Kele Okereke on Finding Your Place In The World

Over the course of his travels, he found himself becoming attuned to a new brand of connectivity, and a new conception of home.

Stefan Marolachakis

While the seedlings may have already been in place, it was his older sister’s record collection that sent the notion into full bloom—specifically, her copy of Blur’s Parklife. “In the U.K., that album kind of signaled a massive shift in British music,” he says. The Britpop movement had begun. So whenever his sister was out, Okereke would seize the opportunity to race up to her room and listen to Blur, over and over. With the album as his soundtrack, he started to wrap his head around going from musical spectator to participant. “That made me think about playing the guitar,” he says of the iconic Britpop outfit’s third album. “I guess [it] started my development in music.”

Parklife led him to the guitar, and the guitar led him to the formation of Bloc Party. The story of the post-punk band’s sudden rise to fame has taken on a mythic quality: after handing a copy of their single “She’s Hearing Voices” to BBC 1 DJ Steve Lamacq at a Franz Ferdinand concert, they soon found themselves with a song on the biggest station in the land. “It was odd for us,” Okereke says. “We really didn’t know any different. We just assumed that this what it was like for every band, that you go and travel the world and people would be into what you were doing.”

Kyle Dorosz
Kele OkerekeKyle Dorosz

The band was touring the globe, and Okereke’s sense of his place in it was rapidly evolving in the process. “When we started to travel, I had my eyes opened to the larger, global community,” he says. “I definitely don’t feel British, not in a parochial sense. I feel more like a world traveler.” Though he identifies less with Great Britain and more as a citizen of the world, he does credit his childhood in London with predisposing him to open-mindedness. “In London, you’ll come into contact with lots of different people and lots of different cultures, and you can’t help but be open to that experience,” he says. “So I guess I’ve always been open to looking outwards and to experiencing new things.”

“We really didn’t know any different. We just assumed that this what it was like for every band, that you go and travel the world and people would be into what you were doing.”

Over the course of his travels, he found himself becoming attuned to a new brand of connectivity, and a new conception of home. “I feel that there are places in the world where there are people who are like me, or have a similar mindset to me,” he says, “but I don’t think that’s just a geographical thing. I like the places where it feels like there are lots of different worlds coming together,” he adds. “That’s where I feel most at home.”

Kyle Dorosz
Kele OkerekeKyle Dorosz

One of those places is New York, where he spent a transformative year of his life. He moved there in 2010, and describes the time he spent in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood as the one point when he felt completely immersed in gay culture. Walking down the street and seeing no shortage of gay couples holding hands altered both his sense of community and his sense of self. “Living in New York definitely changed my perspective on being black and being gay,” he says. “Moving back to London, I realized that I was part of a community, and it was something that I should be proud of, and something that I should express. It was a very eye-opening time for me.”

It provided him with a visceral sense of community now seemingly absent from his daily experience, and he can’t help but feel a bit troubled by seeing real-world interactions replaced by digital ones. “I feel like, as a community, we’re not really into going out and socializing and being in the same kind of space,” he says. “I think that’s kind of worrying because once we become atomized and separated, then we aren’t really a community at all.”

“I realized that I was part of a community, and it was something that I should be proud of, and something that I should express. It was a very eye-opening time for me.”

Okereke says that while he does have gay friends in London, he just doesn’t find himself going out much anymore. “I’m as much to blame as anyone else,” he says—but in fairness to Okereke and his allegedly lackluster dance card, he did recently experience a massive life change 16 months ago, when he and his partner welcomed a baby girl into their life. “Having Savannah has very much changed our worlds,” he says. “Fatherhood was something that I always knew that I wanted to experience, and I was lucky that my partner felt the same way.”

Kyle Dorosz
Kele OkerekeKyle Dorosz

They decided to go the surrogacy path, which came with its requisite amount of tests, forms, travel, and waiting. “For us, it was a very long process,” Okereke says. “But, I don’t mind that, you know? I think that having a sense of preparation about the whole process has been a good thing. I’m glad that we couldn’t just rush into it.”

While he acknowledges that it takes a good deal of work to juggle life as a solo artist, a band member, and a dad, he seems to be enjoying navigating it all. “Still now, the fact that music is my job, and I get to travel the world and speak to people, perform to people, share what it is that I created—it’s still something that I pinch myself and have to take a moment and be thankful for.” He pauses a moment as though to take stock of his standing. “At 36, I never thought that I would be in the position that I’m in now in my life with my career and my family. I just feel blessed.”