Archive for Music

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.

“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.



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 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.


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 and I’ll add you to my newsletter. Cheers for reading, and I hope you enjoy the tunes.

The opening line of a poem is like a first date.

The opening line of a poem is like a first date: if it isn’t any good, then people are unlikely to hang around for the second. I’ve been thinking a lot about opening lines recently, and their importance in setting the tone for the rest of the work. The literary establishment doesn’t often refer to rappers as poets, but starting a verse with aplomb is an artform all of its own.

I can say this from wearily personal experience. When writing a poem, I would say that I spend the bulk of my time working out how to begin it. It’s a little like making an incision at the beginning of the most delicate of operations – with each poem, you are attempting to make the reader or the listener sense the world around them in a slightly new way (well, I am at least). If that first line is right, then everything else flows naturally from there.

That’s a difficult enough task without music; when you are working with a beat, the entire enterprise becomes more complex. This is why, at some level, I revere artists like Lauryn Hill and Method Man, whose opening lines at their very best are spectacular statements of intent. Witness Lauryn Hill coming in on “Lost Ones” – “It’s funny how money changes situations”. It’s clear from the outset that she is coming for conquest, a warrior not to be denied.  And then you have Method Man, who so often stole the show on other people’s tracks that he should have been arrested for burglary. On “Shadowboxin’”, he enters in typically formidable fashion: “I breaks it down to the bone gristle; ill-speaking, Scud-missile-heatseeking, Johnny Blazin’”. (Of course, he didn’t steal this particular show from GZA, but that is only a mark of his fellow artist’s genius.)

Yes: the opening line is everything. This was my introduction to the Wu-Tang, and began a twenty-year-odd fandom which continues to this day (of course, I am listening to them even as I type this). Hip-hop fans will each have their favourites – yesterday, when I asked on Twitter, I heard plenty of shouts for Busta Rhymes on “Scenario”, and DOOM on, well, everything – but I will always be grateful to Method Man, as both a fan and a poet, for teaching me the value of the intro.


Why I love grime (and why Novelist reminds me of Iniesta).

Grime will always have a special place in my affections. It’s Robin Hood music, the artform which, like its most celebrated MCs, wasn’t meant to succeed. Grime is the story of survival not only against the odds, but in contempt of them. I thought this as I looked at the cover of a Ruff Sqwad album, and saw a group of stern-faced black boys standing in the shadow of Canary Wharf – a world from which no money would trickle down to them, and which, through gentrification, might even one day force them out.

I love grime because of its defiance. I love JME’s work because, in my favourite track of his, he is full of righteous anger. And that’s what grime will always be to me, at some level: the perfect distillation of the fury of the socially disrespected, the disadvantaged. Basslines that feel like winter midnights, mournful strings, and MCs who, to paraphrase Ghostface Killah, want success so badly they might cry.

Some people are afraid of fury, but, if correctly focused, it can be a marvellous thing. James Baldwin is the writer I probably revere the most, and he often seemed to write in a state of rage. The reason I love the Wu-Tang Clan so much is because, like the grime artists of today, they grew up in neighbourhoods that were maligned even by the standards of the inner-city, and from that adversity crafted some of the greatest poetry the world has ever heard.

And the best part of any grime tune? Everyone will have their own, but for me it is the moment that an MC arrives on a beat. As I tweeted recently, you can tell how great an MC is by the way they enter a track – it’s like watching an elite footballer take a first touch, like seeing Andres Iniesta bring down a high ball. The best recent example I have heard of this is Novelist’s “Showering” on Rinse FM. I had been told by a friend that he was the one to watch, and so I visited his Soundcloud page: and, within a few seconds, I just knew. His flow exploded onto the track with precisely the same rhythm as the shuddering bassline, and, for me at least, his stardom was assured.

So I love grime. I see it as alchemy: a way of taking all of that disrespect you get as a young person, mostly black, always working-class, and turning it to art. And when I see artists such as Novelist emerge, to claim bigger and bigger stages, I have say that – at the risk of sounding patronising – I am proud of them.

God bless Kanye West, and God bless Ida B. Wells.

Last week, Kanye West got on stage at the Grammys and, in his own words, acted like “an asshole”. This weekend, I was a guest on the BBC World Service, looking back at the week’s news. One of the items for discussion was the Equal Justice Initiative’s report on lynching in America’s Southern states. This made me think in turn of Ida B. Wells, whose pioneering and fearless research in this area cannot be praised enough; and finally, at one profoundly historical level, it made me thank God for the asshole that Kanye has become.

We will return to Kanye West very soon; but, for now, we should go back to the formidable Ida B. Wells. In 1892, following the murder of three of her friends, she began a vigorous investigation of their deaths and the social circumstances which enabled them. She interrogated a world where black boys and men were routinely taken out in the street, tortured and killed, very often in broad daylight. This happened under the pretext that they had raped white women: most commonly, though, it seems that their true offence was to have had consensual sexual relations with those women. On one occasion, in 1891, one black man – Will Lewis, of Tullahoma – was taken from jail by a mob and hung, for the apparent crime of drunken rudeness to his white superiors. Black girls and women were not remotely spared either, with one Mildrey Brown hung in 1892 “on the circumstantial evidence she had poisoned a white infant”. Well’s resulting publication, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases”, is a seminal work, and simultaneously a daunting read. Yet so audacious was Wells in her efforts that, at one point, I found myself smiling with glee.

I began to imagine the faces of those everyday white supremacists, so complacent and comfortable in their racial tyranny over the South, if they could have seen Kanye preparing to take the stage at the Grammys. Specifically, I imagined the faces of the editorial team of the Memphis Evening Scimitar. On June 4 1892, they wrote that:

“The chief cause of trouble between the races in the South is the Negro’s lack of manners. In the state of slavery he learned politeness from association with white people, who took pain to teach him. Since the emancipation came and the tie of mutual interest and regard between master and servant was broken, the Negro has drifted away into a state which is neither freedom nor bondage…he has taken up the idea that boorish insolence is independence, and the exercise of a decent degree of breeding toward white people is identical with servile submission….there are many Negroes who use every opportunity to make themselves offensive, particularly when they think it can be done with impunity.” (My italics.)

As I read this I thought of Kanye mounting those steps, I thought of these racists watching him, and as I sat at my kitchen table I allowed myself a quietly maniacal chuckle.  After all, if these editors could have created an algorithm that would have produced their worst nightmare, then it is pretty safe to say that it would have produced someone like Kanye West. (In fact, in the quoted paragraph above, they virtually prophesied his emergence.) Kanye does not even have the good grace to be humble about his talents. He lacks manners; he is frequently impolite; he is rude, boorish, offensive, intemperate, obstreperous and vulgar. And, as I read these words from 1892, I absolutely loved him for it.  Kanye is critically acclaimed, he is independently wealthy, he has the ear of millions whenever he opens that mouth of his, that awful goddamn mouth – in short, he is everything that the slavers feared the day they reluctantly unlocked that final yoke.

Towards the end of her magnificent paper, Wells wrote that  “the more the Afro-American yields and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.” There is no chance of Kanye ever yielding and begging, and that is thanks in very large part to the extraordinary efforts of Wells, who made possible an America in which a black person could be so free, so bold, brash and unrestrained.

And so I find that there are two contexts in which I view what Kanye did at the Grammys, when he went onstage to tell Beck, the winner of the Best Album award, that Beyoncé would have been a more deserving recipient.  The first context was immediate, in which I rolled my eyes and thought “Kanye, for God’s sake, you’ve been an ass yet again: you’ve disrespected and possibly ruined someone’s big day, a moment which may be the culmination of their career as an artist, let it go.” The second context is historical: and here I watch as the editors of the Memphis Evening Scimitar look helplessly into the future, a world featuring the unapologetic arrogance of Kanye, an uppity Negro the type of which they would gladly have seen dragged out and butchered.  And, in that context, I howl with laughter: and I think, God bless you Kanye West, and God bless you Ida B. Wells.


On James Blunt, Chris Bryant and inequality in the arts.

Argh. I shouldn’t be writing this as I actually have another article half-drafted sitting nearby, but I feel I need to do so. Here goes.

Chris Bryant, Labour’s shadow culture minister, made some important comments about the lack of diversity in the arts.  He recently stated that:

“I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for best actor], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk,” he said.

Where are the Albert Finneys and the Glenda Jacksons? They came through a meritocratic system. But it wasn’t just that. It was also that the writers were writing stuff for them. So is the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, doing that kind of gritty drama, which reflects [the country] more? We can’t just have Downton programming ad infinitum and think that just because we’ve got some people in the servants’ hall, somehow or other we’ve done our duty by gritty drama.” (My italics.)

James Blunt, feeling that Bryant was trying to say that his success was unearned, gave a punchy rejoinder in the Guardian, in which he referred to Bryant as “a classist gimp”.  I read Blunt’s letter, and instinctively applauded him for his rebuttal.  But then I took a step back.

Bryant was essentially right. There is a severe problem with diversity in the arts, and the media, right across the board. It’s so obvious that you don’t even need statistics to see it.  And it’s getting worse, now that the cost of living in many large cities plus, for example, the falling revenues in the music industry – means that it is much, much harder to make it. Those who do make it will typically have somewhere to crash during those lean years, and those who do are disproportionately well-off.

So why, then, did I applaud Blunt? Well, here’s where we need to separate the personal from the political. Bryant clearly triggered something in Blunt. Blunt has spent many years being the only boy from a visibly posh background in most rooms he has entered, and being called out for it clearly still stings him now. Blunt sounds like he was something of an outlier at boarding school, and so now to be seen as representative of that world, as the mere beneficiary of a ready and complacent nepotism, is infuriating.

I think I first applauded Blunt because I partly understood, as someone who also attended boarding school, where he was coming from.  No-one likes being told that they don’t deserve whatever position they have reached, particularly when they have worked hard to get there. But Bryant wasn’t trying to be offensive. He didn’t mean that.  And, though it was difficult for Blunt to step back from his rage, it’s something that he could usefully do.

Because the playing field in the arts isn’t level. It just isn’t, and if James Blunt had really wanted to, if he really needed to call goodnight on his dream, then all of those other careers that he mentioned in his open letter were still open to him. And that is the one thing that people with boarding-school educations very often have: the ability to do something completely different with their lives. Very often, for those who do not have degrees or networks that they can tap into when seeking jobs, the artistic dream is all they have. There is no safety net, and if we don’t fund the arts we are consigning them to a pretty bitter future. In fact, screw the future – that is the present we are sitting in, right now.

Yes, it hurt James Blunt when he was called too posh to make it in the music industry, just as it hurts me to be called an Uncle Tom because I am a black person who went to boarding school, even though I sometimes got the shit kicked out of me for being black while I was there. It hurts when you are lazily branded as the metaphor for a social class where you often felt like the odd one out, particularly when that class is scorned.

But you know what’s far worse?  The fact that there is a generation of outstanding artists out there who, due to their lack of opportunity, will not achieve their potential if our funding bodies do not help them as best they can. That was Bryant’s point, and it was vital, and I hope that it is not lost in the ensuing to-and-fro between him and Blunt.


A Voyager I Playlist: ten tracks for interstellar space

This week, there was a piece of news which filled me with a rare wonder: Voyager I, that bravest and loneliest of vessels, has finally left our Solar System.  As that craft ventured further out among the stars, I sat and had an evening drink with some old friends; and, after a few pints, I decided that I would draw up a playlist of music which Voyager I could present to the first lifeforms that it encountered, music which would introduce much of the majesty and tragedy of our world.

The sharp-minded among you will note that Voyager I left Earth in 1977, and so there’s no way of that space-faring traveller, our world’s foremost ambassador, ever getting hold of my mixtape.  Those technicalities aside, I propose the following ten tunes as the tracks which, were they to be heard by whoever might be beyond any of the skies we can see, might give them a measure of what it meant to be human.

1. “Pie Jesu” – Hayley Westenra:

A song that soars.  The youth of Westenra’s voice lends the song the greatest sorrow: her tone is at once innocent and knowing.  The lyrics – a lament to Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world – resonate from the many church services with which they closed, and both the funerals and memorial services that they graced.  As openings to any playlist go, I can’t think of a more moving one.

2. “Pata Pata” – Miriam Makeba:

What more can I say about Miriam Makeba and this tune?  From the joyful swagger of the opening chords and that scat-style delivery of the first few lines, this is a winner.  Just a triumph.  This is probably one of the top five dance tunes anywhere in this or the next ten neighbouring galaxies.

3. “Zombie” – Fela Kuti:

If there’s a single track that could claim to greater dancefloor pomp than “Pata Pata”, it is “Zombie”. There are few other places that you could get this blend of elite musicianship and caustic social comment, and on hearing this the aliens would hopefully reel in awe.

4. “Harlem River Drive” – Bobbi Humphrey:

Bobbi Humphrey, one of the finest flute players, is here at her best, accompanied by blissful keys, a gloriously haunting all-male choir and the most elegantly understated of rhythm sections.  New York may have had more famous tributes, but this – an apparently simple hymn to “baseball lights shining in the night” – is for me the most compelling of them all.

5. “Wu-Gambinos” – Wu-Tang Clan:

“Wu-Gambinos” would not necessarily be any rap fan’s favourite tune, but I think that it captures the golden age of hip-hop at its most thrilling moment.  Over a relentless piano loop, the Clan – and especially the RZA, who for me steals the show with what’s almost a triple-time flow – lay their unique blend of bravado and intellect, they who could tell a thousand stories in the space of a thousand bars.

6. “Sun In My Mouth” -Björk:

“Sun In My Mouth” is, in my view, the emotional peak of Björk’s best album, “Vespertine”.  After several hundred listens, I can confirm two things: first, that I am still unclear entirely what these lyrics mean, and secondly, that I am bewildered that someone could fit so much soul into just three minutes of music.

7. “Sinnerman” – Nina Simone:

Nina Simone, whose vocals evoked the pain of countless lifetimes, produced this astonishing performance, where she effectively sang Dante’s Inferno.  It’s fitting that this music should travel where no human has gone before, since its brilliance is otherworldly.

8. “I’m Still Waiting” – Diana Ross:

My second-favourite love song (by a very narrow margin).  When aliens hear this, I fully expect them to burst into their equivalent of tears, and then, sniffling into their cosmic hankies, to ask each other: “Did Diana ever find love? Did she ever find love?”

9. “La ritournelle” – Sébastien Tellier:

My favourite love song: I don’t think I’ll ever hear a better one, either.  If the aliens are really smart, they’ll notice that Tony Allen is the only human to appear twice on this playlist, his drums also having featured on Fela Kuti’s “Zombie”.  In fact, of all the songs here, it’s the one that I would recommend Voyager I to keep on constant repeat as it makes its way across those unknowable heavens.

10. “Expansions” – Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes:

I am sorry Radiohead, this could have been “Idioteque”; I am sorry Curtis Mayfield, this could (and maybe should?) have been “Move On Up”; I am sorry Jimi Hendrix, since this could and probably should have been “All Along The Watchtower”; but no song I know would be a more fitting epitaph for the Voyager than this.  This is the ultimate hymn to the betterment of humankind, which is why in my view it must close this playlist.  Time to post it out there; and, to paraphrase Spock, may you play it long, and prosper.

That’s how you do it, Kanye: Anna Meredith, “Orlok”

OK, so here’s the thing.  I have this particularly visceral relationship with music.  If I hear a new tune that I truly love, I am then so overwhelmed by its brilliance that I generally have to listen to it non-stop until it is thoroughly out of my system.  There are particular beats which make me drunk with euphoria and as a result I have to rinse my ears out with them for the next few days, an aural form of “hair of the dog”.

I have just heard such a new tune.  Well, that’s not entirely true:  I first experienced it at the excellent Poejazzi night a few months ago, when Anna Meredith, the composer and producer, arrived to play with her band.  The piece is called “Orlok” and it is majestic.  Shimmering, spiralling electronica, angrily clattering drums, breathtaking cutaways and the moodiest of marching basslines – this sounds like something not of this earth.  It is the type of music that Spock and Kirk might hear on their travels to parallel universes.  Brutal and beautiful, it’s the soundtrack to an alien world’s declaration of war.  There are more ideas within its seven minutes than most producers have on an entire album.
This is how you do it, Kanye.  This is how you do it.  So much has been made of the instrumentals on Yeezus – that they are actually sublime and that we just need time to acknowledge it.  But I don’t think that’s true.  I have heard difficult electronic music before, such as Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus and Aphex Twin, and I think they were both far closer to the blend of urgency and soulfulness that Kanye was attempting on Yeezus (with some success, I might add)  But this here by Meredith is the real deal.  I am every bit as excited by her work as I was when I first heard Mount Kimbie, and anyone who knows me knows that I cannot shut up about them.  So now I am going to shut up and let you listen to “Orlok” for yourselves, as I go off to listen to this track again for the 30th or so time today.  Enjoy, and if you love it, please follow her on Twitter at @AnnaHMeredith.

To J. Cole: an open letter from a faggot

Dear Mr. Cole,

I have just listened with interest to the first track, “Villuminati” from your new Born Sinner album; and my attention was caught most not by the excellent beat or your finely-tuned flow, but by a couple of lyrics early in the song. They were these:

“My verbal AK slay faggots and I don’t mean not disrespect
Whenever I say faggot, okay faggot? Huh, don’t be so sensitive
If you want to get fucked in the ass
That’s between you and whoever else’s dick it is, pause
Maybe that line was too far
Just a little joke to show how homophobic you are
And who can blame ya?”

Well, let’s take this line by line.

• The first thing is that I’m not sure that you mean no disrespect. Calling for my slaying, whether metaphorically or otherwise, isn’t the most cordial of greetings.

• There’s also the issue of the word “faggot”, which when said in such an apparently aggressive fashion as this is pretty much the same as a racist cop calling me “nigger”.

• There then follows a blanket assumption about what gay men do in bed. Of course, an ignorant heterosexual man’s analysis of gay sex between two men is about as welcome as a woolly sweater in a steam room, but thank you for giving us your two cents. Actually – wait. No thank you. No thank you at all. Please close our bedroom door, we didn’t ask you to open it.

• It’s a strange claim that, by drawing attention to your prejudice, I myself am prejudiced: “Just a little joke to show how homophobic you are”. I would also suggest that, when you have more than 3.8million Twitter followers as you currently do, then such a “little joke” is not in fact so little, and that’s why I am responding to it.

Mr. Cole, two things are almost entirely certain about this letter to you. The first is that you will not read it. The second is that you will not care. As a result, I have decided to write it merely for the record. The truth is, of course, that two gay men having sex is absolutely no threat to your career. What is a far greater threat to your career, at present, is the pressure to produce outstanding material in the lull helpfully provided by the absence of Jay Electronica. That should be the greatest focus of your attention.

It’s early days to say so, but your views on gay men may do some damage to your legacy. Of course, two of the reasons that you enjoy the platform you currently do in the USA – “a young black man with a college degree” – are James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, two great human beings who knew a thing or two about the word “legacy”. They were both gay black men, and their names ring through the ages. Time will tell if yours does the same.

Musa Okwonga