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How Pop Music Is Stepping Up to Share the Untold Stories of the Refugee Crisis

As the crisis is repeatedly reported in the British media through scares, statistics and costs, artists like MIA, PJ Harvey and Kindness are expressing the untold stories through their music.
February 17, 2016, 10:00am

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

There is a saying that goes: it’s better to look for answers to life’s questions in art rather than in politics. That idea is something that’s becoming increasingly important in 2016. Artists are using their platforms to express themselves on issues that matter, whether it’s Miley Cyrus on gender fluidity, Benga on mental health, or Killer Mike on the Black Lives Matter campaign.


More recently, Beyoncé’s single “Formation” came with slaying lyrics (“I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”), visuals of Hurricane Katrina, police brutality, and a powerful closing shot panning to graffiti that read “Stop shooting us.” Just two days ago, Kendrick Lamar’s Grammys performance injected the topic of racial injustice into one of the biggest awards ceremonies in the world.

In the UK, the growing tragedies of the refugee crisis have become a prominent reminder of how shit the world is. At least 35 refugees died ten days ago off Turkey’s Aegean coast, when boats carrying refugees capsized. The Saturday before, it was 39. Charities estimate at least 3,000 people drowned last year while en route to seek refuge in European countries. Sometimes it’s sheer numbers like this that grab our attention, other times it’s the harrowing photos of drowned children.

The nature of news is that it’s unstoppably fast flowing. One moment we are in mourning, demanding change, the next, one of our increasingly right wing national newspapers is encouraging us to demonize anyone bee-lining it to our shores, primed to steal our jobs, benefits and parking spaces, with the plight that drove them here too often overlooked. Save The Children can’t come out to herald the UK’s support for Syrian children refugees without the Mail running a piece accusing young refugee children of lying about their age. One minute an open letter to David Cameron from 120 economists is calling Britain's response to the crisis "morally unacceptable", the next the Telegraph are publishing a piece titled "Britain Must Be Cruel to Be Kind", written by UKIP's deputy chairman. Unsurprisingly, YouGov reported last week that Brits regard their national press as the most right wing in Europe.


As the refugee crisis is repeatedly classified in the media through scares, statistics and costs—while too many charities struggle for their message to be heard over the hysteria—art's role has become increasingly important in reminding the world at large of the human lives at the core of it all. MIA, PJ Harvey, Kindness, Robert Plant, Tinariwen and many more have stepped up to express their thoughts on the current situation, not just through fundraising or interviews, but by creating original music and videos that set out to humanize the struggle and stories of modern refugees, and force a new perspective into popular culture, thus hammering home the point that an international humanitarian crisis should never simply boil down to foreign policy, immigration statistics, or political maneuvering.

MIA’s late 2015 single “Borders” was one of the first powerful call-to-arms. The self-directed video daringly visualized the journeys that those desperate to reach European shores are risking. Brown male faces, often the most demonized demographic in the British press, are seen scaling fences, running through deserts, and staring resolutely towards lines of barbed wire. MIA stands casually in front of the impenetrable barrier, a harsh suggestion of how easy it is to take your freedom for granted, when you’re on the right side of the fence. "I chose to make something that needed to be said," MIA explained to Noisey in January, "which is that these people are not that. They are not violent, armed people that are angry. It was really important to make that really clear and that’s why the video got made."


Never one to shy away from speaking out, PJ Harvey teamed up with documentary photographer Seamus Murphy at the beginning of February on her latest track, ”The Wheel.” The song and accompanying video were directly inspired by her visits to Kosovo and Afghanistan over a four year period—visits that saw the pair speak to those who suffered during past wars and travel to villages abandoned through ethnic cleansing and cycles of vengeance. It’s a powerful and haunting rumination on the idea that history is repeating itself in today’s refugee crisis, and it has amassed over half a million views in just two weeks.

Murphy explained to Noisey: “Making the film for 'The Wheel' involved a mix of footage from the first trip in 2011, rehearsals I shot of Polly in London and the most recent trip to Kosovo. The enormous refugee crisis in Europe had been news for months. I spent some time on the Greek and Macedonian borders, and in Serbia, before traveling into Kosovo. It was happening in and through territories associated with recent conflicts in Kosovo and the wider Balkans. The idea of cycles, wheels and repetition once again being all too apparent and necessary to make.”

Despite all this, though, it does feel as though issues like this are still considered dangerous territory—that, if an artist speaks up, their endeavors will be either misconstrued, seen as opportunistic, or even just a turn off. As MIA told Noisey, she felt many weren’t speaking up out of “fear of being boring.” She continued, “A lot of people don’t want to talk about issues because it’s not sexy.”


Acrimony towards artists using their profile to speak out on serious issues is nothing new. It sounds strange to reference Johnny Borrell in the year 2016, but the Razorlight frontman turned in a kind of brilliantly eloquent appearance on BBC political program This Week earlier in the month, answering questions about how pop stars approach key social issues.

“Being in the media [with Razorlight], I felt it was right to talk about things that you felt were important, and to highlight them,” he explained to host Andrew Neil. “But it was interesting because there was a lot of cynicism about that. It was sort of like: ‘Okay, this guy is trying to be some sort of save-the-world rockstar… But it wasn’t me or us that were doing anything in terms of saving the world. It was the people who were working day in day out: Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace etc. They are the ones doing the job. But the media is never looking at them.”

Still, across the board, we are seeing more and more artists swimming against the no comment tide. You can just imagine Simon Cowell et al losing their shit when, at half past midnight in July 2014, Zayn Malik tweeted "#FreePalestine," prompting Directioners to debate the ins and outs of Netanyahu’s West Bank settlement program, while Zayn himself received death threats, and the rest of us just fell deeper in love.

Beyonce hasn’t tweeted since August 2013 or answered a direct question in almost two years—which, incidentally, is a time period that has seen Bey becoming increasingly politically charged—instead allowing her work to speak for itself. After all, a video as black as “Formation” needn’t require additional commentary. It’s the boldest Black Lives Matter statement any artist has made outside the realms of hip-hop, and it’s amassed 26 million views in less than two weeks without even being publicly listed.


Kindness's new track "A Retelling," released in February, was written about the story of one particular Syrian refugee called Ayman. He says "If you trade on a public profile to further your music career, and use media as a way of advancing yourself through communications, then, to my mind, you have a responsibility to use that access to talk about shit that's important".

Important is almost an understatement of the track he’s recorded, containing lyrics too truthful to bear at times. They follow Ayman’s story all the way from Damascus, where he became a target of the government for filming the uprising on a handheld camera, to him fleeing for his life, only to find himself living alone in a Glasgow flat, without his wife or children. The song is part of The Long Road, an album organized by the Red Cross to unite refugees with musicians to help them tell their story. It features Tinariwen, Robert Plant, Scroobius Pip, and more, finished off by the award-winning producer Ethan Jones.

“We had an era of every man for himself and right wing greed, and it derailed a lot of conversations,” suggests Kindness. “Lads mags, Loaded, NME, even VICE—it was all about a very simplified version of youth culture that didn’t have any political awareness, or self-awareness, for that matter, because it just wasn’t cool,” he says. “I don’t want to just be passive, or feel comfortable, but to actively agitate for people who are worse off.”

Like any art, music has a certain power, not only through exposure, but in its ability to communicate very core human values and emotions to a large audience, which is something that a news report or an immigration bill can’t quite do. Pop has always walked with activism over the years, but as we’ve seen with causes like Black Lives Matter and now the refugee crisis, the more artists are willing to focus the actual content of their art itself on particular issues, the more power pop has to change perceptions, amplify unheard stories, and affect deep and lasting social change. And in this time of humanitarian crisis, the more who feel empowered to talk about the plight of the refugees, the better.

Follow Michael Segalov on Twitter.