Dear revisionists, Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view. Right now, you are anxiously pacing the corridors of your condos and country estates, looking for the right words, the right tributes, the right-wing tributes. You will say that Mandela was not about race. You will say that Mandela was not about politics. You will say that Mandela was about nothing but one love, you will try to reduce him to a lilting reggae tune. “Let’s get together, and feel alright.” Yes, you will do that.
Words matter, they really do. A tweet has got me thinking. The message in question was sent by Sham al-Ghazali, or @bitterarab, a couple of evenings ago, and it stated that “The term Third World is just so outdated and has absolutely no relevance in today’s society.”
The “Third World” is an interesting phrase. We never studied the Cold War in that much depth at school, so it’s something which went unexamined. I grew up thinking that, if our civilisation was a set of leagues, the Third World was akin to some sort of third tier of humanity, where mostly poor and mostly dark-skinned people lived. I didn’t know for many years that the Third World, as a concept, was actually far more empowering than I perceived it, if not the opposite altogether: a group of nations, many of whom were scarred by the ongoing process of colonialism, refusing to align themselves politically with either NATO or the Communist Bloc. This, I thought, was a particularly bold stance in the circumstances, and deserved a better than a title which has come to imply that they are merely a third-class category of economically dependent countries.
From now on, I will therefore try to think of and refer to these countries not as Third World countries but as Independent World countries, a title which more clearly reflects the political stance – in some cases pragmatic, in many other cases brave – that they took during the Cold War. Hopefully, this will help me to iron out a few more of the wrinkles in my understanding of history.
I only just watched The Hunger Games (the first film, not the sequel) this evening, and was blown away. Where do I start? Jennifer Lawrence playing a majestic role as lead? Lenny Kravitz as a revelation? One of the best representations of a dystopia I’ve so far seen in art? Genuinely terrifying fight scenes, punctuated by appalling levels of tension? The fact that this film is practically a vision of a futuristic feminist revolution?
That’s a lot of questions, I’d better calm down. The point is that a lot of this ground has been covered already by those who watched the film many months ago, and so I thought I’d try and pen a different reaction to it. I looked at the parallels with how young people were treated in that film and in real life – rising costs of living, of student debt; fewer jobs, workfare, crackdowns on protests; and I realised that, in some ways, the Hunger Games are already here, with young people increasingly pitted against each other. So I wrote this short piece (below), which sums up how I’ve been feeling about these issues for some time now. I hope you find it of interest; if so, please share.
“The Hunger Games”
Our youth are already playing Hunger Games:
We’ve lowered them into the pit,
Then pulled the ropes away:
We have made them work for painful hours without payment
And view their plight as casually
As online entertainment.
We promise them a harsh future of infinite constraints
And then we make examples of those who would raise complaints.
We show them that, so they’ll survive,
They must be selfish brutes,
That they must spurn compassion, and all other such untruths.
Our youth are playing Hunger Games already, that’s for sure:
We teach them to greet backs with knives,
Each other’s eyes with claws -
There are still those young people resolute
To use their kindness to tear our whole world up by its roots.
In a year which has seen releases from some of the most innovative names in music, it’s two jazz albums that find themselves among the very best. Both acts, moreover, can be found at the London Jazz Festival – Sons of Kemet on Saturday, and Arun Ghosh on Sunday – and so it’s as good a time as any to draw attention to their superb new work.
Arun Ghosh, a British-Asian clarinettist, composer and music educator, has offered up an expert blend of cultures on his third studio album, “A South Asian Suite”. Here, as the LP’s title and his track record suggests, he brings together traditional South Asian instruments (tabla, dholak) with Western lilt and swing. There’s so much to adore here. There’s the brassy swagger of Sufi Stomp (Soul of Sindh), which sends a mesmerising horn line out over a wave of head-shuddering drum-and-bass. There’s the forlorn call of “Mountain Song” and “Ode to Martyrs”, side-by side tracks which resound as longing nods to absent and departed friends, and which ascend into the triumphal blasts of “Journey South”, which ends the LP as a thrilling six-minute call to arms.
Perhaps the finest of all the offerings on display, though, is “After The Monsoon”, where Ghosh is joined by Zoe Rahman on piano, and whose elegiac majesty is reminiscent of that finest of film scores; the reflective and melancholic “The Last Seduction”, by Joseph Vitarelli. Given Ghosh’s successful exploration of soundscapes prior to this album – his live score of animated fairytale “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” was a rare delight – it would be exciting to see him work with a film director, as the outcome could be truly compelling. On this album, Ghosh and his eight collaborators have provided that rare treat: an album which feels like a carefully-paced path through the widest range of your emotions. I would recommend that you get your ears on this as soon as you can.
Sons of Kemet, with “Burn”, have produced a work of extraordinary force. Clarinettist and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, joined by Oren Marshall on tuba and Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford on double percussion, serve up a debut which, as the band’s name suggests, is shot through with ancient African pomp. The opener, “All Will Surely Burn”, is a tune that recalls both the urgency of Wildbirds and Peacedrums at their most intense, mighty horns rising over clattering anguish, and the moral fury of Antibalas’ “Beaten Metal”. The album has a keenly political thrust, evidenced further by the names of some of the tracks – Fernando Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet” is given a fittingly contemplative tribute here – and the arrangements are elegantly woven, with surprising and joyful twists of electronica throughout; almost as if TV on the Radio had popped into the studio to add the finishing touches. “Going Home” has the bustle of the Budos Band, and “Beware” could comfortably go toe-to-toe in a soundclash with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Yet, in a testament to this band’s exquisite control of their sound, the standout track on here – like that on Ghosh’s “A South Asian Suite” – is one where restraint is everything. “Rivers of Babylon”, clocking in at eight and a half minutes, is as beautifully mournful a record as you could imagine. As the tragic soundtrack to the slave trade, it is the most satisfying of climaxes to this album. Rarely has a MOBO award, which this album has gone on to claim, been so fully deserved.
Something very special happened last Sunday night. Kat Francois, an excellent poet in her own right – she can point to a BBC world slam championship, as well as several headline slots at leading events and festivals – hosted the tenth anniversary celebration of her celebrated weekly poetry night, Word4Word, at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. The longevity of the night, which is free to all-comers, is remarkable enough in London’s fickle entertainment landscape. Its success is a tribute to Kat’s endless efforts and the steadfast support of her partner, the poet, photographer and DJ Rob ‘Sloetry’ Covell. Despite an evening of bracing cold, the event was welcomed by a full house, with something like a hundred people clustered around a series of tables.
The greatest beauty of Word4Word, I think, is that the poetry here is utterly unrestrained: its performers aren’t just gifted writers, but they have perhaps the greatest attribute of any artist, which is the bravery to express that which is most personal. There was no subject deemed too taboo; each topic, be it quiet heartbreak or the anger left by generations of slavery, was raised and powerfully examined, the house falling silent with shock or falling about with laughter. Francois, whose skills as a stand-up comedienne came to the fore, stitched the night together with warm, engaging and occasionally waspish asides, whilst Covell’s playlist had several people swaying in their seats, then sprinting to his DJ booth to see which sublime tune he’d just rolled out.
The format of the celebration was straightforward: each artist, be they poet, singer or rapper, was given a slot of five to ten minutes to stand up and do their thing. It was all here: from a young drama group mentored by Francois who formed a three-man spoken word chorus, telling a tale of the bitterest loss; to the souful storytelling of songwriters El Crisis, OneNess, and Dionne Reid; and the magnificent vocals of Delicia, whose imperious tones would put many an X-Factor finalist to shame.
Star poetic turns also came from the outstanding newcomer Kareem Brown, Word4Word stalwart Justice Lyric, Tshaka Campbell, Kemi Taiwo, Deanna Rodger, Lyric L (whose hilarious dramatisation of a Kat Francois poem was comedy platinum) and Mark Thompson, whose address to his wife, on the seventh anniversary of her diagnosis with cancer, was one of the night’s most moving moments. My personal highlight of the night was an astonishing piece by Yomi “G.R.E.Ed.S” Sode, an open letter to the President of Nigeria’s wife in criticism of that nation’s proposal to legalise child marriage. After his performance, which moved several to tears, Sode was himself overcome with emotion; in those few minutes, he produced as compelling a piece of live artistry as I have seen in several years.
The night was fittingly closed by AmeN Noir, whose new documentary on the UK spoken word scene is already attracting excellent reviews: it was only right that someone who has taken such care to document the genre’s past should end a night of rare commemoration and celebration. Kat Francois and her friends have created something truly special with Word4Word, and it will rightly be regarded as a cornerstone of this scene for many years to come.
Thierry Henry is the most elegantly devastating forward I have ever seen. I recently received a flipbook of his finest goals, and having read it I was inspired to write the short poem below about the impact that he had when playing in England. If you’d like a free mp3 of the piece, I have included a free recording below. I hope that you enjoy it; if so, please share with a Gooner or two.
“Thierry Be Good”
One of the few footballers you knew
Who could have played the game in a three piece suit.
The man had a free-jazz swagger,
And rock star status was his:
From Highbury to Madrid
He toured his greatest hits.
Who became the frontman of a band of winners
And a whole ground of backing singers.
The one-man blizzard
Leaving back fours with sore innards
And so many opponents’ hopes undone.
No major trophies left unwon:
There’s never been a better weapon in a club full of guns.
Manchester United nil,
While Spurs threw endless derbies at him,
But could never beat Thierry once.
Letting him sprint
Was like giving Jordan
A leg-up to the rim;
Leaving him unmarked
Was like giving Senna
A getaway car.
Go Thierry, go, go;
Go Thierry, go, go, go;
Against any team,
Thierry be good.
So, it’s been a pretty miserable couple of days. In trying to provide a nuanced opinion on Russell Brand, I worry that I have shifted some attention – however small, or unwittingly – away from the necessary observations that he has made of late.
I recently wrote an article expressing what I felt was mild criticism of a couple of Brand’s public recent utterances. My concern, as expressed in the article, was that if Brand truly wishes to advocate a revolution, then his message will be all the more effective for being inclusive. Specifically, that there’s a sizeable number of women who find it difficult to get behind the terrific work that he is doing, because they feel that he is sexist. If he can mobilise their support, then he will have an even greater impact than he is already having.
For several months, I have been enthusiastically sharing all manner of Brand’s work on Twitter and Facebook: his writings on Woolwich, on Hugo Boss, on the Houses of Parliament as metaphor, and his interview on MSNBC. I think that he represents one of the most important spokespeople that we have for progressive causes. My only point was that the danger of elevating spokespeople to euphoric heights is that if they let you down then the disappointment is devastating.
Far better to acknowledge some of his problematic positions at the outset, I thought, but still support the overwhelming good that he is doing – which, for the avoidance of doubt, is my position. All advocates for social change must learn on the job. Hell, even Malcolm X had to learn on the job. Not all of us get it right first time, and my aim was not to write a hatchet job on Brand.
Advocating for social change is a work in progress, and I only meant to state that Russell Brand is a work in progress too. That’s all. I’m certainly not perfect and nor is anyone else who has publicly articulated a political position of any sort. If I could have changed anything about the original article that I had written, it would have been the title: it implied a greater condemnation of Brand’s work than appeared in the actual piece. I almost went so far as deleting the article altogether today, but ultimately felt that it would have been an act of cowardice to do so.
It’s a very important time for our society, both in Britain and far beyond that, and it’s vital that people such as Brand, flaws and all, step forward and make the arguments that they are making. There are too many people who would rather sit by and say nothing. There are too many people who don’t care and who will look for any excuse to dismiss the activism of those who do, and I fear that I have inadvertently provided them with ammunition.
A painful parallel dawned on me this morning. A day or so after Mehdi Hasan made his brilliant appearance on Question Time, a superb two-minute speech in which he excoriated the Daily Mail, that same newspaper published a pitch for an occasional opinion piece that Hasan had written to their editor, Paul Dacre. The negative effect of this publication was both to check somewhat the momentum and goodwill that Hasan created through his speech, and to arouse suspicion of Hasan’s motives in left-wing quarters. I worry that my article has already been used (albeit on a vastly smaller scale – I don’t flatter myself) to do exactly the same thing.
All in all, I think this is probably a good moment for me to take a break from Twitter and Facebook. The constant examination of what I increasingly feel was an error of tone and timing is exhausting, and for the time being I can do without it. I have a whole shelf of unread books, and I should probably begin to attend to those.
Thank you very much for reading this far; I hope that you have found it of some interest, and maybe even some benefit.
So there’s a new vehicle in town: let’s call it the Brandwagon. It’s been built from the unquestioning adulation for a stand-up comedian who is developing a voice as a popular social commentator. And it’s something that people should be wary of jumping aboard.
I should say here that I am very, very, very pleased that Russell Brand is raising so many of the issues that he is raising. He is addressing inequality of opportunity and the stale centrism of mainstream politics in a manner that is compelling, accessible, entertaining and crucial. His is a voice that resonates with many. His prose and media appearances are always thoroughly engaging, and frequently brilliant.
I should also say that it is not Russell Brand’s fault that the Brandwagon exists. It is not his fault that he has stated opinions which speak directly to the concerns of many, and that he is currently one of the few figures in British public life whom people feel that they can rally behind.
But, but I think that Russell Brand is still learning, and refining, his craft as a political advocate. I say this because of the torrential horror on my Twitter timeline from several people alarmed that he is apparently being placed upon the podium of left-wing political comment. Their horror stems from what the writer Sarah Ditum has identified as his “lazy sexism”, evident both in his celebrated MSNBC appearance and in the opening line of his New Statesman guest editorial. Right there, beneath a sub-heading which states that “before the world, we need to change the way we think”, Brand writes that “When I was asked to edit an issue of the New Statesman I said yes because it was a beautiful woman asking me.”
See, here’s the thing. I and others will run the risk of sounding like killjoys for pointing this out, but if you’re advocating a revolution of the way that things are being done, then it’s best not to risk alienating your feminist allies with a piece of flippant objectification in your opening sentence. It’s just not a good look. Plenty were turned off by that introduction, which might seem churlish to some, but to me seems entirely logical: it confirms their concerns that, on this front, he has not made sufficient progress.
With all that said, I would rather end this on a positive note. As I become increasingly familiar with his work, I see that he is someone who is open to examining his own views on various issues, and his self-assessment is often caustic. Moreover, I am extremely glad to see that Brand is out there and vividly questioning so much that is broken in our politics. He has energised the debate and has created the space for other people to state their cases for social change, towards a fairer, more equal society. But he’s still got some way to go himself: and, in that context, for left-wingers to hitch themselves to the Brandwagon seems premature.
I almost miss Nick Griffin, as I always suspected I might. As racists go, Nick Griffin had a couple of things against him. The first was that he wasn’t particularly smart, and wilted in the face of the most elementary debating points. The second was his haughty manner, which made him easy to caricature as an elitist, as a class snob who’d caught the TARDIS straight from the dying days of the Third Reich.
I almost miss Nick Griffin because Tommy Robinson is smart; and he is a far better communicator than Griffin will ever be. Griffin was an adversary whom many found it easy to outfox. Robinson will be a far tougher proposition, and the news that he has now left the EDL and taken his prejudice freelance is, I think, great cause for concern.
Tommy Robinson is smart because every time that we write, type or utter the stage-name Tommy Robinson we help to take him further from his original identity of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the child of Irish immigrants who swiftly realised that to portray himself as the saviour of the English he would have to change his name. After all, you can’t parade so comfortably yourself as the indigenous working-class white hero if (a) your surname is visibly foreign and (b) double-barrelled. Just listen to his stage-name: “Tommy Robinson”. It’s rhythmic, and can roll off your tongue even when you’re drunk in the guts of an angry crowd at noon. Yaxley-Lennon very possibly thought about stuff like this. The marketing of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as Tommy Robinson is the most successful piece of rebranding since Marathon anointed itself as Snickers.
Just as with Snickers, I strongly suspect that Yaxley-Lennon offers the same flavour under a different name. There are many who are rushing to see him as a reformed character now that, alongside the Quilliam Foundation, he has apparently turned his back on the EDL’s violent outliers. They would do well to remember that just last week he attempted to intimidate the editor of an anti-EDL website by tweeting photos of his home. Yaxley-Lennon, a former member of the BNP, has not to my mind had a Damascene conversation. I think that he has merely done what all canny executives do, which is to leave a failing brand in search of better job opportunities.
Yaxley-Lennon is a man of relentless agility; in that sense, he reminds me of the T-1000, the upgraded robot in the second Terminator film. The early models of the Terminator, of which Nick Griffin was one, were summarily repelled: they didn’t look right, they didn’t move right. The T-1000, however, was far harder to confront. Like Yaxley-Lennon, it keeps shifting shape, and it keeps advancing.
I watched one of the shows where this T-1000′s advance was partly checked: and this was when he was in a debate with Akala, a rapper, record label-owner and teacher, on BBC Three’s Free Speech programme. Their debate was as great a mismatch as that time when Portugal met North Korea in the 2010 World Cup, for the simple reason that Akala was exceptionally well-prepared and kept his cool. What was a worry, though, was the way that several other people on the show engaged with Yaxley-Lennon. Filled with understandable fury and horror at the progress of his far-right organisation, they opted for soundbites and angry point-scoring rather than carefully and coldly dissecting the tortuous logic that lay beneath Yaxley-Lennon’s ideology. The result, if you mute the footage at certain points, is the unfortunate image of a white working-class man being laughed at by a gleeful audience of the metropolitan elite. Yaxley-Lennon is wise enough to understand how this sight would burnish his credentials as a true outsider.
That’s not to say that Yaxley-Lennon is entirely dishonest. When he remarked that leaving the EDL was a huge step for him, he was right. He has turned his back on the heartland where he created a substantial following. At the same time, though, he knew that he had outgrown the EDL, just as a leading Championship forward will get restless when Premier League clubs come calling. The real question is who will pick him up next. Yaxley-Lennon is apparently about to make the step up to a higher division of prejudice: and it is this leap in public life, one that Nick Griffin desperately desired but could never make, that I watch with trepidation.