Words: Danielle Dash
Photography: Hyperfrank

Idris Elba kisses his teeth when he’s looking for the next word in a sentence. It’s so subtle you could easily miss it. His words are often tied together with double negatives, says “you know what I mean?” and it feels like he’s confident you’re following everything he’s saying. He speaks fast and laughs easily. He’s a Londoner, an East Londoner to be specific, so when he says “know” it sometimes comes out as “nah” and you’re very quickly comfortable in his presence.

Before you meet him, there is reason to be nervous; not only is he an actor, DJ, rapper, TV and film producer and director, last year he was named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive for heaven’s sake! He’s the hustler everybody knows from the ends who actually ‘made it’. He’s aware of his privilege but he wants no-one to get it twisted: he’s made sacrifices to be where he is. “It’s great being in a position to sort of, like, do the things that you dream about doing,” he tells me. “You know what I mean? I mean, it’s a lot of work and people can kind of forget that everything I’m doing has taken a while. But it’s amazing... [kisses teeth] I’m very lucky and very thankful.”

I’m sitting at a solid boardroom table across from the man who brings Detective John Luther to life, in his London office. When you walk in, you can’t help but notice Elba’s creative team is made up mostly of women. I’m excited by this because a room full of women with decision-making power means all kinds of political-feminist-change-over-progress things for me, but for Idris, these are simply the people he trusts to keep his businesses afloat. When I see people as busy as Idris, my main thought is, “I hope they’re okay.” So I ask how he looks after himself and avoids burnout because... I care. And maybe he’ll have some tips for me. I mean, I’m not Idris Elba busy, but I am busier than your nan. I lean in.

“It’s delegation,” he tells me. “This is my office and my team and I’ve got people that have specific tasks to sort of help keep my interests alive. I’m ambitious and it comes from being an only child; your interest levels are just really varied. I tend to try and make sure that my day is structured in a way that I get the best out of it; the best out of it, at the best hours. I work very early in the mornings and by eight o’clock, I am out! And that time is family time; that time is rest and recuperation, and it doesn’t always happen that way, but I’m conscious that I need to do that. You can get burnt out, and people can also get burnt out by you.”

The thought of having a self-care routine that is both useful for yourself as well as the people around you really blows my mind. He elaborates: “People get burnout from watching you all the time; they start getting dizzy watching all the stuff that you’re doing, and sometimes not everyone wants to work as hard as you. Not everyone wants to have five albums in their playlist, they’re happy with one album. And so I’m conscious of that. I tend to just try and delegate and separate, and try and do it as well as I can. But it is hard [kisses teeth]... But my thing is this we’re going to die one day. My father died five years ago. Watching him go—and he was he was young, 72, and to me that’s young—I was like, ‘Wow, you didn’t get a chance to do as much as you wanted to do.’”

In this context, it’s easy to understand why Idris makes time to do all he’s involved with. Today, despite the life advice I’m receiving, we’re actually here to talk about his latest project, Idris Elba Presents: The YARDIE Mixtape.

“The stronger your culture, the more defined you are.”

The mixtape works to accompany the 2018 film adaptation he directed of Victor Headley’s 1992 novel, Yardie. It’s a collection of songs produced by artists Idris selected; their aim was to deliver music inspired by the movie, which stars Aml Ameen. The mixtape boasts Newham Generals, Toddla T and Chip, to name a few. “Stand By Me”, the track by Kranium and Tanika, is by far my favourite. This body of work feels like it reaches back in time while stretching forward for the future to describe where we are sonically at in British music right now. Being on time for summer isn’t a bad thing either.

“All of that came from what people took from YARDIE,” he says. “And for me, this is sort of like a nod to the diversity of the music that comes from the UK, which really stems from reggae and that whole culture of sound systems. ‘Stand By Me’ is probably the only traditional reggae record [on the mixtape]. The song itself is about the lead love story between the two main characters. But the drums in that song, they sort of fall into this little trappy, boom-bappy thing. The whole album is really an omelette—it’s omelette that serves all the influences.”

Like the mixtape, Idrissa Akuna Elba is an omelette of influences. Being the second generation only child of a Sierra Leonean immigrant family, born and raised in London’s East End, creates a specific experience that reflects what this city is at its core. Idris not only embodies that but believes it’s important to openly rep where you’re from—especially in this creative climate. “I just think definition is the key at the moment, you know? There was a time, especially in English music, where rappers were doing it American and they never could understand why America wouldn’t accept them. Sound how you sound! And now we’ve adopted that, fully. [Americans] might not get the cadence or the lingo straight away, but for me, I feel like that’s key now. I remember growing up not wanting to say I was African because people used to take the piss out of African people, and being Jamaican was cool. A name like Idrissa was stupid and Jason was cool. But the stronger your culture, the more defined you are.”

There are whole threads on reddit and Twitter dedicated to analysing why it’s acceptable for Idris, a man of West African descent, to speak and rap in Jamaican patois. The idea being that this is cultural appropriation; that he’s somehow being inauthentic and capitalising on a space that he doesn’t belong to and therefore should not benefit from. And sure, on the surface it does seem a bit dodgy, if you’re ignorant and never paid attention to him speak about his heritage. But this argument fails to recognise the distinction between appropriation and appreciation: appropriation erases origins to assume the role of creator, where appreciation points to sources of inspiration.

When it comes to Idris, he’s unambiguous in where he’s from—he literally has it tattooed on his hand. Rather than claiming to be of Jamaican extraction, he adapted a novel written by a Jamaican and cast an actor born in Britain to Jamaican parents as the lead. And while Idris raps in patois, he also raps in creole and pidgin because he’s proud of where he comes from. So proud, in fact, that he created a series called In The Long Run based on his family’s story coming to England. He has no compunction to admit when he found out the show was being taken to series for Sky, he burst into tears.

“That was very special for me,” he says earnestly. “It’s almost, like, too hard to even talk about because it’s my personal memories and experience and my family that we’re using as a TV show. I mean, honestly, it makes me emotional thinking about that as an achievement because we came from a place where being African wasn’t cool, to now being able to make a whole TV show? It was great. It’s a great sign of the times for our country accepting diversity, especially in a place where Brexit makes people go, ‘What’s going on?’ But at the same time, they’re embracing the culture deeply in a show like that.”

Being at the top, it would be so easy to pull the ladder up behind him but Idris makes a point to collaborate with peers of his generation as well as those younger than him. He lends himself to artists like Stormzy and Stefflon Don and creates jobs for other actors, but he’s quite bashful about the impact he has on others, claiming he didn’t set out for his work to be multigenerational. “I don’t think I did that intentionally. The truth is I always looked older than I was—when I was 14, I looked 17/18—and so I found myself in a position where my childhood was accelerated into manhood. I always feel younger than I actually am. I don’t have that same dimension of age in that way. Know what I mean? I’m 46 and I’m on ‘Boasty’ and people might find it odd. Of course I’m conscious of it, but it’s a blessing when you drive past a bunch of 12-year-old kids and they’re like, ‘Idris!’ And I’m like: ‘How do you know me?’ But I’m in their zeitgeist.”

Collaboration, especially within marginalised communities, is how we keep our cultures alive—but also how we grow and develop. Without the wherewithal of people more privileged than myself trusting me with opportunities, my career wouldn’t have progressed. In Idris, we have an example of what it looks like to reach back and pull others with you so you aren’t always the only one in the room—the token. He gets what I’m saying and takes it a step further. “When I was in America for a while, I always used to hear: ‘So there’s black people in England?’ But because of the duality of my career, that is a natural doorway, I’m always open to letting people see in. I’m definitely liking that I’m opening doors and people are able to look into my window and be like, ‘Oh shit! There’s more of you guys. You kind of got it good!’ I love that.”

Having pressured Idris into seeing how valuable he is, I’m determined to leave our conversation with more advice for myself. Both professionally and personally, I’ve been taking Ls, left, right and centre recently and it’s left me a bit wobbly. That’s even a polite way to describe it. But for all the rainbows we see over Idris’ career, there must have been rain and dark days—how on earth did he weather the storms?

“Courage and belief and a willingness to accept that not everything’s going to be great.” It rolls out so quickly, it doesn’t sound like he’s selling me a line. “There was, like, a period of four years where nobody gave a front door about Idris or me as an actor. I was just grinding, trying to get on. But I was optimistic about that. Very optimistic. I wasn’t, like, down in the dumps. It felt like okay!” He knocks on the table with his knuckles. “I’ll keep knocking. I’ll keep going. That’s idealistic and not everyone has that sort of thing, but for me it’s about having heart and having courage and being like, ‘This is tough, this is a tough time, but I’m gonna get through it.’” He gets really serious now and I’m hanging onto every word of his sermon. “I think people, a lot of talented people with talent, will never see the day because their first audition went bad, you know what I mean? And they haven’t got the heart, the courage to keep on going. All of that talent is now never gonna see the light of day because your courage is gone. I wasn’t prepared to do that. Someone just says, ‘No, you’re not good enough.’ No! I’m not buying that.”

And just like that, all too quickly our time is up. After getting a selfie (I will treasure forever) and saying our goodbyes, I shuffle out of his office and into the day. I leave feeling buoyant and joyful that he’s the real deal. That charm and charisma you see on screen is genuine, and I’m confident his guarantees of the results of perseverance are genuine too.

Posted on June 28, 2019