Poppa Don’t Preach
Are white men black men too? The Scotland trio Young Fathers says yes.
Photos by Hayley Louisa Brown
For an aspiring emcee, Edinburgh, Scotland is no hip hop mecca. However, the chance meeting of three 14-year-old boys at the city’s infamous Bongo Club laid the foundation for a striking musical ascent. ‘G’ Hastings—who hails from the Drylaw section of Edinburgh, Alloysious Massaquoi—originally from Liberia by way of Ghana, and Kayus Bankole—born in Edinburgh to Nigerian parents—quickly realized they should make music together. Armed with a commitment to push boundaries and make songs, rather than just rapping, they christened themselves Young Fathers.
The trio’s 2008 breakthrough track, “Straight Back On It,” constructed around a Bambaataa-meets-Kraftwerk sample, was a mere hint of what lay ahead. Over the years that followed, they doubled down on their efforts, augmented by drummer and DJ Steven Morrison and guest vocalist Lauren Holt (aka LAWholt). Their 2014 album Dead turned heads and won them the Mercury Prize, which honors the U.K.’s best album of the year, beating out stiff competition from the likes of FKA twigs and Damon Albarn.
This year promises to be similarly impactful with a new album, White Men Are Black Men Too, firmly asserting their creative vision. Alloysius considers it “the best music we’ve ever recorded.” He and his bandmates agreed to answer a few questions (some individually, some collectively, most cryptically), shedding at least a bit of light on their mission to redefine what can be considered “pop.”
Mass Appeal: What are you guys up to right now?
YF: Rehearsing. Getting new songs into the set. Looking for books to read on the tour.
G: Clockwork Orange.
K: Iceberg Slim.
How is your new album different from previous ones?
YF: It’s dry like the Kalahari but with the dreamy visions of old men out on their final walk. The other ones were all walls
and graffiti and police tape.
Could you elaborate on the title, White Men Are Black Men Too? What do you hope it can achieve?
YF: It’s already working! It’s a magic totem, like the talking stick—now you hold it you can talk and everyone else
shuts up to listen. It’s an allowance. It means that media who are worried about the subject can ask questions and we can say things like, “The world is still a very fucked-up, unfair place for a black person.”
K: We understand that the discussion of race is something very uncomfortable and very sensitive. This opens the door slightly. The most important thing is that the idea is sparked. [The album] has songs that talk about the issue—it has a connection.
Your last album was recorded in Berlin, how did that affect the process?
YF: Only some of it, but we ended up in a basement and, apart from the chocolate—which is different in Germany—we could have been in any basement without windows. Just like at home.
What is your place in the Scottish music scene?
G: We’ve never really been involved in any scene in Scotland; we don’t see a point in having any kind of pride in it. Were not gonna love it just because it’s Scottish. We never wanted to just be a local band. We wanted to expand and be heard everywhere.
What are your favorite tracks on the album and why?
YF: “Old Rock and Roll.” It gets to the nub. It says the say and does the do. We went to the mystical song place and came back with that one. Got a return ticket on the old bus to shamanville and didn’t even have to neck anything silly to get there. Sometimes the curtains part and you see the door’s open. If only it was that simple. It’s the next stage of the conversation. 21st century Africa. Or 19th century Europe? You choose — which would you rather, if you weren’t born into the landed gentry? Scotland sent their least able, thickest sons, the ones who couldn’t even make it into the clergy (they were that dumb) to the West Indies, to whip and rape and send back the moolah. OK, understood. But what now? The one good thing, the Congo Square of history, is the coming together to make music and dance: Africa’s gift to the world. Now it’s time for Africa itself to benefit.
K. “Sirens” for me. That’s the thing with music, it reaches from Egypt to Atlanta, and can mean a lot to anyone listening. So, yes, you can empathise and understand a mother who worries for her son, everytime he leaves home to go to school. And talk about it in a song. It’s simple and personal, like that.
Why did you pick “Rain Or Shine” as the first single?
YF: You wanted to hear The Monks jamming with Can and the Commodores, right? And then The Last Poets jumping in on the end before it gets too late? And a paranoid prophet, wandering a post-apocalyptic desert, talking to himself? Served with fries… G: When we choose a first song, we try to sum up the album in a song. We try to indicate where the new album might go.
K: Rain and sunshine are opposites of each other. We’ve always been about making juxtapositions fit, and this song just ends up being very yin and yang.
What are your thoughts about people categorizing your music into a particular genre or comparing you to other groups?
YF: We really, really, really, really, really, really, really wish they wouldn’t do that. You know when you watch your younger brother pick his nose and he knows you’re watching and he carries on, even though there’s obviously no snot left? It’s that annoying. But perfectly understandable.
G: We’re the only group like us. No one sounds like us, acts like us, looks like us talks like… We believe we shouldn’t be headed into the underground. We have the potential to be heard on a big scale, of being played on the radio. That being said, the ultimate goal is more for the group and everything we stand for. You don’t want the same fucking boring cycle to be perpetuated all the time. There should be a healthy balance of outright shiny popstars mixed with something else that is different.
How would you define pop music?
YF: It’s a twinkle and a tear in a young woman’s eye. It’s when Prince smirks and Chuck D catches Flavor Flav out of the corner of his eye. It’s a sigh, a deep, dramatic, gorgeous sigh at the thought of the moment you tasted the lipstick on her cigarette. It’s the school choir just at the point when the choir master is falling in unrequited love with a sixth former and he chooses a Shirelles song for everyone to sing. It’s a Bulgarian women’s choir while they sing about God’s love whilst feeling all randy and hot. It’s that note, that 12-string guitar chord. It’s a passport to international friendship and an introduction to the dark side. It’s an E and an A and especially, a D.
K: We make pop music the way we want it to sound.
G: We make pop music because of the arrangements. People look at us and think we’re a hip hop outfit. Because we’re a multicultural group we get put in the same bracket as bands we sound nothing like. If you tell a hip hop head about us and tell us we’re hip hop, it’s not just that. If you tell someone we’re an indie band, it’s not true.
How did winning the Mercury Prize change things for you? What has it allowed you to be able to do that you might not have been able to otherwise?
YF: Are we to be a goth band, forever associated with graves and draculas? Are we to dress in black and hide in shadows? Are we to sneer at teenage vampire TV shows knowing all the while what it is to be both dead and—oh heaven!— alive? The Mercury Prize for the undead has meant that smidgen extra of people have noticed and, as we are such incorrigible show-offs, that’s a bit important. It’s all very well doing all this art stuff, but if no one notices, we might as well take ourselves off to the forest and chop ourselves down. Right?
G: More people know who we are. Not enough in our opinion still, but we’re using it. Its getting harder to just push music unless you’re pushing a lifestyle. The Mercury Prize allowed that—for people to listen to the music. It’s a bit more of a statement than promoting our persona.
K: We’re the last in our own minds about being cool. Fuck being modest about it, we’re chipping at it. It gave us a big platform.
G: We don’t think about awards much. If it happens it happens. We just use everything to the best of our abilities. It’s just a different thing we can use. People need to be told that it’s good, especially people who work in the industry. Unfortunate situation, but it’s the truth.
Can you tell us about your dynamics in the group? Are there particular roles? Does it change when it comes to live performance?
K: Egos need to be thrown out the window since we have a common goal. We adapted the democracy rule. It’s the only fair way.
YF: You know a glove? Imagine a glove that only has one finger and one thumb. Steven (the drummer) is the thumb. We all take it in turns to be the finger.