Josh Caffé is sitting comfortably in the space he’s in
Josh Caffé doesn’t shy away from sex. Not any more, at least. On Justify My Sex, the eight-minute-plus opener on his newly released debut album Poppa Zesque, a rapturous, squalling saxophone solo by Fat White Family multi-instrumentalist Alex White sets the scene for a record surveying desire, raw sexuality and the joy of Black queerness. “On the original demo, the solo goes on for five minutes, and he’s mimicking someone having an orgasm,” Caffé says over Zoom on a sweltering September afternoon in London, his luscious silk press laid and flowing. “I was sitting there watching him go through so many different riffs. I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t even think I need to put more lyrics down, I said what I needed to say.’”
What Caffé does have to say on the song is filtered through the album’s titular club-dwelling alter-ego, Poppa. Fully in character, he delivers a lusty, booming, spoken-word vocal over Justify My Sex’s chewy, distorted house beat. “I never used to be the sort of guy who could say the word ‘sex’ without blushing,” he says on the track. “But I can now – SEX.” This tongue-in-cheek delight permeates the entire record. You’re presented with queer Blackness as something inherently fun and expressive, instead of just a heavy, overwrought experience.
Caffé had to work through his own feelings to land on the hedonistic erotic exploits of Poppa Zesque. As a gay Black youth born in London to a British-Ugandan family with a Catholic and Protestant background, he felt at odds with his religious upbringing. While an early interest in dance music provided some kind of outlet, it would be years before he was able to fully reconcile his sexuality with other aspects of his identity, and explore that in his music.
“The idea of sex or being gay was such a dirty thing in our family – you just never spoke about it,” he remembers. “I was quite a shy person when I was younger, so I never really had that time in my teens or early twenties when you go off and explore, and you date loads of people and find what you want sexually. That gradually happened as I started to come out of my shell, and surrounded myself with a lot of outgoing, extroverted people who made me feel like it was OK to be a sexual person.”
JOSH CAFFÉ wears: Jacket: Stylist’s own, Top, Trousers and Shoes: Hannah Thorogood
As Caffé grew older, and spent more time being single, “I felt a lot more comfortable with my sexuality,” he says. “The ideas that my family had drummed into my head were still there, and the music became about trying to ditch that shame and be like, ‘I am a proud, happy, sexual, gay Black man.’ I felt like just putting that in a public arena was making it not such a shameful thing. To say to the world, ‘Why can’t we talk about this?’”
In 2018, along with fabric resident Jacob Husley, he founded Love Child, a Sunday night party at the club that’s since spawned a record label and series of panel talks, with the goal of uniting London’s queer electronic music scene. “When I was younger – being Black in queer spaces with a lot of white people – there wasn’t always the chance to explore,” Caffé sighs. That’s why he felt the need to introduce a more diverse club night, both racially and musically. “You experience a lot of rejection, and end up feeling like, ‘OK, what’s the point here?’ But then on the flipside, when I would go to a queer Black club, because I really liked a lot of electro music, I would be met with, ‘Why are you listening to that? You should be listening to R&B.’ I felt sat in between. But as I’ve grown older, I feel more confident saying, ‘I like this kind of music and it’s alright for me to be here. If you want to reject me, that’s your problem. You can walk.’”
[L-R] JOSH CAFFÉ wears: Jacket: Stylist’s own, Top, Trousers and Shoes: Hannah Thorogood
JOSH CAFFÉ wears: Necklace: Callum Docherty, Trousers: Jonathan Ferris
Caffé saw the need for a more welcoming all-queer night at a club as big as fabric, even if that seemed daunting. He was inspired by the queer Sunday event DTPM, which ended its 15-year run at fabric in 2007. “I grew up going to those parties,” Caffé says. “In a way, Love Child was about trying to turn fabric into a safe space for us.” Along with all-queer DJ line-ups, Love Child hosted an LGBTQ+ takeover of the entire fabric venue for Pride 2023, and hosted the club’s first vogue ball, with London ballroom mainstay Jay Jay Revlon.
“Queering the space” has become something of a meme of late, but it rings true for Caffé’s approach as an artist and as a promoter for the series of panel discussions he founded, Love Child Talks. “I wanted to make Love Child not just about the night, but also a conversation about what’s going on in our scene, making it more educational,” he explains. The events feature a panel of queer experts discussing topics relevant to the community, from London Pride to International Women’s Day. “The talks are always insightful – I’ve learned so much.”
Both Caffé’s activism and his artistic practice show him to be a classic collaborator who thrives when he feels connected to a sense of community. While Poppa Zesque is very much a solo work, steeped in Caffé’s magnetic personality, he is quick to shout out the people who’ve helped his multifaceted career along. He worked on the album over lockdown with producer Quinn Whalley – one half of electro duo Paranoid London – and ended up featuring White on four other songs in addition to Justify My Sex.
JOSH CAFFÉ wears: Mask: Nina Liburd
White sings on Mein Lederjeans, a slice of irreverent house. As Caffé inhabits the character of a Berlin techno hipster trying to seduce their love interest on the dance floor (“Do you like my leather jeans?/ Küss mich!”), White chimes in with a hypnotic backing refrain, creating a time loop that sounds like the descent into a mild K-hole. “Al brought another element to it that made the record less underground,” Caffé says of the album’s collaborative spirit. “The one thing I wanted to do with the album was make it easy to listen to at home, but also DJ-friendly enough that we wouldn’t need edits or remixes. It was nice to push Al to sing because he has a really good voice, even though he didn’t want to!”
“My music became about trying to ditch the shame around my sexuality and be like, ‘I am a proud, happy, sexual, gay Black man’”
Though he laughs about it now, the road to completing his debut album was a somewhat rocky one. “I spent a lot of time working with producers who were predominantly white and doing house and techno; people who I really admired,” he explains. “But I would sit there and watch a white artist go and release a Chicago house track and it’d blow up. I just wasn’t getting anywhere, thinking, ‘What is the point of doing this?’ I’d had enough.”
JOSH CAFFÉ wears: Top: Sinead Gorey, Corset: Maria Tabanelli, Belt and Jewellery: Min-Ji Kim, Trousers: Ottolinger, Shoes: Leopold Fidel Storp
It was during the lockdown sessions with Whalley that the Poppa Zesque character took shape, Caffe says, helping him let go of some of the resentment he’d silently built up throughout his career. The album’s liberated, euphoric atmosphere is a direct result of this shift in perspective, and gave Caffé the courage to make the leap into committing fully as a solo artist. “I didn’t really think I was ready to put an album out,” Caffé says drily. “But the more we were in the studio, it slowly started to take shape. There was a story I was trying to tell. I’m happy it went in the direction that it did, because otherwise this album would have been a very angry album about how shit the industry is. I didn’t want the memory of my first album to be about that.”
That past bitterness certainly won’t be the album’s legacy. With its odes to nightlife, house music, Black queerness, and personal freedom, Poppa Zesque feels like the culmination of everything Caffé has built over his decade-plus career. “I’m much more confident in myself now,” he smiles, looking relieved. “I’ve been lucky enough to meet people who have challenged me.”
For now, he’s sitting comfortably in the space he’s in. Not everyone makes a debut album after this much time on a scene, but choosing not to rush it has ultimately served Caffé well. Poppa Zesque has let him focus his attention on what his future holds as a multidisciplinary artist, but also reflects on his long road to self-acceptance. “Growing up, we get put into so many boxes,” he says. “As progressive as things are now, trying to find your tribe is still a big thing. That’s the message I want to get across with this record: be liberated, have fun, and experiment!”
Poppa Zesque is out now via Phantasy