The Return Of Lowkey: A Wide Ranging Interview With The UK MC
Never one to shy away from politics, we spoke to him about why he made his long-awaited return, new album, and how academia has changed him.
All photos by Tristan Bejawn
Few people from the UK have ever merged political activism with music-making like British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey. He started off in legendary UK hip-hop crew Poisonous Poets in the mid-2000s, garnering a loyal legion of fans through a series of emotionally-charged bodies of work, singles, and performances that doubled as demonstrations against injustice. Since then, he has proven himself time and time again at being able to deliver addictive, angry, yet clearly-articulated protest raps about topics ranging from the loaded use of the word “Terrorist?” to the contradictions of the Obama administration, to the oppressed plight of Palestinians.
In 2011, however, Lowkey stopped focusing on music and turned his attention to studying and activism. The decision was widely felt by the UK hip-hop community, and ever since then, fans of his music and fellow rap acquaintances alike have wondered whether he would return with another album. Despite continuing to put out politically charged videos to comment on the state of the world – Grenfell, the migration crisis, a second Fire In The Booth – Lowkey remained relatively quiet on the music side of things, just the odd release here, odd release there.
But now, eight years after his last album, during which time he has debated in the Oxford Union and become a father, Lowkey returns armed with what he sees as a more intricate, nuanced worldview, and a series of new, punchy calls-to-arms in new album Soundtrack To The Struggle 2, which came out on 5th April. It features several singles including “The Return Of Lowkey”, “Islamophobic Lullabies”, and “Long Live Palestine 3”. Over a tried-and-tested selection of classic-sounding hip-hop instrumentals, with some toe-dipping into bassier modern beats, too, he has continued to use his musical voice as a means of challenging the political status quo and champion the perspectives of the oppressed.
Meeting at The Heights bar on top of Saint George’s Hotel in Oxford Circus, right next to the bustling central London shopping district and BBC headquarters, Lowkey sits ahead of me on a large, dusty sofa overlooking the sunlit cityscape. He is calm, smiley, and respectful of dialogue. Growing more and more passionate as he talks – and his answers lengthening with every question, overflowing with references to political literature, economic history, as well as the challenges of hardline grassroots politics – very quickly it’s obvious that his music and his activism are one and the same thing. I left our ninety-minute conversation feeling like I’d just ran-through the contents of an entire social sciences degree, and with a strengthened belief in musician-led change-making.
Noisey: Soundtrack To The Struggle 2 is your first album in 8 years. Why return now?
Lowkey: First, I had to ask myself: what is my greatest tool to point out responsibility for things that are happening in the world? I could always feel power operating over me, but I couldn’t always identify where that power was situated. Now that I understand that more clearly — understand that neoliberalism, the dominant economic philosophy of our time, leads to decisions being made on paper which cause huge numbers of deaths, I know my best medium to communicate with people it affects most is music. Secondly, there is a broader disenchantment with political orthodoxy than ever before right now. A process of widening democratic participation, of redistributing political power, and economic power, is happening. And if my greatest tool to participate in that process is music, I will use it.
So it’s about timing in terms of where society is at, as much as it is about your own journey as a musician?
Precisely. If we were to look back to 2011, who had the highest reach out of rappers in the country? It would have been Dizzee, or Tinie Tempah. But now we’re talking about someone like Stormzy; a reach that is exponentially larger than ever before. And then look at what the political alternatives are. Jeremy Corbyn being leader of the Labour Party offers a far bigger alternative to anything that existed 8 years ago. The reach of musicians is further, and the potential for an alternative politics is further. So it made sense for me to come back.
What have you been up to on your break from music?
Now I have a qualification as an English teacher, and as a personal trainer. And except for my dissertation, I have completed a masters in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS.
How has spending time in academia changed you musically?
A lot of my older music was quite sloganeering. It was meant to be a companion to people’s dissent. But the new album is a bit more intricate, nuanced, less sure of itself. I think people naturally progress from their early twenties into their thirties by becoming less sure of the world, and that’s what I’ve done. I still hope that my music can serve as a call for rebellion, but it’s a more sophisticated form of rebellion.
Your album starts with a conversation between yourself and acclaimed academic Noam Chomsky , and filmmaker Ken Loach and comedian Frankie Boyle feature on your single ‘ Long Live Palestine 3 ’. What made you opt for these unconventional features?
They’re definitely a vehicle to spread the message wider because they have followers who will be interested in some of the things I’m talking about on the album. My music and my shows are partly about political education, but also partly about politically organising as well. Songs and poems have always accompanied dissent. There is a film by Ken Loach, What Side Are You On?, about the miners’ strikes, and it looks specifically through the lens of the poetry and the music that was being made at the time. I think his films are really brilliant in terms of encouraging people to collectivise.
Your first two singles off the album, “The Return Of Lowkey ” and “GOAT Flow ”, have modern, trappy instrumentals, but on the album you’ve balanced these with your normal style of making boom-bap hip-hop. Was there any strategy behind this?
When producers send me beats, I’ll use what moves me to write. And "The Return Of Lowkey" beat did that for me. I think it is important to make your music relevant to a younger age group as well. This is the thing about growing older: you start thinking, okay well, do I just want to speak to my generation, or to a younger generation too? Especially when I feel the younger generation are far more vulnerable than ever before. Honestly though, I don’t think my last few years have been defined by broadening my horizons musically. In a way, I felt one at one point that listening to music or watching films was a waste of time, and that I should be listening to a lecture or reading instead. That’s the kind of space I’ve been in.
But the problem with thinking like that is that you miss out on the way music can enrich your soul. Through making music, if you can move someone to tears, then you can move them to action. If you can combine that deeply touching aspect of music with a political message that is trying to make a listener aware of a situation they may be entangled in, but don’t otherwise have awareness of, that’s powerful. My music is about visibilising those entanglements.
To some extent your music is about giving a voice to the voiceless. You’ve always tried to represent perspectives that won’t otherwise be heard. Why do you think that is so important?
Arundhati Roy has an amazing quote where she says: “there is no such thing as the voiceless, only the conveniently unheard”. So actually, I think that attributing voicelessness to people can take away their agency. There are those whose voices are censored or discounted, and whose narratives are marginalised. Now if over and above this endless cycle of consumption we live in, where companies are constantly competing for our attention, you can actually hear from people who pay the biggest price of the economic status quo, then why not amplify them? Right now, the world’s richest eight men are worth the same as half of humanity. That’s not an economic system that works. And if you connect with people on the losing side of that equation, and you consider yourself part of that disenfranchisement, then collectivising is the best way to further your interests.
Over the years there have been a few big moments where songs of yours connect with the public on a higher level because they are response to things going on in the world. One of them is “Ahmed ” (a one-off song, released in 2016), as a response to the mass tragedy of the migration crisis. Talk me through what drove you to come out of your break from music to make it.
In 2015 I’d been in Palestine, and then I went to work [in the refugee and migrant encampment] in Calais as a translator, mainly with Syrians and Iraqis there. I was deeply touched by the horrific situation. And one time we’d we’d been coming back to the UK, we passed through Dover, and there was a big demonstration of people in the streets protesting against immigrants. I got into a conversation with two women there. I was with a friend of mine, Kamal, who came from Afghanistan as a child but is, like me, more London than anything else. And the women kept referring to us as immigrants. One of them was angry because she has to wait for a long time to have an operation. But I asked her, who does she blame for that? Newcomers to the country, who have names she doesn’t know how to pronounce, and are from countries she’s never heard of because our curriculums actively miseducate us about British history? Or should we blame George Osborne who cut £50 million from the NHS? Well, it should be clear right? Anyway, I had people saying to me “f-off home you f-ing Paki” and yet I could explain that I have family living right up the road. More of my immediate family I know live in Dover than anywhere else on the planet!
Your white British family?
Yeah. Think about that juxtaposition: of coming from this place of working with people and trying to help their passage to safety — people were dying in that camp — and then you come back to Britain and you’re being told to go home. I said, where is home? My family are from an estate just up the road, the majority of them still live there. So that discord confronted me. Then I went home, woke up the next morning, and there was footage on the television of people being washed up on a beach in the Mediterranean. Now, across the last three decades, 34,000 people have died trying to get into Europe. A lot of people looked at my song “Ahmed” and thought it was about Alan Kurdi. But no, that’s not what I was saying. I was saying he’s not the only child that has died in this way. If we read out the number of people who have died trying to get to Europe we would be here for hours.
What about “Ghosts of Grenfell”?
In 2017 I already had music I was ready to put out. But then what happened in Grenfell happened. Invisible violence became visible. And I saw so many complexities that are inherent in British society at play. Still, nobody has been arrested here for it! The cladding companies are not household names, but they should be absolute pariahs! If you were to actually look at it, right, statistically: you are more likely in this country to die in a burning building because of its cladding than in a terrorist attack. But how many resources have been dedicated to making you scared of Muslims, to surveilling Muslims, to writing false studies which make you think they are rapists and killers because of what they believe, in comparison to regulating construction companies? I probably have spent more on promoting my album than the press has on reporting on these construction companies. And they literally killed people in front of my eyes. People I’ve known since they were kids.
Your tour launches this month, will you be going abroad too?
The last time I went properly abroad to perform was Australia and the States in 2011. But I can’t go to the States anymore because my visa was refused. Hopefully I can go to Australia soon. This tour is to Amsterdam, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as across England. It’s all a blessing. My grandfather from my family in Dover was a coal miner who earned £5 a week, and after that he drove a forklift. In the Western world, those are the two most dangerous jobs. But I’ll go on stage and rap about what I see as problems with the world for an hour and get paid a lot more than he did. One of the possible pitfalls of occupying this position, when you are in the business of words and you are a person who thinks for a living, a professional contrarian, is that you can actually forget how fortunate and blessed you are. So for me all of this is about remembering that this space is never guaranteed.
You can find Ciaran on Twitter.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.