Joshua Idehen of London trio Benin City tells Best Fit how the city's nightlife left an idelible influence on him as a young Nigerian.
My relationship with London nightlife started out with me in the role of observer: I worked as a bartender in the west end for ten years. It was the first job I got when I arrived here, a very skinny 19 year old Roman Catholic Nigerian and on my first night in the bar, I saw two men kiss, IRL, for the first time.
I’d lived a sheltered life on top of that: I spent my teen years virtually indoors memorising Star Wars script-lines and perfecting my Ultimate Mortal Kombat combos. Bar work was my looking-glass moment: a baptism of culture, a fish-out-of-water scenario: "Oh, so that’s what happens when you drink too much, look at all these people dancing out of time to terrible music, why did that guy style his hair like Sonic The Hedgehog?" etc. It was love at first sight, except it was a weird, almost stalkerish infatuation from a distance, one fostered by my bad alcohol tolerance and the literal barrier between myself and the dancefloor: the bar.
Clubs are a great place for people and culture watching, and the shifts in a room’s vibe as the night wore on. A little bit of liquor over a few hours at night and customers morph before your eyes, from nervous Mogwais to lecherous, badly coordinated Gremlins. Also I’m a lover of narrative, and nightlife provides the biggest collection of short stories if you know where to look; I once had a guy go from “I love Tupac” to “I have a black girlfriend” to repeated Nazi salutes in the space of three Long Island Ice Teas. You can’t buy that sort of honesty. Come break-time, I and the other bartenders - a motley crew of world accents, butcherers of the English language, all of us - would trade war stories in the staff room: the fights, the 1am desperation, who took who to which toilet, the sleaze and glorious, glorious filth. These were my favourite moments, like we’d been gathering marbles all night and were now showing off our haul. Nightlife was where a lot of my preconceived notions were challenged and remade. I was blessed to have met people who called me up on prejudices I’d brought over from overseas. Nightlife can reinforce or dismantle your ideas on life if you let it.
When I became a poet-musician, my identity as observer was heightened, temporarily. I always felt a little naked after performing on stages, so I’d go find a quiet corner of the bar and avoid contact whilst trying to people watch. Plus I didn’t drink (drinking is important, it helps you stop being so self conscious. This is a lesson I never learnt). I did manage to find my own spaces eventually, like Passing Clouds and Plastic People. Spaces where I didn’t feel like an outsider looking in, because they played my sort of music or just so happened to be made of folk so similar to me that I didn’t feel conscious of my skin, or my name or my accent. Everyone goes through this I think, when you find a bar or club night where almost every song is your jam and almost every person is your kind of cool. I’d gone further through the looking glass, in a way and I’d found my tribe(s). I felt the same buzz and peak and anti-climax as everyone else. Tony, an old friend of mine, used to say, “Yeah, it’s like that one place where you can pull without trying”. Both clubs are closed now.
Those moments of belonging, observing, and the stories and lessons I’d learnt, made their way into my writing. People have said Benin City’s music felt like “dance music through a weirdness filter”. Like someone had watched a heaving dancefloor for several hours, then tried to explain it, confidently, to an alien, using broken English.
I write about London like I’m writing about a close friend who, for some unknown reason, still makes me feel awkward, and I guess that tussle has been the force of much of my artistic output. London nightlife is an ever-evolving hydra, and I’m always a step removed, watching it, occasionally joining in for a quick dance.