Speech Debelle-extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

How has life been since you won the Mercury Prize? You've faced some criticism since then.
That wasn't really an issue for me, that's just how it is. With the Mercury, it's 12 albums and 12 different styles and they've got to pick one, so it's always going to be controversial.

Has it been a good year for British rap? Or are a lot of artists still not getting enough attention?
What Dizzee Rascal's done, his success -- that's never happened before in this country. He has the right to do whatever he pleases; he put his work in. Artists like Tinchy Stryder are on daytime radio, but he's been doing his thing for a long time and I've never heard any of his older stuff on there. It's the difference between, say, 50-Cent and Q-Tip. It's like saying 50-Cent got through, so don't you think that's good for everybody? Well, no. Q-Tip isn't necessarily going to get the same airplay. But Fiddy and Q-Tip come from the same type of place. At the same time the door is opening, slowly but surely. Ms Dynamite was the first black female ever to win the Mercury. Dizzee Rascal was the first black male. That's -- bang -- a door open right there. I've come this year, the first rapper to win it. Bang -- that's another door. We've got no Jay-Zs or ten-time Grammy Award-winning artists over here. Everything we do, we're doing for the first time.

It's been reported that you decided to leave your record label. Why?
That was taken out of context. I heard a lot of stuff about leaving -- I heard I got dropped! Ha ha ha. That's madness. Why would any label drop a Mercury prize-winning artist? I mean, as an artist, you get upset with your label, you get upset with your team. I'm entitled to do that. In the same way, they are entitled to get upset with me.

So, what is happening?
At the moment I'm talking to my label and seeing what's available. If we're all on the same page, it's all good.

You've talked about wanting more control with your label. Is it about artistic freedom?
No! That's not what I meant. I've always had that. What I was talking about was ownership, owning the rights to your own music, which absolutely every artist would want. Knowing the business, knowing about things that will benefit you -- how long to have the publishing rights, what type to have. A lot of artists set up their own companies so they can keep their publishing. That's the type of thing I'm talking about, making the right choices so that I don't end up feeling like a slave to the music business.

Does the music industry exploit artists?
Definitely. There are people right now in slave deals. But the music business is struggling at the moment. You get deals where your record label own a piece of everything you do. But that's because they're trying to stay alive. And it's the business that we choose. This is what we love. This is the career that all of us want, we all love it. You get to do what you've always wanted to do.

Do you think the industry is in crisis in some way?
No. I think people need music to live to their full.

How do you feel about the way the music industry treats women?
I spend a lot of time letting the bullshit go over my head. The amount of times I've heard about what I have to wear, what size I have to be. In the business, you don't just have people that put out songs -- you've got video directors, make-up artists, hair [stylists]. Making the music is such a small part of it. The further I get along, the less the music seems to matter. I don't want to turn into Lily Allen. And it could happen. People want that -- they'd prefer me to be a Lily Allen to a Lauryn Hill.

Why does that bother you?
It's not about the music, is it? Who Lily Allen sleeps with is not important. When she started it was about the music. Now I don't know what it is she's about.

Estelle is one artist who felt she couldn't make it here so went to the US. Do you sympathise?
Yeah. Estelle had to leave, so I don't have people like that to look up to or people to make reference to. I have to use people like Lily Allen -- ha! Ain't that a shame? Unfortunately we haven't got to the point where we can accept a black star in the same way as America. Not even just America -- it's every time I do a gig outside the UK.

In what way?
You go to Germany, France, Switzerland, all of these places, you've got the radio on, and you're hearing great beats - this is in the daytime! Maybe you're hearing some reggae-type stuff. But it's also pop stuff like Flo Rida. Here, only one radio station can make your career. But I could never switch on Radio 1 in the daytime and hear that many kinds of music.

Why don't we have the diversity?
If only one station makes a difference, it's not going to happen. It's not a democracy, is it?

Do you think the BBC has too much of a stranglehold on our culture?
In the same way that McDonald's has a stranglehold on kids. It's big business.

What about the whole Simon Cowell empire? What do you think of him?
If I were in his shoes I might think the same as him. If you have that much power and money, what else do you do except try and make more? That's what people do when they have all that power.The X-Factor is TV and it's meant to be entertaining, so in that respect . . . do your thing.

It's become such a dominant presence in the music industry. Every week every number one is a product of his machine.
It's changing people's mindset -- so many young people will listen to those songs and think that that's what being an artist is. Those people go to The X Factor thinking that it's going to give them a career. But they're not looking for artists . . .

But there are exceptions, like Leona Lewis or Cheryl Cole. They've been around a little while now. Do you think someone like Cheryl Cole will be around to stay?
I wouldn't know. Leona Lewis -- that girl can sing. It's very possible that Leona Lewis will be around for a long time and make good music for a long time. But how many Leona Lewises do you get through The X Factor? It's not a singing contest, it's a TV show. This year they had Jedward, those twins. It's not a talent contest, it's entertainment. They've probably already decided who's going to win.

Do you think someone like Cheryl Cole has got what it takes?
I don't care. I don't care enough to make an opinion.

In the music industry, who inspires you?
Not necessarily his music, but I'm a big fan of what Dizzee Rascal's done. He's an example of what we can achieve -- as far as I'm concerned, he's the future. There's going to be a whole generation of people following Dizzee's lead. Everything has to start somewhere.

You've said before that Oprah Winfrey is a person you admire as she's the richest black person in entertainment. Is that what you want, too?
I don't know about the riches but, you know, it'd be beautiful to have an equivalent of Oprah in this country - it would be brilliant. Someone I really, really admire is Brenda Emmanus. Also Moira Stewart. Those are brilliant examples.

Do you wish there were more black women on our TVs and in our culture?
Ten years ago if a black person came on TV we'd all start going mad. We've made a lot of strides forward.

Do you vote?
I'm going to vote in May.

What do you think of the Prime Minister?
I went to 10 Downing Street about a week after the Mercury and he seemed like a nice guy. He's got a difficult job to do. You can't always knock him for getting things wrong.

And how do you feel about the Conservatives?
Change is good, as long as it's a change for the better. If it doesn't make a difference then it's irrelevant. That whole BNP thing, it doesn't need to be blown out of proportion. They're not going to run the country any time soon. Having them on Question Time and that, I think it's a good thing -- a reminder of what a disaster looks like.

What about Boris Johnson? Are you a fan?
I don't know if he's got enough swagger for me to be a fan of his. What I like about Boris is that he seems an honest guy, which is rare. He seems to say what he feels, which sometimes can be inappropriate and offensive, and I like that.

Who is your biggest musical influence?
Michael Jackson. Especially "Human Nature".

What does next year hold for you?
The most important thing for me now is to make a brilliant album.

Are you working on it already?
I'm gonna start at the beginning of next year.

Do you have a sense of what direction you're going in musically?
It's too early for me to change styles. It will be an evolution. Emotion's always going to be where I start from when it comes to writing and that won't change. But I want the music to be grander. I've been advised not to go too old-school, but the music that's had the biggest impact in history has not been now, when people put out songs one week and they're forgotten the next. Think of how many people still remember Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry". People won't forget it for a long time. I appreciate that in music. That's why Michael Jackson was the greatest, because he did things you just can't forget.

What do you worry about?
I'm always confident. I have to be. It's all about this next year -- making the album as good as I can and being proud of it at the end of it.

Is there anything that you'd like to forget?
No, I can't say that. Everything is for a reason.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain