Music

"Being gay and of colour doesn't have to be a sob story": MNEK on Pride and black masculinity

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Bobby Palmer
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Chatting sexuality, pink leather trousers and progress with singer MNEK

Hi MNEK. You’re wearing leather trousers on the cover of your new single. Should we get a pair?

They’re stretchy, so they’re actually mad comfy. I will specify that they are vinyl, though. I have a pair of pink leather ones and they do get sweaty.

The song’s called Colour. Go on then, what’s your favourite colour?

Turquoise.

And what colour are your ever-changing nails right now?

Well the lady actually f*cked up my nails today, so they are a peachy, shimmery colour. They’re not the best they could be. I’m going to get something glittery at some point, then I’ll give you a better answer.

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You’re in our first ever Pride issue. Why do you think Pride continues to be so important in 2018?

There are still so many places around the world where we’re told to hide ourselves or “behave”. There were times growing up when I felt as though I had to inhibit myself for the sake of my parents or for school or whatever. In the big, big world you’re a small person, and when you’re that small, why not be the whole of yourself? I live by that now.

Are we reaching the end of the era of musicians hiding their sexuality?

I don’t think so. Yes, there are obviously progressive people such as myself, Olly [Alexander] and Troye [Sivan], but everyone’s coming out story is different. Everyone’s journey as a gay man or woman is different; it’s personal. We want there to be an influx of people who suddenly feel more comfortable being themselves, but in reality everyone is different, so it will be at different rates, with different people, in different families. Whether someone comes out or not depends on all that. 

We had Olly on the cover of ShortList a couple of weeks ago and he was talking about the uproar his performance at BBC Radio 1’s Biggest Weekend caused… 

Was there uproar? Against Olly?!

Yeah. He told us that people complained that his performance was too erotic, but they didn’t care about similar performances from straight artists.

Well, I think it was great. Everyone needs to chill. Olly’s a sexy guy, he can do whatever the f*ck he wants. I think it’s just hypersensitive parents. Either that or people who don’t get enough.

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With artists like you, Olly and Troye finding success, do you think the music industry is becoming more accepting of unapologetically gay artists?

You said me, Olly and Troye – but that’s it. The second there’s a proper host of out, gay musicians, that will be the moment. The industry has always been accepting of gay artists, but a particular thing for me is to see gay artists of colour. I’m very thankful to be next to people such as Olly and Troye because I really love them, I’m friends with them. But they’re both white – it’s a different land, it’s a different experience and it’s a different perception from the public. From my point of view, there’s a lot of work to do, and that I want to do.

You were praised for featuring a male love interest in your music video for Tongue. Was that a conscious decision?

I didn’t want it to be a girl so it was either that or, what, I’m just going to stare at the camera and sing? For the narrative of that song it made sense – all I wanted was tension between two people. I was trying to showcase different sides of black masculinity and it felt like a cool way of doing it. And I wanted [the video to feature] lots of people of colour, from all walks of life, because I didn’t want it to be whitewashed.

Do people seem to appreciate what you’re doing?

I have messages from young, gay, black kids who have seen what I’m doing. They see things like the Tongue video and my Attitude speech, and it’s empowering for them, which is really cool because I don’t even realise. I’m just trying to represent myself.

Is it a lot of pressure, being a figurehead for a community that doesn’t get a lot of representation?

I don’t feel pressure. I think there’s fun to have. There aren’t many people in it, which means that I can just do what I want to do. I want to be real and I want to have fun. And I want to show that being gay and of colour doesn’t have to be a sob story all the time. It can actually be really jokes, and also empowering.

Colour is out now on Virgin EMI