My review of Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.”.

When assessing “DAMN.”, Kendrick Lamar’s new album, I think that the late, great Guru said it best. Back in 1998, on the chorus of ‘Moment of Truth’, he observed that:

 

“They say it’s lonely at the top in whatever you do

You always gotta watch motherfuckers around you

Nobody’s invincible, no plan is foolproof

We all must meet our moment of truth”

 

On Lamar’s latest effort, he finds himself sitting upon hip-hop’s mountaintop, only to find that though the view might be pleasant the seat is distinctly uncomfortable. When he released the LP’s leadoff single, “HUMBLE.”, the impression most listeners may have had was that he was telling his fellow MCs to know their place; however, upon several listens to “DAMN.”, it is clear that he was reserving the firmest admonitions for himself. This is a furiously introspective record, largely devoid of the immediate radio hits that Lamar has liberally sprinkled throughout his previous outings. That is, of course, a conscious choice; here, Lamar is sitting somewhere with his head just above the clouds, carefully composing his memoirs and occasionally allowing us to listen over his shoulder.

 

Of recent releases, this album is closest in mood to Frank Ocean’s “Blonde”; like Ocean, Lamar has opted for complex song structures with two or three phases, such as the rousing U2-featuring “XXX”. On that tune, Bono provides a surprisingly fitting accompaniment, one which makes you wonder how good a full track and not a mere fragment might have sounded.  Like “Blonde”, too, “DAMN.” has a range of gorgeous soundscapes.  At the beginning of  ‘ELEMENT’, there’s the moodiness of early Wu Tang. “DNA” shapeshifts into a trap-edged dancefloor monster. ‘PRIDE.’ has the type of chords you’d have expected to find on Tame Impala’s “Innerspeaker”, whilst both ‘LUST’ and ‘YAH’ have similarly psychedelic elements. These beats lend themselves particularly well to the album’s reflective content, which is preoccupied with the biblical sins – mostly to be found in the album’s tracklisting that Lamar is grappling with. These concepts – vanity, humility, loyalty – recur throughout the LP’s 55 minutes.

 

Early on, firmly establishing “DAMN.”’s religious theme, Lamar refers to himself as an “Israelite”; the implication being that African-Americans are in their country’s (racial?) wilderness, casting about for freedom and maybe redemption. This is slightly contentious ground, since it seemed to suggest that black people, in order to elevate themselves, must first set aside their arrogance; as it says in James 4:10, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.” On first listen, this was an unfortunate echo of the respectability politics to be found in “The Blacker The Berry”, but we eventually see that Lamar is talking about his own uniquely inspiring journey. He has apparently become so surrounded by jealousy and sycophancy that he has fallen back on the support of his close friends and family, and on “FEEL,” arguably the LP’s standout track, he lists a bewildering array of problems and adversaries that his fame has attracted:

 

I feel like I’m boxin’ demons

Monsters, false prophets schemin’

Sponsors, industry promises

Niggas, bitches, honkies, crackers, Compton,

Church, religion, token blacks, and bondage

Lawsuit visits, subpoena served in concert

 

This roll call is in addition to his feud with Fox News, one of the only opponents he calls out by name; and it is notable that Lamar is so successful that now he no longer battles mere rappers, but entire institutions within the US media. Yet while Lamar speaks of his yearning to be better, he is at times still too firmly wedded to some old and unsettling habits. Writing for Buzzfeed, the journalist Tomi Obaro noted Lamar’s succinct analysis of misogyny in hip-hop:

 

“You scream at the person that’s closest to you….coming towards the woman next to you, or the women around. Like, ‘We can’t wife you, you’re just a thot.’ It’s from lack of opportunity.”

 

Given this profound self-awareness, it is a little disappointing to see Lamar lapse into lyrics such as “See, in a perfect world…I’ll choose work over bitches” – particularly since so many of his other lines encourage the empowerment of black women. Having said that, even the mostly enlightened Andre 3000, as he notes on Solo (Reprise), still has some way to go.

 

Of course, Lamar’s technique is spectacular on this record. His musical experimentation is as thrilling and sustained as, say, Pharoah Sanders on Olé; he does things with the artform that few could even think of attempting, let alone pulling off successfully. His flows on the aforementioned ‘XXX’ are so good that he even sounds gleeful halfway through, so easy does it appear. Though no other MCs appear on this record, emphasising the sense that he is a rapper in a class of his own, he again shows that he is a skilled collaborator, dovetailing beautifully with Rihanna on ‘Loyalty’. The sheer scale of his talent, and the degree to which he has already honed it, can frequently leave you in awe. Nowhere is this better in evidence than on “FEAR.”, where we are reminded movingly of just how far Lamar is come in just a few years – through the trauma of extreme violence both at home and upon his doorstep, after which the battlegrounds of rap must have been a funfair by comparison. (Indeed, on “DUCKWORTH.”, the album’s closer, we are informed that Lamar – but for an extraordinary quirk of fate – would not even be alive today.)

 

It is, I think, highly arguable that that this record does not represent as great a leap forward as did “Good kid, mAAd city” and “To Pimp A Butterfly”.  To draw an analogy with Radiohead, if these albums were Lamar’s “OK Computer” and “Kid A”, then perhaps “DAMN.” is his “Hail To The Thief” – not his very best record, but still hugely accomplished. If this criticism seems unfair, then it is also a sign that Lamar’s primary competition is no longer with his peers – it is with history.  So much has he excelled that, at this point, each of his new releases should be judged against, say, Outkast’s “Aquemini”, and Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation”. With this record, he remains at the summit of his art – but, crucially, there is a sense that there may yet be other musical peaks for him to climb.

On David Moyes and misogyny.

Following the news that David Moyes had threatened to slap a female reporter in return for questions that he found uncomfortable, I read an article on the subject by The Independent’s Ian Herbert, a writer whose work I regularly enjoy and share. His article began by noting that this was the not the first time that Mr. Moyes had acted this way, but then quickly took a disappointing direction. I quote in full:

It was in the 2012/13 season, in Moyes’ Everton days, that a woman had the temerity to ask a question which went against the grain of how he wanted a pre-match press conference to go, during the initial broadcasters’ section of the conversation. Moyes cut her down. There was a very uncomfortable moment, after the cameras and broadcasters had cleared and we got down to the more detailed untelevised discussion, when Moyes tried to break the ice in all-male company with a joke at the now departed woman’s expense. No-one wanted to be impolite but everyone stared at the floor.” (My italics.)

I have highlighted the above section because that section is unfortunately what people mean when they refer to the “boy’s club” of football. Football is a particularly insular sport, where access often is a journalist’s lifeblood, and some might argue that speaking out about misogyny in this context might see them barred from the club. Yet this does not negate the argument that to remain silent about Moyes’ remarks is to enable them.

Mr. Herbert continues:

That was not the only incident. He lost his temper with another woman journalist towards the end of his Everton time, though it was smoothed over. This correspondent didn’t report any of this, of course – just a reference to the conduct of a “top flight manager” a few seasons later. ” (My italics.)

The two words here, “of course”, are interesting. I don’t think it follows that a journalist, particularly not one as successful and respected as Mr. Herbert, would naturally ignore Moyes’ behaviour. He is a writer with the platform to have made a much bigger deal of this incident, but chose not to. I think that this article reads as a form of mea culpa – that the journalist could have done more to raise awareness about this at the time, but didn’t. The fact that he made a reference to the conduct of a top-flight manager shows that his conscience was clearly piqued – he clearly disapproved of Moyes’ conduct – but he and others did not take the risk to their own careers of speaking out as fully as they could.

Mr. Herbert, referring to another incident involving the former France international Laurent Blanc, describes the scenario thus:

Just a laugh, a flustered press officer, a woman who wants to be anywhere but that room, and the gilded football world packs up and moves on.

This, I think, is the problem. Mr. Herbert is a part of that football world, an integral part; he has worked his way up the precarious ladder, and taking too bold a stand would see him sent toppling from it. But nothing changes if we as journalists – particularly male ones – are not more forceful in our critiques. Mr. Herbert seems to drawing this conclusion when he writes that:

You only have to play back the footage of Moyes to hear something infinitely more threatening and deeply unpleasant about his words and their escalating sense of menace…Since when does a football manager threaten to slap one of the vast male majority? The unwritten message was “because you’re a woman.” And it didn’t stop there. “Careful the next time you come in,” he told Sparks.

This paragraph, on the face of it, is utterly damning. Physical violence is apparently something with which Moyes would only threaten a woman. The message seems to be clear – that football is essentially a man’s game and a woman speaks out of turn at her peril. Come into the club and try that again, and you’ll get what’s coming to you.

With this in mind, I find Mr. Herbert’s closing thoughts extremely confusing.

So now we reach the question of whether this episode should bring Moyes the sack and the answer, despite all of the above, is surely: ‘No.’ Women journalists despise the conduct of an individual like this but they want to be involved in the same cut and thrust as every male journalist who goes up against managers with as little self-control as Moyes. Dismissal will make many other managers inclined to make women a special case. Nobody wants thatDismissal is not necessary to demonstrate that Moyes is yesterday’s man.

I can’t speak for female journalists. What I can say is – based upon Mr. Herbert’s own writing, just a paragraph before – that no matter how bad the cut and thrust a male journalist might face against Moyes, it is not a cut and thrust which involves the threat of physical violence.  It is a danger that Mr. Herbert, and I, and my other male peers will never have to face – if anything, Moyes has made a special case for men like us, because we know that as much as we annoy him he will not suggest striking us. Put simply, a male journalist doesn’t have to go into work facing the fear of being assaulted by a football manager. Why, then, should a female journalist be exposed to that risk?

In short, I think that Mr. Herbert has actually made an excellent case for David Moyes’ dismissal. He just doesn’t seem to realise it.

On Milo Yiannopoulos, and the difficulty of activism.

I was trying not to write anything about Milo Yiannopoulos this morning, because I have a great deal to do, but I think that his case deserves more analysis than my initial series of tweets. For those of you who do not know, Yiannopoulos is a writer and public speaker who has risen to prominence for championing the far-right, or the “alt-right”, as that fleet of particularly vicious online trolls has tried to rebrand itself. During the presidential campaign, his articles mocking those with progressive values made him hugely popular; during that campaign, he was also banned from Twitter following years of using its platform to orchestrate the harassment of anyone he didn’t like.

 

There is little more to say about such toxic behaviour. The only interesting thing about Yiannopoulos’ career is the degree to which he has so far been indulged. He is currently facing his most sustained backlash to date; no sooner had he been confirmed as a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, than tape emerged of him  apparently endorsing sexual intercourse and relationships between adults and under-age children. Many people, liberal and conservative alike, are calling for CPAC to remove Yiannopoulos’ invitation. Yet the key question is why Yiannopoulos’s career was allowed to get this far, and the answer is two-fold: first, because not enough people cared about his reprehensible behaviour until it began to affect them personally, and secondly, because too many people loved him merely because he hated liberals.

 

I wonder whether part of the current revulsion at Yiannopoulos is due to the fact that, as a gay man apparently approving of sex with underage children, he has reawakened in some minds the barely-hidden conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia. Yiannopoulos often used his sexuality as a shield; he could be as homophobic as he liked, falling back on the defence that he could not be prejudiced since he himself was a gay man. Ironically enough, he may find that – in the bitterest of ironies – his unique brand of identity politics may be used against him.  

 

This is one of the reasons why I take little pleasure in the setback that he is experiencing today. Because let us be clear: Yiannopoulos has served his purpose, and he has already done irreversible damage. He was as instrumental as the Pepe the Frog meme in giving far-right sentiment just enough cuteness for its advocates to be comfortable with it. Yiannopoulos championed the alt-right as a provocative movement that mocked the excesses of political correctness; with his garish attire and cruel tongue, he scandalised the Left. Bigots have long sought charismatic figures who can seduce them. That is one reason why Nick Griffin failed, and why Nigel Farage succeeded; it was not so much the content of the message that repelled people, but the packaging.

 

That is what Yiannopoulos has been, for so many of his followers now scrambling over each other for the exit: he has been the acceptable face of hatred. He allowed them to mock gay people by setting up a series of speaking engagements called “The Dangerous Faggot Tour”. He threw LGBT people to the lions, but somewhere along the way he forgot that he was still in the den. Judging by his latest and impassioned Facebook post, he knows that for many he is now beyond the pale; and that, finally, this is a storm that he cannot ignore.

 

I would not like to say too much more about Yiannopoulos, because he has already taken up too much of everyone’s time. I would only like to remind people how difficult it is to fight for social progress, because people like the above have supporters who frequently put activists in fear of physical harm and even of their lives. Last night I had dinner with an activist who has been targeted for months because her work, critical of the far-right, has been posted on neo-Nazi websites. She has seen threats to her friends and her family, all because people like Yiannopoulos organise the intimidation of brave people like her. I cannot describe how proud I am to know her, and how disgusted I am at those who sit behind their keyboards and toss out complacent tweets about how those with progressive values merely need to suck up their hurt feelings. People like my friend are taking very real risks in order to expose extremism, and people like Yiannopoulos willingly enable acid to be thrown in their direction. I applaud the former for confronting the latter, and they inspire me to go about my own efforts with ever greater vigour.

On rejection, and trying again.

This weekend I read an article about Donal Ryan, a widely-known author who had received 47 rejections for his novels, and I was soon prompted to share some stories of my own. Rejection is part of every artist’s life – in some cases, including my own, it is the norm. My first book, A Cultured Left Foot, was turned down by every publisher but one, and the person who accepted it didn’t even like football – he just liked the way that it was written. He retired just months later, and if he had not taken a chance on me then I might still be unpublished now.

 

Footballers who never quite made it in the professional game will often talk about “having had trials at Arsenal”, as if they were only a successful training session away from making it – for which they are generally mocked. Yet if you are an aspiring writer, you are, in some sense, on trial at Arsenal all the time. There are so many talented authors out there that success – that is to say, being published, let alone selling well – is frequently the most distant of dreams.

 

Why does this feel so poignant now, of all times? Well, for a couple of reasons. The first is that, quite by chance, I was looking back over some old emails and found all the messages I had sent out to promote my music. Dozens and dozens of them, only two of which were answered. If I cast my mind back carefully enough, I can even remember the optimism with which I dispatched them. I am amazed that I found the self-belief, to keep trying again in the face of such indifference.

 

The second reason is that, once again, I am about to start sending out some of my own writing to a fresh round of agents and publishers, and am currently summoning up the courage to do so. This time, I have written some fiction; a novel set in the near future in which a young black woman takes the lead, because I think that though young black women so often take the lead both socially and politically, they do not have nearly enough stories published about them. It is a very strange thing, having written a novel. You live with it for months, discussing its existence with almost no-one, and then when the time comes to offer it out into the world there is not a wild desire to share it but instead the sensation that you are about to step out stark naked in full view of the morning traffic.

 

I have written fiction for several years, and right now I am looking at one of my more recent efforts with some regret. About two years ago, I started to write Make Us Human, a novel about race and immigration in the UK, and didn’t finish it, for the reasons set out here. Given the current political climate, it might well have been an ideal novel to be pitching to agents now – and, to make me sigh a little more, the response to the first few chapters of that novel (which I posted online, also here) was both immediate and excellent. I had people I barely knew contacting me to tell me how much they wished I would finish it. I try not to look back too much over my work, but I do think that I paid the price for failing to persist with that story. As any writer knows, it is hard to pick up the thread and the energy of a narrative once it has been left alone for too long.

 

And where does this leave me now? Well, I think that I will have to continue posting out the novel that I wrote shortly after abandoning my attempt at Make Us Human. And I think that, to honour Make Us Human, I will have to keep posting it out until all options are exhausted, despite the many rejections that will inevitably come. I will do that because the most tragic thing as an artist is not failure; it is the refusal to try.

My quick plea about Germany’s far-right AFD party.

I have a quick plea to make about the AfD, who as many of you may already know are Germany’s fast-growing far-right party. My plea is simple: it is that, when you hear their name mentioned, you take them seriously. I ask you not to laugh them off; I ask you not to say that they are merely a group of bumbling bigots, the mere result of a protest vote, who will crumble under the merest scrutiny or implode due to in-fighting. Because they are not. There is nothing comical about neo-Nazism and there never will be.  

 

Why am I writing this article in particular? Because the AfD have just come out with a series of quotes that the Berlin-based journalist Charles Hawley has described as “full neo-Nazi”. If you read Hawley’s series of tweets, which you can do by clicking here, you will see it all – the call for Germany to be taken back from foreigners, the thinly-veiled call for Holocaust denial (“need to shift our memory politics by 180 degrees!”). As Hawley reminds us, “remember that AfD started as an anti-euro party. Since then, it has undergone a migration to the extreme right.” And each time it migrates, it sustains its support.

 

There was uproar in Germany, when, last summer, the AfD took aim at Jerome Boateng, one of the country’s most-loved footballers, merely because he was black. You can read my article on that episode here. There was further uproar when the AfD called for the reintroduction of Nazi terminology to political discourse. And what happened after that uproar? The AfD took 14% of the vote in Berlin. The AfD cannot be dismissed as a party only strong among the disaffected working-class East Germans – even though that dismissal would say plenty about the snobbery of the person who was making it. To quote the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, “nearly 34 percent of AfD sympathizers belonged to the top fifth of the population, while fewer than 10 percent are worried about their own personal economic situation.”

 

So, please: let’s not laugh the AfD away, because they are currently networking internationally with their far-right cousins with an eye on unsettling Angela Merkel in September. Let’s not allow anyone to “do a Trump”: to neglect their threat, and then panic come election day. Let’s not allow anyone to say that “we were not told”. Let’s support superb organisations who resist them, like the Amadeu Antonio Stiftung. And let’s reply to anyone who tells us “oh, you’re just fear-mongering” that, no, “actually, we’re fact-mongering. The AfD are here, and their danger is real.”

 

A short note on Germany’s refusal to ban the neo-Nazi NPD party.

Today, Germany’s highest court has ruled that the neo-Nazi NPD party should not be banned, on the basis that it does not represent a threat to democracy in the country. The Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, one of Germany’s leading foundations in the fight against far-right extremism, welcomes this decision, and I agree with them for the reasons they provide. The Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, in a press release, make clear that the NPD is no longer politically dangerous, but that the hatred they espouse has diffused elsewhere, most notably into the AfD party – which in Berlin alone has captured 14% of the vote.

Dr. Matthias Quent, of the Institut für Demokratie und Zivilgesellschaft, has bemoaned what he regards as a year-long waste of time in bringing this case to its close – time and resources which would have been much better spent addressing the damage that the far-right is doing in several other areas.

The NPD has been succeeded by nimbler organisations, whose effects are being seen daily – and which are co-ordinating their efforts with notable diligence. It’s revealing, I think, how there has been this concerted move to stamp out its weak flame – it suggests an attempt to show that Something Is Being Done, without actually addressing the root causes of the current problem. In that sense, a banning of the NPD would have been analogous to the planned execution of Dylann Roof – an act of catharsis, whereby a society can partially avert its eyes from a growing threat. This ban would have represented a validation of those who are in denial; and for that reason, above many others, this ruling is to be applauded.

“Optimism is your greatest weapon”: a talk for the Institute for Philosophical Progress.

On 14 January 2017, I was very kindly invited by the Institute for Philosophical Progress in Würzburg, Germany, to give a talk about how we might make music in response to the current political climate. The text of my talk, “Optimism is your greatest weapon”, is below; I hope that you find it of interest. If so, please share; and thank you for reading.

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It is the job of musicians and other artists to create, but there are times when this task seems more difficult than others.  Times like now, for example.  I find that the world is in such a troubling place that making music can sometimes feel like a futile act. I am a journalist, and so a part of my job is to keep aware of whatever is happening in the news — this also means that my music has a political dimension. And there are often times when I am not sure what sort of art I should make in response. Every morning, the headlines hit you with the fury of a January snowstorm. You read that refugees are freezing to death on their way through Europe, and that in Germany last year there were 900 attacks on refugees and their shelters. You read that Syria is suffering even more than you thought possible, that the Pentagon has just successfully tested an army of drones, and that each year for the last few years has been the hottest one yet. And that’s before you read that several species are going extinct every month, and that America’s next president seems likely to start a new round of international tension by using Twitter.  Put simply, I think that we are in a mess, and heading for a larger one. The only thing that I can control is how I react. In the style of a referendum, I have given myself two choices: I can either be immobilised by despair, or I can create more and better work than ever before. I have chosen the latter. The only question I must now answer is how.

 

The first thing I have done is to decide upon a philosophy behind my music. When, at the end of this year, I listen back to all the lyrics that I have written, I want them to have a common theme. I always try to have some kind of thread running through my music – I think that’s because, at heart, I will always be a storyteller. I did this with my last release, an EP called “The Nomadic” – you can find a stream of it on the Okayafrica website, it was produced by Greg Surmacz. The four-track EP dealt with the subject of migration, and was written at a time when I was caught between four cities. I had just returned from Rio, where I had been covering the World Cup as a journalist for the BBC; I was living in London, and planning to move to Berlin; and I was recording the music at Greg’s house in Leeds. It was a time of so much change for me – it was my own period of flux, which the world is experiencing now. In that moment, I felt the need to do two things – to capture the moment, and to have a positive attitude about my circumstances.

It was during this period that I came up with my favourite, and probably my best, lyric to date: “optimism is your greatest weapon”. The only thing that we can hope to influence at any point are the seconds which still lie before us. As long as we have the future, we have hope. It is with this philosophy that I am making all of my music this year.

 

It’s hard to describe what kind of music I make. I don’t make beats, and I don’t rap; I very occasionally sing, but most of the time I talk over electronic music. I guess the closest artists, in terms of what I do, are people like Tricky, Roots Manuva, Scroobius Pip and The Streets. This means that I have to work with a very particular type of producer – someone who listens to every type of music, and who makes tunes that are a little unconventional. I love plenty of bass in my music – maybe that’s because I spent many years as a Londoner – and so whoever I work with has to love that too. Looking for the right collaborator is hard, but exciting – it’s almost like dating before the days of Tinder.

 

These days, it is thankfully easier for me to find people to work with. A few months ago, I had a piece of very good news – I was offered a publishing deal by Bosworth Music, a publishing house based in Berlin, who have signed a series of excellent producers. After ten years of putting out my own music, I am now working on four new projects, which I hope to share with you soon enough. Each of the artists I am collaborating with are very different, but the one thing I will try to do with each of them is to make sure that each song is a journey – beginning at a place of negativity, and ending on a path towards happiness.

 

For a long time as an artist, I was afraid of writing happy endings. I found them cheesy. The world was a big serious place and so I thought that it needed big serious work in response. The problem with that, though, is that people already know how frightening life can be. More often than not, they need hope. This, I think, explains why gospel music has re-emerged as such an explicit influence of hip-hop in the USA. I can safely say that my own writing has changed over the years. I no longer write songs of doom, describing the growing threat of climate change. Instead, I try to craft songs which have broad appeal, which are accessible and upbeat.

 

To give an example of what I mean, we can look at possibly the best piece of music I have written so far, a tune called “Ring The Bells”. It’s from that EP I mentioned, The Nomadic, and it’s the last song I wrote for that project. The reason I think these lyrics are effective is that I didn’t overthink them – I wrote them pretty much as a single draft, during a two-hour train journey to my producer’s studio. The best thing about working to a deadline, as I was in this case, is that it forces you to be direct in your language, to use only the images which are the most vivid in your mind. I also find that it stops me from being too forceful with a particular political message. I’m so busy trying to get the thing finished that I don’t have time to elaborate. In fact, writing lyrics is a little like my mother would cook for us when I was young. She would come home from work and cook a meal with whatever she found in the fridge, throwing everything together with a mix of experience, creativity and urgency. And she got it right, every time.

 

So I guess what I’m saying is that “Ring The Bells” is the closest I have ever got to cooking like my mother. I drew upon all the ingredients that were lying around in my life at the time. My fear as I sat at the train platform, preparing for my new life in Berlin – but also my growing anticipation at the new adventure. The sound of the bell in the thirty-second beat I’d been sent, which was so subtle and insistent that it had to be the song’s chorus. My memories of my trip to the World Cup in Brazil, and of the film Interstellar, whose trailers were some of the most inspiring art I had seen in years. As I put pen to paper, I began to realise something important about songwriting – that most of the songs that had moved me most, like Radiohead’s “Idioteque”, didn’t point their figures at me. Instead, they painted scenarios – they showed, they didn’t tell. And so when I wrote that simple chorus, “Ring The Bells”, I made sure that it was the most gentle of commands. Very few people will respond well if a complete stranger scolds them, telling them to shape up and fix their life. They tend to prefer it if that person seems to care about them, to want to go on that journey with them. And that’s the music I want to make now – music which accompanies people. Those tunes you listen to at the weekend when you’re travelling to see your partner in another city. That track that seeks you out when you’re feeling isolated. I want to make music that feels like that tiny light on the hillside when you’re driving up through the darkness.

 

I don’t normally publish lyrics from songs that aren’t yet recorded, but it feels right to do so. Late last year, I noticed that several of my female friends were going through some particularly hard times – they are the kindest, gentlest people, who the world always seems to hit the hardest. And so I wrote a track called “Glaciers”, to describe how they still somehow manage to find a way forward. They are my heroes, and so this song is for them. This is the opening verse:

 

The greyest skies and coldest seas

Remember the sun, eventually:

She will find her way upright

Though life has her on bended knee

Is this how it’s meant to be? –

Ever so, the cycle goes;

This world serves her a defeat,

She counterattacks, then repeat:

Indomitable thief,

She seizes happiness and flees;

She knows well that life is brief

So woe can kindly take a seat

It proceeds evermore,

Each time the ice before her thaws,

And so the glacier retreats,

Her will, her heart, provides the heat.

 

This is how each of my songs will be this year – an attempt to join the listener in whichever bleak place they may be, and hopefully to leave them feeling warmer by the end. I will keep the work coming, and I hope that it resonates with you.

My manifesto for 2017.

I’m not going to lie; I am frightened. It’s 3:35am and I’m writing this because I can’t sleep – because, right now, it feels as though I shouldn’t sleep. There’s too much to do, too much to think about.

This isn’t an ordinary year, or an ordinary time. If I look at the grand scheme of things, then everything is divided, harshly partisan; politically, socially. But if I try to retreat to more peaceful environments, I still struggle to find respite. There is tension everywhere. This Christmas, back in the town where I grew up, there was no escaping the disquiet. Half of those I spoke to among family and friends had voted Leave. One was vocal in their support of Trump. Hillary Clinton, I learned, was a Satanist, she endorsed Lucifer.

The EU never liked us, it only ever looked out for itself. We were leaving now, and that was the end of it. A family friend, who had voted Leave, spoke of concern at the racism that she had seen spike directly after the referendum.

I won’t lie, I was frustrated. Of course I was. For years I had been criticising the problems in the UK which had brought us to this place – the job losses, the costs of living, the unfairness of many aspects of our economic system. The people and the companies who didn’t pay their fair share into our economy, which would have resulted in better services for all. All of these things had contributed to the current disaffection in Britain. There were also the unavoidable cultural changes. I have always been pretty relaxed about racial and cultural diversity, but there are others who feel that there has been too much of it, too soon.

Why don’t you go into politics, asked my friends who had voted Leave. You talk more sense than most of those people up there. Oh please, I don’t, I said. And I won’t. I’m probably one of the last people that Leave voters need to hear from right now. I’m a beneficiary of the EU, I’m to all intents and purposes a metropolitan elitist. The last thing Leave voters want to is to be lectured to by someone who’s done very well out of the system, who has spent much of the last few years being scathing about the unfair coverage of immigrants.

I shouldn’t care as much about all this as I do, it’s not healthy. But I still somehow do: I guess that the heart wants what it wants. And maybe I also care because this isn’t an ordinary time, and to look away feels like defeat. To ignore what is happening around us feels like complicity. Of course, after we all had a good rant about the referendum, everything settled down again; because we are family and friends, and though some voted Leave and some voted Remain we still love and care for each other. And we are all trying to plot a positive course forward, somehow.

I was in Lisbon a few weeks before Christmas, and saw two middle-aged Americans, a man and woman, having an argument. I thought they were a married couple, but it turns out that one had voted Clinton and the other one had voted Trump. They were coming to the end of the tram journey, and were looking for directions; they’d obviously bonded over their shared aimlessness, and had promptly fallen out. I found myself almost refereeing their dispute. The Clinton voter was incredulous that anyone could have voted for Trump. He insisted that Michelle Obama should run in 2020. I suggested that maybe the US wouldn’t be keen on another dose of dynastic politics. He shook his head. The Trump voter was very nervous – she seemed afraid that I would think she was stupid. She was absolutely terrified of being judged, and she couldn’t bring herself to say that she had chosen him at first. So I said, well, people clearly wanted a change from the old order. She was much more relaxed after that. Look, I said, I know Trump is a break from the norm, I just don’t think he’s going to take things down a better path. She seemed relieved that I hadn’t called her crazy. They made their way off on another tram, and I caught a bus down the hill.

I have seen and experienced so many things in the last year – anger, contempt, even violence. I have expressed fury and incredulity at political positions contrary to my own. Some of that I regret, most of that I don’t. The neo-Nazis, in particular, can do one. But this year, I am going to get much better at sifting. This year, I am going to get much better at spending my time on areas where I feel that I can have a more useful impact. Yes; here is what I am going to do.

First, I am going to spend much less time writing blog-posts in response to articles that seem designed only to provoke. I have a limited amount of time to address that kind of disingenuous nonsense. Instead, I am going to spend that time thinking of new projects, and creating the most positive, forward-thinking art that I can. I am going to make more music, write more poetry, more stories. Instead of conserving my creativity for one or two key projects, I will try to do everything. I am deliberately going to spread myself thin. My aim is to end this year exhausted.

I am going to wear the expression “bleeding-heart liberal” as a badge of honour. Looking around at the world, there aren’t nearly enough bleeding hearts out there. Compassion is an asset. What a society we have where sensitivity is so roundly mocked. Sensitivity is strength.

Of course, I will continue to read widely, and continue to work with people of different political viewpoints who genuinely want to see a kinder, better world. I actually enjoy that, because every time I do so it feels like progress. I will be much better at directing my energy towards the fights I truly need to fight. I will tweet less and think more. And I will be braver, whenever the opportunity presents itself. I will speak up when I am afraid – particularly when I am afraid. I will have those hard and necessary conversations with myself. I will ask out that girl I like.

This all feels small, in the grand scheme of things. But I am beginning to think that these small acts of courage matter. I look at how small the margins were in the US election and in the Brexit vote – and I also look at the shortfalls in empathy that led to such division, both at the polling booth and under my own roof. I am not going to act as if 2016 never happened, but I am still going to consign it firmly to the rear-view mirror. This year, I am going to walk firmly in the direction of my fear, wherever and whenever I can. With a deep, tired breath – my God, it is 5:06am! – here I go.

 

My top 10 tracks of the year.

So, as some of you know, I make music; I don’t really talk about that as much as I should, considering how much I love doing it. (I’ve included a link to my own work below, if you’d like to check it out.) I’m always listening to new stuff – it’s probably fair to say that it’s one of my quiet obsessions. I thought that I’d put together my top 10 tracks of the year, just in case readers of my work were interested. They’re not in any particular order, but they’re the ones that I keep returning to.

MOTSA feat. Sophie Lindinger, “Petrichor” – I was out for a drink with a friend earlier this winter; it was brutally cold outside, and so we were both hunched over a glass of mulled wine (or Gluhwein, as they call it in Germany). Then this tune drops through the speakers, and suddenly I was scrambling towards the bar staff to ask what it was, so I could buy it from iTunes at once. It’s perfect, really. The bass, the vocals, the build, the drop. And the video is a gem. I then checked out Motsa’s work, and came across “Citadelle”, his excellent track with the similarly brilliant Kimyan Law. Will be following their work closely from now on.

Radiohead, “Present Tense” – I mean, it’s Radiohead. They could have had any one of three tracks from their new album on here, but this is the one that made it – again, they manage to do so much with so little. Those cascading chords, the way Thom Yorke stretches single lines across several bars, and the way the song tumbles to a close…so few can pull that off, but this band pretty much always does.

A Tribe Called Quest, “We The People” – This album is as inspired a soundscape as you will hear all year, and this particular track is its jewel. The highest point is when Phife comes in after Q-Tip has set the table, and then delivers a timeless verse over that raised fist of a bassline. What a majestic way for him and the Tribe to go out.

Kano, “Hail” – It was either this or “Three Wheel-Ups” from an album I have listened to almost non-stop for about half of the year. How this LP did not claim the Mercury Prize I do not know. This track shades it just because it’s so quotable and because Kano even pulls off a gem of an Irish accent (Man’s at your door like/D’you like to buy a carpet?). The most rousing way to start my morning, for months on end.

Porches, “Pool” – Beautifully melodic, this. Every note falls just where it should. It’s so restrained and never does too much – it reminds me of Kaytranada’s best remixes (which means a lot coming from me, as I love Kaytranada’s work). And the final minute or so is triumphant.

Kaytranada, “Track Uno” – Speaking of Kaytranada, he’s responsible for perhaps the best final 30 seconds of music on any track this year. “Track Uno”, the first song on his debut LP, teases you for the first five minutes or so, and then ascends into euphoria. I am not embarrassed – well, maybe a little embarrassed – to say that I have strutted around Berlin many a time listening to this.

Luke Cage Theme Tune – Speaking of strutting around Berlin, I’ve had this on loop for some time too. Netflix’s finest. This is collar-up, kick-door-down music. As the great man famously said, “Sweet Christmas!”

Hugh, “Direction” – This song asks us, as George Michael might have said, to listen without prejudice, and love without prejudice too. It would not work were it not so finely crafted. Gentle, elegant, insistent, it is a uniquely powerful protest song.

Beyonce, “Hold Up” – This was the track of hers that I had on repeat. Maybe it was the righteous, riotous horns, or the defiance of the vocals, the jab of each lyric. The whole thing just had immaculate swagger from start to finish.

Dave, “Picture Me” – My God, this man can write. My God. I have spent a couple of decades either trying to motivate myself to work harder or trying to encourage others to do so, and Dave has produced something which is an exhilarating call to arms – he’s telling listeners to seize the day in terms that are neither cliched nor preachy. This, as any MC, poet or songwriter will tell you with exasperation, is the rarest of feats.

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So, that’s my top ten. My first reflection is that it’s a very “male” list, which means that I should probably listen more widely next year. I also need to check out the new Solange and Little Simz records – both of which artists have been producing very strong work of late. Please send me any recommendations you might have, and if you have a moment please check out my music (you can see a review of it here, and stream it here). I’ll be releasing at least two EPs next year, so if you’d like me to keep you posted about those please email me at info@okwonga.com and I’ll add you to my newsletter. Cheers for reading, and I hope you enjoy the tunes.

Trump, race, and the way forward.

I have tried to strike a mostly positive note about things following Donald Trump’s election as President. After all, given the tone with which he ran most of his campaign, it would be easier now to be a little despondent. Yesterday morning, though, I had my first real rush of sadness. A Jewish friend of mine told me that his parents, who had lived their entire lives in Ohio, had decided to leave the USA, so disturbed were they by the mood that Trump’s rhetoric had created.

It is with their concerns in mind that I am wary of arguments that those worried about Trump’s comments on race are merely blowing the problem out of all proportion. In the last couple of days, I have twice been sent an essay which argues that Democrats are “crying wolf” when it comes to the issue of Donald Trump and racism. The essay, over the course of eight thousand words, aims to make the exhaustive case that Trump is not particularly racist within the context of American politics – not the most reassuring of stances, but an interesting stance all the same, given one of Hillary Clinton’s past pronouncements and her husband’s policies on crime.

The striking thing about this essay is how well it has been received, despite the glaring omissions throughout. I agree with the essay’s general premise – that a culture of fear is not helpful – and it raises several interesting points. Yet these points are overshadowed, in my view, by the author’s failure to take account of much of the material before him. How, for example, can he mention the “alt-right” with no mention of Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard B Spencer, Mike Cernovich, Breitbart or Gamergate? How can he discuss Trump’s racism, or lack of it, without mentioning Trump’s engagement of Steve Bannon, or Trump’s retweeting of white supremacist Twitter accounts, which those accounts took as an endorsement? How can he write an article thousands of words in length about Trump’s alleged racism with no analysis of his calls for the execution of the innocent Central Park Five, or no mention of Trump’s discriminatory rental policies?  How can he claim that “Trump is going to be approximately as racist as every other American president” when Barack Obama, who has repeatedly tried to address some of America’s deepest racial wounds, is still in office? It’s very easy to make a case that Trump is not especially racist – which is not comforting at all, mind you – if you fail to address widely-available chunks of the opposing argument.  I am not so naive or so intellectually dishonest to argue that the outcome of the US election was solely due to race: of course there were several other reasons why Trump prevailed, the most pressing of them economic. At the same time, I think it is a mistake to “take [Trump] at [his] word that you are determined to be the President of every American” when he has just run a campaign characterised in large part by scapegoating and scaremongering. I understand the desire to seek a productive way forward, but that desire should not make us evade the damage to political discourse that Trump has already done.

Since I am aiming to be positive, I will share links to two excellent articles; one of them provides a useful diagnosis of why the US election went the way it did, and the other outlines practical steps that can be taken to address Trump’s presidency. Both, I think, are vital reads, and will hopefully be of great use in the months and years to come.