It's a typically grey Saturday evening in Glasgow's south side, where punters are beginning to drift towards the many local boozers. McNeill's sports bar, with its shabby exterior and tinted windows, would ordinarily look like the most unremarkable of all, but for the incongruous banner pinned to the top of the stairs – black and red flags draped across each other, bearing the words “Antifaschistiche Aktion.” Within hours, curious locals, denim-clad punks and LGBTQ activists pack out the wee pub's tiny function room. But the reason the 100-strong audience has assembled is more unexpected: a card stacked with local hip-hop artists.
In Scotland, overt displays of anti-fascism are usually associated with punk – artists like Oi Polloi and The Wakes have international followings. Very few hip-hop artists, though, have gained any mainstream exposure. But for those paying attention, Scotland's hip-hop scene has long been a valuable way for working-class communities to articulate struggle and offer social commentary, invoking the tenets established at the culture's inception. If New York hip-hop was born from communities devastated by rampant neo-liberal economics, it follows that a city with as radical a history as Glasgow would have its own Public Enemies and Immortal Techniques.
The 2014 independence referendum in particular sparked political mobilisation in the genre as more rappers grew vocal about their role in bringing about positive change. And since, artists' dialogue with the activists combatting the far-right has become more pronounced around the country. Ali Ryland, a 26-year-old student at tonight's gig, says there's an audience for it. “It makes sense because there's a left-wing community here,” she says. “I listen to left-wing hip-hop like The Coup or The QELD. I listen for the lyrics and I like anything that's anti-fascist or left wing.”
Others like Alex Docherty, 21, who raps as Glesgadelic, see music as the ideal carrier for the ideology they believe in. “It's not enough to counter the far-right through a legal perspective,” says Alex. “There needs to be an alternative presence. Hip-hop is very political genre and about communicating a message.”
The far-right has failed to make inroads in Glasgow in the same way it has down south, but radical left groups here remain vigilant. Members of Interregnum, the anarchist collective organising tonight's gig, ask not to be interviewed. Their reticence is understandable: Govanhill, where McNeill's is based, has been described as a “ghetto” and “slum” in the right-wing press, while the significant Roma community puts up with being targeted by bigotry. Many of the people I meet tonight see this show as an opportunity to come together and express solidarity: one activist says he's wary of talking about his views as he's been doxxed by fascists in the past. Ilora, 19, another attendee, tells me: “I'm not interested in music at all – it's purely the anti-fascism.”
Feminist group Glasgow GAG, covered in warpaint, kick things off by calling out misogyny and demanding women be at the forefront of the anti-fascist movement. Their multimedia display, called ‘Fist You!’, goes on to combine thundering drum patterns with a slideshow of punchy feminist slogans and rapid-fire images of women in balaclavas. For a moment, the night overall could almost be mistaken for a rally: people raise fists, someone unfurls a rainbow Antifa flag in the corner of the room, and a representative from the International Workers of the World union passes around leaflets to audience members. The intense atmosphere is broken by Edinburgh’s Tickle, who sends the front row wild when he remixes Dead Prez's anti-capitalist anthem “Hip Hop” with his own lyrics: “I get my dinner from the chip shop, chip shop...”
Strikingly, none of tonight's artists share a uniform politics: Tickle supported Jeremy Corbyn at a “festival for socialism” last summer; gravelly-voiced Glaswegian Mark McGhee, performing as Jackal Trades, campaigned for Scottish independence; and slam poet-cum-rapper Bram Gieben describes himself as an existential dissident who “believes in the collapse of society”. Then there's Johnny Cypher, headlining with his crew Futurology tonight, who sees hip-hop as a form of activism in itself. Over the past year, he's facilitated political discussion at spoken word nights and run workshops on how everything from music to graffiti tagging to breakdancing can empower local communities.
“Hip-hop's a good vehicle for anti-fascism because it's much less censored. It's more direct – you can just say what you're thinking,” he says. “While Antifa is more a sort of group that's on the front lines fighting far-right groups, I think hip-hop is very good at communicating ideas. It's hard to have an anti-fascist party; it's pretty easy to have an anti-fascist gig.”
Johnny's comments touch upon one of the key themes of the evening: education. As the gig progresses and the room grows sweatier, the lyricism too becomes more didactic. Futurology trade double-time flows and rhymes about environmental collapse and the vacuity of party politics while Jackal Trades rails against automation and loss of agency under corporate control. To cap it all, Texture delivers relentlessly nihilistic verses set in a bleak dystopian future over heavy, synth-laden production.
The topics covered might be serious and weighty, but they reflect the sense of urgency felt by the participants involved. “A lot of us on the left have been feeling pretty powerless about the far-right,” Texture tells me. “I think that's some really disturbing shit. I'm old enough to remember the anti-Nazi league and Rock against Racism the first time around.”
He also warns against complacency in the scene about the struggles ahead. Though Glasgow's more demographically homogeneous than many cities down south, districts like Govanhill have been targeted by racists precisely because they’re so ethnically diverse. Can Scotland’s overwhelmingly white hip-hop scene engage meaningfully with these issues? “We're standing in Govanhill, which has a very multicultural community, and with that comes certain challenges and I think hip-hop must be a dialogue with that”, Texture continues. “I have seen people spitting bars on Facebook that are racist and homophobic, so I think that consciousness has to be kept in hip-hop as a current.” With more than £400 of donations raised tonight going towards future events, activists here at least appear to be in it for the long haul.
Johnny notes that “nobody is under the illusion that rap alone can defeat fascism,” but there's a sense these nights are emboldening the hip-hop community, expanding its cultural remit and serving as a platform for activism. I hear talk of an anti-fascist hip-hop festival in the city, planned for late November, with artists from various countries invited to appear and the emphasis expected to move towards political education and direct action.
The scale of tonight’s success is evident by the time everyone trundles downstairs and on to the street for fresh air, fags and their last trains home. Some locals drinking downstairs in the saloon bar look a little bemused, but it’s not only trendy youngsters spilling out the venue. At 57, Greek anarchist Maria is one of the older guests present tonight and admits to having “little knowledge of Scottish rap”. Yet she sums up what seems to be the prevailing ethos of the project better than anyone: “Anti-fascism is not just people walking around with banners – that's not doing anything. We need to integrate it into the politics of what we do. With hip-hop, we're creating a scene and a space.”
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