Interview with Young Fathers
(Photo: Simon Lewis)
[After the best of interviews I come out feeling like I’ve made a friend – because I’ve so intimately connected with the subject. That was the feeling after talking to Grant “G” Hastings, who I talked with for well over an hour between two phone calls. I can only hope that at least a fraction of that experience shine through in the written product.]
The Only Thing You Represent is Yourself
Formed in Edinburgh, Scotland and consisting of Graham ”G” Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi, and Kayus Bankole.
Each is 27 years old and shares the same first name as his father (hence ‘Young Fathers’), yet the group members share as many differences as they have commonalities: Massaquoi was born in Liberia and lived in Ghana before his family moved to Scotland. Bankole was born to Nigerian parents in Edinburgh but partly raised in Maryland.
But what’s essential to know about Young Fathers is that none of the above can be used to define them. That’s the weak man’s way out.
The incomparable trio, who often blend disparate semblances of trip-hop, punk, soul, African polyrhythms, was largely unknown to the world before last fall, when they shocked many by winning the Mercury Prize for their debut studio album, Dead. They performed a 140 shows that year, and show no indication of slowing down.
Just over a year after releasing Dead, Young Fathers are back with their throbbing follow-up, White Men Are Black Men Too.
As the provocative title suggests, they’re sharply concerned with race, politics and society. But their mission is not to disseminate an agenda, it’s to disseminate doubt.
Listening to Young Fathers is not a passive activity, it’s a call to action. It’s raw, undigested expression from three brothers with different backgrounds, different opinions and different ways of communicating them. As such, the message isn’t supposed to be simple or singular. The world is not straightforward. Humanity is not classifiable. Morality is not cut and dried.
Their sound is similarly untamed, boiling with life and creativity, and downright impossible to describe. On the long list of things rejected by Young Fathers is categorization for the sake of simplification. Calling their music hip-hop or indie may be convenient for your own description, but that doesn’t move you closer to understanding what it is.
This is one of many lessons to be learned from Young Fathers. Enlightenment doesn’t arrive when you can define what’s in front of you; it comes when you realize what shouldn’t be defined.
Having selected White Men Are Black Men Too as our Album of the Week, we had an in-depth conversation with Young Fathers’ “G” Hastings, where he talked about the group, the record and what they’re fighting for.
(Young Fathers are (from L to R) Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, and G Hastings Young Fathers: Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, and G Hastings.)
How did you guys first come together?
We met in an under-16 hip-hop club. We were 14. It was the only real option to go to because everywhere else played shite music. I met the guys through a mate from school.
I was taken aback how everybody there was dancing, expressing themselves. Nobody was getting in any fights – it was just acceptance. I joined up with them and we’d go to the club every week, it was a really special environment, especially for me, because nobody was expressing themselves like that where I grew up. That was the beginning.
Then I invited the boys over to record in my room. We used a karaoke machine – that’s all I could afford – and we’d huddle around the one microphone. The first time [Alloysious and Kayus] sang this beautiful song in one take. It was a good start, and big learning curve for me.
You were 14 at the time?
Yeah. We’ve only been the Young Fathers for five years, but we’ve been together for a long time. We know each other very well.
What’s your group dynamic?
It’s a democracy for sure. There’s no sense of ego and self-interest, everything we do is for the benefit of the group. If someone feels cocky or they have something they need to say, they step to the front of the group and the other two step back. Everybody gets their shot to express themselves and feel supported by the others.
We’re all different people, with different personalities and tastes. Sometimes we clash and fight, but it’s all a part of it. We all understand that the group is bigger than any one of us. Most people join bands with the people who like the same music as them, but it’s the fact that we’re different that makes Young Fathers what it is. Working through the disagreements leads us to a shared place that we all feel good with it.
That’s pretty evident in the eclectic nature of your sound. You come from different backgrounds too.
We do. And even in the place we happened to meet up, we always kind of stuck out. There’s usually not much going on musically in Edinburgh. We really weren’t trying to be different – it just ended up that way.
So how connected do you feel with Scotland?
We never really bothered representing anywhere. We don’t belong to any place or scene. We’re from all different places, so if we represent anything it’s no one place. We all sing in different styles. Kayus changes his accent every time he talks to a new person because he’s been raised in so many places. That’s kind of a metaphor for our music, because there’s no one way, no concept of what’s real or fake. The only thing you represent is yourself.
In your case, Perhaps another way to say that is you represent everywhere.
I know you just played some shows in South Africa, and you’re slated to play a festival in Malawi. I feel like the African continent has such an untapped wealth of creativity. What do you see going on there at the moment?
South Africa was a great trip for us. Their music is so far ahead. I don’t think they even know how very futuristic it is; they know what they have. Talking to most of these artists, it seems like the whole world is looking toward America and the UK, but these artists should be getting more respect for what you’re doing.
What are they doing differently?
The way they make and look at music is very refreshing for me. They’re just much more open and forward thinking. The West is trailing behind what those guys are doing creatively, because nobody is taking any risks. I think that’s going to become much more clear in the future. It’s the youngest continent, and the second biggest, so it’s just a matter of time.
You called your new record an “interpretation of what a pop album should be.”
For us, saying that we’re pop is the fairest way. It’s not fair to tell people we’re one thing. If you say we’re hip-hop, that’s not fair. If you tell people we’re another multi-ethnic band, that’s not fair because it’s not true. Pop can be anything because it’s not one genre, so its what we can most align ourselves with.
So you find pop is the most freeing label because it doesn’t confine you to a specific category.
We have hooks, we have as many melodies as anybody else. It’s always been our mentality that we’re not afraid to make pop because we don’t see that as a negative thing. I know in the context now of other pop artists, it might be strange for us to be called pop, but our feeling is that pop should have strangeness in it; it shouldn’t be mundane, or the same thing regurgitated over the radio and the TV.
So the problem with pop isn’t the music but the mediators?
That’s who decides what’s popular, isn’t it? We believe that pop should show contrast, because that’s reflective of society. It shouldn’t be so specialized. If it were up to us there wouldn’t be hip-hop stations or guitar stations. There would only be stations that play anything and everything, that play a strange artist next to a mainstream artist. That kind of contrast develops a more open-minded mentality.
I think the people who run radio stations and TV shows at mainstream levels should represent everything, rather than just one safe thing. Even if it upsets people, you need to represent it because that represents society. Even if people say, “I hate that band. I hate that song,” the fact that they know the band exists makes them more open to it, even subconsciously.
It’s an uphill battle, but that’s why we call ourselves pop. We figure if we keep telling it to people, one day they might believe us.
Can we talk about the title? White Men Are Black Men Too.
It stems from a lyric in a song called “Old Rock n Roll.” In one of Alloysious’ verses he describes the stereotypes and racist prejudices that are part of our modern society. It’s not straightforward – there’s no black and white.
The meaning of the album is that the world is a very complex place. You can’t just bracket people into stereotypes. The album title is confusing and conflicting on purpose, to make people think.
So it’s quite intentionally provocative?
I think we realized that it makes people have a conversation that usually makes them uncomfortable. Some people think that [the title] is about equality straight off the bat, others go on the defensive. Even if they say they don’t like it, it makes them talk and think about it.
So this title encompasses this whole thing we’ve tried to combat against. As we put it on posters, most people won’t even know it’s an album when they see those words as they pass it on a bus. That’s still enough is reason to put them up because it plants that thought in their minds, like: Well, what ‘is’ a white man? What does he do? What does he look like? What does a black man look like? How does he act?
And the fact that its the album title and not just another line, means that people have to mention it when they talk about it on the radio or write it in a tweet. Even if people are scanning the pages and not even reading anything but the picture of the album cover, that’s enough for us.
It does seem like a battle you are fighting.
Everyone, especially media today, are stereotyping people under the same umbrella. It’s not just racism. With islamophobia you’re bracketing people under one religion. You have [Rupert] Murdoch, who runs most media companies, tweeting that Muslims should pay the price for what some crazy guys have done in Paris – that’s who we’re battling.
So this title is a metaphor for how the world is very complex. And it even represents what we do as a band. You can’t call us hip-hop. It’s not hip-hop. We don’t give a fuck about hip-hop. We’re not indie rock either. People look at us and treat us differently because of how we look.
When they talk about us and our sound, they only associate us with other multi-ethnic bands, or they just call us hip-hop. It seems that if you’re an alternative band and you’ve got multi-ethnicity in the group, you’ll always be bracketed as something that represents other multiethnic bands – i.e. TV on the Radio, i.e. Massive Attack – but if you actually listen to the music, none of these bands sound alike. I feel for them as much as I feel for us. I can imagine those guys have put up with the same things we’ve had to put up with, because people aren’t using their ears, they’re using their eyes.
How much have the flaring racial tensions, particularly in the U.S., affected your sentiments on the album?
It’s obviously something we think about. One of the songs on the new album, called “Sirens,” is basically about us watching the news of what was happening in Ferguson. Seeing the footage, we were just in awe. I mean, it’s 2015! People will say “equality has arrived,” “Martin Luther King happened” but it’s bullshit, absolute bullshit.
Racism has changed, sure, it’s gone underground. It’s not the Ku Klux Klan; it’s a more hidden, secretive, sly thing. And “Sirens” is about watching that hidden terror boil to the surface. I have a line in there that goes, “The police are on cocaine,” because that’s what it looks like. To me it looks like they did a couple lines. It’d be a terrible excuse, but at least it would explain how they’re acting.
It’s hard not to have a reaction to something like that.
For me it’s like, what is the need of this? Why is this still happening?
At least for me, it’s the current voices like Young Fathers and Kendrick Lamar that have the greatest potential for making change.
Kendrick is in a special position, where he could become a superstar, so to go against that and talk about something meaningful is something to be commended. There’s an incredible amount of pressure on someone like him, coming from the record label and the financial interests, that encourage him to do the same thing over and over again. They don’t just dislike it because you’re going against the grain – you’re going against everything they stand for.
What’s your own strategy?
By no means do we count ourselves as a political band. You kind of shoot yourself in the foot if you come out of the gate saying you’re a political band and you’re fighting for your rights, because you immediately lose the people you’re trying to change. Much as you’d like to, you can’t go over to a racist, hit ‘em over the head, and say, “You’re scum, mate.” You’ve got to talk to them if you want to change their minds.
So for us, we want to be in front of those people, we want to confront them, but not in a violent way. We just want to have a conversation, or at least do something that they’ll see and reflect on.