Over four tumultuous years, north London rapper Awate says he beat four court cases against the police. His first arrest, he remembers, was for smoking a cigarette on his estate in Camden, and ended with several officers bundling him into a van in front of his friends, his dad and sister. Months later before the trial, comedian Frankie Boyle, who was already a fan of his music, found out that the only smart thing Awate owned was a blazer, so sent him a pair of trousers to look “presentable”. Awate didn't have any formal shoes so asked his friend, actor Daniel Kaluuya for a pair, as Daniel had just sued the police for doing the same thing to him in the same borough. Awate needed the shoes for a further three trials, each of which he won, making it Kaluuya’s shoes: four; Metropolitan Police: nil. Awate is yet to return the shoes, just in case.
But we’re interested in the story behind his music, going beyond these headlines. Happiness, his laid-back debut album, was written and recorded during Awate’s time on bail, and is due out on Friday. At 26 minutes in full, it isn’t long, but as Awate puts it, “All happiness is short.” The production from Turkish Dcypha is J Dilla-like; warm bass lines, funky guitars and nostalgic drums, while Awate gives space to breath between his lyrics, allowing you the time to appreciate his message. Hip-hop can tells stories of street life based on the personal experience of those who’ve lived it, but Awate incorporates more into his work than roadman felonies.
Born in Saudi Arabia to Eritrean freedom fighters, he arrived in London a refugee and later found himself involved with radical left wing activism in the capital. His arrest at an anti-fascist demonstration in Cricklewood is caught on camera and opens the video to his 2016 single “Out Here.” And these themes, of the places where politics becomes less about what someone posh is saying in Westminster and more about how power is dispersed through communities, permeates his music. At a quiet café near the Maiden Lane estate where he was first arrested, we caught up with the guy Idris Elba once name-dropped in an interview with us, to find out more about his battles in court, his refugee identity and why Eritrea is his Wakanda.
Noisey: In 2010, you accidentally opened up for Jay Electronica – grabbing the mic and spitting bars to the crowd when DJ Semtex’s decks stopped working. Are you still as hungry as that 19-year-old?
Awate: I'm more hungry. I'm 26, I'm not young anymore. That's something that in periods of self-doubt, becomes more and more prominent. There's an expiry on blackness.
What do you mean by that?
Black kids are treated as adults from a much earlier age. In terms of creativity and a genre like hip-hop, which is still young and popping, beyond 30, I think you're seen as a little less relevant.
That reminds me of the Tupac lines Kendrick Lamar used on “Mortal Man”: “Once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man, out of a black man, in this country. And you don’t wanna fight no more.”
To some extent. I’m way less reckless now. As a black person, and the environment I come from, loads of my friends are in jail and my cousins are gone. I used to think people who were old were 30. Then I thought, 'wow I made it to 21, maybe I can make it to 25'. After that you start seeing older black people, your mentors or your peers from your area, and you see they've got jobs and kids, you start to speak to them, and you see, ‘ah, he went to university much older, she’s got her business popping, he works at some cool place.’ You start to see the long term, that there are actually things to live for.
Your experiences with the criminal justice system are a major part of your life and influence your music. How much do you think a young man growing up in London is in control of his environment?
I could have moved drugs and I decided not to, because I wanted to be a rapper at 12 and had always thought, ‘I don't want to go to jail and fuck that dream up.' But the same thing still happened to me. The same people who arrested my bredrens arrested me and then lied about me. In all their statements, the same CPS people, the same feds who were put in front of my friend's cases were put in front of mine. I went through the same experience even though I hadn't done anything. It doesn't matter what you do. You can be a goody-two-shoes and not hit the street life, but state violence will still find you. You’ll still be dealt mental trauma and the same pressures as the guys on road. I might as well have been shotting and making extravagant music videos this entire time. It stalled my life for three and a half years, the justice process.
You quote Fred Hampton, a Black Panther who was assassinated at 21, on your single “Ghetto.” Tell me more about your interest in him.
I'd been reading black shit since I was like, 11, but I started seeing quotes from him for the first time when I was 19. Everything he said was true, about fascism destroying us, how you can't fight capitalism with Black capitalism. You have to fight it with socialism and care and love – not the thing itself. This guy's right! I was consumed by him. I contextualise hip-hop as being a descendent or part of that same struggle the Black Panthers were involved in. The dreams never came through, things fell apart. The parents or uncles of my favourite rappers were either in jail, on the run, or assassinated, like Nas’, Tupac's. Kanye's parents were Black Panthers. 50 Cent’s parents were part of the Great Migration; the reason I am a refugee from Africa is the same reason they were refugees from the South. It’s all a continuation – we are the children of a failed revolution.
How much do you feel the label you’re given as a “political rapper” fits? Is it a misnomer?
100 percent. It's so lazy. It's not my fault I'm black, it's not my fault I'm a refugee, it's not my fault I'm working class. If I just express myself in any way, it is labelled "political". I am not allowed to not be political, I don't have that privilege. Because of who I am, I'm not going to talk about brands and my Instagram profile, I'm going to talk about court cases and the beautiful perseverance in my communities.
What do you make of the “conscious rapper” label when it’s applied more broadly?
It’s reductive. It means, ‘don't listen to this if you want to hear something that will make you feel good,’ and that pisses me off. I make music about triumph and self-determination, 'we're still here! That's amazing.’ Can you not be a street poet who grew up hard and had to fight to survive but who also reads books? They don't want a multifaceted black person.
You wrote about the horrific Grenfell Tower fire for the Guardian . What sort of link do you see between the estate you grew up on and the neglected, now-destroyed tower?
When people talk about social housing, council housing, no one cares. When people say, 'we need more council housing', we need to be demanding more details - more housing made of what? Designed by who? Otherwise we're just going to end up with more death traps. We might talk about safety, but no one discusses quality of life. That's something my estate benefitted from – we had a community centre in the estate and we all seemed connected because the architecture geometrically linked us all together. It's the last estate as part of the Camden Great Estates; Sydney Cook was the lead architect, Benson and Forsyth designed it.
In “Jewels” you say, “I'm from a place where I've never been” – meaning Eritrea. How do you feel about the country?
I have a version of Eritrea that doesn't exist, that I've invented. Everyone’s got their own version - whatever your parents tell you about the homeland, you create your own version of it. For me it's like Wakanda. I'm from an east African country that is completely secluded. My idea of blackness is something I've constructed. There weren't that many British black examples in my generation growing up. In the generation before there were, and now there's more. When I was growing up there wasn't a Real McCoy or Desmond’s. There were two seasons of Cleopatra’s Comin’ Atcha, so we had to borrow from America a lot. The younger generation don't have to do that now.
Do you consider yourself a refugee, still?
Yeah. Definitely. I wasn't born here, I'm double diaspora. I was born in Saudi Arabia, but I'm ethnically Eritrean. I'm Muslim. I'm from Camden, this weird republic of madness.
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