Though he’s still only 23 years old, Uzo ‘MNEK’ Emenike has been working in the music industry for more than seven years. As a songwriter and producer, the super-talented Londoner has helped to craft hits for Beyoncé, Dua Lipa and Little Mix. As a vocalist, he’s cracked the Top 10 with Stormzy (‘Blinded by Your Grace, Pt 2), Zara Larsson (‘Never Forget You’) and Gorgon City (‘Ready for Your Love’).
Now he’s stepping confidently into the spotlight as a solo star with debut album ‘Language’, a brilliant collection of box-fresh pop-R&B bangers. His summer single ‘Colour’, a duet with US singer-actress Hailee Steinfeld, has already ruffled some unprogressive feathers on YouTube. ‘Some of white middle America haven’t seen a black gay guy in a music video before,’ he explains. ‘They’re used to someone like Hailee, who’s the polar opposite of me – a straight white girl. Some people will love what I’m bringing, some won’t, but I’m proud of what I’m doing. I’ve come into my own as an artist and I’m trying to push things a bit more.’
And it’s working: MNEK is one of pop’s new breed changing the game by singing from a queer perspective that’s traditionally been overlooked.
Do you think London has shaped you as an artist?
‘Massively. I mean, London has shaped me as a person. My parents are Nigerian so I’ve had the luxury of blending different cultures together just through my everyday life. I see Catford as the place where I was raised, but I think east London is the place where I grew up. It’s where I was able to become a young man and really explore what I liked and didn’t like.’
How did east London help you to do that?
‘Because it was where I started working. And living there, I don’t feel like the only creative person. I don’t feel like the only person in their early twenties just trying to figure stuff out. And I can walk around Shoreditch in this outfit and not be seen as a weirdo, which is so comforting. Because in the very suburban area where I grew up, I fully couldn’t wear this!’
So what do you think of Hackney’s new, stricter licensing laws?
‘I find it very weird that this has happened in Hackney of all places. Hackney is where everything is poppin’ and no one wants to feel like there’s any limit on their nightlife. I mean, I’m generally a homebody anyway, but if I’m going out, I want to feel like I can stay out late. If you go to America, so many club nights finish at 1am and it’s so lame. What’s happened is so pointless and tone deaf. People just want somewhere to go and have fun.’
Do you approach writing an MNEK song differently from writing one for Dua Lipa or Little Mix?
‘When I’m doing a session for another artist, it’s a very scheduled thing, and it’s kind of imperative that I write a song in that time. But if I’m trying to write a song for myself and I don’t have an idea that day, I just can’t force it. I really have to live my life to make the songs. The two [types of songwriting] are very separate entities but at the same time it’s all coming from me: my knowledge of what a good song is, and my knowledge of what sounds go well together.’
Why is now the right time for your debut album?
‘The truth is, it just feels right. I’ve written all these songs and feel like I’ve said what I want to say on a first album. In so many ways, I feel like I’ve realised what my purpose is as a musician and a public figure.’
What is that purpose?
‘My purpose is not about being the first to do what I’m doing. It’s not about me saying: “I’m the only black gay pop star in this piece right now.” It’s definitely not about that. It’s about me not being the last. I would love to be a template for someone. I’d love for someone to look at me and think: that’s an example of how a gay pop star is executed, and I really want there to be more people like me. So then we can make songs together and kiki and talk about boys.’
You’re already doing that. When I ran into you at UK Black Pride in July, everyone wanted a selfie with you!
‘A hundred percent. Which I love. That was affirming: to know that I’m hitting the people I’m trying to reach. It’s good to feel like I’m helping people, because life can be hard, you know? But for me, this album isn’t about achieving blockbuster success. It’s about opening up the conversation. I’m willing to take the long road and I’m happy to piss off a few people along the way – I can’t wait, it’s the Scorpio in me! I wanna change what you see when you think about pop music at large. I wanna show that a gay black guy can do this. I don’t want to be limited by what other people think a pop star looks like.’
MNEK’s album ‘Language’ is out on Fri Sep 7. Discover more rising stars at timeout.com/music.