Man of many talents - Actor Idris Elba returns to his first love, music, with the release of his new single

Published: Sunday | July 5, 2009

Davina Morris, Voice Writer

Idris Elba said he grew up on lover's rock. - File

THE plush interior of London's Landmark Hotel is fitting for a TV and film star like Idris Elba. But kitted out in jeans and a colourful short-sleeved shirt, Elba looks less Hollywood and more Hackney (where he's originally from), as he relaxes on a sofa in his hotel room.

Still, the 36-year-old British actor, best known for his role in the hit US drama, The Wire, and more recently, for starring opposite Beyoncé in the film Obsessed, isn't in Los Angeles showbiz-mode. In fact, he's not wearing his actor hat at all. He's now concentrating on music; an area that has long been part of his life, though not one that most people know about.

Having originally emerged from the pirate radio scene long before he found acting stardom in the States, Elba, or Driis, as he's known in the music world, has DJ'd in clubs in London and New York for years. He's also produced for the likes of Angie Stone, and supplied the intro for Jay-Z's seminal album, American Gangster.

new single

Idris Elba shares the screen with Beyoncé Knowles in 'Obsessed'. - Contributed

Now focusing on his own music with his new single, Please Be True, to be released this month, Driis is all too aware of the criticisms he may receive.

"Actors doing music is corny, I know that's what people think and I accept that," he says. "But music has always been a way for me to express myself. Honestly, I hate pushing my music. I'm passionate about what I do, so to hear someone saying they hate it would be a bit like having someone say your child is ugly!"

But there's no need to fear; Driis isn't going to spit out the dummy, Kanye West-style, and basically declare that anyone who doesn't embrace his music is somehow incompetent.

"Nah, criticism is a part of growth," he says. "When you're in school, the teachers don't tell you you're great all the time. They tell you when you go wrong and that's how you learn. Kanye is a different animal. He's way more successful than me so he can afford to say whatever to anyone he feels like. But me, I have to take the rough with the smooth. And I'm not really one to take it on board too much of what the critics have to say."

Still, most journalists have had favourable things to say about Please Be True. (One critic hilariously said of the song, "it's by no means a Terrence Howard-esque shambles." Anyone who heard actor-turned-singer Howard's album, will know what that means!) A wicked reggae reworking of the Frank Sinatra classic Fly Me to the Moon, Please Be True sees Driis lacing the one-drop groove with laid-back vocals.

"I don't consider myself to be a singer, but everybody can express themselves through song," he laughs. "Whenever I'm in the booth, I imagine that I'm on a sound system. You know, the way you hold the mic and the way you swagger even if all the notes aren't quite on point, the intention is there!

"With Please Be True, I was just vybing. I didn't write down the verses, I just sang it one time. I was feeling the rhythm and it just came out."

So who is his music appealing to? Is it the audience who loves his acting work or a totally new crowd?

"It's actually a new crowd, though I think both worlds are starting to emerge. There are people that love me in The Wire, but they don't necessarily know me or like me from anything else. There are those who didn't like Obsessed or other things I've done. But they heard the music and were like, 'I like that'.

"I started out on pirate radio. I used to look up to DJs like Mistri, Desi G and Barry White. So when I heard that DJs were playing my tune and really feeling it, without knowing that it was me behind the tune, that really made me feel like I'd come full circle. The scene that I'd come from was embracing my music, that made me feel like, 'Wow'!"

Speaking to the star, who hails from east London, it's hard to believe that he's the same man who slipped into an American accent with ease in his role as Stringer Bell in The Wire, and in his role alongside Denzel Washington in the 2007 hit film, American Gangster. In real life, Driis, who's born to a Sierra Leonean father and Ghanaian mother, is very much a Londoner.

"It's funny you say that 'cause I think some people are a little bit taken aback when they hear my accent. I don't know what people expect, 'cause I'm not from America! But I guess because I've played American characters, people might not realise I'm from England.

"And when I'm in the States, my accent is more of a hybrid of different things because when I speak with a straight English accent, people don't tend to understand me. But when I'm in England, especially when I'm talking to a black person, I'm very black British. In America, I don't think our British cadence is music to their ears. The women out there love it though!"

sex symbol status

Which brings us nicely to his sex symbol status. He is a real ladies' favourite, having appeared on the cover of Essence magazine's 'Hot Hollywood Men' issue in 2004, and again in the magazine's '10 Hottest Men on the Planet' issue in 2005. Does he enjoy being a sex symbol?

"Honestly, it doesn't affect my day-to-day life," he laughs. "I hear that and I'm like, 'Really though? Which part?' I guess the aesthetics of being a black man in Hollywood is attractive. You see Denzel step out in his sharp suit and yeah, he looks wicked. But I'm not trying to be sexy. I make romantic music 'cause I grew up on romantic music; revival, lover's rock, that music was about love. It's not really about sex appeal."

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