The British Blacklist x Dr. Martens Presents Brothers Adelekan

Seye Adelekan and Gbenga Adelekan, famed for their musical contributions in the bands Gorillaz and Metronomy respectively, have released the graphic novel Obalende Sector in collaboration with Dr. Martens Presents.

Obalende Sector is a short story that combines the brother’s passion for Afrofuturist storytelling and science-fiction, transporting readers to the fictional nation of Yorubaland in a world untouched by colonisation. The story is told through the eyes of a family living there and includes wicked sketches from POC artists Exhibit69, Kieron Boothe and Rome Plusart to set the scene.

In what is an interesting time for Afrofuturism and its role in the sci-fi world, their work highlights the spectrum of Black identity in a genre where POC characters, experiences and contributions remain vastly underrepresented. Their intention with Obalende Sector is to challenge readers to reconsider the possibilities of an Afro-centric narrative, aiming to show how other histories are possible.

We spoke to The Brothers Adelekan to find out more …

Please introduce yourselves?

Seye Adelekan: Bassist, guitarist, songwriter, radio host, voiceover artist. Has been playing in various Damon Albarn projects (most notably Gorillaz) for about ten years now. Has regular shows on Boogaloo Radio and Islington Radio.

Olugbenga Adelekan: Bassist, vocalist, electronic music producer. Has been the live bass player for indie-rock band Metronomy since 2009 and more recently the singer in Eku Fantasy, a vocal/electronic project with South Africa-based producer Jumping Back Slash.

We’re both Nigerian/Kenyan with a heavy slice of South East England (specifically Bromley, Kent). Born in Lagos, Nigeria, and lived there as kids, so we identify more directly with our Yoruba heritage than the Kenyan side, although we of course have a great affinity for Kenya too.

Please share a word or sentence that best describes your life right now.

Gbenga: I am blessed and highly favoured! [CUE LAUGHTER FROM SEYE AND GBENGA]

Seye: Grateful to be busy.

Gbenga: In a word … hypersaturated.

Let’s start from the beginning – what led to the creation of the graphic novel, Obalende Sector?

Gbenga: I should start by saying Obalende Sector is a short story with illustrations rather than a graphic novel – Seye and I would love to write a comic one of these days, but Obalende Sector began as a pure prose piece and the visual component came later.

Seye Adelekan

Seye and I have worked on bits of music together in the past, but never on something telling a narrative. My wife and I were watching the TV series The Expanse at the start of the first lockdown and I looked into getting the James SA Corey novels that the show is based on. When I started digging into this ‘James SA Corey’ to see what else they had written, I discovered it was actually a pen name for a two-person writing team. That put the idea in my head to try collaborating on a short story with someone, and it was pretty obvious that that “someone” should be Seye.

It began as a pure prose piece and then Seye was asked to get involved with Dr. Martens Presents and he had the idea of turning the story into a zine with illustrations.

Where does the name Obalende Sector come from?

There’s a neighbourhood in Lagos called Obalende. It’s got one of the city’s big hubs for public transport. The name itself means “where the kings chased us to” in Yoruba. In the story, it’s just a name given to one of the sectors of a huge solar field in the fictional country of Yorubaland.

You wrote the novel based on your passions for Afrofuturist storytelling and science-fiction – could you tell us more about the story...

Obalende Sector is set in the near-future of an alternate history where Africa was never colonised. The arbitrary national lines drawn up by European leaders at the Berlin Conference of 1885 do not exist. Most countries in Africa still largely follow major tribal groupings – Yorubaland, The Hausa Kingdom, Igboland, and so on.

The background to the story is that Yorubaland has annexed a section of the Hausa Kingdom and built a massive solar field on it that now provides almost half of the world with clean energy. The Hausas want the land back but their pleas to the international courts fall on deaf ears. Against this backdrop, we tell the story of a mother who works at The Field and the son who idolises her.

Gbenga Adelekan

When writing the story, who did you take inspiration from?

Gbenga: Although it’s not a comic, we definitely took inspiration from comics when writing it. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics are a major touchstone for us. I was also reading a graphic novel version of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep around the time we were writing the story. Seye is very big into Isaac Asimov too. Can’t beat Asimov for deep and coherent world-building.

You both talked about how you had your Auntie Yemi read over the novel to check the Yoruba details. What did it mean for you to write a story that blends your Nigerian heritage with science fiction, especially for your family?

Seye: It’s super cool to have a story that speaks to where you come from. When writing things like the scene in Dapo’s [major character] school, I was literally visualising my primary school in Ogudu [Lagos suburb]. I’ve never had that experience with any book or comic where you’re reading something and thinking, I know exactly where that could be.

Gbenga: I remember feeling that way when the movie District 9 came out. Even before watching it, just that image of a spaceship hovering above an African city was itself very powerful. Also, getting Auntie Yemi’s seal of approval was a validation. It made me feel we weren’t completely off the mark with all the Yoruba elements in the story. Although she did have quite a few tweaks, which we took on board.

Seye: It was a big help because we’re digging into Yoruba culture ourselves. We didn’t grow up completely steeped in Yoruba tradition. So it’s a great journey of discovery for us writing these stories.

The comic also features sketches from artists Exhibit69, Kieron Boothe, and Rome – each of them having their own unique style that blends well with each other. Could you tell us more about the collaboration process with these artists?

Seye: So we broke down the story into scenes and then identified the moments that we thought would be important or powerful to visualise. We then distributed those between the artists to see what their take would be. We were pretty hands-off with it because we wanted each of their visions to shine through rather than us telling them what we wanted to see.

Exhibit69 was the first to come on board and he had such a strong image that we knew it had to be the cover. The only real ‘brief’ was that we needed some use of yellow and black in the images to reflect Doc Martens’ involvement. But other than that everyone did their thing and we were amazed by the results.

Artwork from Obalende Sector

The music industry is starting to see more Afrofuturism, with a notable example being Janelle Monae’s Metropolis. What does this mean to both of you, especially with your background in the music industry?

Gbenga: The first three Janelle Monae albums were huge for me. In Metronomy, we listened endlessly to The Archandroid in vans going to and from festivals around 2010/11. It won album of the year in The Guardian if I remember correctly. But you’d watch interviews around that time with US shows like The Breakfast Club and you could tell that even from the POC community, people did not get what she was on about when she talked about being an android time traveller fighting for the rights of marginalised groups. She didn’t really start getting popular with mainstream America until she was in films like Moonlight. It felt like people were confused by a person working in a ‘black’ medium like R&B but bringing in these sci-fi elements. Never mind the fact that Sun-Ra and Parliament Funkadelic and writers like Octavia Butler had been doing this for decades.
It’s nice to see that people seem more open (or at least, less resistant) to that now.

What changes do you think need to be made to maintain its authenticity as an artistic genre – from music to graphic novels to film and TV?

Seye: It comes back to getting Auntie Yemi to fact-check our story. All the best sci-fi rings true because it goes deeper than just the surface, it has some authenticity to it. Even for someone like Asimov who was making up quite detailed new technologies in his stories… that was always extrapolated from a deep understanding of contemporary science. In a similar way, it’s all good having, say, a Zulu warrior on a hovercraft but have you paid as much attention to the authenticity of the Zulu warrior as you have to the hovercraft? I think what I’m trying to say is … having these non-US or non-European characters and settings should be treated with the same scholarly approach as Asimov did with his science.

Gbenga: You almost want to get to a point where Afrofuturism as a term is irrelevant because there is no novelty to including African characters and settings in stories about the future or even a technologically advanced present. I would also say, we need representation not just in the stories themselves but the writers, directors, editors, sound designers, and so on. You also need a mix of genders, ages, sexual orientations, and so on. Have diverse voices in all areas of these industries is the best way to guard against missing your unconscious biases.

What do you think the release of Obalende Sector will mean for POC characters and their representations within science fiction?

[BIG LAUGH FROM SEYE AND GBENGA]

Seye: Well, I don’t think we’re gonna change the game or anything. But to be honest, we’ve both had a lot of people, particularly our non-POC friends, saying they’ve never read anything like Obalende Sector, something that gave them a way into a side of Africa they had either never seen or not seen enough. So to a small degree, I guess it is showing people the power of representation and of telling different stories.

Gbenga: Yeah, I mean, my father-in-law, who’s a white man from the North East of England, said he initially read it just to be supportive but actually found himself being hooked by this alternative view of West Africa. I think with it being a short story, too, there’s a limited cast of characters, so if names like Dapo and Adeola are unfamiliar, at least there aren’t too many of them to keep straight.

I guess with every story that you tell, whether it’s Black Panther level or some fan fiction that you throw onto social media… each story chips away at that mountain of the status quo. Even if it can inspire one or two people to write their own stories in this sci-fi/fantasy/alternate-history vein, then Obalende Sector has done a good thing.

Also, Obalende Sector is just the start for us. We are already writing a follow-up story and intend to build a whole world of interconnected stories set in the world of Yorubaland. We also have a standalone novella that’s much more of a straight alien-invasion story set in contemporary Nigeria.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU…

  •  A book that you both have in your collection? Neil Gaiman – American Gods [Gbenga ‘borrowed’ his copy from Seye about fifteen years ago].
  • A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your lives to date?  No Guts No Glory – the theme song to the cartoon Galaxy Rangers.
  • A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Batman Forever. We had it on VHS when we lived in Lagos in the mid-90s and went through a phase of literally watching it every day after school. Great soundtrack too.
  • What’s the first graphic novel/comic that you both read? The Death and Return of Superman
  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Sad: Sunsets here in the UK are getting earlier. Mad: Nothing comes to mind… guess that’s a good thing! We both resist the urge in our social media saturated world to be filled with rage about something new (or a few new things) every day. But, of course, the structural injustices of capitalist, post-colonial society anger us greatly. Glad: Kenyan gold medallists at the Olympics. Always brings a smile to our faces.

Obalende Sector is available to purchase at Dr. Martens’ Camden, Carnaby St, Spitalfield, and White City stores in London in exchange for a £3 donation to the Black Minds Matter charity.