Pop prodigy MNEK on being a black gay role model: 'There's nothing wrong with being myself'

“The fact that someone like myself is working with someone like Hailee [Steinfeld] is progressive, because you don’t always see it — a black gay artist being able to blend worlds in that type of way,” MNEK says while sitting in the Build London studios. It’s London Pride Week, and the British pop prodigy (real name: Uzoechi Osisioma Emenike) has a lot to celebrate. Not only is he about to drop his debut album, Language, which features the diversity anthem “Colour” (an effervescent collaboration with Steinfeld), but he’s excited to be part of a growing movement spearheaded by out-and-proud male pop stars.

“I think, yeah, the more the better,” MNEK says. “I think there’s so many amazing LGBTQ artists, ranging from commercial to underground, that are influencing people at large. And I think there’s people like Sam [Smith] and Troye [Sivan] and Olly [Alexander, of Years & Years], who are so talented and so deserving of their success. And it’s inspiring, and it’s like they’re living their truth. There’s a whole lot of bulls*** happening in the world today, and so I think a lot of people can worry about other things than someone being themselves.”

Earlier this year, MNEK caused a bit of a stir when he cast a male love interest in his sexy music video for “Tongue,” but the largely positive public response confirmed that he was on the right path. “That was the first time, I guess, that I saw lots of messages from black gay kids saying, ‘Thank you for doing that,’ and ‘It’s helped me talk to my parents or talk to my friends about it,’ or ‘It’s been cool to see someone that I can relate to on that thing,’” he recalls. “And I think that I always wanted that. I think the first step is normalizing things like male love interests, because it’s either I have a male love interest [in my video], or I just dance-off to camera. I wouldn’t have a lady interest!”

Language may be MNEK’s full-length solo debut, but he’s no newcomer to the scene. Though he’s only 23, the singer/songwriter/producer — who grew up on Mariah Carey, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Darkchild, Timbaland, and ’80s/’90s R&B — landed his first publishing deal at age 14 after being discovered on Myspace. He’s been forging his own unique career path ever since, working with A-listers like Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Dua Lipa, Diplo, Julia Michaels, and even Beyoncé, whose Lemonade track “Hold Up” was co-written by MNEK. Clearly, he learned from the best.

“It was interesting to see [Beyoncé’s] process, because I was able to really see the way that she worked,” says MNEK, whose dream future collaborator is Mariah. “I visited [Beyoncé’s] studio … she had all those words on, like, lined paper across her studio. And she was saying, ‘OK, I want a song to represent this. I want a song to represent that.’ And so when we’re thinking of lyrics for these songs, we were thinking of these key words, we’re thinking of the emotion of that. And so it was interesting to see. And she would compile this all together and change melodies and really structure it and produce the song. So it was great to be a part of that process and a piece of that puzzle, because it’s quite an intriguing puzzle when you’re in it.”

MNEK is grateful to his family for fostering his creativity from an early age. “I often make a joke of my parents, because I come from a Nigerian background and there’s a stereotype in the Nigerian community that all of us are going to be doctors and lawyers, and that’s just how it is,” he laughs. “But upon reflection, my parents were always really supportive of me doing music. They saw that it was a passion of mine from really young. … My parents did a good job. They wanted me to win. They let me do all these things. If some old guy came to the house asking, ‘I want your kid to sign a contract,’ they were so open to it. Yeah, I credit them loads.”

MNEK’s family has also been supportive of him living as an openly gay man, although he confesses that that has been a bumpier journey. “My mom has reacted well [to my coming out]. My dad has reacted well. The thing is that it’s an ongoing thing … there’s so many facets to this. It’s one thing coming out to [my father] one-to-one in our house, but then it’s different when I’m being open and showcasing parts of myself to the public. And so it’s him dealing with that. It’s him reading a newspaper and me being like, ‘I want to be a black gay role model.’ He’s not woke to… he wasn’t ready. So, like, this is stuff that I’m aware he has to kind of grapple with, but at the same time he is aware that I have to do this just for myself and that it’s important. He doesn’t disregard it.”

The rising artist admits that he’s “still figuring out” exactly how he wants to present himself and what messages he wants to convey, but he is forever thankful for the support he receives from the young gay fans who look up to him. “You get those kinds of messages, and it encourages you to be more honest,” he says. “Because you see it working, so you’re like, ‘Cool. There’s nothing wrong with being myself.’”

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