Wreckage of imperialism & neoliberalism with rapper, Lowkey
In this week’s On Contact program, Chris Hedges talks to the rapper, Lowkey, about his artistic work and political activism.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss the wreckage of neoliberalism, state terrorism, and resistance with the rapper Lowkey.
L: What I try to do through my music is two main things. Assert collective agency, number one, and that is the confronting of the culture of power with the power of culture. And then the second issue is about affirming a commitment and a loyalty to the dead, and an opposition to the injustice which took their lives. In a way, it's an attempt to make audible the anguish of a mother singing to an empty bed and expose the pious hypocrisies that emptied that bed of her loved one. And I think that looking at that way that one can harness music as a tool in that process, it gives people strength because they understand the realities that they're facing.
CH: Great Britain is beset by the same kind of polarization and mounting racism as the United States. Brexit, like Trump's promise of a wall, is a weapon aimed at immigrants and people of color, used to mainstream Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism. A staggering 71% of people from black and minority communities in Great Britain say they have faced racial discrimination. Great Britain which, like the United States, suffers from deindustrialization. Draconian austerity measures that have seen social and public services cut or diminished, and high unemployment and underemployment has been on the downward spiral since the Iraq War and the so-called War on Terror. Civil liberties have been eroded. Politics has become as hate-filled and toxic as it has in the United States. Joining me in the studio in London to look at the wreckage of neoliberalism, state terrorism, and austerity that has infected Great Britain is one of Great Britain's most talented and courageous artist, the rapper Lowkey. He has built a following in the millions despite often having his searing, truthful, and immensely moving work banned from the airwaves. We will end the show with one of his many masterpieces Terrorist? So what you do, I think like a great artist, is through your music, express the trauma that a disenfranchised population has experienced and turns it into--in this case, a piece of music that empowers them. How--explain that process, how it works.
L: Well, firstly, I wanted to say thank you so much for having me, Chis. Your work has really been inspiring to me and often solace really in difficult moments. In terms of how one comes to use their trauma for conversion really into a collective energy, I kind of take a lot of inspiration from the words of James Baldwin when he actually said that, "Your pain is trivial except in so much as you're able to use it to connect to the pain of others. And it is through that that you can release yourself from that pain." Essentially, what I try to do through my music is two main things. Assert collective agency, number one, and that is the confronting of the culture of power with the power of culture. And then the second issue is about affirming a commitment and a loyalty to the dead, and an opposition to the injustice which took their lives. In a way, it's an attempt to make audible the anguish of a mother singing to an empty bed and expose the pious hypocrisies that emptied that bed of her loved one. And I think that looking at that way that one can harness music as a tool in that process, it gives people strength because they understand the realities that they're facing. When you look at, for instance, the Schedule 7 Terrorism Act, the fact is that 80% of the people that have been stopped under this draconian measure which...
CH: And you've been stopped under this.
L: I have. Is 80% of the people are of minoritized communities who are just 13% of this population. When you look at prevent measures which have stopped children racialized as Muslim as young as three, and children under the age of nine have been taken out of classes and questioned by police without the presence of their parents about their feelings regarding the Middle East. When you compare that to the fact that according to someone like Chris Hunter, terrorism expert who advised the British government on their security issues, your chances of being caught in a terrorist attack in this country are one in sixteen million. According to Europol between 2006 and 2013, the percentage of terrorist attacks which were carried out by Muslims was 9.7%. So in comparison to the actual threat to human life and the way that it is dealt with by the state, you know, you're looking at a budget of 816 million pounds annually that counter-terrorism gets in this country. And, of course, it disproportionately targets people, you know, according to Marc Sageman, who's former employee of the CIA that worked on terrorism, less than one in every million Muslims has anything to do with political violence. We know that 70% of the terrorist--terrorism convictions in this country have been for nonviolent stuff, whether it's having material which is deemed to be outside of the norm or the acceptable norm, so...
CH: So you have a song on the Grenville...
L: Grenfell. Yeah.
CH: You explained what happened, but, as you point out quite correctly, these are the real terrorists.
L: Yeah. Well, I mean, the...
CH: Like, explain for the American audience what happened. This was a fire in a public--but just explain. And then explain why you quite correctly name the people who put the company--put people's lives--extinguishes human life.
L: Yeah. Yeah. Well, essentially, on June 14th, 2017, a building called Grenfell Tower--it's believed to have been named after a British colonial officer, Francis Wallace Grenfell. It contained public housing. There were over 10 leaseholders in there. People that owned their properties. But the area in general was under threat of gentrification and being demolished. The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was part of that project. And, in fact, people in the wider area and you know the people that died in there were my neighbors, we considered Grenfell to be the only safe building from demolition because it had been refurbished in the way that it had. But that refurbishment was actually the nail in its coffin. It was fitted with Arconic PE Reynobond cladding, which contains six millimeters of polyethylene in the center of it, in between--sandwiched in between aluminium plates. It also contained Celotex RS5000 insulation, which both of these it is now clear were very, very flammable and very, very dangerous to human lives. So at the point when fire began to spread at really unusual speed, unfortunately, the fire brigade kept to the "Stay Put" policy far longer than they should have. Of course, it's important to know that the fire brigade has been the victim of really serious austerity, over million pounds cut, a thousand jobs cut. But they were not, in any way, ready to deal with it. We're talking now about over 400 buildings across the country that are believed to have this same ACM Arconic cladding on it, from hospitals to schools to cinemas. And that fire in 2017 led to the deaths of 72 people inhaling cyanide and whatnot. But, unfortunately, rather than the conversation in the corporate media being about whether companies like Arconic, US construction company, or Celotex, a French construction company, have the right to fit dangerous materials on buildings, it's about were the Muslims have the right to live in social housing in North Kensington. Let's not forget that it's now looking like 200,000 people across the country are exposed to the same materials. The walls are now potentially a weapon--well, not a weapon. You'd say the walls are now potentially a serious--seriously detrimental to human life.
CH: And that song, like most of your work, was not only a validation of the voices of, you know, those that have been pushed aside--Chomsky calls them the unpeople. It's not that they don't have a voice, it's that they're denied a voice. There's a play by August Wilson, Joe Turner, Come and Gone. I don't know if you know it. But he is dealing with it. It's set in 1910. Great African-American playwright. And he's talking about how the people fleeing north from the trauma of lynching and the aftermath of slavery. And he talks--actually uses--he says, you know, you have--there's a conjurer in the play, and he keeps telling them that they have to find their song, that they will only be whole when they find their song. And I want to explore that idea with you as an artist, that--and because I see that is what you're doing, is essentially you are--you are holding up their song. And why--it--and even it--such as your Grenfell Tower song, there's a recognition of the marginalization, the demonization, the racism, and the pain, and yet it grounded in that reality. I think it offers a kind of hope. Why?
L: Uh-hmm. Well, I would say one thing that James Baldwin said about the role of the artist was that the role is to elevate the moment that a child is born above all other moments, and that to implore the society to see that moment as more sacred than any other moment. And so within all of these processes when they play out, there is a logic which underlies it. And that is the glorification of profit and the degradation of human life. Now if you invert that logic and glorify human life, and also not just that, historicize the victories that are won, because the way that this violence functions is attritional, and along the way there are also attritional victories. And so if you can find a way to couch what you're doing in the existing social movements of the time--you know, for me, there's always been a tension between whether the work that I'm doing exists outside of the material conditions and the struggles which are playing out. It's important to bond the music to it and allow the music to be a component of the wider social movement. And so, for me, that was a really important thing with that track, and to really give people--empower their resistance.
CH: How do you prevent it from becoming agitprop?
L: Well, again, I think, you know, one really powerful thing that Eduardo Galeano said was that a tombstone is actually vertical whereas the grave is horizontal looking up at the sky. The tombstone is looking out at the rest of the world and speaking for the dead to a certain extent. Now, in the neighborhood following the Grenfell fire, we had been caught in what some refer to as a case of hauntology. So it is a nostalgia for futures lost. A constant state of anticipation for more just futures. Much like the Palestinians after 1948. Much like many Iraqis after 2003. There is a point at which we cannot move forward from that date. Now, while I think there is an importance to have a coherence to your political message that sometimes being part of a wider political movement can give you, you do sometimes run the risk--like, someone like [INDISTINCT] who was assassinated here in London, of course, when that overarching political project may deviate in some way, and your artistic freedom may brush up against the limits of that political movement. It is important to have that freedom in what you're doing to not be completely chiseled to the leadership of a political movement. But, at the same time, I do think it's important to be aware that it is serving a wider and more important case. But I would say the way in which it differentiates itself from agitprop or propaganda in that way, is that it's about the sanctity human life. It's not about the elevation of political figures. It's about the sanctity of human life.
CH: [INDISTINCT] point. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about art and resistance with rapper, Lowkey. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about art and resistance with the rapper, Lowkey. Emma Goldman said that great art makes ideas, well, let's extend it, in justices felt. That's why totalitarian regimes are so frightened of authentic artists such as yourself. The song that we're going to end the show with was virtually blacklisted, I think. Was that--I mean, it real--didn't get any play on any commercial or mainstream.
L: That's right. Uh-hmm.
CH: You yourself have been targeted. I believe you attempted to go on tour in the United States. I'll let you explain what happened.
L: Well, my visa was refused in the United States. And that's not particularly surprising to me when I think of the myriad of ways that people that are racialized in--as Muslims during the War on Terror period are demobilized by, not just the forces of the deep state, but also the mainstream media. There's a symbiotic relationship between them, whether it's the passing of legislation, whether it's the curtailing of freedom of speech in institutions, whether it's having your talks cancelled in different places. Merely thinking critically about British foreign policy at this time enters you into what they call pre-criminal space. And so you are bringing yourself under the gaze of the deep surveillance state. So I'm not surprised that, you know, the United States, under Trump, would not allow me to have a visa to come and perform and talk about the things I speak about in my music.
CH: And what about the way--I mean, you've been very vocal about Israeli war crimes and what's happened to the Palestinian people. How within Great Britain have they attempted to marginalize you as an artist?
L: Well, I think it's about policing language. So what it says is it's defining the terms of which you can discuss the oppression of the Palestinian people. So you can talk about Benjamin Netanyahu and you can even talk about the Israeli government, but you can't question the underlying logic of Zionism. You can't problematize that. And I think that it is that exact job that an artist should serve, is to--is to destabilize those pious hypocrisy. And so when we look at the way in which Britain, as a state, is directly involved in the siege of [INDISTINCT] the drones that Israel used through the selling of components for sniper rifles, which are now being used to target civilians in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. You know, this is something that you as an artist are put into a position where you make a clear choice. If I talk about this kind of anti-racism, which is anti-racism which supports the Palestinians right to return, for example, UN Resolution 194, is their right supposedly under International law to return. If you draw of those connections then you will find yourself ghettoized outside the earshot of the masses. And so that has really been a process that has played out for me across my career, definitely.
CH: Well, nevertheless, you've built a kind of following, quite a--quite a large following. But, you know, to a certain extent, it's underground.
CH: I want to talk a little bit as we--before we go in about this amazing song you did, Terrorism?, which we're going to play. I have the lyrics. You're a great poet.
L: Thank you.
CH: But just talk a little bit about that song [INDISTINCT]
L: Well, so, if we compare the chances of dying due to terrorism, to say for example, across the last nine years. A hundred and thirty thousand people have died from preventable reasons due to austerity. By the way, at the same time, the wealth of the--a thousand richest people in this country, the combined wealth has increased by 500 billion. Half of the land in this country is owned by one percent of this country. If you compare your likelihood in dying from terrorism to your likelihood in dying from austerity, it's clear that you're far more likely, statistically, to die from austerity than to die from terrorism. The Muslim has provided a cash cow for the arms companies. And we can even see it with Frank Gaffney, you know, the author of Trump's Muslim Ban really, or credited with being responsible for it, being funded by Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin. There is a real marriage of interest. We look at an organization like Middle East Forum that funded Tommy Robinson here. They are funded by Donors Capital Fund which takes its money from the Koch brothers. So there is a real marriage of interest when we think about the arms companies, the fossil fuel industry, and this propagation of a mythology of the perennial enemy which is the Muslim.
CH: Also--I mean, if we--I mean, I spent seven years the Middle East, and I speak as an American, the American Military and the British have decapitated far more people including children than ISIS has ever decapitated.
L: That's right.
CH: And that is in this piece that you write. This is what you lift up. This reality of all of these people who have been murdered but, at the same time, have been demonized.
L: Yeah. I mean, Mahmoud Darwish in one of his greatest poems, [SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE] Think of Others, he says, [SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE] "When you liberate yourself with metaphors, think of others, those that lost their right to speak." And that really compels me to make this music.
CH: And that's what--we're going to do it now. And, yeah, stunning work.
L: Thank you so much.
L: Thank you, Chris. But kill a wog from the Middle East you're a hero. Your country is causing screams that are never reaching ear holes. America inflicted a million ground zeros. Every day, every day, every day, every day, every day. So we must ask ourselves what is the dictionary definition of terrorism? "The systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion." But what is terror? According to the dictionary I hold in my hand, "Terror is violent or destructive acts, such as for me, committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands. So what's a terrorist? They're calling me a terrorist. Like they don't know who the terror is. When they put it on me, I tell them this. I'm all about peace and love. Peace love. They calling me a terrorist. Like they don't know who the terror is. Insulting my intelligence. Oh, how these people judge. People judge. It seems like the Rag-heads and Pakis are worrying your Dad. But your dad's favorite food is curry and kebab. It's funny but it's sad how they make your mummy hurry with her bags. Rather read The Sun than study all the facts. Tell me what's the bigger threat to human society, BAE Systems or homemade IEDs? Remote-controlled drones killing off human lives, or man with home-made bomb committing suicide? I know you were terrified when you saw the towers fall. It's all terror but some forms are more powerful. It seems nuts, how could there be such agony? When more Israelis die from peanut allergies. It's like the definition didn't ever exist. I guess it's all just depending who your nemesis is. Irrelevant how eloquent the rhetoric peddler is. They're telling fibs, now tell us who the real terrorist is. They're calling me a terrorist. Like they don't know who the terror is. When they put it on me, I tell them this. I'm all about peace and love. Peace and love. They calling me a terrorist. Like they don't know who the terror is. Insulting my intelligence. Oh, how these people judge. People judge. Lumumba was democracy. Mossadegh was democracy. Allende was democracy. Hypocrisy, it bothers me. Call you terrorists if you don't want to be a colony. Refuse to bow down to a policy of robberies. Is terrorism my lyrics? Is it? When more Vietnam vets kill themselves after the war than die in it. This is very basic. One nation in the world has over a thousand military bases. They say it's religion, when clearly it isn't. It's not just Muslims that oppose your imperialism. Is Hugo Chavez a Muslim? Nah. I didn't think so. Is Castro a Muslim? Nah. I didn't think so. It's like the definition didn't ever exist. I guess it's all just depending who your nemesis is. Irrelevant how eloquent the rhetoric peddler is. They're telling fibs, now tell us who the terrorist is. They're calling me a terrorist. Like they don't know who the terror is. When they put it on me, I tell them this. I'm all about peace and love. Peace and love. They calling me a terrorist. Like they don't know who the terror is. Insulting my intelligence. Oh, how these people judge. People judge. You think that I don't know, but I know, I know, I know. You think that we don't know, but we know. Was building 7 terrorism? Was nano thermite terrorism? Diego Garcia was terrorism. I am conscious the Contras were terrorism. Phosphorous that burns hand, that is terrorism. Irgun and Stern Gang that was terrorism. What they did in Hiroshima was terrorism. What they did in Fallujah was terrorism. Mandela ANC that was terrorism. Gerry Adams IRA that was terrorism. Erik Prince Blackwater was terrorism. Oklahoma McVeigh that was terrorism. Everyday USA that is terrorism. Everyday UK, that is terrorism. Every day. Every day.
F: Every day, every day, every day, every day, every day, every day, every day. Ooh. Hey. You think that we don't know but we do.
J: Good evening, Achmed.
J: So you're a terrorist?
A: Yes. I am a terrorist.
J: What kind of terrorist?
A: A terrifying terrorist. Silence. I kill you.