Lowkey - Bringing politics back into music

Mari Shibata speaks to British musician, rapper and political activist, Lowkey

Lowkey is an up and coming British musician who consciously seeks to use his art as a tool to generate political awareness - especially relating to foreign policy issues. He was invited to speak and showcase his talent at the end of Lent term by Cambridge students who had organised an event - ‘Palestine Unrapped'. This evening was intended to raise awareness specifically about the situation in Gaza, and generally about the Palestinian plight, as well as serving as a fundraising opportunity which raised £3500 for the Islamic Relief Gaza Fund.

Currently twenty-three years old, Lowkey has appeared at various concerts and festivals including Glastonbury, Electric Proms, Oxygen and T in the Park. He rose to fame before he was eighteen through a series of mix tapes and has since released both solos and collaborations with other artists such as Jon McClure- front man of Reverend and the Makers, and Matt Helders – Arctic Monkeys' drummer.

As well as a musician, Lowkey is a poet, playwright, and most importantly a political activist - currently touring the USA alongside Norman Finkelstein (an American political-scientist) and Jody McIntyre (a British journalist).

Have you always been interested in Politics?

I think the nature of my existence will always be political because one side of my family is from Baghdad and the other side of my family is from here. Particularly with the invasion of Iraq, it wasn't really an option for me because I was politicised by other people. Even just my name - Kareem Dennis. That's a cause for a conversation on both sides, amongst Arabs and British people who say ‘why is your second name Dennis?'

So does music help you reconcile with that identity?

It's not a question of reconciling; it's a question of expressing. With music and generally in life, what is important is to leave an imprint on the world. I think that every human being is entirely a thousand percent unique so there will never be another you. Now in music – that's regardless of race, nationality, ethnicity and everything – it's just you. So with my music I hope that's what I give, and that what I express is completely individual and independent. That's the mark that one can hopefully leave. I feel that a lot of hip hop - it's trying to paint you into what somebody else is like. A lot of it is about emulating something else you have seen, it's about imitating something else you would like to be. And that's not what I'm trying to do here, personally, through my music.

You've worked alongside other hip-hop artists from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon etc. Is there a scene for politicised music in that part of the world?

Everything is political over there; they don't have the option that we have. The nature of their existence is political. It's not just something they choose to take interest in; politics affects their everyday lives directly.

It's interesting how hip-hop has spread in the Arab world. At its very worst in the Arab world, it's a form of cultural imperialism as much as Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme. At its best, it's resistance music. Its music that resists that imperialism and it resists the domination which is thrust upon them. Hip-hop has really turned into a tool of the oppressor and into a way of brainwashing people, a way of telling people ‘buy this car it will make you important and happy in life' – this is ridiculous. This is not the type of music I'm interested in - it's not relevant to me. Music in the Middle East, South Africa, South America... people are voicing what needs to be voiced through hip-hop - the perfect way of doing it because it's direct expression in its purest form. That's what hip-hop is representing all over the world - resisting domination of their people. Resisting it through their music.

So, which do you reckon then has more potential to change the conflict out there in Palestine – music or politics?

Music isn't going to directly change anything, because we can make music all day. But the truth is that children today don't take the words of their parents in the same way they heed the words of a celebrity - they look up to people they admire and it just so happens that a lot of people admire rappers. It's good that there are rappers out there who voice the way people feel, rather than voice what the corporations want people to feel. There are people out there who are voicing humanity. I think that can only have a positive effect. I mean, of course, politics is the centre of it all, particularly with regards to Palestine, but it's not really a matter of solving it because I think the situation is so complex and scrunched up into a ball that it's very difficult to see any direct way of it being solved.

In some ways music can succeed in doing things that politics can't. So for instance, there is a documentary called Slingshot Hip-hop, which is about Palestine and basically rappers from the West Bank and actually Palestinian rappers who live in Israel are linking up with rappers from Gaza which is obviously very good because the check points make it very difficult to move freely. That is a victory in itself - after managing to get through the checkpoint, then managing communication with each other. In a lot of ways, music can definitely succeed in ways that politics can't, on a human level. But on a wider level, and the ways in which it affects the masses, I am sceptical.

Have you met any politicians and what are some of the grievances you have with the current state of politics?

I've met a few – Menzies Campbell, George Galloway, Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn.  I've been nominated for an award in the Muslim News Awards of Excellence for Art – and they have some type of dinner where they invited Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson.

I know some of them better than others but – I don't believe in the existence of the political system we have in this country, I don't believe in those people… I think that any country that wants to talk about equality anywhere the first thing it must do is abolish any royal family and the clerics of the republic...

Beyond that, the parliamentary system - I don't think it's relevant to people today. MPs are meant to be representatives of the people, to the government, but people see them as a representative of the government to the people...

What's Britain's role in the world? While BAE System is a company (the world's largest defence contractor) which uses its advertisement with a British flag and sends guns to everybody and anybody that wants to buy them? I'm not gonna shake hands with some politician who thinks he's important; the truth is I haven't met anybody important. What is Britain's role in the world in relation to Muslim people? It's important to address that. Maybe if you ask some of the Saudis they'll say it's good. If you ask people in the Northern Alliance who are now in Northern Afghanistan, they'll say it's good. But if you ask human beings, the people, what's its legacy? What does BAE systems represent to the world?

Mari Shibata

Photo: Davina

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