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

Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Photo; Getty
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How Jean-Luc Mélenchon built a resistance

Like Jeremy Corbyn, France's leftist candidate for the presidency has been caricatured by the media. Nonetheless, he has succeeded in building a movement. 

After months of indifference, the rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the French presidential race has finally caught the attention of the British media. Still, it is frequently misrepresented and reduced to familiar categories: populism, Euroscepticism and spendthriftedness, with commentators quick to draw parallels with Jeremy Corbyn. However, to boil down the Mélenchon phenomenon to such clichés is to fundamentally misunderstand it. 

The authors of this article propose taking a closer look at a highly innovative manifesto and campaign. Cambridge University lecturer Olivier Tonneau is involved with La France Insoumise (France Defiant) and co-authored the cartoon version of Mélenchon’s programme. He runs a blog dedicated to exposing its policies and addressing the many rumours and falsehoods floated about the candidate. Nick Jones is a student who was in Paris at the time of Nuit Debout, and experienced first-hand the energy and thirst for radical change in France.

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Given the deep wound that Brexit has inflicted upon British society, perhaps the most urgent clarification is that Mélenchon does not wish to leave the EU, although he does have a radical strategy to reform it. France and Britain have different relations to the EU. Whilst Britain’s austerity policies were self-inflicted, the same is not true of France. The French people voted “no” to the European constitution in 2005 only to see its vote overturned in Parliament by a coalition of the center-left and center-right parties. This event marked a tectonic shift in French politics, and incidentally determined Mélenchon’s break from the Socialist Party. In 2012, François Hollande was elected on the promise of renegotiating the Lisbon treaty, a promise he failed to hold, and proceeded to impose austerity measures in France (cutting down public spending and corporate taxes, flexibilising the labour market), constantly justifying these measures by the necessity to abide by European norms. He has thus fuelled a deep resentment against both the center-left and the EU. Meanwhile, Mélenchon has campaigned for a showdown with the EU: reform it or leave it (“plan A, plan B”).

His strategy, designed by his chief economist Jacques Généreux, consists of unilaterally disobeying European Treatises: disregarding budgetary norms to implement a Keynesian stimulus package, creating a public investment bank, and ending privatisation policies. His prognosis is that the EU will not dare exclude France because such an exclusion would signal the end of the European project altogether. The EU will thus have to inscribe French exceptions to the treatises (just as it had done for UK). Such exceptions could prove highly desirable to other austerity-stricken countries such as the infamous PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), with enormous pressure placed on the most intransigent promoters of austerity, the chief of which is Germany.

Far from being anti-European, this strategy is aimed to save the European project which, according to Généreux, is doomed to implode if unreformed. Généreux had reached this conclusion as early as 2012: Brexit and the European-wide rise of the far-right has confirmed his diagnosis. Unencumbered by a reluctant party, Mélenchon has been able to forcefully defend a position that Corbyn was unable to hold, thus shattering the “in/out, good/bad” dichotomy of the Remain and Leave campaigns in the UK.

Already, by 2012, Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche (co-founded with the Green MP Martine Billard) had published an eco-socialist manifesto which advanced on the Left’s historical bend towards productivism. This time round, Mélenchon’s program is an environmentally focused Keynesian plan. Its aim is to turn France into using 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 – ending the country’s heavy dependence on nuclear power – by implementing the “negawatt scenario” elaborated by a collective of scientists and engineers.

Mélenchon is especially determined to make the most of France’s maritime territory – the second largest in the world. His program also addresses in detail matters of public health: for instance, schools should serve organically sourced products exclusively, securing a market for organic producers. The turn to organic production, for instance, is expected to create 300,000 jobs. Mélenchon’s environmental plans tie in neatly with forensic budgeting and a clear plan for job-growth, in line with the “One Million Climate Jobs Now” campaign in the UK.

Another aspect of Mélenchon’s Keynesian plan is its redistributive policies. Low and middle wages are spent within the economy on essential goods such as food and clothing, whereas high wages are lost in the speculative bubble: by raising the minimum wage, pensions, and social benefits, Mélenchon intends to boost demand and help small and medium businesses prosper. He also acknowledges the need to reduce working time, without necessarily cutting the length of the working week. Instead, he wishes to return the retirement age to 60 – a measure that is acutely urgent given the high unemployment rate among senior citizens – and impose a strict adherence to the current, 35-hour week.

Impossible to fund? Not at all. More than hundred economists from 17 countries – including Ha-Joon Chang – published a column supporting Mélenchon’s program. His policies were presented in details by economists and high-ranking public servants in a 5-hour budget program broadcasted on YouTube, whose last hour was a discussion with economic journalists from liberal news outlets. Ghilaine Ottenheimer from Challenge praised the broadcast as “modern” and “bold”; Hedwige Chevrillon (BFM Business) compared the approach to that of the ‘slow food movement’ and deemed it a rare opportunity to think things through; Marc Landré (Le Figaro) was impressed by the openness with which La France Insoumise was laying itself open to criticism.

The broadcast has already been viewed more than half a million times. On every aspect of its program, from the environment to counter-terrorism via culture and international relations, La France Insoumise has taken the same care to involve experts. Who, then, are the ‘Insoumis’? How did such an extraordinary campaign get off the ground? This question takes us back to 2012.

***

After Mélenchon’s remarkable 2012 campaign, the Front de Gauche fell apart because of strategic disagreements: the Communist Party wanted to maintain alliances with the Socialist Party whereas Mélenchon was convinced that any association with the now hugely-unpopular party of Hollande could only drag them with its fall. When Mélenchon claimed in 2015 that he did not aim to ‘unite the left’ but to ‘federate the people’, it was widely perceived as the desperate gambit of an isolated figure. And yet the gambit paid off: there was indeed a people to answer his call. With the massive demonstrations against Macron’s labour laws and the grassroots movement Nuit Debout, the writing was on the wall. Mélenchon was careful not to lay claims to these movements which were profoundly suspicious of established politicians and parties, but he has nevertheless been able to tap into their energy by creating La France Insoumise, a loose structure within which everybody contributes freely.

The Insoumis have shown ebullient creativity: some created a board game, others a computer game (Fiscal Kombat), and one of the authors of the present article wrote a comic book adaptation of the manifesto. Alongside quirky stunts such as appearing at meetings via hologram, the Insoumis have brought a vitally seductive and energetic edge to Mélenchon’s campaign. Crucially, they have brought to fruition another aspect of Mélenchon’s strategy: his struggle against the press.

In 2012, Mélenchon often claimed that the media was the “second skin of the system”. The only way to break the neoliberal hegemony was to subvert its own logic: that of audience and profit. Thus was created the colourful figure who claimed to incarnate “the sound and the fury of his time”. Yet, having become a celebrity, Mélenchon had to avoid being pigeon-holed into a caricature. The media, he claims, are “not a mirror but an arena”, so he adopted a confrontational strategy aimed at exposing the biases of journalists and interviewers.

Yet there is only so much one can say in the constraining format of TV and radio interviews; all one could achieve was to fire “bullet words” that would open cracks in the listeners’ preconceptions. In response, listeners had to be provided with alternative sources of information. In 2012, Mélenchon’s blog was the most read of any French politician; in 2013, a galaxy of “6th Republic blogs” was created; in 2016 Mélenchon’s extremely successful YouTube channel was launched; it has so far has over 22 million views. The book detailing his manifesto, L’Avenir en commun (A Shared Future) has found its way into bestseller lists, shifting well over 250,000 copies. If such independently-made material is inaccessible to non-French speakers, international viewers should not be tricked into seeing it as Trump-style, anti-system fake news. For example, a host of global NGOs including Oxfam and ActionAid have backed key aspects of Mélenchon’s campaign, with Amnesty and Greenpeace ranking him highest overall in their breakdown of all the candidate’s policies. Leading economists have also signed a pledge backing his candidacy will be published this week.

The communication machine of Defiant France is firing on all cylinders. It is remarkable that the fear-mongering of the mainstream media has failed to halt Mélenchon’s surge in the polls – remarkable, but not surprising given that his latest meeting, in Toulouse, was attended by 70,000 people, and had attracted 320,000 views on YouTube in under 24 hours. 

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Do not be mistaken: something astonishing is happening. This is about much more than meeting attendance. To be sure, Mélenchon is not simply preaching to the choir: bucking all recent trends, recent polls have shown that he is denting Marine Le Pen’s share of the working-class vote, and has overtaken her as the most favoured candidate of the youth. People are flocking from all across the political spectrum: recently, an entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley published a piece titled If Mélenchon is elected, I return to France.

He is not an isolated case, and a petition of the entrepreneurs with Mélenchon has just been launched. Even the ‘Gaullists’, disillusioned with the Fillon scandals, are now seduced by Mélenchon’s cultural style, his integrity, and his vision of France’s place in the world which is in line with the tradition of the General himself. What seemed like a fanciful vision is thus coming true: the French people is being transformed. One of the most striking signs of the campaign’s success is the change in people’s priorities: whilst employment had always ranked first, it has now been displaced by institutional reform. This, of course, is intrinsically tied to the centrepiece of Mélenchon’s program, which aims to accomplish no less than a Révolution citoyenne: creating the 6th Republic by means of a Constituent Assembly.

Under the Nazi Occupation of France, resistance networks sought not only to liberate the country, but also to bring about a better world. At great peril, they formed the National Resistance Council and drafted a program which was circulated under the cover of a novel titled Les Jours Heureux. It is no coincidence that the crowds at Mélenchon’s meetings do not chant his name but the word “resistance”, and that Melenchon himself synthetizes his aim with the phrase “let us bring forth the happy days”. The perils are undoubtedly lesser but with a deeply dysfunctional economic system preventing us from addressing climate change and fuelling the rise of the far-right, the stakes may be even higher.

Olivier Tonneau is lecturer in Modern and Medieval Languages at Homerton College, Cambridge. He participates in La France Insoumise, the movement supporting Jean-Luc mélenchon's presidential campaign. He writes a blog on French politics. Nick Jones is in the final year of his undergraduate degree studying French at Homerton. During his year abroad in Paris, he was a participant in, and keen observer of, the grassroots movement Nuit Debout. 

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