Zoom into The Brothers Adelekan’s sci-fi world
The bassists (and brothers) lift the lid on their first collaborative short story – a West African sci-fi set in an alternate future – and the illustrators who’ve brought their world to life.
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Lockdowns might be easing across the UK and Europe, but many areas of life remain on hold – for now. THE FACE has teamed up with Dr. Martens Presents for multi-part series Collective Creativity.
For this instalment, we spoke with bassists (and brothers) Seye and Gbenga Adelekan. They talked us through the process behind their first collaborative short story – a West African sci-fi set in an alternate future – and introduced us to two of the illustrators who have brought their world to life.
“Gbenga I just got another idea – ”
Seye Adelekan interrupts himself mid-thought. The musician has spent much of lockdown spirited away with his brother Gbenga, fleshing out the details, big and small, of an imaginary West African nation. Yorubaland, which exists in an alternate reality where Africa was never colonised, forms the backdrop for their project with Dr. Martens Presents: a short story published in a zine, titled Obalende Sector.
It’s a creative journey that’s led the first-time authors to dream up everything from international trade agreements to green technologies. The trouble is, once the ideas start, where do they stop? Talking over Zoom – Seye from London, Gbenga from Brighton – the pair are enthused by the rich universe they’ve begun to create. During our conversation it can feel as though the universe is expanding in real time.
“The problem is actually containing the possibilities,” Seye explains later in our conversation. “They are endless. So how do you tackle that?”
Gbenga and Seye are no strangers to sharing the same headspace. Growing up between Nigeria, Holland and the UK, they came of age watching the same cartoons, swapping books and comics. As musicians they are both now established bassists – Gbenga in Metronomy, Seye in Gorillaz – and have plenty of experience making music together. Working on a short story, however, has presented a creative challenge of a new kind.
“I’d had this thought that it would be nice to collaborate on something with Seye,” Gbenga explains, “and I’d also had this idea about an alternate history of Africa – specifically West Africa, where Nigeria is now. Seye and I have worked on music together over the years, but because [of lockdown] we had so much free time. This felt like a good time to try something new.”
The story came at the right time. Shortly before they began exchanging ideas, Gbenga’s tour with Metronomy had been cut short mid-album cycle by the pandemic, and Seye was emerging from an 18 month period away from work and making music. Writing together soon blossomed into a fully fledged creative outlet. “In that time I found my creative self coming back alive again,” Seye says. “We had the stored energy.”
What soon took shape was the world of Yorubaland – a fictional West African nation in the middle of a political dispute over its vast solar fields, which provide green energy to 40 per cent of the world, but were built on the back of mass displacement. It’s a complex, actualised vision; neither utopia nor dystopia. “We wanted to represent that just because an African nation becomes a superpower doesn’t mean it’s a perfect society,” Seye adds. “An African superpower would have as many problems as America or China. It’s still a superpower on planet earth.”
For the concept to work as a short story, though, they knew they needed to zoom in. “Seye had the idea to look at the life of one person who’s a security guard [at the solar fields],” Gbenga explains. “In fact I think that was the first thing Seye said: ‘Why don’t we tell the story of this big idea by grounding it in a story about a mother and her son.’”
“That’s where bad sci-fi or fantasy falls down,” Seye adds. “They focus on the tech, or the really big ideas. It’s hard to care about that. Star travel is great but it’s who’s on the vessel that really matters.”
This perhaps best sums up their approach to science fiction writing. Seye and Gbenga are interested in how reimagining the past allows you to reimagine the present. The choice to set the story in Africa is as much a part of this as anything.
“I think representation has its limits in terms of the change it can affect, in terms of the big structural inequalities in society,” Gbenga says. “However, it’s still the case that there’s a power to having younger people in particular read something where most of the characters are African. And it’s not because you’re making a statement. It’s more the subtle power of setting the story in Africa and following the storytelling consequences of that decision.”
Teaming up with Dr. Martens introduced the idea of illustrations into the mix. The pair quickly set about seeking out artists through a mixture of personal recommendations and Instagram rabbit holes. Their eventual collaborators, Exhibit69 (Mark Anthony), rome and Kieron Boothe, provided bold visions of Yorubaland and its solar fields. The experience of working with them has left both Seye and Gbenga in awe. “It’s actually quite mind-blowing,” Seye says. “They expressed themselves so differently and clearly.”
“Everyone just really believed in the project and gave so much to it,” Gbenga adds. “Admiration is the word.”
The Adelekan brothers both feel this story could be the first of many set in Yorubaland. The process that’s kept them creative during lockdown has boundless potential. As touring musicians they can write remotely from anywhere in the world – and there’s no shortage of ideas for future instalments. “There’s a whole alternate history, forwards and backwards from when the story is set,” Gbenga says. “So much of it that we don’t think it’s going to fit into one book necessarily.”
“There’s something romantic about that,” Seye agrees, “seeing a snippet of life set against this backdrop. What else is there?”
Introduce yourself and tell us what you do in your own words.
My name is Mark Anthony but everyone knows me as Exhibit69. I’m an artist who began his career as a hobby, hand-painting trainers and stilettos in 2004. I progressed to painting jackets, large canvases, motorbikes, helmets and guitars, with my work currently being sold in Nordstrom in America.
You grew up in the US but are now based in the UK. How do both places influence the art you make now?
Residing in America and South London from adolescence to adulthood allowed me to witness the disparity that my culture has had to endure, and that is still prevalent to this very day. Having noticed that there was an absence of Black superheroes growing up, I decided to paint a series using vintage characters to tell our stories by incorporating the choruses of hip-hop and reggae songs to show to the world that we are humans and share the same emotions as everyone else.
Which sci-fi films and comics made the biggest impression on you growing up?
Growing up I used films and comics to fuel my imagination, escape my reality and connect with other people. I really enjoyed cult films and comics like Mad Max, Matrix, Judge Dredd (2000AD), Predator, Flight of the Navigator and 12 Monkeys. I also really loved X‑MEN, Thundercats, Silverhawks and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors cartoons!
What are your main influences as an artist?
Through my rebellious nature I have always been drawn to the underdog, due to the experience I faced with the way I am generally viewed by society. I find it boring to paint commercially viable pieces that often contain no soul or emotion. I have always gravitated to real life situations, having dealt with clinical depression, sex addiction, negative relationships and abandonment. I grew up in a hostile environment in South London, but used art as a tool to communicate with gang members and church members alike. My influences are real everyday people and their stories, inclusive of their complexities. It sounds cliché but culture is my canvas.
What excited you about Seye and Olugbenga’s project and inspired you to get involved?
Seye and Olugbenga are amazingly talented and humble people. I read the project and was literally blown away. The story grabbed my attention and imagination immediately. The writing and perspective allowed me to connect with the story as I could identify with the characters and small details with the interactions between characters. It was an honour to be a part of this project and in the company of other talented artists and creatives. This could easily be a film adaptation or series with the vivid picture they created with their words. I cannot wait for everyone to read it!
How did you approach illustrating someone else’s writing?
I read the draft a few times and transported myself to the environment that was described in the story. I wanted to submit to the characters and create as though they were real. I found the story and alternate universe so fascinating and exciting that they sincerely made it easy for me to bring the covers to life. I drew what I saw when I read the pages.
Have you managed to stay creative during lockdown?
I manage my depression by creating daily at my studio. Just prior to lockdown I was due to release 35 hand painted jackets to market. As the boutiques had closed I tapped into the skills I learned as an assistant to esteemed street artist D*FACE and started creating larger pieces for galleries based upon the trauma that I had experienced witnessing the footage of the killings at the hands of the police in America. You can see the work I produced on my website and Instagram.
Introduce yourself and tell us what you do in your own words.
Hi, I’m Kieron Boothe and I’m a rapper/illustrator based in East London. I predominantly make jazz-inspired hip-hop with a blend of inner city London culture. A lot of my traditional work was in ink but now I mainly work on an iPad Pro.
You’re an illustrator and rapper. Which discipline came first? And how do they influence each-other?
I’d say art was my first love growing up but it was always a hobby that I never really saw a future in. I started making music at 11 with a group of friends and that became the primary passion until only a few years ago, when I started to upload my time-lapse videos to instagram with my music playing in the background and found that I was on to something. I’ve always designed my covers but in 2019 I began posting, uploading my illustrations online, and it led to some really good projects in 2020 with the Premier League and two billboards across London.
How important have comic books and graphic novels been to the work you make now? Do any titles jump out as particularly influential?
Comic Books are where my love for art came from and they continue to be a massive inspiration in my work, as well as film/animation and manga. I remember my first graphic novels were Daredevil Yellow and Superman Birthright. Both amazing titles by top tier writers and artists respectively. I think that absorbing such good storytelling from a young age sparked something in me.
What was it about Seye and Gbenga’s project that got you excited to get involved?
It was really interesting – as Seye was explaining the premise of the story to me on the phone I could visually see the world already. I’m a huge fan of sci-fi and cyberpunk themes so I was sold on the idea from then. I was amazed at the freedom I was given to interpret the work and couldn’t be happier with the results.
What’s your favourite way to collaborate?
I love hearing everyone’s thoughts and usually like as much input as possible. I’ve realised that I may have the skills to execute ideas I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. I know some artists can go off a word or a phrase but I like to have more detail, mood boards for example.
What do you hope people take away from your art?
I hope that people see themselves within my work. I try to take inspiration from a lot of real world people to create a sense of familiarity with the characters. For anyone who has been following my journey for over a year, I want them to be inspired by the growth and hopefully it pushes them to pursue the things they love.
What have you learned about yourself as an artist during lockdown?
Lockdown has shown me a glimpse of what I’m capable of. Prior I was doing more talking than doing but with everything closed and all the extra time I was forced to focus and it’s really started to pay off. I’ve learnt to have more faith and trust in my ideas and I’m excited to see what the future holds.
The Obalende Sector zine will be sold in Dr. Martens’ stores across Carnaby Street, Camden, Spitalfields and White City stores from 10th June, with all proceeds going to Black Minds Matter. Read the digital version here