Doing This Is an Exorcism for Me; Bloc Party's Kele Okereke Has Written the Soundtrack to a New Play -- and It's a Story about Gay Life That He Hopes Can Help People, He Tells Craig McLean

The Evening Standard (London, England), January 15, 2019 | Go to article overview

Doing This Is an Exorcism for Me; Bloc Party's Kele Okereke Has Written the Soundtrack to a New Play -- and It's a Story about Gay Life That He Hopes Can Help People, He Tells Craig McLean


Byline: Craig McLean

ELE Okereke is squirming.

KNot because he's just realised that, thanks to his two-year-old daughter Savannah, baby food spatters his clothes like guano. No, the Bloc Party frontman is wrestling with a question about the character at the heart of Leave to Remain, a new play on which he has collaborated with playwright and screenwriter Matt Jones. Is their story of Obi -- a gay, black Londoner of Nigerian heritage -- semiautobiographical? In a windowless backstage room at the Lyric Hammersmith, the singer and lyricist -- a gay, black Londoner of Nigerian heritage -- replies: "I don't think it is an autobiographical story. I share similarities with Obi -- he's British-born but of Nigerian descent, and he has issues with this family. But that's about as far as the similarities go." Not quite. Obi, like Okereke, comes from a religious Christian family and, for both, this has created tension with regard to Obi/Okereke's sexuality.

"It's not me," the 37-year-old continues, "but it does draw on some experiences that are familiar. But then it draws on some experiences that are probably familiar to lots of gay people." So, to recap, yes, it is semiautobiographical. Based on a reading of Jones's script and a listen to Okereke's accompanying 15-track album, it's also brilliant.

Leave to Remain tells the story of twentysomethings Obi and Alex, a white American who works in finance in the City. He and Obi have been together for 10 months but Alex's firm is relocating to the United Arab Emirates, which is perhaps not the best place for a mixed-race gay couple to live. Alex's UK visa is tied to his job. If he resigns he has to go home. This calls for action that is both drastic and romantic: permanent residence via marriage.

Alex also has longstanding addiction issues, which rear up when his folks blow in from the US for the wedding. "Three rehabs," his mother airily declares at a meet-the-parents dinner. "We had to refinance the house."

Drugs, notes Okereke, "is something we also have to talk about if we're making a drama about contemporary gay life. I don't know so much about the chem-sex world -- thankfully, I'm slightly older, so I missed those years," admits the musician who was, with his band, front-and-centre in the early-2000s UK/US guitar band explosion that also brought us Franz Ferdinand, The Strokes, The White Stripes and The Libertines. "But my partner works in drug rehabilitation," he continues, "so I hear lots of stories about that world, and it does sound heartbreaking."

That, though, wasn't the story he and Jones sought to tell. "We didn't want the focus to be on the damaged or harmful sides of gay life -- we wanted something that spoke of love. I was fed up with seeing gay narratives laced with tragedy -- when I was growing up the gay character always died of Aids. Obviously that was a reality for some people. But with gay marriage in its relative infancy, we wanted to tell a story about that, and the reality of when different families are united through same-sex union. That's a relatively new story and one I'm not seeing represented in fiction so much. …

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