Josh Osho: A portrait of the artist in a digital age

"People just want to connect. If I put my heart in it and people connect that’s the most important thing."

Even if you’ve not heard of Josh Osho, you’ve probably heard his music: it’s been played everywhere from ITV’s football coverage to the Queen Vic this year. His most famous song, "Redemption Days", is about rising above your weaknesses in order to become the person you want to be.

The concept is important to Josh. His favourite book was given to him by his father. It’s called The Black Jacobins, and it’s by the historian and critic C L R James. The book is about a man called Toussaint L’Ouverture. This is a picture of him:

Image via WikiCommons

It tells the story of the Haitian revolution, which took place between 1791 and 1804. It’s an incredible tale: you may not know that at the time the French were espousing “Libertéégalité, fraternité”, they were simultaneously trying to quash a rebellion among the slaves of Saint-Domingue. The French bourgeoisie found the idea of slaves adopting their own revolutionary principles incomprehensible. Toussaint was born a slave but quickly became their leader, and thanks to his martial and political skills, Haiti became an independent state. As James writes: Although born a slave, "both in body and mind he was far beyond the average slave".

Josh likes this: “It’s a really complete book. It shows you the depths and extremes of people, but also the ability to transcend - not just the community you come from – but yourself; your own resentment and bitterness.”

Josh’s second-most famous song, "Giants", is about people, or experiences, or things, to which we relate in order to feel most free.

Toussaint L’Ouverture, needless to say, is one of his Giants.

*

Alan White: I was thinking about geniuses the other night. Creating art is about expressing yourself - but you can’t avoid the influences that have gone into you. And some geniuses - the influences are obscure, or they react to them in such an odd way that you can’t see them - I was thinking of Bill Hicks, Andre 3000, Richard Pryor, Oscar Wilde – actually C L R James would be a good one - they’re artists you experience for the first time and you think, “Where the hell did these guys come from?” I mean, in James and Wilde’s case they even say what influenced them, but you can’t really see how it works. Then you’ve got another kind of artist - where you can hear the original influences and what they’re doing with them, but they just take it to a totally different level.

Josh Osho: Like Michael Jackson -

AW: Exactly. And Amy Winehouse.

JO: You can’t really choose your influences. There are lyrics, or melodies or diction that come into my subconscious. When you’re in the moment of being creative it flows out. When I became a professional musician it felt like shackles were put on me straight away. As far as other people are concerned musicians have a sound; an identity. Over time I started to realise my most progressive moments were coming when I stopped saying: “This sounds too bluesy, or this sounds too folky.” You just have to let go. Just be a vessel. That’s why I called my latest EP the John Doe EP, and have a song called “Forget, to Remember”. There’s a comma there for a reason: you have to forget everything you think you are to remember what you really are.

AW: For ten years all I wanted to do was write. And if someone had said that to me back then - I mean, I spent ten years thinking, I really want to sound like this writer or that writer, and then suddenly I wrote a couple of pieces and didn’t think about it, and the weird thing was that all those influences still came through.

JO: There’s a part of yourself that’s omnipotent. That’s the creative moment – you start with something tangible, then you’re almost like a God for a moment, and then you step back, and you’re human again. At that point, you can analyse it and break it down. And quite often I read back something I wrote and don’t understand where it came from. There are all these layers you never saw. It’s like Amy Winehouse – she always starts with something tangible – little conversations, or moments, raises them to the level of art, and then in the ears of her listeners, it becomes something different again.

*

This is a video of Josh performing a song called "Ebenezer Hotel".

In his teenage years, Josh fell out with his mother. He contacted the council and moved into a hostel in Lambeth called the Ebenezer Hotel. Detached from his family, scared to talk to his friends about his experiences, he found himself alone in a grotty place, full of drug addicts and asylum seekers. One day he came home to find his room had been burgled. Most of his possessions had gone. He felt desperate; feral.

A little later, Josh was sitting on a sofa in a friend’s flat in south London, looking at his guitar, when a riff popped into his head. Dung-a-dunga dung. Dung-a-dunga-dung. It fitted with some words he’d been writing about this period – two words, in particular: “Depressing confessions.”  Suddenly, he had a chorus. Later he’d fit those words with some he’d written about his time in the Ebenezer Hotel. It was one of the first times he’d let himself go artistically.  

*

AW: This is what gets me about the music industry. It says...

JO: “Josh Osho, soul sensation”...

AW: Yeah, “the new Seal” or whatever - and I listened to that song, and I just thought - nah - this is a Bo Diddley blues lick from about 1950, and it’s coming from the same place – responding to adversity. I love that cover you did of "Jesus Walks". It’s one of my favourite videos on YouTube:

Because - what is it? Hip hop? Folk? Soul? And if I look on your site, you’re posting stuff by Nick Drake, and Howling Wolf – and I think a lot of the things you say about social divisions and how they make it easier to sell a narrative, they’re true of music too.

JO: That’s it. Genre is division and it’s all about profit. We can market an identity and our customers will reinforce the division. Let’s make them think Josh is soul or blues or whatever - and my whole time has been spent fighting that. Even yesterday my mum asked what set I was playing, and she asked why I wasn’t playing "Redemption Days", because it’s my biggest song. But people just want to connect. If I put my heart in it and people connect that’s the most important thing.

AW: It’s like when Nirvana did the Unplugged in New York show, and the MTV bods were asking Cobain when he was going to play "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and he tells them, “Well, um, actually, I’m going to play some stuff by the Meat Puppets and a Bowie cover...”

JO: Ha!

AW: But the thing is - he was right, you know? That’s why it’s such an iconic gig.

JO: Marketers need to make you think there’s a lot more than there is and a lot less than there is - so sounds are divided, there’s more of them, but at the same time there’s a lot less to connect to. If you love Nick Drake, you can’t love the Fugees. But it all feels the same to me.

AW: I remember when I was a kid and I learned the minor pentatonic scale on the guitar. And I suddenly thought - hang on - I can play that Pink Floyd track now, but I can also play Muddy Waters, and loads of Britpop - I couldn’t believe it. And the only difference between all of those genres is feeling. Technically, it’s not so different.

JO: Exactly – rather than having a parochial mindset, you can see how it’s connected. And it’s not just true of music. At the minute I’m reading Mein Kampf. Everything Hitler did was justified, to his mind. But the misdirection comes, essentially, because a lot of his experiences were very parochial. His entire vision was based on a small perspective of the world.

AW: Would you say the internet’s changed that?

JO: We call the internet revolutionary. But revolution comes from connecting with your environment. How can you when everything’s external? A lot of stuff online is vacuous. Characters and personalities are manufactured. People’s perceptions of me for example - once upon a time the only way you knew me was if you met me, or saw me perform. Otherwise, you didn’t. But now there’s this saturation of false identity. People can flesh out their insecurities and be the person they think everyone needs them to be. And it’s far too easy to generate knee-jerk, simplistic reactions to things.

AW: That’s exactly what I wrote a while back. It’s like a chainsaw – powerful, but read the instructions.

*

One of my favourite lines by Josh is in the chorus of his song "Even in War". It’s only six words: “Even in war, the birds sing.” Here’s why:

1) Rhythmic bathos. I like the two stressed syllables of the final two words. They’re almost making the point that he could have put so much more in there – there’s all sorts of different things going on during war, especially modern wars like Iraq or Afghanistan: children play in the streets; women and men go to the shops and barter and haggle and have sex and – but he doesn’t need to describe any of that: just that birds sing. And we notice them. Which leads to -

2) Compression of meaning. It’s like the end of "An Arundel Tomb" – “What will survive of us is love.” There’s an ambiguity about it, so you can choose what it means to you – maybe it means nothing, but if it means something, then it carries an emotional charge of some sort.

3) Simplicity: I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins writing about how a bird “rebuffed the big wind” – a great writer with thousands of words like “rebuffed” at his disposal, and then he goes for “big”, because there’s something childlike about how the bird makes him feel, and likewise I think Josh is trying to portray a childlike view of the world that’s at once less complicated and more honest.

4) I’d heard this story about how Monet had been asked to donate decorative panels to the French government to mark the end of the First World War, and they’d wanted something symbolic of the nation’s greatness but instead he’d gone for his water lilies because actually it was more truthful – they said that, sadly, life just goes on, there is no real winner, but there is beauty because there’s always beauty in life, somewhere, whatever’s happening (like Josh will say later in this piece life is a process) and actually I told Josh this story about Monet but it turned out I was totally wrong, because it was Monet’s friend Georges Clemenceau (the former Prime Minister), who persuaded him to hand them over, but I still like that story anyway, and while it’s not truthful it’s true, the way that Josh and I describe Arsenal when Henry and Pires were playing as “pure” even though there’s not really any such thing because ultimately football is just people kicking a ball, and that’s really what the moment of artistic contemplation is: a moment of truth, and good art forces these moments where all of the above hits you, all at once, the connections formed in microseconds, which is what happens when I see Josh playing and notice that every couple in the crowd seems to be holding each other and swaying together and I tap notes in a blank phone text that say “Bathos -> Arundel Tomb -> GMH -> Monet” and a few days later try to work out what the hell I meant.

*

AW: I struggle with the question of whether the internet’s been a good or bad thing for the creative industries. I mean, on the one hand, it’s much harder for a guy like me to make money. But on the other hand, I can get my writing out there much easier than ever before. It’s a more transparent, honest experience.

JO: I don’t think it’s easier or harder than it’s ever been. It’s about adapting to change. For a while the music industry allowed loads of people to become multi-multi-millionaires, but no one really knew who they were. And now it’s like the 1930s. If you want to make it, you have to go and play every single venue. There’s always been two types of musician - there’s the people who make music out of love, and the people who make it out of fear. And the people who make it out of fear do it for money or fame.

AW: And it’s a vicious cycle between them and their fans, isn’t it?

JO: Totally. The riots are a perfect example. A lot of these people turn on the TV and see trainers, cars, and clothes. If these mediums are telling you that this is success and success is growth and expansion: well, we have an instinct to grow and expand. That’s being a homo sapiens. We believe who we are, is what we have. I was in Clapham Junction watching these kids I know putting their lives, their future at risk - for a fucking pair of trainers.

AW: In a way it’s fine for guys like us - we want to create. That’s what we’re going to do, and stuff will get in our way, but we overcome it because we know what we want to do above all. Not everyone wants to create, but there’s something positive they want to do with themselves.

JO: With kids from ethnic minorities: you go in a classroom and ask if they want to be a lawyer, an accountant, a pilot - they say no. But they want to be a musician or a sportsman. The reason is when you turn on the TV, when do you ever see that success attributed to your reflection? You don’t see a successful black lawyer or architect. They’re brought up in an environment with a lack of identity. There’s a mental parochialism - a lack of connection. They go to school and think they’re different, even though they bleed and shit the same colour.

AW: It’s funny, because you cite so many black role models – L’Ouverture, but also Harriet Tubman, Lauren Hill –

JO: You know, it goes back to the manipulation. There are artists out there like Lauren Hill but there’s a reason more like her don’t get promoted - and there’s a reason it’s difficult for me to break through but I look up and see, say, Cher Lloyd or 50 Cent. There’s no lack of people with open minds - but expansion means unity. And people profit from the perception we’re divided, or not connected.

AW: Like you say, it’s true of more than music.

JO: I wrote about Palestine and Israel recently - there are families on both sides that don’t want to die, don’t want to go to sleep to the sound of rockets and explosions, but they’re told they have to live that existence because of their national identity. And what is that identity, really? Centuries before they were Canaanites, and before that they were nomadic.

AW: Have you ever heard that E M Forster quote? "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." He places the personal above the political. In a weird way it takes us back to that "Jesus Walks" cover: things are more connected than they seem, in life and in art.

JO: If you look at where hip hop came from - it’s a corruption, of funk and disco. Likewise, without slavery you wouldn’t have the blues, without the blues you wouldn’t have rock and roll, and so on. Once you accept life is a process; a cycle, it’s unnerving, but it’s also empowering. It doesn’t mean that power comes free of responsibility, whether it’s having to do a day job, or shitty corporate gigs. You still need to do whatever it is that allows you to be free, but the important thing is: you’re still free.

*

23/11/2012

Last night I saw Josh perform live for the first time, at the Scala in King’s Cross. He was looking forward to the gig, but London crowds could sometimes be a struggle: too cool for school. He was on a four-part bill that included Gabrielle Aplin, whose version of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “The Power of Love” is everywhere thanks to a certain John Lewis advert.

And Josh took the stage, and launched into "Ebenezer Hotel", and I turned to my left, and half the crowd hadn’t seemed to even notice him, continuing to chat among themselves. He was right about this crowd: young, trendy, mostly white and mostly bored.

And then, little by little, they stopped talking to each other, and started listening to him. It was probably the chorus of “Giants” that tipped the balance – suddenly everyone was bopping their heads.

Then Josh addresses the crowd. “I hadn’t wanted to ever write a love song, because I thought it would be a load of clichés. Then I fell in love. And I had to write a song about it. So I called it The Clichés.”

His band put down their instruments. Josh picks out a delicate pattern on his acoustic guitar. The verse is a quiet, smooth little entree to the rasping chorus: “Oh baby/Look what you made me/I’m screaming the clichés.”

When he stops, there’s a tiny little silence before the crowd burst into applause. And in that silence, I hear a man’s voice from the back of the room.

“Beautiful.”

He’s made a connection.

Josh Osho performing in Dublin in September 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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