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27 March 2015updated 30 Mar 2015 1:37pm

Young Fathers interview: “Pop needs to represent culture as it really is”

The Scottish trio tell Kate Mossman why they want racists to hear their music.

By Kate Mossman

Photo: Felicity McCabe

It is well known that more people die each year from falling coconuts than from shark attacks. Alloysious Massaquoi survived two on the head in Liberia, before the age of three. Then he was hit by a car. “They had to drain the fluid off,” he says, pointing at a small mound on his forehead. It’s the kind of event a child remembers – easier to grasp, perhaps, than the civil war that was raging at the time and the massacres carried out by General Butt Naked and his child army.

At the age of ten, living in Edinburgh with his mother and sister after a Red Cross transfer, Massaquoi decided that cars weren’t going to get the better of him. He ran across the road in traffic just to prove that he could do it. When he got to the other side, he ran back again. “I thought, ‘I am going to overcome this. I’m going to do it,’” he says, as though he were talking about a fear of spiders. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I get it from my mother.”

Discomfort seems to be a watchword for Young Fathers, who first entered the popular imagination standing on the red carpet at the Mercury Prize ceremony in 2014. People remarked that they didn’t look very grateful to have won. They weren’t smiling. Their manager drew attention to the “North Korean requirement for the ‘correct’ behaviour” – tears, deference – that bands are expected to adhere to these days. No one had seen the win coming – not just because the chances of the “Scottish hip hop trio” had been overlooked by William Hill (the odds were 14-1) but because Young Fathers’ debut album, Dead, was thought to lie in that strange, twilight world that some records are consigned to – critically acclaimed but too tough to inflict on a mainstream audience.

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The first time I heard it, working through the longlist as a judge, the neat, 35-minute pop album felt like a kind of aural Tardis. With rhythms like military drills and vocals recalling a ghostly cast of thousands (“AK-47 send my bredren straight to heaven”), it was a masterly evocation of global conflict, violence, hope and young men. It couldn’t have sounded more like a record for our times but this was pop music, too, with choruses as throaty as Outkast’s. And  it was powerfully physical, thanks to Graham Hastings’s vintage EMS synth, with its agonisingly loud throttle effect that sounds like a giant hornet caught in an overhead light fitting.

Their second album, White Men Are Black Men Too, comes just five months after the Mercury win. Equally streamlined at 39 minutes and even bigger on tunes, it picks up the story with a track called “Still Running”: “You’re going to die in my arms, hiding from the torture . . . What’s happening to the girl who broke the rules? What’s happening to the man who made it through?”

“I don’t know why people think we’re intimidating,” Hastings muses, leaning back on a plastic chair in Skelmersdale Library. “I think one person said imposing – the music was too imposing for them.” Young Fathers have just come back from dates in South Africa and Russia and they recently toured the United States for the first time. (“The customs guys! They don’t f*** about!”) But tonight, they’re playing in the hushed environs of this 1960s building in the New Town near Liverpool, on a small, temporary stage erected next to the local history section. The Get It Loud in Libraries project has been running for ten years with the aim of giving smaller places access to bigger bands. Skelmersdale never got a big concert venue, just as it never got a modern train station.

The librarian is laying out Coke and crisps. The atmosphere is that of a youth club, which is appropriate for a band whose members met in one 13 years ago, when they were all 14 (the alcohol-free hip hop night Lickshot, held at the old Bongo Club arts centre behind Waverley Station, long-since bulldozed). Massaquoi, the Edinburgh-born Kayus Bankole and Hastings, who grew up on the Drylaw housing estate, came together while dancing – this was the era of Sean Paul, Big Boi, D12 and the Eminem movie 8 Mile, with its MC battle scenes.

“We weren’t into the other side of hip hop – everyone being angry and calling each other faggots the whole time,” says Hastings. “We hated the aggression. Because we knew the guys who were doing it and it was all fake, it was all emulated. Most of them were middle-class boys. Hip hop was seen as rebellion.”

Back at Drylaw, Hastings, whose father worked as a welder, got stick from his peers for attending Lickshot. “They’d say, ‘What, do you think you’re black now?’ I’d grown up with a certain group of boys and even when I was very young, if I ever went and hung around with someone else for a day, it would be like, ‘Oh, you f***ing sneak­away,’ and you’d get a dead arm. At discos, no one would dance – everyone just ran around punching each other’s arms because they couldnae deal with emotion! I never understood that mentality. My dad told me he’d never had a fight in his life. So I was brought up differently.”

While Hastings was getting dead arms and Massaquoi was dodging traffic, Bankole was moving back to Nigeria with his accountant mother, who was born there, and then to Maryland in the US to try out her version of the American dream. (They ended up living in a suburb for six years, which was challenging at first, because his first language was Yoruba.) “I was already travelling at such a young age and I think that’s what Ally and Graham saw in me,” he says in a hard-to-place accent that lies somewhere between Morningside and the Caribbean. “I never had a core group of friends and I was always jumping in and out of social circles.”

It’s one of the strange paradoxes in pop music that the most original bands tend to be made up of loners. It also helps to be obsessive. Massaquoi – well over 6ft tall, with boyish levels of excitement – is constantly replacing one word with a better one, like a human thesaurus. Bankole is softly spoken and leans in close. Every member of Young Fathers, he says, is “very particular. We have a common vision. It is in us to search for the best.”

While recording the new album in Berlin, they conducted a musical focus group, inspired by Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, assembling various journalists and grilling them about the then unfinished centrepiece “Old Rock’n’Roll”. (Questions included “How fast are you travelling when you listen to this?” and “Is it a hit?”) “It was a good opportunity to make everyone, including us, feel awkward,” Massaquoi explains. “Feeling awkward is the start of making something original.”

Its title a reference to rock’n’roll’s black roots, the song opens with a line about living life “like a bubble-wrapped ape”.

I’m tired of playing the good black.
I’m tired of wearing this hallmark for evils that happened way back.
I’m tired of blaming the white man.
His indiscretions don’t betray him.
A black man can play him.

“My sister and I were those poor kids you saw in the camps in the charity broadcasts but we’re not any more,” Massaquoi says. His only memory of the civil war is hiding under a table in a church during an attack; when he first found himself in a church in Edinburgh, he hid under a table there as well. One line in the song gave rise to the album title. They had a brief wobble about calling their record White Men Are Black Men Too – then decided that their anxiety proved it was the right thing to do.

“It is a confusing statement on purpose,” says Hastings. “The media like to put whole colours, races and religions into little boxes which are completely inaccurate. As a band, just standing onstage, we represent that, even before we’ve sung a note.”

The title touches on their feelings “about how things are portrayed in the media – the way a Muslim is represented, for example, is disgusting in a lot of ways and untrue and unfair,” Hastings continues. “The title is just a space to spark people thinking, a bit of situationism. The radio presenter has to mention it, the guy on TV has to mention it. The world is unequal and it’s putting something like that forward which helps the conversation.”

They maintain that they are not a political band. “It’s all about how it’s done,” Massaquoi says. “I always try to visualise us performing, thinking, is this entertaining? Would I be excited by this? Why don’t you write a decent pop song where you say what you need to say and it’s catchy – there’s your protest! You want to involve everyone.” This is why they don’t push “the Scottish thing”. “You’re born somewhere by chance. It’s a bit of land. I’ll never understand why folk get patriotic about certain things.”

During the referendum the group received several requests from both sides for support, in particular from the Yes campaign, who tended to make the assumption that all creatives were pro-independence. They refused to get involved.

“Did I really care? Did any of us really care? Let’s say Scotland got independence, what next? There was a lot of fear: oh, no, John Lewis is going to get more expensive! Obviously the stuff Salmond said made sense but everything in politics makes sense if you take it at face value. I always felt like an outsider.” They won’t say who they will vote for in the General Election, or if they will vote at all.

Massaquoi and Bankole attended Boroughmuir High School, which was named the Scottish state secondary of the year in 2012. “I really liked primary school,” Massaquoi says. “I really liked high school earlier on and then I just kind of lost interest, you know. I lost interest in many things – there was stuff going on in the household and I felt like there wasn’t anyone that represented me. To put it frankly, a black teacher, male or female. I’m not saying there wasn’t any good teachers but in the way they kind of work with you, understand you and make you feel like you can do it . . . I didn’t feel that.”

Young Fathers are so called because each member is named after his dad. Massaquoi remembers seeing his when he was about two and then not again for several years. When he and his sister arrived in Niddrie, Edinburgh, they spoke his mother’s language, Twi. Later his father put a stop to it – probably to encourage them to integrate, though Massaquoi is not quite sure. “My mum had this tape of us on the phone to our granny back home and she felt hurt every time she heard it because we weren’t allowed to speak Twi any more. And it pisses me off when I think about it but now I guess I kind of understand. He was very strict in his ways. My father stayed in the house but I didn’t know him as a person. We are starting to be friends but I don’t know anything about him. He’s a nice guy. But because I grew up with my mum and my sister, I feel very comfortable around women. I think you can tell when someone has sisters – I’m not a Jack the Lad. My sister always says it would make complete sense if I was gay!”

I ask him what his mother thinks of his chosen career.

“You have to prove it to her. I think for most folk, education is the way out. From an African background, it’s like you need to learn twice as much as other people because they’re trying to set you up for the world. But I always felt better doing creative things. I felt it was just better for my soul . . . I think she took a while but she came round!”

It’s funny to think of anyone’s mum watching the gig tonight. A show at an art gallery in Edinburgh was recently cancelled when the owners got worried that the noise would damage the paintings. At a Young Fathers concert, your throat tickles because your eardrums are flapping so hard. Their sets are 45 minutes long with no speaking and are highly theatrical; the first time I saw them play, Massaquoi was dressed like he was about to attend the Henley Royal Regatta and Bankole, who does a kind of electrified African dancing onstage, was done up a bit like a chef. They have a physical closeness rarely glimpsed in hip hop, pouring themselves around each other, practically rubbing cheeks, and each of them is in possession of four or five different voices, with Hastings doing a particularly good “preacher”.

“It feels luxurious to have such a big choice of voices to plug into,” says Bankole. “And what sounds dark to some people sounds joyful to us. You know, in the same way that some people wail when there is death and some people rejoice?”

Hastings says that a certain politically conscious mindset among musicians appears to have been “deleted” somewhere along the line – he compares it to the way that people no longer automatically think of joining trade unions. However, for Young Fathers, pop – not protest music – is the political space. Motown is mentioned in the same breath as Martin Luther King. What do they think pop can achieve that alternative music can’t?

“In our mindset, the ideal situation is that the people who run radio and TV change their version of ‘pop’ to a broader spectrum,” Hastings says. “Pop music and pop culture in general doesnae represent the people that it’s playing to. People who think that doesn’t matter are clueless. People that run radio and TV have a duty to society to portray society in its purest kind of way.”

Does he think that there’s a subtext when people say their music is too difficult?

“Yes, it’s saying, ‘You’re different.’ Pop is in a difficult place right now because the main outlets are saying, ‘Well, there’s the internet now. We don’t need to represent the whole of culture as it really is.’ But they do – because there’s a whole load of people who dinnae look for music, it’s just the noise that fills the break. But it does affect you. It is important. Even if you hate a band, just to know they exist is something in itself, even if you turn the radio off as soon as you hear them. The people that don’t want to hear us are the ones we want to play to the most. I want to play to everybody. I want to play to the woman driving home from work and the kids who just listen to mainstream rap. And racists, I want them to hear us. Because how do you change things unless you’re attacking them in a non-violent way?”

They fall offstage and back into their dressing room, a seminar space next to the librarian’s office with a door code, two flat-screen computers and a filing cabinet. By the time I get in there, Hastings is writing something in a notebook. When we get back to the hotel, I glimpse Massaquoi’s bedtime reading – the collected writings of  the activist James Baldwin. One wonders how life will change for this lot if they get picked up by Kanye West and shown the big time: it is hard to imagine Young Fathers at pool parties.

In the taxi back to the station, the driver regales me with jokes and local stories about the eccentric Liverpool tunnel-builder Joseph Williamson, also known as the “Mole of Edge Hill”. Then, apropos of nothing – as always seems to be the way in this kind of conversation – he asks me about what it’s like living in the multicultural London. He tells me that when he sees a black person in the street, he, you know, wants “to shoot them. But that’s not the kind of thing you can really say, is it?” So, he says, it’s good that there are people out there who are voicing this stuff now.

I tell him I’m not sure there are. I ask him whether he will vote Ukip. He says Farage seems like the kind of guy you’d like to have a drink with but adds, laughing, “He’d bring the country to its knees!”

Young Fathers asked dozens of people whether their album title was potentially offensive before they settled on it. At one point, they considered using the line exactly as it appears in the song: “Some white men are black men, too.” In the end, they decided against that, because they thought it wasn’t positive enough. 

“White Men Are Black Men Too” will be released by Big Dada on 6 April

Young Fathers are currently on tour across the UK and will play Latitude festival on Sunday 19 July

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