On my radar: MNEK's cultural highlights

The songwriter and producer on the secret life of Mariah Carey, Korean fried chicken and being creative on Zoom

Born in Catford, south London in 1994, Uzoechi Osisioma Emenike, AKA MNEK, is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer. He began his career at 16, working with the Saturdays and the Wanted at pop production house Xenomania; in the next few years, he went on to work with Kylie Minogue, Madonna and Beyoncé. After top 10 hits with Zara Larrson, Gorgon City and Stormzy, he achieved his first No 1 this summer, Head & Heart, with Joel Corry (it stayed there for six weeks). His new track, More Than Words, with emerging artist Sleepwalkrs, is out now.

1. Film

Rocks (dir Sarah Gavron)

Rocks: ‘You never see that black secondary school experience in the movies.’ Photograph: PR

I’m always appreciative of great black British films. I watched this recently at home on Netflix, about a young black girl whose mother abandoned her and her little brother. She’s grappling with becoming a young adult, but also being a teenager at school. You never see that black British secondary school experience in movies – it’s always classes of white kids. I grew up in suburban south London and being around similarly amazing, empowering, lively girls of colour was an everyday experience. Seeing that on screen was beautiful. It took me back 10 years.

2. Music

Ivorian Doll

Ivorian Doll
Ivorian Doll: ‘She could be the best British rapper out there.’ Photograph: ivoriandoll.com Photograph: ivoriandoll.com

Ivorian Doll has the chops to be the best British rapper out there. A few months ago, she did this show at the rap and grime Rated awards with another rapper, Br3nya. They did it in a way never seen done by British female rap before – they’re really going for it and giving people a show. It wasn’t a stuffy awards ceremony with people in suits, either – it was two girls in their own separate sets in different places, patched together, but giving it everything. Ivorian Doll performed her song Bodybag in a cemetery set, dancing around gravestones, and dropping in a segment of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Lockdown has obviously prohibited physical performance, but it’s made artists work harder with their visuals, and be exactly who they are, and gain lots of new fans in the process.

3. Audiobook

The Meaning of Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey: ‘Hearing about her secret grunge band was so interesting.’ Photograph: Amy Sussman/FilmMagic Photograph: Amy Sussman/FilmMagic

My printed copy of this got stolen from the porch of the flat I lived in – Amazon sent me a picture of it having been delivered, then it vanished! Listening to it as an audiobook was better, though, because it’s Mariah telling her own story. At points, it was so poignant, especially listening to her talking about her experiences as a biracial woman who was passing as white and how that affected her career. Hearing about her secret grunge band in the mid-1990s was so interesting too. At the peak of her game, she still wanted to do something weird! I found that very inspiring.

4. Social media

#endsars on Twitter

An #endsars protest
An #endsars protest against police brutality in Nigeria. Photograph: Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Photograph: Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images

Social media has been my best school in recent months. I’ve been following the #endsars hashtag [following the series of mass protests against police brutality in Nigeria] constantly on Twitter. I’m British-Nigerian, raised in the UK, but being able to see how corrupt the police are out there, and how they have treated young people, has really affected me. This year’s been so heavy on all of us, but as far as people of colour and LGBT and trans people go, it feels like there’s been so much more disenfranchising. It’s crazy that it’s been exacerbated during this horrible time and I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention it as part of my cultural life.

5. Food

Korean fried chicken

Korean fried chicken
Korean fried chicken: ‘Instead of getting it delivered, I learned how to make it.’ Photograph: Yukimco/Getty/Stockphoto Photograph: yukimco/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the first lockdown, I knew I’d be spending a lot of time at home, so I thought I’d better get into something new. I’m the kind of person who gets Korean fried chicken on Deliveroo once or twice a week, so I decided to learn how to make it instead, finding recipes online and going to the Asian supermarket near where I live to get the right ingredients. Cooking is so therapeutic – something comes out of this focused time that you can share with people you love.

6. Technology


Zoom: ‘Working online reinterprets creativity.’ Photograph: Boumen Japet/Alamy Stock Photograph: Boumen Japet/Alamy

I wasn’t aware of Zoom before the pandemic, like so many other people, but I’ve found ways of collaborating through it musically. There’s no comparable feeling to being in a room with someone, but I recorded Head & Heart remotely with Joel [Corry], and I’ve also been working with Mabel and Becky Hill. Working online reinterprets creativity – it makes you inventive with the creative process when you have to work with limitations. It also cuts the fat of “How was your day?” and focuses the mind. You’re suddenly: “Are we going to make a song today or not?!” And then you do!

Watch the video for More Than Words by Sleepwalkrs featuring MNEK.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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