a newly shaved head, in the East London flat he just bought. He’s back from New York (where he’s been working on a solo album) and ready to talk about almost everything.

Alex: When did you cut your hair?
Kele: Four weeks ago. I’d not really had short hair for about ten years and it just felt like it was time.
Do you feel different with short hair?
Yes, but I’ve been feeling different for the last six months. Since buying this flat I’m a lot more at ease with myself. We didn’t stop for five years with Bloc Party. It wasn’t until I got this place that I realised what the whole point of it was. It was the first thing that I’d bought with the money that we’d earned and it made me realise that we had achieved something, something that was real.
So can you tell me about some of the objects in this room? Who’s this in this picture here, Magnum, P.I.?
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s Tom Selleck. A fan wanted me to sign a CD and I asked him what he had for me in exchange. I don’t usually do that, and he said that the only thing he had was a signed picture of Tom Selleck and he didn’t think I’d want it, but I definitely did. It’s awesome.
Do you fancy Tom Selleck?
He’s a very imposing presence but he has a very childlike voice, and I think that’s cool.
Do you like his moustache?
Er…er…yeah. I guess so. I’m a bit of a fan of facial hair.
So in New York you’ve just made a solo album. What’s it going to sound like?
Until it’s done you’re asking the wrong guy, but anyone who’s a fan of Bloc Party will see that our records have been moving in a certain direction and I think that this is the logical conclusion.
But you didn’t want to make it with them.
It wasn’t my choice initially to do a solo record. We needed some time apart. I’m a creative person and I can’t switch off, so the idea of not making music for a year isn’t something that’s even at all conceivable for me.
So they wanted to stop but you didn’t?
It’s kind of complicated.
You’re about to go on tour with them aren’t you? Will there be massive bust-ups backstage?
No, I think our way is generally quite English and passive aggressive, so there will be probably be lots of… some tense… I don’t know, this is one of the last things we’re going to be doing, and the shows are going to be so raw that I think that will be quite an exciting experience for all of us.
Do you have much in common with the rest of the band?
Less so than when we started. I love them all in different ways, but there are times when being the only black and the only gay member of the band… It’s like the first thing I did when I got back to London was talk to my best friend about the Whitney Houston interview on Oprah. I could never really talk about that stuff in the band. They’re not particularly hostile to that sort of thing, it’s just they don’t really get it. But before you know it you’re censoring yourself. So touring can be quite draining for that reason. I remember we played a few times with CSS and I was quite jealous because they’re all lesbians, apart from the singer, and it seemed like a way more lively touring situation.
Did you have a boyfriend when you were in the band?
Yeah, but that ended in 2008.
Had you been seeing him a long time?
Three years.
So you weren’t pulling when you were out on tour?
Ah, come on. Er, erm, yeah — I dunno, I can’t really talk about this. Yeah.
Are you seeing someone now?
Kind of. No. I dunno. I’ve been celibate for five months, which isn’t that long, but it’s the longest I’ve ever gone without sex. I just decided that the next person I slept with, I wanted to be in love with, rather than feel nothing for them at all. I was becoming a bit desensitised to sex. It was starting to feel like just another physical activity. I’ve had a lot of sex in the 28 years I’ve been alive and I’m still here. I’ve made my mistakes, but luckily they’ve been mistakes I could walk away from.
Did you think you were becoming more depraved?
No. Yeah. My image of ‘depraved’ probably isn’t the same as a lot of other people’s. I think it’s the Catholic thing that I don’t allow myself to stray very far.
Do you actually identify as gay?
I think…queer. That’s the term that speaks most to me. I want to remain open to experiences, to being excited, to seeing that there’s not one way of living your life. I’ve had sex with girls and I will continue doing so because you never know when a great person’s going to come into your life. If anything I’m finding women more interesting at the moment.
What’s the difference between sex with a man and sex with a woman?
I don’t know. Penis fits vagina?
What was your best sexual experience?
Oh, crumbs. What’s your favourite ever wank? You can’t really qualify it.
Are you allowed to wank now that you’re celibate?
Yeah. That’s fine. If I couldn’t do that then I really would explode. But best sex? It’s like when people ask you what was the best show that you played. Those are the ones you don’t remember when you come off. You’re so heightened it’s hard to recollect it.
Were you brought up to believe that homosexuality was a sin?
Are your parents alright with it now?
It’s something that we’re constantly working through. My parents are super-Catholic and they came from a culture in Nigeria where there weren’t any visible gay people who were out and who were happy. I left home when I was twenty. My parents threw me out.
For being gay?
Yeah. Which I knew they would. I knew they weren’t going to have a good time with it. We didn’t speak for, like, a week and then my mum called me up and we started to re-establish our relationship. But with my dad it was something we didn’t ever talk about. I understood it from his perspective, but I didn’t think it was right. My parents are getting older and I didn’t like the idea that they could possibly die without knowing something that is a big part of my life. This year I’ve confronted my father and we’ve been talking about it. It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all. But I know that they love me and I love them and I know this by their actions.
Is there gay culture in Nigeria? I guess it must exist…
Yeah, but being gay is punishable by the death penalty.
Wow. No wonder it was difficult for them to get their head around it. Then again, they’re intelligent people…
This interview is actually an important step in my relationship with my parents. The reason I’m doing it 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. That’s also what the shaving of the head’s about — I want to put all that behind me. It’s good to show that gays come in all shapes and sizes.
Can I ask about some of the punch-ups you’ve had along the way, like with John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten at the Summercase festival in July 2009?
Oh no, I don’t want to talk about it.
What did you think about him reforming PiL, which was your question to him that started the fight?
Brilliant, I’ll be in the front row.
Violence isn’t right, is it?
No, but when I was growing up I had a big problem with not standing up for myself and it really ate me up. I know it’s stupid, but I don’t want to be walked over. I’ve never instigated a fight. The last time I hit someone was the John Lydon incident.
Do you think it’s important for gay men to be physically assertive?
Yeah. I think it’s important for gay men to feel that they can hold their heads up high. If that means studying self-defence or working out or doing boxing, if they feel they don’t have to be in fear of walking the streets, it’s a good thing.
You’ve written a lot of songs about East London, haven’t you?
Hmm. Well, I live here.
Do you still find it inspiring?
No, not as much. I do like London, but I feel I’m somewhat over this part of East London, to be honest.
Obviously you wrote a song that mentioned the bar Joiner’s Arms. Did you put that on the map?
Well, come on, I think it was a pretty well-established nightspot by the time that song came out. I DJ there occasionally with a friend and it’s nice to play fun stuff for an appreciative crowd, and they give us free drinks. We try to do it once a month. They pay us £80 and we split it. But I was thinking I might move to South London, to Vauxhall.
Will you be going down to Fire with your top off?
Not at all, but it’s nice to be in a place where the gays are visible. I remember when I got kicked out and I was staying at my friend’s flat in Vauxhall. I remember going to the Sainsbury’s there and every single person in there was a gay man, and I thought ‘Wow, this is awesome’. East London’s fine, but I’m done with hanging out with…
Peaches Geldof?
Peaches Geldof or some guy that’s in some crap band, or awfully dressed students. I’m over that whole thing.
You’ve only just bought this flat though.
Yeah, but there’s more money where that came from, Alex.
Really? Are you rich?
I’m not rich but we’ve worked hard and it’s paid off.
Did you have a Berlin period?
I didn’t live there; I went for four weeks. I think there’s a melancholy in the city that I don’t like to be around now so much. Just the atmosphere. I don’t really like the scene there; it frightens me when I think of the future.
What do you mean? Clubs that go on for hours and hours and hours?
Yeah, and like a darkroom. I think my attitudes to sex are quite different from the mainstream gay world’s, but I don’t want to be in a situation where casual sex is encouraged, where every bar has a darkroom… I don’t think it’s healthy.
Did you go in the darkrooms?
Er, yeah. I have been in.
Which bar?
The first one I went to was Tom’s Bar.
I think we’ve all been in there.
It was a different world for me at the time, and you have to see these things. But I could never have sex in a darkroom. It was bad enough being in clubs in New York and not being able to see anyone’s face it was so dark. I want to get away from the idea of gay sexuality being something that is dark and only happens at night.
Do you go for much older men?
I’m trying not to because they’re set in their ways.
Have you been out with a much older guy before?
I have, and I’ve been out with guys who are my age. The problem with an age difference is you’re experiencing different things at different times. Also I have a tendency to end up with or go for guys that have got things going on that are heavy: people who have problems, who are a bit broken.
Have you got any strange fetishes?
Not so much. Okay, I used to have a thing with beards, but I think that’s quite common. But with girls, I only really like black girls or dark-skinned girls. I don’t know why.
Did you fancy any of the other members of the band?
No. They’re all handsome, don’t get me wrong, but they’re all a bit boyish and not at all the type of people I find attractive. Matt’s really funny, the drummer. He’s the cool one. The rest of us are just basket cases.
Describe your penis in full detail.
(Laughs his head off) I’ve never had any complaints.
That’s not full detail. Do you practise hair removal?
No, but I am quite hairy for a black person. There was an ex that practiced trimming around the balls and the penis because it made it easier to…I’ll get in trouble for this. It was done on me, and I thought it was quite an interesting sensation, but I’m pretty lazy when it comes to grooming generally. Because I haven’t been active for quite a while, I’m not so worried about leaving it all in order.
Do you reckon you’ll get married or have a long-term relationship?
I don’t know, my parents are still together; they’re still in love. That’s definitely the ideal. The times I have been in love I was too young to make it work. I definitely want children.
Do you ever compare your career to that of the other bands who broke out in 2005?
Yeah, definitely. If you hear a great song by one of your contemporaries it makes you strive to make better music, but that doesn’t really happen so much if I’m honest. (laughs) As I’ve said for years, I find it hard to listen to guitar music. The stuff that gets me going is American R&B dance music. I think people finally realise that that’s the reason we sound like we do.
I’m laughing because really you have been saying it for so long. But has American R&B really been that great since the glory days of Rodney Jerkins and She’kspere and all those people?
I heard a song when I was in New York that fucking blew my mind. It’s called ‘Break Up’ by Mario, featuring Gucci Mane, and the arrangement and dissonances in this three-minute pop song are better than anything I’ve heard by a guitar band in the last ten years.
‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)’ was good.
Yes, but it’s been played. This is another thing about my position in Bloc Party: I saw Beyoncé play in London and it was by far the best show I’ve seen forever, and you try and talk about it with the band and there’s no reference points. They don’t get that seeing a tough woman shrieking and being all up in your face is like heaven to me. Have you seen Real Housewives of Atlanta? It’s a bunch of sports players’ wives in Atlanta just being really cunty to each other. That’s my kind of show.
Who are your favourite female singers?
Björk, Kate Bush, Lady Gaga. (laughs) I was never a big fan of Lady Gaga’s music. It’s just throwaway dance pop, but she seems to have a real cult following amongst people.
Did you like the bra that shot fire out of her tits at Glastonbury?
No, I’m not into gimmicks. I liked it when she sat down at the piano and showed her classical skills. This is so gay. I’ve got to talk about something else…
Well, going to the other extreme then, since you had a long-running feud with Oasis it must have been very satisfying to be playing that French festival last summer when they split up.
God. Are you really going to go there, Alex? I met Liam Gallagher in a lift once and he introduced himself. We had a chat. It was never personal. I don’t care for their music but I don’t wish them any ill. Let’s talk about something nice.
Okay. So for this solo record, will there be a new clothes concept as well as new hair?
Yeah, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Lady Gaga. Fire out of the fanny. No, it will have to look different, as I feel different. A lot of Bloc Party’s music and vibe came out of a sense of melancholy, but this record is a euphoric thing. It’s not a party dance record, but it feels soulful to me, and that’s important to me, because nothing we’ve done so far has felt that soulful to me.
Is it a blacker record than Bloc Party?
I don’t know. That’s an interesting term, Alex. It’s definitely warmer. We’re still writing songs for Bloc Party, there’ll be another record as far as I’m concerned, but I have too many ideas and I’m young. I’m writing a book as well. It’s just a bunch of short stories that I’ve been writing throughout the year. I wrote a short story for a friend of mine who was putting a book out. I cringe looking at it now, but it made me realise that I have some sort of a voice. It’s great to have something to do that I’m creating completely on my own. It’s something I can always come back to. I’m speaking to agents at the moment and then I’ll have it out, I guess, next year. It might be awful.
I want to ask you a couple more sex questions.
I think there’s already enough sex in there. I want to give the magazine to my mum when it comes out so please let’s not try to make it completely rude.

Originally published in BUTT 28