Skepta: I’m bored of the black James Bond narrative

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By Yasmin Rufo

BBC News

Rapper Skepta says he has decided to create a film about a black undercover secret service agent after he “got bored of talks on who was going to play the black James Bond”.

Speaking about his debut film, Tribal Mark, Skepta tells the BBC he is set on making an anti-hero character for black actors.

Known as one of the pioneers of British grime music, it is the first time the 41-year-old artist, real name Joseph Olaitan Adenuga Jr, has ventured into film directing, producing and acting.

His new short film follows the journey of a Nigerian immigrant, Mark, who moves to London as a child and adapts to a new culture and way of life. As a teenager he struggles to to fit in and ends up in prison for possession of a firearm.

Fast forward to the present day, and a sharply suited Mark, played by Skepta, is eating Nigerian dinner staples of pounded yam and Egusi soup.

He introduces himself to the camera as: “I’m Mark. Tribal Mark”, echoing the famous line: “The name is Bond. James Bond.”

Speaking about the inspiration behind the film, Skepta says it was about the “dissociation of an immigrant living in the UK”, something he was able to relate to.

However the musician, who was born to Nigerian parents and grew up in Tottenham, north London, was quick to highlight that it is not a biopic of his life.

“I am not a hitman like Mark is,” he adds jokingly.

‘More complex James Bond’

The grime artist has called Tribal Mark a prequel to his vision of a wider cinematic universe featuring black male leads.

It will centre around a “hitman who works for the black secret service” who will be “an anti-hero character similar to James Bond – but more complex”.

He has likened his short film to 2019’s Oscar-winning film The Joker, which tells the back story of Batman’s nemesis, saying his movie “shows us how and why Mark becomes Tribal Mark”.

Skepta says he wanted to make a “character for black actors” as he got “bored of the narrative” over whether an actor of colour could play James Bond.

“It wouldn’t make sense if loads of white actors kept asking to play Black Panther, because he is black,” he said.

The 007 agent, created by novelist Ian Fleming, was most recently played by Daniel Craig, having been played by white actors since it first hit the big screen.

Since Craig confirmed his departure from the role in April 2020, speculation as to who will take it on next has been rife, with the question of a black actor playing Bond coming up regularly.

Idris Elba was one of the names floated, but he recently told the SmartLess podcast that the racist backlash he received “made he whole thing disgusting and off-putting”.

Created by Skepta’s own production company 1PLUS1, this is not the first time that the rapper has shown his DIY ethos.

His 2016 album Konnichiwa, which won the Mercury prize and featured songs That’s Not Me, Shutdown and Man, was recorded entirely in his bedroom and marketed to fans directly online, without all the apparatus of the modern music industry.

The musician has since released another album in 2019, Ignorance is Bliss, and featured on ASAP Rocky’s Praise the Lord single which charted on the Billboard Hot 100.

He previously told the BBC the internet has “given a lot of opportunities to people who are not built for big corporations,” adding that “DIY is the future”.

In a bid to discover new industry talent, Tribal Mark features a 90% minority ethnic cast and production team.

In the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, major studios committed to re-examining their diversity practices. However, a recent report from USC’s Annenberg found they are still failing to produce films from people of colour.

Jude Carmichael, who plays a young Mark in the film, told the BBC he hopes that “young black audiences will be able to see people that look like them, and know it is authentic because it was created by people like them”.

Skepta says his decision to move into film-making was simple.

“For so long I have only made three-minute snapshots of songs and videos, but I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t we try and flesh that out?'” he told the BBC.

“I want to try and tell a story with as much of the real emotion as possible”.

He added that while his music videos “are super fiction”, his film is something that “everybody can understand and relate to”.

Co-producer of the film, Adam Strawford, said the film will “speak volumes to anyone who wasn’t born in the UK and has had to adapt to life here”.

Describing himself as a “musician above all else” it is no surprise that his film contains a new song, Diligent, from his upcoming album, Knife and Fork.

The song, previously called Gas Me Up, caused controversy after allegations were made that his artwork referenced the Holocaust as it featured a group of men with shaved heads, one of whom had the words “Gas Me Up” tattooed across his head.

Skepta has since apologised and acknowledged the potential for offence, but did not discuss the matter further.

He said one of the main inspirations for his new album was food.

Describing it as one of the most constant elements of his culture, Skepta said his new album was about “my grandad telling my mum that we must do well and eat food with a knife and fork”.

The idea of a knife and fork took my parents far, and now I just want to eat with my hands.”

Food also features heavily in the film and is used as a way to show how Mark continues to connect with his culture.

As he looks towards Hollywood, Skepta will be hoping that his new movie franchise will be as successful as his music career, and plans are already underway for the first full length film about Tribal Mark.

“We are already thinking about what car he drives, where he eats, how many languages he speaks and what suit he wears. We are getting really into it.”

Tribal Mark is in UK cinemas from 26 January.