While he’s best known as an actor who has appeared on the television series The Wire, The Office, and Luther and in feature films such as American Gangster, Thor, and Pacific Rim, Idris Elba has also made a name for himself in music, establishing himself as a DJ, producer, rapper, and singer. Elba’s music is rooted in hip-hop, African music, and reggae, with his rich, resonant voice adding weight and texture to his atmospheric, edgy beats. Elba is also a team player whose recordings often feature collaborations with other musicians and vocalists. His debut album, 2014’s Mi Mandela, was inspired by his experience playing Nelson Mandela and the music of South Africa, 2016’s Murdah Loves John was an exercise in moody hip-hop, and Idris Elba Presents: The Yardie Mixtape was a reggae-oriented set tied into his directorial debut, 2018’s Yardie.
Idris Elba was born on September 6, 1972 in Hackney, London, England. His father Winston was born in Sierra Leone and his mother Eve was from Ghana; they were wed in Sierra Leone and later immigrated to England. While attending school in Canning Town, Elba began acting in student productions, and when he was 14, he began working for his uncle, who ran a DJ service for weddings. A year later, Elba and his mates started their own DJ business, and in 1988, he quit school and won an audition for the National Youth Music Theatre, which he attended on a grant from the Prince’s Trust.
In 1991, Elba started spinning at London nightclubs using the stage name DJ Big Driis; three years later, he began landing bit parts on U.K. TV shows, and in 1995 he guest-starred on Absolutely Fabulous and Branwell. Elba was soon a regular presence on British television, and in 2002, after relocating to the United States, Elba landed his breakthrough American role, Russell “Stringer” Bell on the HBO drama series The Wire. Elba’s schedule was busy with film and television roles, but he continued to pursue musical projects; in 2006, he released an EP, Big Man, under the name Driis, and the following year he wrote and produced a track for Jay-Z’s album American Gangster. The year 2010 brought another Driis EP, High Class Problems, Vol. 1, and he guested on Pharoahe Monch’s 2011 album W.A.R. In 2012, he performed guest vocals on the Milk’s Tales from the Thames Delta, and handled backing vocals and percussion on Macy Gray’s 2012 collection Covered.
In 2013, Elba earned one of his most prestigious roles when he was cast as South African activist and president Nelson Mandela in the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Inspired by his experiences playing the celebrated leader, he assembled an album of music adapted from South African themes and styles, and including a number of guest musicians, including James Blake, Cody ChesnuTT, Mr. Hudson, George the Poet, the Mahotella Queens, and Nothembi Mkhwebane. The album, Mi Mandela, was released in November 2014. Prior to its release, he hosted a radio series focusing on African music, Journey Dot Africa, for BBC Radio 2.
Elba’s next album, 2016’s Murdah Loves John, was a moody mix of hip-hop, R&B, and African music inspired by his character in the TV series Luther. He made his debut as a feature film director with the 2018 drama Yardie, and to accompany the release, he issued The Yardie Mixtape, a collection of reggae and hip-hop songs tied into the picture. In December 2020, Elba released a track he created in collaboration with Inner City and a Michigan-based anti-racism organization, Detroit Will Breathe; “We All Move Together” was created in response to the murder of George Floyd and frequent accusations of racially motivated violence from the Detroit police department. Elba’s next release was lighter fare: “Fudge” was a house track that teamed him with Latvian DJ Eliza Legzdina, which he worked on during downtime from a film shoot in Australia.