Idris Elba

Shaking the Stigma


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If you want to get to know the real, true, authentic Idris Elba, you can’t just watch his movies. You also have to listen to his music. “My music says more about me than my acting,” says Elba, because he remains real, true and authentic when making his music.
“Whereas, as an actor, I speak lines that have been written for me by somebody else.”

  • Author: Gunter Ullrich
  • Photos: Idris Elba/DJ Marketing Communication Ltd.
  • Video: DJ Marketing Communication Ltd.

This self-realization is important to the 43-year-old because he is successful both as an actor and a musician. He won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of John Luther in the television series “Luther” and has also been nominated for an Emmy. He played Heimdall in “Thor” and the last installment of the “Avengers” and he is currently at work on the next “Star Trek” installment. He plays the difficult characters -- he might be the brutal drug dealer in “The Wire” or the peace activist in “Mandela.” Elba embodies the leadership personality and his presence can be intimidating. Pierce Brosnan recently even proposed Elba as the next James Bond. Rumors to that effect have been circulating for some time.

And then there’s Elba’s career as a musician. He has rapped with Jay-Z, written songs for Angie Stone and produced, remixed and composed his own work. This summer, Elba hits the turntables again as a DJ at Pacha Ibiza. He jetted from the set of “Star Trek” in Vancouver to the island to perform together with Bob Sinclar before flying directly back to the set.

Working as an actor and a musician: for many, one of the two is just a hobby – or marketing for the other.

All this raises the question as to what Elba really is. An actor? A musician? Is one career perhaps simply a marketing ploy for the other? “I know there is a stigma attached to actors who also make music,” says Elba. “But I have never let these prejudices bug me.” He loves music, and that’s precisely why he makes it. The same is also true for acting. At the moment he says he’s spending about 35 percent of his time as a musician and 65 percent as an actor. The only rule is that he doesn’t mix the two. “I’m inherently an actor,” says Elba. He doesn’t talk about music on the set and vice-versa. Then again, music also grants him stability. It’s grounding and it enables him to tune out. “Music has been a part of my life as far back as I can remember,” he says. “It’s my passion.” That’s why, Elba says, no one can accuse him of using it as a marketing gag.

He answers questions about his status just as self-confidently as he appears before the camera or in the DJ booth. “I consider myself to be an artist,” he says, with his primary job being acting and the second music. Actually, the discussion has little to do with Elba. “Because both come from inside, they come out of the same person.” He says he is proud of being able to choose between the two directions.

Elba was introduced to music at a very young age. His father, who is from Sierra Leone, played music from a variety of different genres for young Idris. Elba eagerly absorbed Country, Western, Soul and Congolese tunes. At school, he began putting his music knowledge to work. He DJ’d at friends’ parties and dubbed himself “Big Driis.”

In his early twenties, he began trying to land television roles and found a place where he could develop even further. In his youth surroundings, he had made himself smaller than he actually was, partly because he was much taller at a young age than the others. He also increasingly demanded to be called “Idris,” instead of his given name “Idrissa,” because he feared the latter sounded too girlish to his fellow classmates. “But in front of the camera, I could be tall and skinny, it was suddenly cool not to be normal. Slipping into new roles was no longer a survival mechanism. It created a 'Wow' effect.“

„Normally, he strictly splits his two roles, but now he plans to make an exception.“

It is Idris Elba's passion.

Knowledge of this background is necessary to understand what is driving him. Despite his large stature – he’s 6’3” – and his muscular build, Elba has remained sensitive. He pays close attention to what is happening around him and how others perceive him. And he channels those observations into his acting and his music.

“A good DJ can read his crowd,” he says. As a DJ, he says, it’s imperative to know how to get your listeners’ feet moving. He can’t just stand behind his turntable and act cool. “People can tell if you’re having fun,” Elba says. “If you’re not having fun, then you’re not going to get them to dance.”

It’s that approach that took him all the way to the Glastonbury festival last summer. Elba had a chance to DJ at the legendary festival. “It was a monumental occasion when the offer came,” he says. It also became his most important experience so far. He had played at a number of festivals over the past four years but Glastonbury could have ended his career. “Because it’s so big, it shapes the public opinion," he says. But he passed the test, delivering a perfect set. His career isn’t even close to ending and he says he wants to continue making music for as long as he is able. “’Big Driis’ hasn’t had even close to enough.”

He followed up Glastonbury with the set at Pacha Ibiza. Elba considers it one of the world’s best clubs, “because you can play music here that nobody has heard before.” But he also wants to be honest, admitting that he’s not totally prepared for Pacha, where the world’s most famous DJs spin. “But spinning together with Bob Sinclar and playing for the people at Pacha is, without question, a never-ending learning experience,” he says. And he will grow into the role, just as he has all of his past roles.

Elba, of course, has a lot planned for himself. After “Star Trek,” he will be following up his most famous role in “Luther,” which has won a number of awards as a series.Together with producer Fred Cox, he is creating a character album for Luther, mixing his two passions. “We plan to bring together the dynamism of the film and music into an incredibly inspiring album,” Elba says. The album launch will coincide with the release of new Luther episodes in 2016.

For Elba, music isn’t just something that is real, true and authentic – it is a higher calling. “There are so many different languages in the world,” he says. So many people who are talking at cross purposes because they can’t understand each other. But the language of music is universal. “It connects us all.”