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Inside MNEK’s Pride songwriting camp

Inside MNEK’s Pride songwriting camp

L-R: Ryan Ashley, Caitlyn Scarlett, MNEK and Rina Sawayama

British singer, songwriter and producer MNEK has just overseen a two-day Pride Writing Camp. It was run in conjunction with Pride in Music, an LGBT networking group within the music industry.

MNEK curated the event, which saw him working alongside a handful of LGBTI talent. It all took place at Warner Chappell music studios in Kensington, London on Thursday and Friday.

‘I started the idea a few months ago,’ he explains, sat on a sofa in one of the studio rooms on Friday morning. Alongside him are fellow songwriters Ryan Ashley, Rina Sawayama and Caitlyn Scarlett.

One question other interviewers have already broached with the four is whether they feel it’s important for queer people to write together.

‘And I do think it’s really important we are given the chance to work together and have these spaces to be our true selves. But more than anything, it’s really fun!’ MNEK says with a sparkle in his eye that matches that of his grey-silver, glittery nails.

‘I wanted to have fun with other songwriters, other LGBT songwriters and producers, some that I know, some that I’m meeting for the first time, and have two days of just making music. There’s no agenda.’

MNEK
Photo: Gabriel Mokake

Making collaborations work and supporting others

Other participants who have dropped in include Olly Alexander from Years and Years, Kloe, Jon Shave, Leo Kalyan and Sakima. It’s unclear yet if the results of the camp will be released or used by any particular artist.

Are there are set rules to Writing Camp? What makes for a good collaborative process?

‘Leave your ego at the door is one rule,’ says Caitlyn Scarlett, another songwriter from London. ‘Otherwise nothing gets done. If someone’s like, “My idea’s the best, blah, blah,” it just throws a spanner in the system.’

‘That’s a rite of passage for any writing session anyway,’ agrees MNEK.

The singer (full name Uzoechi ‘Uzo’ Emenike), 24, released his debut album, Language, last year. The gifted songwriter signed his first publishing deal aged just 14 and released his first track aged 16.

He’s a big advocate of supporting other songwriters. He got his first break when he posted tracks to MySpace and sent some of his work to CockandBullKid. She recommended him to her publisher.

Would he have any advice to his 16-year-old self or anyone else just starting out?

‘I don’t know,’ he grimaces. ‘My 16-year-old self was a fucking mess and deserved every bit of advice he could of gotten!’

‘You did OK!’ points out Ryan Ashley.

‘I did OK,’ MNEK concedes, ‘but as a person, I was figuring stuff out. I’d just come out of school. I was definitely not sure of my sexuality.

‘You know, I don’t know if there are any things I can tell myself. I had to really go through it and work out what worked for me, and I’m still figuring that out. I’m still figuring out what works for me and I’m sure that applies to all of you [indicating the others in the room].’

Photo: Gabriel Mokake

Lil Nas X

Did they have any thoughts about Lil Nas X coming out last weekend? Do they think it might impact his career, particularly in the US? The hip hop artist and singer has been number one on the Billboard Hot singles chart for the past 13 weeks with his first single, Old Town Road.

‘I think it’s great,’ says MNEK. ‘I think it’s awesome that he is who he is. He’s been number one for like 12 weeks, so all is going well. It’s just … we’ll never know what would have happened if he’d been out from the start. Because that is the real shower of there being progression in the world. Everyone did think he was straight.’

All four identify on the LGBTQ spectrum. Other young artists might still ponder whether to be out or not.

‘Don’t hide who you are because you’re only making it harder for the next person,’ advises Scarlett emphatically.

‘If you’re yourself from the beginning, people will accept you as you are. If we’re talking to kids who are coming up now, don’t you dare hide yourself: You’re the first of many generations to come who can really just be open.’

‘But,’ cautions MNEK, ‘I’d like to add on to that, everyone should come out in their own time. Everyone’s environments and situations in their own lives are going to lead them to do different things, in different ways. People need the space to do that.’

‘Find a safe space somewhere,’ agrees Scarlett. ‘If it’s not OK at home, find a group of friends or create a space and be who you are there.’

Pride, influence and rainbow branding

All four all looking forward to Pride weekend in London. Besides the main parade and festivities in central London today, MNEK will headline Sunday’s UK Black Pride in Haggerston Park.

As I walked to the studio, it was impossible to miss the fact its Pride weekend. Even the tube stations are proudly displaying the several LGBTI-associated flags. How do they feel about the mass rainbow branding everywhere?

‘We live in a capitalist world,’ says Japanese-British singer Rina Sawayama. ‘For things to get big, the money needs to be behind it, so with that in mind, I’m happy if people are, as a first step, putting rainbows everywhere. That’s a good first step.

‘Second, if they’re promoting products and donating to an LGBT charity, that’s another good step.’

World Pride

Like MNEK, Sawayama performed at the World Pride festivities in New York City last weekend.

‘It was incredible,’ she remembers. ‘There were literally rainbows absolutely everywhere. You could tell the city put lots of funding behind it, and yeah, it’s just the world we live in. It’s sad when it’s done in a very tacky fashion or it’s very obvious that it’s queer baiting.’

MNEK reminds her of a story she shared about being set a T-shirt with a rainbow with a company.

‘Yeah,’ Sawayama says with an eye roll. ‘They were like “It would be so great if you could promote this on your Instagram?”’.

The singer and model has 137k followers.

‘What we are not going to do this Pride month is use LGBT artists for free promotion of goods that are not going to charity!’

The others nod in agreement, suggesting Sawayama’s experience is not uncommon.

‘But it’s important to acknowledge where [the rainbow] comes from,’ she concludes. ‘I feel like back in the 80s, having a rainbow flag could have got your store really trashed or vandalized. We’ve come a long way.’

MNEK will perform at UK Black Pride on Sunday 7 July in Haggerston Park, Hackney, London. Follow Rina Sawayama, Ryan Ashley, Caitlyn Scarlett, MNEK and Pride in Music.

See also

Lil Nas X responds to homophobic backlash over his coming out

MNEK on inspiring ‘queer kids of color’ and why comparing himself to Sam Smith made him ‘sad’