Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke Is Just Getting Started
BY Matthew Breen
May 14 2012 5:00 AM ET
Okereke was born in Liverpool to Nigerian immigrant parents and was raised on the northeast edge of London, near Essex. One of his earliest memories of music is seeing American rap duo Kris Kross on the U.K.’s music chart television show Top of the Pops. “I remember they were just two young black kids, it was really inspiring. I was 9 or 10.”
His sister, who is one year older, had a sizable collection of pop and R&B albums as well as, significantly, an acoustic guitar. “That was the most important development in terms of my musical identity,” he says. “She had a chord book, and I taught myself to play guitar. Guitar music was something that I could aspire to at that time.” Okereke began to write songs and lyrics but didn’t have anyone with whom to collaborate. “If I’d known someone who could sing, I would have just gotten them to sing. But I didn’t know anyone. I got more competent the more I did, but I wasn’t one of those kids who was singing to themselves on the street corner.”
At the Reading Festival in 1999, Okereke asked Lissack, a guitarist and friend of a friend, to form the band that later became Bloc Party. “He was dedicated, had a pure streak,” says Okereke. “I had to work up the courage to ask him, because I didn’t know him too well.” Moakes and Tong joined later.
While forming the band, Okereke came out as gay to his family. “I was out as a teenager, just not to my parents and family, and then I told my family in 2000. That’s when I really, really cut the strings.” His parents threw him out of the house, and for a week they didn’t speak at all. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but it was the best period of my life—I say this hand on heart.” Okereke found an apartment with two women in East London, and he says that for the first time in his life, he felt he could be himself. “Now there’s nothing in my life I have to hide. I think when that realization flows through you and when you know you can be who you are, then everything else is secondary.”
Over a decade later, his familial situation has evolved. “I’m closer now with my parents, and I speak to my mum nearly every day. And I miss them when I’m away from them, whereas when I was a teen I couldn’t wait to be away from them. It’s been a journey. It was years of having to tiptoe around the issues, but I’m glad that I did it.” Nevertheless, he recognizes that because of their experiences in Nigeria, they have difficulty even comprehending homosexuality.
“They weren’t into it at all, and they are still very Catholic and from a place where there are no visible gay people. They don’t quite understand it. But they love me, and they understand that I’m happy, and we’re finding a way.”