Africa Leaders Magazine

IDRIS ELBA: In Tune With Motherland Africa

The spirit of Africa

Africa is a phoenix rising from the ashes of a charred history of scorn and exploitation. She rises, dazzling the world with the beauty of her culture, the diversity, resilience, and the tenacity of her people.

British-Sierra Leonean actor Idris Elba was born and raised in Hackney, London but you can tell he embodies the spirit of Africa. It shows in his zeal to work hard, his passion to connect with the motherland and its people both in the diaspora and on the continent. You can also see it in how he pursues and easily manifests his multiple talents.

Is there anything Idris Elba can’t do?

In 2020, a British sketch show, Famalam, released a skit in which an Elba look-alike, complete with his bulldozing confidence, tried his hands at everything from being a barista to curing cancer and attempting to start a black hole at a research centre.

While the real Idris Elba has not attempted to cure cancer, his portfolio is impressive nonetheless. From starring in award-winning films, earning writing credits, rapping on Jay-Z’s album, DJing at international platforms, to even kickboxing – Elba is living his dreams.

Born Idrissa Akuna Elba to a Sierra Leonean father and a Ghanaian mother, Elba has always wanted to be an actor since he was young but he also had to support himself by helping his uncle’s wedding DJ business. He would later take on odd jobs, in between roles, including tyre-fitting, cold-calling, and working night shifts at Ford Dagenham, a major automotive factory located in Dagenham, London.

By following the path illuminated by his dream, Elba has risen above his past challenges to become one of the highest-grossing actors in North America, and appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), Essence’s Sexiest Man of the Year (2013), People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (2018) and winning the MOBO Inspiration Award (2014).

African Till The Day I Die

It is not easy to stick firmly to one’s root when you’re courted by fame and fortune but Idris Elba has not forgotten where he is originally from. He calls himself a “proud African” and true to his words, at every opportunity he gets, he connects with Africa and her people. Either through philanthropy, highlighting her issues and spotlighting talents.

He believes that Africans should control their own narratives and he says that now is the time.

“I think what we’re seeing right now is Africans controlling the narrative. Africans showing people and showing the world who we are, what we’re about, what our culture stands for, what our expression is, and it’s such an exciting time – especially for the young who have the ability to touch the world from their phones. It’s definitely a good time to control the narrative.”

He added: “Africa has faced adversity and we know that, but what we’re looking for is going forward and that’s all I try and do. Whether it’s by what I do as an actor, as an entertainer, I am always trying to push my narrative forward, I’m always trying to be innovative. If anyone that follows me sees that, hopefully it plants a seed for them.”

In October 2014, he presented the series “Journey Dot Africa with Idris Elba” on BBC Radio 2, exploring all types of African music. The same year, he also collaborated with the UK Parliament in their efforts to eradicate Ebola from West Africa, working alongside the UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening.

Last year, Idris Elba and his wife, model and activist Sabrina Dhowre Elba launched a new United Nations fund to help farmers in poorer nations, calling on richer economies to provide aid to prevent “needless hunger and suffering” stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Elba along with his wife contracted the virus themselves in March 2020, although they reportedly only suffered mild symptoms. He counts himself lucky to have survived the virus.

“Just taking the moment to just reflect on everyone that’s lost their lives. I was very, very lucky to have gone through COVID and survived, and I tell you what, as a person as a human being, has come out of that experience in a much more appreciative person. I realised that tomorrow is not promised and having been through a situation like COVID which for a lot of the world has been absolutely fatal, to have the opportunity to live past it just me thankful for the days that I have. Now, I certainly don’t want to take things for granted.”

African Movies 

The first time you see Idris Elba in the child-soldier drama Beasts of No Nation, he’s emerging out of the jungle brush, cutting through the middle of an army of tiny, machete-and-machine-gun-wielding tweens. Clad in a beret and an outfit that might be characterized as “military dictator summer-casual,” he strides up to the young boy at the center of this crowd and asks “Who brought this thing here?” in a booming voice. It’s a proper movie entrance, bold and brash, immediately establishing the man known only as “Commandant” as a charismatic, Colonel Kurtz-like figure. He oozes danger and power. You fear this person immediately.

The first time you meet Idris Elba when you interview him, he’s standing right behind you, having silently walking through the door and feeling no need to announce his presence just yet. You have no idea the 42-year-old actor is even there until he clasps a hand on your shoulder with a friendly “Hey there, mate,” and scans the place for a way to sneak a smoke. Clad in a buttoned-to-the-top Fred Perry polo shirt and a get-up that says, “I’m just going out to meet some folks for drinks, though I may be DJ-ing at the club later as well,” the actor displays both a vintage, Steve McQueen-type coolness and the easy excitability of one of his younger co-stars. (Elba will rarely sit for the next 30 minutes, preferring to walk around the room or act out whatever anecdotes he’s telling.) He puts you at ease within nanoseconds. And you realize, beyond a shadow of a doubt, why this gentleman deserves to be a genuine movie star.

Part patriarchal surrogate, part power-hungry psychopath and part warped casualty of life during perpetual wartime, Elba’s Commandant is the figure who leads Beasts‘ displaced young hero Agu (played by newcomer Abraham Attah) deep into the heart of darkness. Grooming the youngster to be a child soldier through desensitization, terror and fatherly affection, the character is a complicated mix of good, bad and ugly — something the actor has demonstrated a facility with in his best-known roles on The Wire and the hit BBC import Luther, just not quite to this extent. “There’s a lot of real estate in the film to hate somebody,” he says. “But anyone can play mustache-twiddling evil, you know? It’s tougher to play someone like this as a human being. Because then you can’t just dismiss that person. You have to confront him.”

A decent human

Speaking about some of the lessons he has learned from failing, Elba says that failure is a part of success. “You can’t succeed without failing. It’s the yin to that yang and obviously, failure doesn’t feel good, but the truth is when you’re in hindsight, if you don’t have those failures, you will never understand what it feels like to win. I’ve taken some Ls in my time and every time I have, I’ve learned from it. My skin grows thicker, my confidence goes up because I’ve been rock bottom, but ultimately you don’t dwell on that. The most important thing about being knocked down is getting up.”

Elba has so much going on for him and we wondered what he would like to be remembered for amidst all his endeavours. He says, “I would like to be remembered as someone that lived by their heart, lived by their instincts, tried to be a decent human being and hopefully inspired people to be decent human beings, and be good at what they do.”

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