Lead image courtesy of PR

Azekel Fearlessly Explores the Textures of Black Masculinity

The past Gorillaz and Massive Attack collaborator is ready to present his audio-visual debut album, 'Our Father.'

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Jun 7 2018, 2:23pm

Lead image courtesy of PR

Six days ago, Azekel was watching Beyoncé sing, step and strut for her life. He was up close trying to figure out whether the glow around her was her aura or just the lighting. Now, it’s about 6 PM and the soul musician (it’s pronounced Aye-zee-kee-el, by the way) is sipping water at a fancy hotel bar while the Friday crowd starts to swarm east London. He’s still reeling from the jetlag, though it was an energising trip. And I mention Beyonce not just to inspire jealousy in anyone who would’ve wished to be in his position, watching her play live in the California desert, but because the 25-year-old’s newest release slots into a growing tradition that she’s helped ignite in recent years.

His largely self-produced debut studio album, Our Father, is an exercise in painful and worthwhile self-examination. “I wouldn’t say that I went mad, but I definitely had some breaking points, and certain things I had to revisit,” he says, when I ask how the topic of mental health shaped the writing process. And so you could say Azekel has been taking notes from Mrs Knowles-Carter. His album, like so many layered and introspective releases put out by black artists since Lemonade, is a 12-track LP accompanied by a short film that’s split into three acts. Each act correlates with an album chapter: Family, Mental Health, and Youth (which we're premiering at the bottom of the page). As we unravel his process behind the album, we touch on the legacy of black masculinity, changing music industry perspectives on black artists and how, at the end of it all, he’s just trying to have a good time.

Our Father’s rich visuals leap out from the moment you press play: perfectly lit black women of all shades proudly stare back at you. Harmonies ring out like a lullaby. Browns, reds, patterns, and foliage creep into multiple shots. Pro-black statements appear on screen: “For too long, ‘black’ has been a negative term… We reclaim that.” Directed by The Rest (Kojey Radical, Little Simz) and a team that includes art director Julianknxx, producer Adelight, makeup artist Mata Labs, and DOP Olan Collardy, the group brought sonic elements of the album to the screen. “The sounds of my family, and friends recorded in the songs naturally bring a visual stimulus,” Azekel says. “I believed that having a film would build on this and create my world visually.” It reflects a renaissance in black culture that he’s seizing to tell his story. “There’s an acceptance, there’s a boldness to talk about a different black experience that I don’t think was there when I started.”

He’s been on quite a journey since that time, about five years ago. I lose count of how many times Azekel says, “I just wanted to tell my story,” as we sit in the booth. You can understand why; Our Father has been his whole career in the making. It’s his third release, but first album and his first opportunity to be completely honest. A lot had to happen before he could reach this point. “I’ve had kids. I’ve experimented a lot, and worked with amazing artists like Gorillaz and Massive Attack. I’ve been on tour, so all of those experiences have been insightful.” But the revelations that inspired the chapters took serious amount of self reflection. “A lot of the album is based on relationships. I had to go and revisit certain things, like my relationship with my father, with my childhood... Certain issues that happened with my close friends and their mental health.” On top of that, “the balancing act of being a family man but having to give time to so many things, and the weight it has on your mental [health].”

Azekel is one of a growing swathe of young, black men speaking out about mental health and masculinity. “Loading,” an interlude awash with cymbals and mellow synths, is a confessional. It features snippets of conversations with his family and friends and on it, Azekel reveals his struggle of being something to everyone. “ Yes I’m a husband, yes I’m a father / yes I’m a brother, yes I’m a son / but sometimes relationships weigh me down / can’t take no more”, he sings wearily before he escapes into falsetto: “ I just wanna levitate.”

Making yourself available to so many people at once “pushes and pulls you,” he says. Being a musician doesn’t exactly help. “Doing music in this day and age can appear quite selfish to others. But family is all about being selfless.” He’s confident his daughters—one of whom features in the film—aren’t negatively affect by his career, (“they don’t care; they’re happy,”) although he admits it does cause tension with his partner. That he can discuss these issues through music at all represents a freedom that didn’t exist for black British musicians before. “Being black or the black aesthetic has also seemed—well in the UK anyway—to be seen as ‘lesser than.’ Now, there’s an opportunity.”

He knows a bit about seizing opportunity. Growing up as the eldest of four brothers, he put his future as an osteopathic doctor on pause when he dropped out of university to pursue music. That gamble paid off after he debuted EP Circa in 2013, one single off which Pitchfork called “simultaneously aqueous and intergalactic” and which earned him a coveted mention in The Guardian’s now-retired New band of the day column. His dark sonics and intimate vocal style went on to catalyse a string of well-received hits and collaborations with Massive Attack and Gorillaz.

A recent buzz has built around black British creativity, bringing with it even more opportunities. People are writing books, zines and TV shows, forming creative agencies, throwing club nights and opening restaurants. No one is sure how long the interest will last, but in Azekel’s eyes, it can only help expand how black artists are seen. “It shows that there’s a variety of us, that there’s not only one stereotype,” he tells me. “With the music industry in London, it’s as though if what you’re making doesn’t have a council estate backdrop, it’s not considered black music. I don’t make council estate backdrop music; I believe that the black experience is bigger than that. And also I reckon it’s racist—it’s ignorance because... it doesn’t affect the communities of all these people in the positions to allow those kinds of music and stereotypes to be pushed. It affects my community.”

You can imagine how the music industry has been justifying this behaviour for years. When the most successful black British artists—your Wileys, your Stormzys—are chartmakers who appear to be of a certain background, the aesthetic attached to them (despite being naturally their own) is capitalised on by outsiders. Azekel doesn’t fit that mould. You can hear that on funk-tinged, pop-leaning songs like “Can We Have Fun (In This House Tonight?)” and “Mr Taxi Man” that you might imagine Prince—who, incidentally may have been a fan of his—would approve of today. But to his credit, Azekel has done well with the hand “alternative R&B” served him. It’s no coincidence that he’s gravitated to cult bands like Massive Attack and Gorillaz, who also rip up the rule book.

Ultimately, Our Father makes much-needed statements on race on Britain, masculinity and mental health and transforming the black musician stereotype, but the Youth chapter offers respite. As its section of the film rolls, Gia Ré, his on-screen partner emerges in sequins, lost to the sounds of “Wetty Betty.”. “ Spinning in the air / It’s been here for days / It’s that funk it goes: bang bang / You better let it play / We’re too young to go into the cemetery / bang bang,” go some of the lyrics. This floor-filling party tune sweet-talks you into forgetting all the heavy stuff for a moment. “Fucking yeah,” Azekel laughs, “that’s why I wrote the third part, Youth. I think responsibility can definitely make you a serious person. Sometimes I just remember my age, and that I’m still in my twenties”. Even while tackling heavy topics, Azekel is determined for fun to be important too. “Life is gonna be life,” he says. “It’s all about your perspective. It’s your reaction.”

You can find Grace on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.