Archive for January 2017

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.