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

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle