„It’s hard to be a racist“ - Young Fathers

Mercury Prize-winning band The Young Fathers push for racial equality and want racists to come to their shows. To them, that’s not contradictory but necessary.

Photo  by Ash link CC BY 3.0

Photo by Ash link CC BY 3.0

You label yourselves as a very “different band”. How difficult is it to be different in today’s music scene?
Depends on what you are trying to do. If you want to be different from the rest and not make any money, then it’s fairly easy—maybe even too easy, because you don’t have to worry about how it is going to resonate with the audience. But being different and getting at least some attention is much harder. We try to be different and show it on a big scale. That’s tough.

What are the main obstacles?
People classify us as “strange” based on how we look, sing, and behave on stage. So they are always trying to label us as something we cannot really identify with. We think we make pop music and want to be heard on that scale.

It’s rare that a band deliberately wants to be identified with pop music. 
Because it has acquired such a bad reputation. Pop has become very stagnant. There is no more diversity, no more differences in pop music. That not only influences the way people listen to music, but also the way they think and behave in general. We want to change that by showing that pop can be anything it wants to be.

In almost every review I read, you were referred to as a rap band. Is that an adequate label?
No, we never considered ourselves to be a rap band. People probably call us that because of how we look.

To be fair, your early recordings, Tape 1 and 2, had a lot of rap influences.
Of course, but they also had heavy pop influences. I don’t know if we have a single proper rap song.

“Rumbling” from Tape 1?
I can see why you would go with that one but even “Rumbling” wasn’t something rap DJs would play. It’s easy to classify us as a rap band and that’s why we have to stress the point that we are a pop group.

Do people pay too much attention to musical genres? One can get the impression that everyday at least 50 new genres are created to classify new bands. You could be described as “dark gospel rap poppers”.
(laughing): That’s fine, but you won’t have that section in the record store, if you see what I mean. It’s easy to tag but hard to take it further and create something that is more than just a name.

The hope is that a new name will automatically generate buzz, hype and a scene.
It sometimes does but it rarely lasts. That was never a real question for us because we were never part of a specific scene. We want to be us; that’s enough.

I was quite surprised to find out that you’re from Edinburgh, which is a relatively calm city and not exactly the place you would expect such music to originate from.
It is calm – for tourists. The part I grew up in, wasn’t that calm, believe me. But yes, in general it is a quiet city, it doesn’t make much noise – in the literal and metaphorical sense of the word. But that helped us to be more individual, because there was no scene that you can copy or emulate. That’s different in London or Manchester, where many bands just copy other bands. There it’s almost like a religion or cult because people feel so close and cherish the same things. But at the same time, the music business isn’t in Edinburgh, so you have to project outwards. We never wanted to be a local band – especially in Edinburgh.

“Maybe pop is already dead”

The title of the new album “White Men Are Black Men Too” caused controversy, but you told your record company that it is your interpretation of what a pop album should be. Can you sketch out that interpretation?
It’s all about diversity, in society but also in pop music. It seems like pop musicians are no longer interested in what is going on around them. So I think it’s interesting to make such a bold statement.

Why do you think that politics has been eradicated from pop music?
Because of those in power, the people that control TV and radio stations. Music is a strong social force and has the power to change existing power structures. Those in power want to play it safe, they don’t want people questioning things. That’s not some weird conspiracy theory; it’s just how power structures work. People rather listen to what Kanye West has to say than to what Angela Merkel or David Cameron have to say. Popstars have an enormous power and can shape the public discourse.

Which is why pop must be more than entertainment?
Exactly! It’s sad that many radio stations put a ban on artists that might be a bit more controversial because they dare to speak up and challenge things. And although radio is no longer as powerful as it used to be, there are still an awful lot of people that listen to it. They don’t go to great lengths to find music but want it served to them. As Iggy Pop once said: the majority of people don’t like music.

They only consume it.
That’s right. It’s a product they consume when they drive home. The sounds they hear are what they think is music, but that’s erroneous. We could simply ignore those people and focus on some niche, but we don’t want that. We want to reach the majority with our songs.

Do you think you have that mainstream appeal?
I think it’s 50-50. Some like it, others don’t. And that’s ok for us, because we might break the consensus and show people what pop music can be.

50% is a large enough audience?
Even 49% would be fine. We are not saying that all the other music on the radio is shit and that you shouldn’t listen to it. Have as many bubblegum pop tracks as you want, but please balance it with something that is different and new to peoples’ ears. I don’t know if pop can accomplish that. Maybe pop is already dead.

No cause for optimism?
Difficult to say. It’s just strange because back in the days, you had rock and punk, and bands like the Sex Pistols were huge and got played on the radio. They had the power to create huge movements. Today, there is no such movement apart from purely political movements.

Like Occupy, which wasn’t really linked to any specific musical genre or movement.
Some musicians got involved in that, but there weren’t many that actually sang about it or really spoke up. That’s weird.

“As frank as possible”

In “Old Rock n Roll”, you sing “white men are black men too”. Those lyrics are a bold statement, but putting them on the cover of the album, as you did, is a message.
We knew that this would cause controversy, but that wasn’t the reason why we decided to put it on the cover. We floated the idea to several people before we put the album out, and many of them didn’t like it at all or didn’t get it. We asked people from all ages and backgrounds, and we learned that the title often means a very different thing to different people. We enjoyed those debates and that convinced us that we should use this line for the album, because it makes people think and maybe challenge some of their assumptions. We didn’t want to beat around the bushes, but be as frank as possible.

Were you not afraid that the title might offend some people?
We knew it would. But we were also afraid that it might please the wrong people.

Whom for example?
We were worried that some people from the far Right might like it and would put it on placards, because they truly believe that white men face the same problems and issues as black men. At the same time, we were worried that black people would feel offended, because they might see their struggle being ridiculed and downplayed.

What made you stick with it in the end?
It was again a 50-50 thing, and that’s always good. You shouldn’t be afraid to make bold statement as long as you respect the people it concerns. We could have called the album something like “White and Black Unite!” but that didn’t feel right.

Because it is too clear as a message?
Yes, it doesn’t have this ambiguity that makes you think and question things. We ask for equality, but we also know that we are a still a long way from it. The title is not concealing our call to action, but reinforces it by raising the right questions.

 What has been the reaction from the media so far?
It’s been quite positive. It also helped to eliminate banal questions like “What is your favorite color?” from interviews because by way of this, we actually gave the media something to talk about. If I am doing twenty interviews a day, I rather want to talk about something like this than about my favorite color. We want to put the race discussion back on the table.

And yet you don’t consider yourself to be a politically motivated band.
That’s not the sole aim of this band. We are not politicians but musicians. But if you see something that you feel is unjust, putting it into a song is one of the most powerful things you can do. Ska, Motwown, and Punk were extremely educating, because they got people thinking about certain issues – partly because they were controversial. If you just address the people that are already on your side, if you preach to the choir, you won’t make a huge difference.

Bands like The Specials or Madness managed to address both right-wing skinheads and black people.
Exactly! You can only change people if you reach out to them. We want racists to listen to our music, because they might change their point of view. It’s hard to be a racist. You cannot simply like all the people that surround you but always have to evaluate who’s in line with your political ideology. That’s a lot of wasted mental energy. If they would listen to our music and then maybe think about the issues we raise, they would realize how erroneous and self-defeating their views are.

One final question: What is your favorite color?
(laughing): Blue!

Interview for The European Magazine/June 2015

Max Thollmusic, art, culture