Idris Elba Talks About His New Album, 'mi Mandela'

The actor's new album is dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela and Elba's father

Photo: David M. Benett/Getty

You’re probably familiar with Idris Elba, the actor. But are you familiar with Idris Elba the DJ? The guitarist? The house music buff?

Elba, 42, just released his first album, mi Mandela, which he wrote and produced in collaboration with musicians from South Africa and the U.K. as a tribute to both Nelson Mandela and Elba’s father, Winston.

Recorded in Johannesburg, London and Mali by a cast of musicians that includes Mumford & Sons and James Blake, it’s available now via Elba’s label, 7wallace and Parlophone records.

“I made this album to express how it was to play Nelson Mandela, because I couldn’t do it in words,” the actor, who portrayed Mandela in 2013’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, told PEOPLE.

“At the same time,” he added, “my dad was dying, and so this album is dedicated to the memory of those two men, Nelson and my dad. When you listen to it, you’re getting my impression of two great men. It’s an important album, it’s my first entry into music professionally, and I’m really proud of it.”

Elba talked to PEOPLE about his musical background, the process of making mi Mandela and what’s next in his musical career.

Growing up, how did you get involved with music?
Well, I was about 14 when I started DJing. That was when my love, my curiosity for music, sort of started. And then by the time I was about 20, I got a drum machine and got into hip-hop.

Are you planning any shows in support of this album?
We haven’t planned any shows. The album’s done with musicians from all over the place, so it’d be a bit of a task to try and do that, but I definitely think it’d make a great show. I do have an opportunity to perform one of the songs in France with one of the artists, so that might happen.

Which of the artists on the album are you most excited about introducing to a wider audience?
Well, the Mahotella Queens, who are on the first single ["Aero Mathata"], they are really famous; they were quite the staple sound of Soweto for lot of the freedom-fighting years. And they did this track with a guy named Aero Manyelo, who’s a house producer in South Africa. And to have them two on a record together is quite an achievement, because the Queens are kind of, you know, classical folk music. They’ve never done a house record like that before, so it was quite an interesting mash-up, and I’m really proud of that happening.

I think people will be surprised by the variety of the album: There’s quite a bit of soul, a little bit of hip-hop, some house. It’s quite a chocolate box of an album, and I think that people will be surprised – if you listen to the album from top to finish – it’s sort of a journey; you’ll feel like it’s a bit of an exploration.

People don’t really know how varied music is across Africa – there’s just a ton of different genres going across the continent.
Yeah, that was what I found when I got there [to film Mandela]. That’s why I fell in love with the music, I was just blown away by all the different sounds, the different styles of South African music. And across the whole of Africa, music varies in really beautiful ways. I did a radio show for the BBC, a three-part radio show, where I played all these different records from across Africa, and people really loved it, were really surprised by the scope – just how much music is out there.

There are some big British names on here, as well. How did you get involved with Mumford and Sons and James Blake?
Well, the Mumfords and I worked together on a song from Babel called “Lover of the Light.” I directed a video for them and we got off to a friendship. I asked them if I could use that song [on Elba’s album] “Home” – that’s their original song – and they said, “Well, we don’t know what we’re gonna do with it, so why don’t you go ahead and give it a shot. Do what you want with it.”

And James Blake was a little accident, you know. I met him in Brixton. I was just having lunch and he sat down by me, and it turns out we had a mutual friend and we just started talking about music. I said, “Well, I’m doing this album, do you want to just come by the studio?” And he came by, and heard the song that he ended up being on, “Nothembi Jam,” and said, “Ah, that’s great.” He did everything then and there.

Do you like the computer-based approach to making music, or did you prefer being in the studio?
Well, it really depends on the project. You know, the studio is a place for musicians to collaborate – it’s built for that – but there are songs that are more of a solo effort, you know, a laptop and a pair of headphones in a quiet room. Some of the greatest producers, like DJ producers, that’s how they work. I did love the experience of being in the studio, though. The spontaneity of that was great. In the studio in South Africa, we had 24-hour sessions going for weeks. Sometimes we’d cut three, four songs in a day.

What other music scenes are you interested in, geographically?
Jamaica. The history of music there is just so massive and I’d love to explore it more. Of course New Orleans has a flavor of music that it’d be good to get into. The thing is, there are great African musicians in London; there’s a lot of great Brazilian musicians here as well not that I don’t want to travel, but there’s just so much amazing stuff here at home.

Where are some of your favorite spots to see music in London?
Well, I don’t get out as much as I used to, but Brixton’s got some great spots. The Jazz Cafe in Camden. The Shoreditch area, in general.

Did you get a chance to check out Baltimore’s music scene while you were filming The Wire?
Yeah, man, the Baltimore house scene is proper good. There’s a couple of DJs I used to go hear DJ Quicksilver was one of them. And live go-go it’s incredible, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Baltimore reminded me of really fast happy house [music] from when I was living in New York; it was a good time. I wasn’t in Baltimore enough to get in there too deeply, but it’s a great scene.

Do you see yourself going deeper into music in the future, like learning an instrument?
Well, as we speak, I’m actually learning how to play the guitar. I got a little six-string acoustic. It’s interesting, because the more I learn to play the guitar, the more I understand how to approach music. I approach making music like a DJ – you know, a bit of this and a bit of that, just go by your ears – but when you play the guitar, you hit notes, you get into it. I’m loving that. And I’m teaching myself some chords on the keyboard.

You know, I’m an actor. I never expected to have any time in a studio, so when I found myself in a studio, especially in a studio with such seasoned musicians, I couldn’t really communicate what I was trying to do very well – I’d have to resort to sort of humming or tapping parts out. So the next album I do, I’m excited to come at it with a little bit more musical knowledge.

Who do you want to work with on your next album?
Well, I’d like Bowie to jump in there somewhere. Kings of Leon I’d like to work with them, I think they’re a great band. The next album that I’m trying to do is based on the character of John Luther. [From the BBC show Luther, which Elba starred in as the title character.] I’m basically just going to do it as I’ve done mi Mandela, which was just, you know, invite people I want to work with and set up sessions.

Which famous deceased musician would you bring back to collaborate with?
Wow. There’s a ton, but my ultimate collaboration would probably be Bob Marley. Especially from the era of Catch a Fire, like “Kinky Reggae,” “Concrete Jungle,” the more political stuff he was doing. Aw man, I would love that.

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