Just over two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a Hip Hop panel discussion at the British Library, Islington. Speakers included the names listed in the title to this post. The discussion was surprisingly thought provoking, highlighting some major issues in Hip Hop and society today.
After the panel discussion – before the live show – I managed to catch up with Lowkey for a few quick questions.
Peep more analysis of what went down and pictures after the jump.
In true journalistic fashion I arrived very ill prepared for this one. No pad, no pen, no questions prepared incase I did get the chance to chat to any big names in attendance. Though I did have an Ipod Touch and had quickly thought over some rough questions to ask Lowkey in particular, should I meet him.
The evening kicked off with a 15-minute video from KRS-One, who was scheduled to attend but due to cancellations in his tour dates couldn’t make it on the night.
I’ll be honest, the video wasn’t my ‘thing’. It was maybe aimed more at those who have little experience or are new to Hip Hop culture. However, for those of us lucky (insert ‘un’ before that last word if you wish) enough to be familiar with KRS, we’ve heard it all before.
‘The teacher’ broke down his love of the English language and the power of Hip Hop. Where the culture started, how it developed and where it could still yet go were other areas touched on. My only beef with KRS is also one of the reasons I most respect him. If that contradiction doesn’t make sense, allow me to explain. KRS displays a passion for this music, culture and lifestyle matched by no other. He literally lives and breathes Hip Hop. I respect him endlessly for that. Always focusing on positive projects and initiatives, he deserves all the acclaim he gets. Yet (I hope the Hip Hop Gods can forgive me for this) sometimes, I feel the brother is reaching just a little too hard. He makes more of Hip Hop and its elements than should be made. He forges strong connections between Hip Hop and Africa that at best are actually vague similarities. His passion it seems, often overshadows his sense of reality in determining what Hip Hop actually is. To put what I’m trying to say in perspective, KRS rounded up by reading two of his own poems in his usual animated and enthusiastic manner. Many audience members were clearly impressed, but others noted straight away the poems were actually verses taken from songs. The first, ‘Hip Hop Lives’:
Hip means to know
It’s a form of intelligence
To be hip is to be up-date and relevant
Hop is a form of movement
You can’t just observe a hop, you got to hop up and do it
Hip and Hop is more than music
Hip is the knowledge Hop is the movement
Hip and Hop is intelligent movement
All relevant movement We selling the music
So write this down on your black books and journals
Hip Hop culture is eternal
Run and tell all your friends
An ancient civilization has bee born again
It’s a fact
That’s all well and good as an abstract means of expression in a song verse, but when you actually try and argue that DJ Kool Herc and friends had all those meanings in mind when coming up with the name ‘Hip Hop’….that my friend is a reach.
After this video our host for the night, M K Asante, author (It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop), filmmaker and professor, gave his take on the culture that has taken over the world. What was more impressive about Asante’s 20 minute speech in comparison to KRS-One’s was the real life examples he brought to the table. Asante made the connections between Hip Hop and Africa, but he came with dialects and language to back it up. He pointed out that slaves taken from Africa didn’t share a single language and therefore had little choice but to speak to each other in colloquial English that their masters couldn’t understand. For example, if they heard that a slave had escaped, they couldn’t say “Wow, Saul [the slave] is good”, because they’d be overheard and whipped; so instead they said “Saul is baaaaaaad!” This is the root of the verbal dexterity, the wordplay, the lyricism that is so central to hip-hop. Being born in Zimbabwe, maybe he holds a slight advantage over KRS in regards to his knowledge of Africa and the Western world. However I think it’s safe to say his research runs much deeper and more thoroughly than the blast master himself. Not only did Asante’s knowledge on a broad range of topics impress me, but also the way he linked them all to Hip Hop in a manner that was totally believable. One moment he was quoting the fierce rhetoric of Harriet Tubman ‘I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.’, the next he was talking on the millions in America today who are mentally enslaved without realising it and how Hip Hop can combat this.
Asante’s impressive speech was followed by Saul Williams, who claimed everything he had to say would be put forth in a poem. Saul whipped out a tattered looking black book and quickly burst out, “This poem goes way over the ten minutes I have been allocated so I’ll just read you an extract.” What happened next can’t really be put in to words. I wish I could have video recorded it for you guys. It was a mix of, acting, singing, rapping and….noise making. Most will know that Saul is an interesting character. We’ll come to his unique and wonderful outlook on life’s finer details later but for now, just know he’s the type of guy that puts 100 per cent in to his craft. Even those that found his poem too spiritual or super-natural (in an Andre 3000-type way) were eventually won over by the sheer showmanship of the man. It was like watching a man work out whilst performing, his voice was straining towards the end and his skin laced with beads of sweat.
Post these three very different, yet all abstract and spiritually minded speeches from three American men, the panel was opened up to Saul and the two young British men, Lowkey and Akala.
The change in dynamic of the evening was instantly noticeable. Lowkey has a cool, calm presence that will put to shame all those who claim to be laid back and ‘cool’. While Akala is a straight talking, hugely intelligent young man clearly enthusiastic about the night’s discussion and educating the masses on Hip Hop in general (see his Shakespeare program).
Lowkey instantly set the agenda to politics – his specialty – in challenging KRS’ showering of praise on the English language, and rightly so. In his video, KRS insisted that English is one of, if not the most lucid, adaptable languages in the world. Lowkey was quick to point out how this was rather ignorant on ‘the teacher’s’ part with, “I think we should all understand first of all, why we’re speaking English. And it’s simple, Imperialism. I don’t think we should make English out to be this wonderful language and forget why it is that half the world is speaking it today.” This was a good call. Not only was he making a political point but also suggesting that KRS (who to the best of my knowledge speaks no other languages) should not make such sweeping statements in regards to things he doesn’t know. Arabic, Spanish and French are languages that spring to mind as far more rhythmic and adaptable than English.
To compliment this post I’ll be making a quick Artist Spotlight on Lowkey which will hopefully shed some more light on his ideals and persona as an artist.
From then on in, conversation drifted between, spirituality, wack rappers, politics and Japanese authors.
Spirituality was the focus of Saul Williams who spoke some wise words on the power of positivity. Williams Discussed the Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto’s ‘The Hidden Messages in Water’, a book describing the effects positive and negative words have on the molecular structure of water when spoken directly on to its surface. He related this back to everyday life and the vibes artists can choose to spread through their music.
Williams also had some intriguing views on human vulnerabilities and how they should in fact be something we cherish more than our strengths. Vulnerabilities he said, “are human instincts that allow us to survive. Why is it that when there’s a case of drink driving that causes a car crash, it’s always the drunk driver that seems to survive? It’s because when scared, we try to gain control, we tighten our bodies and try to be strong. Just like a non-drunk driver would do. Yet the drunk man survives because his body is loose and relaxed, he’s vulnerable to injury though he sustains none.” He hastily added, “Of course this is all shit that I made up, there’s no scientific facts to back it up but still…”
Akala and Lowkey brought forth the topic of the current state of Hip Hop. Akala gave an optimistic view in stating it [Hip Hop] isn’t dead, it’s simply moved to London. Lowkey chose to point out a recent subject that concerns him in President Obama telling of how he likes to listen to Jay-Z. “If the president is listening to the same music that’s on our TV channels and radio stations 24/7, to the same music as most of the youth, then you know something’s not right”. Saul instantly broke in with the line, “Decode that motherfucker” to which those in the audience who caught the joke laughed aloud.
Swiftly moving on, after the discussion I got the chance to have a quick chat with Lowkey. Rather than asking about his current project and views on the music industry I thought I’d discuss his ultimate goals in life, political views in light of wikileaks, the huge student protests in London (over increased university tuition fees) and the ongoing battle in the middle east. All topics I think he’s focused on in music but has rarely been challenged on. A good friend of mine tried rapidly typing Lowkey’s responses in to his blackberry so quotations may not be exact…
H: Some people would say no meaningful changes can be made through music. What’s your ultimate goal through your music and in your life in general?
L: I think, I would say just being an example, that doesn’t follow the status quo. I want to show other up and coming artists that they can make a living from this stuff by going down the independent route. I’ve had to market my music myself, youtube, facebook, twitter, it’s hard but it can be done.
H: Ok, well your music is obviously very politically charged, as is the likes of Immortal Technique and to a lesser extent Dead Prez, Mos Def etc…But can it actually change anything? What are you actively doing – other than charity work here and there – to makes the changes you speak of in your music. Immortal Technique talks of almost overthrowing the current system but not many believe he will, let alone can, actually do this.
L: Well I’m down for change. And I’m down with anyone willing to bring that about and I think music can spark that change. I’m not just one to stand around and talk, I’ll actively support anyone fighting for a change for the better. I think the real demon in this world is Capitalism and I can tell people this through my music.
H: So, without wanting to sound too cliched, you wouldn’t mind becoming somewhat like a Che Guevara-type figure in actively fighting capitalism?
L: Well no I wouldn’t mind. I’m down for change but at the end of the day I’m just a fucking guy, trying to do what I can do with the resources I have. I’ve been to Palestine, seen for myself the devastation caused there.
I think we have to constantly question what we are being told. For example, our Parliamentary system, are we truly the democratic nation we claim to be. The House of lords are in no way elected democratically yet do you know how much power they hold?
L: Right, they can actually halt the progress and dictate some of the policies made in the House of Commons. This system needs to be wiped away, if we agree in equality. It’s logic. Direct action is taking place right now [the student protest].
H: Do you agree with the direct or ‘violent’ nature of some of the protests.
L: Yes whole heartedly. I don’t think occupying buildings is violent. Direct action in this day and age is the only way to be heard. But we also have to ask ourselves other questions when faced with these events. Why is it that the Milbank building [the HQ of the Conservative political party that protesters targeted by smashing windows and occupying] had less protection than the Israeli embassy. What is the Israeli embassy so scared of on a day of student protests?
H: You’ve gotta agree though that Television interviewers and news channels make protesters who advocate the direct action of students, seem stupid.
LK: Yeah they do, and that’s what we’ve got to combat. That’s what I try and do through my music. People out there are putting business and profit above human life!
H: Can you recommend any books that have inspired you to write the kind of verses and songs you do?
LK: Sure, Robert Fisk ‘The Great War For Civilisation The Conquest of The Middle East’, ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, many of John Pilger’s books. ‘Wretched of The Earth’ by Frantz Fanon. There’s a lot out there, so people need to check them out.
I was pretty much hogging the guy so had to leave him at this point.
After a period of hysteria that included photographs with local youth groups, signing autographs and shaking hands, all the artists headed over to the main lobby of the British Library to take part in the live show.
Slightly older heads may remember a guy called Doc Brown. Once an emcee now a comedian, he was the show host later that evening providing banter between acts and even some good clean humour with his own take on London ‘ebonics’, flash cards included (see image below).
Lowkey gave a rousing performances of the tracks ‘Long Live Palestine’, ‘Hip-Hop Ain’t Dead’,’Terrorist’ and ‘Alphabet Assasin’ all with adlibs relating to the nights theme. He also brought on stage a young man who many are calling the male Shadia Mansour, 17 year old Crazy Haze who mixes arabic with English when rapping.
Following Lowkey, Akala took to the stage in his usual bouncy energetic fashion. Buzzing from one side of the stage to the other he performed tracks from his latest album ‘Doublethink’, a title inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian 1984. Despite a call to perform other Shakespeare themed tracks Akala simply replied “Nah man, we’re sticking with the dystopian theme tonight.”, and so the agenda for the evening remained, highly political. Between songs the young mixed raced Londoner read Poems he’d written while his sister Ms Dynamite looked on in the audience. Most echoed his words from the discussion earlier that night. Black on Black crime, child poverty and politics. What I find most impressive about Akala as a man and someone who works with the youth, is his sheer breadth of knowledge. He does something I myself like to do, which is visit the poorest areas of any town he visits, something most musicians/celebrities never think to do. Therefore it came as a slight surprise to me when he mentioned the children of Rocinha, a favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro. Akala echoed my thoughts exactly in stating, “After visiting the ghetto in L.A where you can buy guns at corner stores, the slums of Rio where little kids are strapped with AK’s, so-called ‘bad’ areas in London seem like nothing. Yet we have a youth intent on acting ‘hard’ and playing the tough guy.”
Despite Akala’s talent on the mic, I’m the first to admit that his music its self does nothing to impress me. Doublethink was a brilliant concept, carried out well, but the sound of Akala’s music lacks something. That’s on CD though. Live and in the flesh Akala is ten times more emphatic and impressive. Not only did his music sound better, but the messages he was trying to portray in each song came across clearer. Moreover his mixing of African influences through Sona Jabarti (pictured below), Rock and Hip Hop all combined to great effect. I would definitely recommend seeing him live to all UK Hip Hop heads.
One of the songs performed by Akala was the freestyle he did for SBTV, below…
Overall, a great evening that was made even better by the live performances at the end in the lobby of the library (of all places!). Cynics will often question the value of these type of discussions and events. They shower audiences with knowledge and positivity yet often it seems the ‘right’ audience isn’t there. Troubled youth are rarely at these type of events that are instead packed with intelligent individuals and those already equipped to deal with life’s hardships. However the presence of certain youth groups and school classes made sure at least some of the right people were hearing what needs to be heard. Even if it did mean some of them lowered in their seats and took off their Yankee caps in shame after hearing Lowkey’s views on imperialism.