Protest Music Now: My Interview with London Student Magazine Artefact as Lead Singer of The Four Fathers

29.5.18

Mark Quiney, Andy Worthington and Richard Clare of The Four Fathers playing at a protest against the DSEI arms fair in London's Docklands in September 2017.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.

 

A few months ago, I was delighted to be approached by Pavel Troughton, a student at London College of Communication (LCC), part of the University of the Arts London (UAL), who was writing an article about protest music for the student magazine Artefact. I promoted it at the time via social media, but I never got round to commenting on it here, so I thought now would be a good time, as my band The Four Fathers continue to play protest music, and to try to gauge what interest there is, or isn’t, in music that challenges the political realities of modern life, via the ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ gigs I’ve been organising, our appearances with bands like the Commie Faggots, who play theatrical singalong protest music, and our recordings, available via Bandcamp.

I met Pavel Troughton at a cafe near my home in Brockley, south east London, and we had a wide-ranging discussion about the role of protest music today, which is of great interest to me, as I grew up at a significant time for protest music, as a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s, not only following punk bands, post-punk bands and the Two-Tone movement, but also drawing on protest music from the 60s and early 70s as well. 

In Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and with the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s so comparatively recent, it was difficult not to be politicised at that time. Some of the punks pretended to be apolitical, but really that was an affectation. Of course, many musicians only pretended to be political to get laid or get rich (or both), as had also been true in the 60s and early 70s (does anyone really think the colossally materialistic hornbag Mick Jagger genuinely had any interest in being a ‘Street Fighting Man’, for example?), but political engagement and counter-cultural impulses were genuine in this period, and elements of that effortlessly survived into the 90s, when, after Margaret Thatcher’s eventual fall from grace, John Major struggled to maintain control of a country in which dissent was widespread, via the iconoclastic hedonism of the rave scene and the extraordinary pagan and anarchic energy of the road protest movement. For more on the above, feel free to check out my books Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield, which have chapters on this period in modern British history.

The biggest change, as I have frequently lamented over the last 20 years, came in 1997, with the election of Tony Blair and the start of the ‘New Labour’ project, which pretended to be of the people but was actually an old-fashioned project of corporate expansion and the creation of individual wealth that would, for the most part, have made Margaret Thatcher proud. And while the anti-globalisation movement was big at the end of the 90s, mass disruptive dissent was largely seen off by the clampdowns of the ”war on terror”, cynically imposed as a method of societal control after 9/11, while the corporations worked assiduously to remove politics from what passed for western culture, with the result that we can be left asking what has happened to protest music in general.

Troughton spoke to me about two of my recent songs — ‘Grenfell’, about the entirely preventable fire in west London last June, in which I lament those who lost their lives and call for those responsible — “those who only count the profit not the human cost” — to be held accountable, and ‘I Want My Country Back (From The People Who Wanted Their Country Back)’, about Brexit. A video of ’Grenfell’ is available here on YouTube and here on Facebook, and it currently has nearly 2,000 views. ‘I Want My Country Back’ is becoming a live favourite, but we haven’t recorded either song in a studio yet, although we hope to do so soon.

I was also pleased to be able to talk to Troughton about Lowkey, the British Iraqi rapper, based in the Grenfell area, who has refused to be co-opted by the mainstream media, and has cultivated his own extraordinary following independently. His powerful song ‘Ghosts of Grenfell’, with its equally powerful video, has had nearly 450,000 views on YouTube, and over 1.3m views on Facebook. 

Troughton also spoke to Anamik Saha, a lecturer at Goldsmith’s College, who pointed out that we also need to reflect on music that is political not necessarily though its explicit content, but through its context. He cites grime music as an example. As Troughton puts it, “this music is angry and is often about violence and money”, but “Saha argues that it’s these very traits which define the sound as political”, stating, “It’s the sound itself and how it represents rebellion and resistance or at least the voice of the marginalised.” 

Nevertheless, when Stormzy used his position to deliver a very public rebuke to Theresa May and the Tory government for their treatment of the Grenfell survivors at the Brit Awards show in February, his freestyling diatribe was, essentially, a piece of extremely high-profile protest music, and he then followed this up by encouraging his followers to sign a petition to the government urging additional members from the local community to be appointed to the official inquiry, which led to the petition being successful, and Theresa May being obliged to bow to to the community’s demands. 

I was also pleased to be able to explain to Troughton how, as he put it, I thought there had been “a big shift in mood, musically, politically and racially” in the US since Donald Trump became president, and mentioned to him how, when I I was in the States the night before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, “I had these friends that put together this organisation called ‘Refuse Fascism’, about what they perceive is the threat of Donald Trump and of Mike Pence. The ‘Refuse Fascism’ organisation put on a concert with a load of New York’s top jazz musicians.” I explained that “the majority of those musicians weren’t white”, and how “I could see that they knew what it meant to have a white racist in the White House.”

As Troughton described it, “Just like that, a sombre atmosphere descended across the country. The jazz musicians Worthington mentioned couldn’t have been a better metaphor for the rest of society. This is even more evident when looking at the size of the list of the musicians who refused to perform at the President’s inauguration. From Kiss to Kanye West, musicians were mirroring the thoughts of the people who were generally rejecting the new President, granted from the more left side of the spectrum politically.“

He added, “This throwback of racism doesn’t stop in America. It’s sad to say that we too in the United Kingdom have opted out of our self-made problems by blaming international immigrants. Worthington wrote the satirical song ‘I Want My Country Back (From The People Who Wanted Their Country Back).’” He explained that I pointed out that, “Since the 1980s communities around the UK have been treated with contempt by the government”, and he added, “Worthington understands that these people have a right to be angry but this anger was then directed at foreigners coming into the country, because immigration rates have risen over the past years, whereas the anger should have been directed at the government”, whose neo-liberal policies and the cynical austerity programme implemented after the global financial crash of 2008 are actually responsible for the poor jobs, the unemployment and the poverty that are at the root of so many people’s discontent.

Troughton also spoke to me about the influence of smartphones and social media on activism and political awareness. I told him, “We live in a very atomised, diverted time, everyone’s got a phone, you don’t have to be bored anymore.” As Houghton put it, “This means people are less worried about what is happening around them, leaving the decision making to a very [small] group of people. This produces a younger generation following social media idols who glamorise wealth over promoting a positive message.” As I put it, “I think a lot of the thrust of popular culture is about materialism and getting rich and that really isn’t going to change the world.”

Troughton added, “You only have to have a look at the charts to see this. Particularly the trap scene coming out of Atlanta, these guys are showing wealth and status unlike any other. Tirhakah Love describes this attitude in hip-hop as nihilistic. This is the music of influence right now breaking streaming records constantly. Just look at ‘Numb’ by 21 Savage with the lyrics, ‘Numb the pain with the money.’ 64 million streams on Spotify alone.”

I also spoke to Troughton about what he called “a story of the reality of the music business, perhaps a blockade in the way of true political and cultural reflection”, explaining how friends of mine in the US, the Bronx-based rappers and spoken word artists the Peace Poets, wrote a song called ‘I Can’t Breathe’ after the killing, by police, of Eric Garner, a black man living on Staten Island.

‘I Can’t Breathe’ became a huge grassroots anthem against police brutality, as the Black Lives Matter movement took off, and I was told that Beyoncé picked up on it, and was intending to sample it, and to use it in a song. But then, on July 7, 2016, a lone black gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, shot and killed five police officers and wounded nine others, and suddenly the Black Lives Matter movement was cynically tarnished, and Beyoncé dropped her plans because, as I put it, “suddenly it became politically contentious.” 

I added, “I used this example because it’s indicative of the power that the corporate music world has. Don’t do anything contentious because it will affect the money they’re all making.”

In general, I remain disappointed that so much of what passes for music culture in the UK — and generally throughout the West — is so devoid of political content. I’m enthusiastic about underground movements that don’t shy away from political engagement, either explicitly or as part of a general contextualised response to, say, poverty and police harassment, although I do worry about the ever-present temptation that the promise of wealth offers, which, in general, makes it increasingly hard for artists to “keep it real”, however much they pretend that this is not the case.

Do get in touch if you’re interested in discussing any of the above further, if you’d like to book The Four Fathers for a gig, and/or if you’re interested in putting on political gigs in general, featuring a variety of artists.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, featuring some reflections of mine on protest music, following on from an interview I did a few months ago for London student magazine Artefact. Interviewer Pavel Troughton was trying to gauge the current state of play regarding political music, and had taken an interest in the music of my band The Four Fathers, particularly asking me about recent songs ‘Grenfell’, about the entirely preventable fire in west London last June, and ‘I Want My Country Back (From The People Who Wanted Their Country Back)’, about Brexit.
    I think back to my formative years, when politics and music were regularly intertwined, and contrast that with the current situation, in which politics is largely absent in the world of mainstream music. I note, however, that it is very much alive in underground music, although there is, I fear, the ever-present danger that its strength will be undermined by materialism.
    I hope it’s of interest!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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