Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Idris Elba: mii Idris Elba

Idris Elba
Idris Elba Idris Elba Idris Elba Idris Elba

Not content with being one of the most sort after actors in the world, not content with being one of the finest / best black actors of his generation, not content with scooping awards and nominations by the score, not even content with creating some of the most memorable characters on TV inc; Drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s second-in-command, Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell in the HBO series ‘The Wire’, or more recently on the other side of the fence as dedicated Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, in the BBC’s dark and at times disturbing, yet unmissable self titled hit series, ‘Luther’.  No, the word “content”, or thesaurus found similar, definitely do not seem to feature in the vocabulary of this 42 year old, one time tyre fitter, from Hackney in North East London.

The reason for my catch-up with the multifaceted actors’ actor, is for a more rhythm driven cause.  A chat about a project which not only compliments his recent momentous big screen leading role, ‘Mandella: The Long Walk To Freedom’, a biopic following the life of the late iconic South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and philanthropist. But a project who’s subject matter could be as daunting, as it is exciting to portray.  Elba would go on to amerce himself to previously unfathomable depths to create a true reflection of a man who has left a huge imprint on the world. Explaining the enormity of the role at hand, “It was such a big, big job for me - it was one of the most monumental as an actor. I could just stop tomorrow and go 'yep, I had a great chance at an opportunity to play a great character' and I did.”

After landing the role of a lifetime, which he first thought was a hoax. “I thought it was a joke to be honest, my agent likes to prank me sometimes… (playing out the convo) 'Yeah, would you like to play Mandela? - Shut up man!’ (laughs) When I realised it was real, it was just a massive privilege man, just a massive privilege.” The expectation of the role soon loomed large, “I did feel it, I didn't feel I was ready you know what I mean? Plus I didn't understand how they wanted to do it. But the film takes in a lot of his younger life, so the film made more sense to me. But yeah man, I definitely don't regret it.” Elba expands on intricate nature of the task at hand and how his approach had to be just right. “It wasn't an impersonation, it wasn't me creating a character, this is a man who exists and is an important figure, so I really did have to understand lots about him you know? The music played a big part of the that because he listened to music and music was part of the whole struggle.  Understanding the temperature of how music played a part was REALLY important to me. That was the one thing that definitely stuck with me when I left the country and played the role, was how that music was deep - it made me listen to music differently, you kinda realise that some people do music because they can and some people do music because they are trying to express something.”

This leads me on to the reason why I was shooting the breeze with this Hollywood A-lister and how Elba, once finished with his acting duties, still felt there was a certain amount of “unfinished business”, explaining what happened once the film was in the can and his need to go further than his lead role usually dictates. “It's one thing to make the film but, but I dunno man, I never really got to celebrate the fact that I got THAT job and I got to play THAT part. So I decided that doing it musically would be the best way to sort of market that fact…” He adds, “I just fell in love with the music out there, I felt it was a really good sort of cross-breed of my work, my art and just go, 'hear this really good selection of songs that mark me playing Mandela'.  Yeah man, regardless of people loving music or not, I feel like I've really had just just an amazing landmark in my life, you know what I mean?”

Trying to differentiate which came first, music with a slightly militant message or apartheid seems to be a political web, as both seemed to go hand in hand from the off.  “When you hear music from back in the day in Soweto, when apartheid was at it's strength, it's highest, and what they're saying and HOW the way they are saying it, and HOW they are joining music. I mean beautiful, with really tough words… I could really appreciate it.”  Adding to his views on the role of the music at that time. “It was definitely who was doing what and what was being said, as opposed to what musicians were really killing it.  There was a definite political movement with some of the artists that Mandela was linked too, it was just understanding where they stood and the struggle…that's what I paid attention to.”

This realisation of how music effected society spurned the actor to follow these musical markers. His own background pre his glittering acting career would see him as a young man, win a place at the National Youth Music Centre. He also helped his Uncle with his DJ business, leaning a new skill on the decks along the way, which was soon applied to a greater degree as he started his own DJ’ing company - this skill would see him working in nightclubs under the DJ’ing ‘Big Driis’ moniker.  Present day see’s him once again diversify his talent, this time getting into the production side of music, while taking up remix duties on potential house tracks.

The album “mi Mandella” is out now on Parlophone.

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