MNEK tackles discrimination in the music industry – and explains why he’s not writing a second album just yet

Patrick Kelleher March 7, 2021
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MNEK on stage in 2018. (Burak Cingi/Redferns)

When MNEK released his debut album Language in 2018, he didn’t expect the artwork – which puts queer love front and centre – to be a controversial topic.

Sadly, it wasn’t exactly plain-sailing for the British singer-songwriter. He got a coveted spot on BBC News to promote Language. The album artwork was never shown, despite the entire conversation revolving around the record.

“I think when I released Language, I was so excited to really just throw balls to the wall with it and just be like, ‘Hey, this is who I am,'” MNEK tells PinkNews. 

“I loved being able to do that with my album artwork, and [record label] Virgin was so up for it. I will say, promoting the album was hard, because I knew that it wasn’t a commercial success. With the album artwork, I went on BBC News, and they didn’t put the album artwork behind [me]. They didn’t show the public that album artwork, but we were talking about it, which was a little bit weird upon reflection. So it’s difficult positions you put yourself in by putting yourself out there like that,” he says.

“It’s not like we were swapping tongues! So like, you know. Whatever. That’s fine, if that’s what people are doing,” he says.

In an interview with PinkNews, MNEK told us why he’s not working on a second album right now, how the pandemic has changed his life, and about his work with Absolut on its It’s in Our Spirit campaign.

What was it like for you coming up in the music industry and how did your career take off? 

I had always written music, I always was a fan of music, and I started writing when I was pretty young. I posted music on Myspace when I was 14 and that was literally my gateway into the industry – people from labels and publishers were messaging me and I ended up here. But of course, there was a lot of hard work that I needed to do before getting my first hit or to be working with certain people. My first hit was “All Fired Up” by The Saturdays… and that was kind of like my first proper thing that was like, “Hey, my name is attached to this, this has done well.” And that was 10 years ago this year, so thankfully, we’re still here, we’re still knocking them out, and people are still enjoying the songs that I’m a part of, whether I’m singing or writing or producing. I’m hoping to continue it and think of what I’m going for next, musically, and continue to be inspired and excited.

Life as we know it has changed over the last year with the pandemic. How are you holding up?

Life as we know it has changed. You know, it’s hard because obviously, sometimes I long for that human connection, even seeing my friends, I see them outside as opposed to seeing them in a house. But then the other side of me is also a party head where I love to go out and be inspired by nightlife, so I guess that’s the thing about Absolut, with what we’ve been doing as far as us coming together from all around the world and bringing a positive conversation about togetherness and to bring up the morale.

You went to number one in the UK with the track ‘Head and Heart’ with Joel Corry in the summer, making it your first number one where you did lead vocals. How did that feel? 

I have been number one before as a vocalist, but I was simply humming – I don’t know if that counts, and I wasn’t credited domestically. “Head and Heart”, I love that song. People were like, ‘Oh my god, this song is so good,’ and I could just be like, ‘Yeah, I know, isn’t it, it’s so dope, and I get to sing it.’ I got to be a part of a really amazing record with Joel and and it’s touched so many people during this time… For me, I’m blessed that the music I make has always been a vessel for people to come together and just join in enjoying the songs and feeling the same emotion relating to it, and “Head and Heart” was just that record last year.

Is there a second solo album in the works or any other exciting collaborations on the horizon?

I need to protect my peace, and the last merry go round with the first album – I really enjoyed the process and I’ve really enjoyed performing and music videos and all of that. But I just want to realign with why I love music. I just want to get back to me being the fan of music and it not necessarily being about, ‘OK, I must have this solo success.’ I don’t see myself having the same career as a lot of people so I have to move that way as well. So the next project I put out probably won’t be all about me.

I guess maybe one of the reasons why I haven’t started album two is because I’ve been in lockdown, what life am I experiencing? So I really want to sweat in the club and I want to cry in a club and then write an album. That’s the thing, it’s all life experience.

MNEK on stage. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty)

It goes without saying that homophobia and racism are ever-present in all walks of life. Have you experienced those issues in the music industry, and what needs to be done to empower Black and LGBT+ artists? 

I wish I knew. The thing about homophobia and racism, it’s bigger than the industry. Everyone is people first and people are within society. So then really, the conversation is more about society, because if something is the case in society, then it’s going to bleed into any workplace. There was a story about a 21-year-old kid who was a part of, I believe, a fire force or something. He was training to be in a fire force, a mixed race kid. And he [died by suicide] because those people were giving him racist remarks and laughing at him. He was the only person of colour in that entire workplace. It all seeps into everything.

But with that said, I have had support from people, I have had people who are uncomfortable. I’ve seen the spectrum, but I have to know me, and I have to know who I am and why I’m special, and whatever I bring to the table as a Black queer man is valuable. And it has been valuable since the dawn of time, we have pioneered music point blank, period. So I really see myself as a part of that, and I deserve to be here, as cocky as that may sound.

Has the pandemic changed the way you write music? 

Well, I mean, literally before this call, I was writing a song with my friend Ryan over Zoom. It’s been a year, there’s time to get used to it. It’s not my favourite thing, I much prefer being in person and connecting with a person to get to know what they want to say, but thankfully, it can be done, and it’s possible and it can be worked around. I think my songwriting has changed just because I do miss my friends, I do miss experiencing stuff. But I get to really tap into my imagination and tap into where I can go and how far I can go.

Once there is #TogetherIRL, I would love to bring people together and do writing camps. I was talking with my management about bringing back this LGBT writing camp I did a couple years ago, but expanding it and making it more of a thing once we’re legally and safely allowed to do so.

You’ve been tweeting about It’s a Sin, which has taken LGBT+ viewers by storm with its depiction of the AIDS epidemic.  Did it have an impact on you? 

I loved it. Olly’s a really good friend of mine – I was obviously going to support him, and he killed it with this show. What he’s been able to portray and the stories that were told with it, it’s really beautiful and it’s intense. It’s hard for people to watch the cruel reality of what it was like back then for gay people, and it’s weird because I guess there are people who don’t have a lot of empathy generally for people who are on the other side. And when they watch TV, it’s like they forget that this is real life. This is based on real life. There are people who actually lived this out and are still living it out today. I hope that it just gives people out there just some hindsight and just be able to see that this is real and that gay people are real people, and it should be treated as such.

MNEK was speaking to PinkNews as part of the It’s in Our Spirit campaign with Absolut, which highlights the need to come together in an inclusive and meaningful way during the pandemic.

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