The Quiet And Queer Revolution Of Bloc Party
2000s indie rock was overwhelmingly white and straight. Kele Okereke always stood alone.
It’s easy to forget that even at the height of their success, Bloc Party were outsiders.
As a queer black man, lead singer Kele Okereke stood out in mid-2000s indie rock, a scene dominated by straight, white males. “[That’s] something I am always trying to subvert with Bloc Party,” Okereke wrote for Thump in 2014. “Rock music is one of the few areas in music where it seems diversity is not to be encouraged.”
He was not speaking purely in terms of identity, but music too. The sound of 2000s indie rock was hegemonic — one which, as the decade continued, bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes struggled to evolve. Where LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’ foresaw the scene’s flip-flop of conventions, Bloc Party’s lean into electronic music wasn’t a case of trading their guitars for turntables. Where contemporaries flirted with synths when they were seemingly out of ideas, by their 2009 album Intimacy, it was clear Bloc Party found equal inspiration in both worlds.
After all, house music was what Okereke and lead guitarist Russell Lissack first bonded over — though it had a particular hold over Okereke.
A year after the tepidly-reviewed Intimacy, he released a solo album The Boxer which, save for his snagging lyrics and thick accent, was a big departure from his previous work. During this time, Okereke formally came out as queer — to draw a parallel between his artistic and sexual freedom would be naff, had he not written about it himself.
“In [the electronic] world, my race and sexuality were not a problem to be hinted at,” he wrote for Thump. “They were to be celebrated… house music ‘was born from gay people of colour sweating their asses off at 5AM in a Chicago warehouse’. No wonder the scene has been more receptive to me as a musician than the world of indie rock.”
During this period, Bloc Party went on sabbatical, and headlines circulated that they had ousted Okereke over his electronic focus. It wasn’t true, but it was clear something was up. After returning in 2012 with Four, a largely phoned-in ‘return to roots’, the band went on an indefinite hiatus until 2015, with Okereke releasing another dance-orientated solo album, and bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong leaving.
But regardless of his reception, Okereke hopped between the two scenes. Rather than just taking solace in a community that understood him, he demanded space in a scene that didn’t.
This Modern Love
Although he formally came out as queer in 2010, Okereke’s sexuality was something of an open secret from Bloc Party’s beginning. As a result, interviewers continually probed Okereke on his sexuality — in 2005, Q Magazine essentially outed him in the process, as Okereke’s obvious discomfort during their talk was damning.
Speaking on his decision to not confirm the rumours, Okereke told Butt Magazine that it was less to do with his own personal struggle than fears over how his parents, who came from a heavily Catholic community in Nigeria, would take it. At the same time, he was also unwilling to have his sexuality be boxed in by journalists looking for a pull quote or to position his identity as a ‘problem’.
“We realised that the fans of music didn’t seem to have a problem with the colour of my skin or sexual orientation,” he wrote for Thump. “It was rock journalists, always white male rock journalists that seemed to have an issue with it.”
So too with race. “From 2004-2006, in every interview I was asked what it felt like to be a black musician making indie music,” he wrote. “The subtext always being that this was not a genre for the likes of people like me.”
He was right to be hesitant. Recently, 2000s folk artist Patrick Wolf told The Guardian he “took the bullet” for the current generation of LGBTIQ+ musicians, as his music became secondary to his sexuality. “I was never in the closet, but when the word ‘bisexual’ or ‘gay’ came into the mix, they became a prefix,” Wolf said. “So I stopped being a musician — I became a ‘gay artist’. For 10 years, that’s what stuck.”
You could say the same for the likes of Troye Sivan, Frank Ocean or Hayley Kiyoko, whose music is framed by their queerness. But framing is different from a prefix — in short, there’s less ogling and more agency. As artists, their music is now respected to explore an intersection of identities rather than be reduced to it, both in terms of commercial and critical reception.
Having said that, it’s naive to frame Okereke’s music with Bloc Party as characterised by constraint or self-censorship, and his solo efforts as his ‘true self’. It also undermines the LGBTIQ+ community’s long history of survival through covert, coded sexual expression.
I See Signs All The Time
Of all Bloc Party’s songs, ‘I Still Remember’ from sophomore album A Weekend In The City is clearest in queer intent. Filled with longing and regret, the song details two potential teenage lovers too afraid to make a move (“You should have asked me for it/I would have been brave”).
A few signifiers point towards the song’s love interest being a male (two pairs of ‘trousers’ left together in a clump, Okereke admits he still has his friend’s ‘tie’). However it’s not the implicit gendered nature of the song that makes it queer, but its resonance. Like their attraction, the constraints upon the song’s subjects are undefined and unspoken. It’s a feeling familiar to anybody who had a charged homosocial experience growing up — the not-knowing, the excitement and fear that comes with acting on feelings.
The chorus imagines what could have been, but it remains sappy, cliché and conditional — “Our love could have soared over playgrounds and rooftops”, but it didn’t.
WHY IS BLOC PARTY'S I STILL REMEMBER THE GAY ANTHEM pic.twitter.com/PKTh99YUX2
— 김김 semi-hiatus (@dirteater69) February 5, 2018
But ‘I Still Remember’ was a notable exception for Bloc Party. Most of the band’s lyrics were deliberately ambiguous, with their dissolute love songs largely addressed to undefined and ungendered bodies. For straight fans, it was merely one of Okereke’s many lyrical quirks, but for queer listeners, that haziness was filled with potential.
It’s a language that LGBTIQ+ people adopt when they’re unsure of their safety or ability to disclose their sexuality. It’s a language we speak less and less in popular culture today, as narratives of empowerment and pride have bred a new generation of gay popstars. This, of course, is a sign of progress (progress for some, at least — we know that coming out still isn’t safe for many people).
Okereke himself has evolved — last year, he released a lovers duet with Olly Alexander, the gay frontman of Years & Years.
But 2018 is not 2005. As writer Nayuka Gorrie points out, it’s somewhat satisfying to realise that a hegemonic genre was led by a queer black man — in retrospect, it feels revolutionary.
I love that when all those boring indie white bros were listening to Bloc Party they were listening to a queer black man, I love that I was too <3
— Nayuka (@NayukaGorrie) June 18, 2018
Okereke wasn’t the only Queer In The Indie Village. Adjacent scenes like electro-clash and indie-folk saw their own LBGTIQ stars, such as Cansei De Ser Sexy, Peaches, Scissor Sisters and Tegan And Sara. ‘I Still Remember’ had its homosocial counterparts, too — Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Michael‘ and Broken Social Scene’s ‘I’m Still Your Fag‘ flirt with queer desire. But in terms of Bloc Party’s ‘rock star’ scope, Okereke stood alone.
As a not-yet out teenager in the late 2000s, I wore a too-small lime green Bloc Party T-shirt everywhere I went. On my iPod Nano, I played their music on repeat, imagining a Big Dramatic 20-Something Life filled with East London vampires, Berlin vacantness and heartbreak. A handsome man was always somewhere in the picture, an idea I felt more free to entertain, bolstered by the comfort that Okereke did it too.
Jared Richards is a Staff Writer for Junkee, and his favourite Bloc Party album is ‘A Weekend In The City’. Follow him on Twitter.