Intimacy: an interview with Low-Key
“I didn't go door to door but I don't necessarily rule it out for future campaigns. I don't rule that out as a possibility because I do think this is life or death.” Low-Key.
British-Iraqi rapper, Kareem Dennis, aka Low-Key, burst onto the political scene in 2009 during the Stop The War protests against Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, quickly establishing himself as a unique and uncompromising voice within UK hip-hop. At the age of 24, he had recorded a Fire in the Booth for BBC 1Xtra that would go on to strike more than 5 million hits on Youtube. In the same year, he participated in a US speaking tour with the American academic, Norman Finkelstein – his lyrics at the cutting edge of political debate.
By 26, Low-Key had amassed a Facebook following of 180,000 people before he disconnected his account, bowing out from the scene altogether to focus on his studies, resurfacing some 4 years later, at first discreetly, then more emphatically, during the UK’s snap election of 2017, when alongside grime artists and rappers including Stormzy, JME, Akala, AJ Tracey, he put his profile to the task of getting out the youth vote for Jeremy Corbyn, an intervention that proved decisive nowhere more than in his own constituency of Kensington and Chelsea where it helped to deliver an extraordinary Labour victory.
One week later, there was the Grenfell Fire, and the same streets across his neighbourhood became the scene of catastrophe. Now all that he and others had learned, during the election, about their political power, found new focus. Low-Key’s new album, Soundtrack to the Struggle 2, reflects that journey of the past 2 years. Here, he looks back to that summer of 2017 in the company of Ashish Ghadiali, and considers its impact on his creativity…
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Ash Ghadiali (AG): What led you to make that intervention during the general election of 2017?
Low-Key: It was seeing that we had a genuine alternative to a political class that has been dedicated to serving corporate power. As people used to throwing metaphorical molotovs from behind the barricades, we saw one of our number actually leading the Labour party.
AG: Did you ever have any anxiety that the decision might backfire? That you might be co-opted? Or that somehow the integrity of your own political message could end up being diluted by association with the Labour Party?
Low-Key: Not really. I'm not a supporter of the Labour Party. Whether it's Ramsay Macdonald's Social Imperialism, or Clement Atlee, who at the same time they were giving Britain the welfare state, the NHS, and doing great things, was also involved in a British campaign -– The Emergency as they called it – which had British soldiers posing with the heads of the people they were suppressing… I'm quite realistic about the Labour Party. I look at a leader like Keir Hardie, say, who asked the question at the entry point to World War I – “How is it that we can come to the defence of Belgium when Belgium is in fact responsible for the death of millions of people in the Congo as a colonial power?” I view Jeremy Corbyn as a Labour leader more in that vein.
It's about receptivity. Corbyn is more lock in step with the membership, especially now when 300,000 more people have joined the party because of him! Jeremy's more in rhythm with the membership, whereas the parliamentary party is not quite as accountable to the membership as we might hope it will become at some point. In terms of the question of political power and seeing myself as being co-opted, I feel it's about having people in positions like that who are receptive to social movements from below. Jeremy Corbyn has that.
Jeremy's more in rhythm with the membership, whereas the parliamentary party is not quite as accountable to the membership as we might hope it will become at some point.
We could spend the day sitting in a room on our own being pure, or we could actually put ourselves in a position where we have a chance to massively improve things. I'm in a position where I have a son now. If even one of the policies that Jeremy has put forward, let alone all of the other stuff, if for example he was just to take away tuition fees, and that was to be in place for my son, it would change his life. So it's a no-brainer really. Standing on the sidelines is a luxury that I just don't think we can afford at this stage.
AG: What you’re saying about engagement versus ideological purity could be true at any stage. You might have endorsed Ed Miliband…
Low-Key: I wouldn’t have!
AG: No, but you might have endorsed Ed Miliband...
Low-Key:…on that basis, yes…
AG: …to build up steam against David Cameron in 2015. But my sense is that you felt Ed Miliband was on the wrong side of the trench.
Low-Key: It's about neoliberalism. With or without the position he's in now, Jeremy Corbyn would be out there, demonstrating against... for instance Justice For Cleaners at SOAS University. Good friends of mine have been working for many years to bring them and their colleagues in-house and it has been something that has been really difficult and a lot of different tactics have been used by the university and by the French company that employed them to avoid giving them these important rights.
Upon their victory in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn, who had been a longtime supporter of their campaign, sent a message. John McDonnell came. This level, in my lifetime anyway, seems fairly unprecedented in terms of the Labour party leadership’s solidarity with grassroots campaigns. They are far more beholden to grassroots campaigns organised by people than someone like Ed Miliband might be.
To me, it didn't feel like Ed Miliband's constituency was the general population or that he was concerned with improving their situation. It felt to me like his constituency was the same as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's constituency. Let's not forget, Gordon Brown of all people has now said the neoliberal consensus is dead. Because of the way that we were able to propel Jeremy Corbyn. That's the reason he’s saying the neoliberal consensus is dead. You know the neoliberal framework has been imposed on people and now people have a clear choice to reject it. Ed Miliband didn't make 300,000 people join the Labour party, that's for sure…
AG: And that was the key part of your calculation? You were stepping up with the membership? It wasn't the party, the structure of the party?
Low-Key: No. And it's still not the party. And I'm not a member of the Labour party and I'm not necessarily even encouraging people to join the Labour party although I don't think it would be a terrible idea at this stage, because there are some battles that need to be waged. But, in the situation of an election with days to go, I thought, we have a real chance, a once in a lifetime opportunity here, and it would be wrong of me not to interject and try to get people to support him. It would be a difference between life and death. And I mean that.
When you look at the facts... Part of the domino effect that led to Grenfell was through the regulations act passed by Michael Heseltine and the Thatcher government in the 1980s. It was the changing of building regulations from over 300 pages to under 20 pages in the Thatcher era. These decisions that were being made came, two or three decades later, to have some bearing on people's lives. It was understanding the necro-political nature of this bi-partisan orthodoxy of neoliberalism and seeing that Corbyn was not one of them.
AG: Your contribution was also part of a collective contribution by other high profile artists in your constituency of Kensington and Chelsea.
Low-Key: Far higher profile than me. Can you imagine? JME, AJ Tracey, Akala, Stormzy. This is massive support. Not one of those people was doing it because the Labour Party paid them. Not one of them.
AG: And it turned Kensington and Chelsea.
Low-Key: Yeah. I don't think this has been recognised. Properly. It hasn't been written about properly. The fact that me, Akala, and AJ Tracey actually affected the election in Kensington…
AG: What needs to be said about it?
Low-Key: I think it's just worth putting those dots together. There was so much that people were writing about in the direct aftermath and people were still surprised that it had happened. It was a very small amount of votes. I think it was less than 50. It's one of those things that would be difficult to quantify. But I'm pretty sure that our intervention at that point had an effect... especially on the level of the younger people in the area. I knew a lot of young people. I was saying, look, go register to vote, go on, do it, and they did it, they voted. They wouldn't have voted. I know. I know because I've talked to them every day. They would not have viewed a Labour party led by Ed Miliband as different enough to justify their participation.
AG: What qualified you guys to be that agent of change?
Low-Key: A crude free-marketeer would describe it as social capital. We have each got Fire in the Booths that have over 4 million views. So while these young people we were talking to might not have participated in an election before, they would have definitely watched a Fire in the Booth. We, through years of work, had gained an intimacy with those young people – in the way they understand the world, in the way that they think about things. We spoke to them in a language that no politicians, or very few, spoke to them. They saw us support causes that mattered to them. They'd seen us in the area on a regular basis. We'd played football with them, we'd been in youth clubs with them, we'd taught them lessons. We'd helped them.
Especially when it comes to me and Akala, there's many young people that we'd see in the area and try to help in different ways. There's that level of trust, so when coming out and advocating for something, they know we're not doing it for an ulterior motive. They know we're not doing it because someone has paid us to do it. We're not known for doing silly advertising campaigns. We're not known for taking money from massive corporations to try and persuade these kids to buy something they don't need. When they hear us actually advocating for somebody, they think, you know, oh, it makes sense.
You have to remember, about Jeremy Corbyn as well, that he’s also very very well known and has held his constituency longer than I've been alive, and is literally known for helping people on a myriad of things from immigration cases to housing. That's his reputation. He has a good reputation as a politician with integrity. We also are fortunate to have good reputations in the areas from which we came. So when we're coming forward and advocating for him it's more likely to be believable.
AG: What concretely did you do?
Low-Key: I think I could have done a lot more actually. First off, I was part of a campaign to try to get people to register to vote. I did a video supporting that. I then did an interview which ended up being the beginning of the initiative of Double Down News. Originally it hadn't been intended to be Double Down News. It was just an interview I had done with a friend of mine and I said look we need to get this information out there, we need to make clear to people that this is a direct departure from this neoliberal path to hell that we're on.
I said I'd do interviews with anyone and everyone that will interview me. I did an interview with The Canary. I did one or two really counter-productive interviews actually. I remember the day before the election having a ridiculous interview with someone that just wanted to compare Jeremy Corbyn to Barack Obama. I thought it was a really silly question because if you look at either of their voting records, obviously Corbyn's is a lot bigger because Obama hadn't been in Congress for as long as Corbyn had been in parliament. But if you look at their voting records you clearly see a massive difference. (That’s kind of beside the point.) I did interviews and stuff like that. I didn't go door to door but I don't necessarily rule it out for future campaigns. I don't rule that out as a possibility because I do think this is life or death.
AG: So actually the intervention was totally connected with a technology that was only just being discovered in this election really?
Low-Key: Completely. And the reason that I've been fortunate enough that people remember my intervention was because of the Double Down video. Over the course of two days it led to something like 4 million views on facebook which is... views on facebook are kind of passive so often people don't necessarily have the sound on or people don't necessarily keep on watching it for long so the views can go quite high quite quickly. The videos don't necessarily have a very long life but they do have quite a high level of virality and that was what happened with that video. People remembered the intervention and, you know, took it to be something significant, it seems. Some did.
AG: So in a way those Fire in the Booth videos really were indicative, right? People knew you because of the videos, but actually the videos themselves were a kind of precursor illustrating the way that a new form of political power could work…
Low-Key: That's right. I do think it's also the fact that we had years of building up a relationship of trust. Why is it that corporations and politicians are always trying to co-opt figures from the arts or cultural figures? It’s because they have a more clean, or they’re perceived to have a more clean relationship with their audience. It's not a relationship which is based on getting something out of the audience necessarily. When you look at independent artists like we were then, like I say, the relationship is defined by more intimacy and more trust.
When you look at independent artists like we were then, like I say, the relationship is defined by more intimacy and more trust.
AG: You owned the whole process, right? It wasn't like you signing up to go and do a party political broadcast for the Labour party. You were creating media with people you knew saying what you felt and describing the action you felt was needed. Right?
Low-Key: And we were people who had been testing the limits of our political system across this last decade and a half. That’s what we've been doing. We are subversives and dissenters who have run up against the edges of the political system… We’re always asking the question - how much will it give, this system? And now we have seen someone who can go above and beyond what we thought were the limits of it. I didn't release anything in any way, shape or form with the Labour Party. AJ Tracey did, which is an even more explicit endorsement. But myself and Akala did not. We used our own platforms and we, yeah, we did it that way. We were quite clear about it.
AG: It sounds like you're not ruling out that other avenue in the future?
Low-Key: No, I generally wouldn't do it. I don't think it's necessary to make the point that I want to make. I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.
AG: Then a week later… You know you won Kensington and Chelsea which was...
AG: And then there was this...
AG: …this nightmare in Grenfell.
Low-Key: That's right.
AG: You had learnt a lot about your own power during the weeks before. And that had impacted the course of the election. How did what you had learnt inform your response to Grenfell?
Low-Key: It was the height of optimism and then the height of despair and pain really in the space of one week. I felt you know, things can really change. We're really now in with a chance. And then of course the fire happened. In a way, it was a kind of vindication to some extent of the things I was saying. In one of the interviews I did about Corbyn I said it will be a difference between life or death if we lose…
It was the height of optimism and then the height of despair and pain really in the space of one week.
Something I remember about the refurbishment to Grenfell. When it was going on, Margaret Thatcher died. Someone had written RIP MAGGIE on the board around the tower. Someone had then crossed out the RIP and wrote FU MAGGIE. It's weird. There's something poetic about it that her mark, in some way...
Because if we're talking about politicians it's very difficult, despite the fact that legally the duty of care returns to the government, it's very difficult to directly attribute blame and responsibility for the fire to a politician. We can, when we're talking about companies, be really clear about who was responsible for what. But really it was an idea. It was the adoption of this way of viewing public institutions and this way of viewing labour, of this pitting of the global forces of labour against each other and into direct competition. It was this that Margaret Thatcher was a zealous advocate for and a fundamentalist in that way. Her fingerprint was still on Grenfell Tower.
AG: What did you do?
Low-Key: You mean when the fire happened? I mean it's just an absolute nightmare man. I... My wife was sleeping. I saw it happening out of the window. At first I had heard fire engines. I saw one in the street, then saw people in the street. And I hadn't been looking at my phone. I had just been writing a list of things to do (laughs) and saw people gathering, but didn't look up to the right at what they were gathering around or looking up at and they were in their pyjamas and then I looked to the right and I saw Grenfell on fire.
It was quite early in the fire but it was spreading upwards and then obviously I went down into the street and I woke up my wife, you know the cladding the Celotex insulation which now turns out - number one was giving off cyanide, but – number two could possibly be carcinogenic – was raining down on us. It was all over our hair. That's why I say in one of my songs, black snow on a summer's night, because that's what actually was happening. The whole street was covered in it. Like it was snow.
Talking to people. Saying oh my god, is that person in there? Is that person in there? Has that person got out? I found out early on that my friend Ed had escaped who was one of the main figures in the Grenfell Action Group and had predicted the fire and had been active in the campaign against the regeneration of Silchester Estate – Save Our Silchester – which had been happening simultaneously with the refurbishment. The refurbishment was part of a wider regeneration which was going to knock down all the blocks, as far as we understood.
So I was glad that Ed was out of there. And yeah, you know, just watching the situation and trying to be useful in some way. Riot police were there. Pretty much everyone in the street was from the area and was horrified. People were crying. I don't necessarily want to get too much into it again. It was just horrific man. It was just apocalyptic. It's that level of… some have called it organised state abandonment. When it seems like Law and Order disappears. No-one knows what's going on. The people that are meant to be in control seem absolutely helpless. But what is still happening, and this is one of the things that made me feel sick and disgusted and still to this day disgusts me. You know the media mill is still rolling…
But what is still happening, and this is one of the things that made me feel sick and disgusted and still to this day disgusts me. You know the media mill is still rolling…
So while everything else has now become debilitated. The function of the state is null and void. Order is nowhere. People are dying right in front of us. People are screaming and shouting to us. The helicopters are circling. People that were on the phone to people in the building were saying the helicopters are gonna come and get us. (I’m aware logistics may not have allowed such a thing. But that doesn't make it any less real to people inside the building thinking that they may be rescued by helicopters.) You know, there was a particular family. Three generations of them died. Six of them died in the building. We saw them on the 21st floor. The mother, the husband that was with her, waving from the window.
Helicopter comes towards them. It comes within a hundred or so metres from them. It turns around. That turnaround was just so painful. And then a few hours. Well, seven or eight hours later, I see on the front page of the Evening Standard, a picture of that family in their dying moments taken from a horizontal viewpoint. You know?
So filming dead people in their moments of death is something that is profitable and seemingly a priority to some in that situation. But unbelievably, a resident of the local community… There was the man who jumped from the 15th floor, his body was literally dumped outside the front door of a gentleman of the local community who was coming home to his doorstep, saw this dead body literally on the doorstep of his… inside the block, and he took a video of it, and the way the story is told, when he put that video online he was then contacted by a journalist who arranged to meet him to get some footage off him and he was then arrested and served three months in prison for it!
So it's just these things, juxtaposing these things just… it's mind-blowing, I still can't actually believe it happened.
What upsets me is how invisible Arconic and Celotex have been allowed to remain and how the government is providing camouflage for them. They've taken a public institution like the FBU [Fire Brigades’ Union] and put them through the grinder but then they've given Arconic and Celotex seemingly till 2020 to prepare their story, which is ridiculous when you consider how massive they are as corporations.
Celotex is one of the subsidiaries of one of the biggest construction companies in the world. Arconic is one of the biggest construction companies in the world. It has its hands in... It makes aerospace stuff, it makes the chassis for Audis. It makes wheels for Mercedes. It makes components for the F-35 fighter jet. These companies are just being allowed to get away scott free, with those people dying and it's disgusting. I'll never really be able to look at this society as ultimately a just society. It's not. It's not. It's a society that violates and contradicts all of the ideals that it professes to have.
AG: So what did you... as a politically active citizen, who had discovered some kind of ability to change things, what was your response?
Low-Key: I'm not sure if we discussed it last time, but there is a theory of hauntology by Derrida that was developed by the late Mark Fisher and it was about the process of being trapped in anticipation of more just futures.
Something so unjust takes place that the human being is left pining for a more just resolution which never was… this incident was so unjust and so wrong that they just can't bring themselves to accept it.
I think it definitely relates to the Palestinian cause, with the Nakbah of 1948 taking on such massive significance to people on such a level and for so many decades figuring so massively in people's imagination and I think with the fire on the 14th of June 2017 a similar feeling exists.
I would say the music I made was a small component of a much wider movement which involved the founding of Grenfell United, the founding of other groups that were finding some way of bringing about an intimacy between decision makers and the results of their decisions.
We're also struggling to find some sort of accountability for what happened and so the music is really about that, it's about that discord, that gap between the signature on a piece of paper and the way that that signature manifests into violence that affects people's lives.
And you know, infrastructure is always invisible until it malfunctions. Words like "cladding", words like "Arconic", words like "Celotex" would mean absolutely nothing to me before the night of 14th June 2017, but then people have come to know…
Unfortunately people have been forced… You know people that have lost family members, that have lost their homes, have been forced to become campaigners for health and safety and ultimately the human rights of people in a society which is being mobilised against them on a daily basis. They are told they are other, that they are outside of the society and that they are underserving Muslims living in social housing in North Kensington, just for existing.
And what's horrific about that is that those people are the people.
We're talking about buildings which include hotels, hospitals, schools and seemingly army barracks too.
What is sad to me is that while an event can be such a spectacle and can have caused such an outpouring of sympathy and empathy you could say, it has not been translated into a national literacy about the issue of corporate penetration of regulatory bodies, it hasn't learned more about itself... people have used it as a board upon which to project their already existing politics. Already their politics was anti or post-colonial. People have been able to project that onto it. Not that I am necessarily saying that it's not a good idea, but if you're going to do that then also read the names of the companies that were on the materials that were put on there, because they're very relevant. They're very very relevant.
AG: You were saying that the organisations that grew up out of Grenfell are seeking to create an intimacy between the decision makers and...
Low-Key: …an intimacy between the decision makers and the consequences of those decisions, because that intimacy doesn't exist. There's a distance. There's a kind of culture of outsourcing. There is a way in which decisions can be made, and especially when society reaches this level of complexity, a person can make decisions which deeply affect somebody else's life and they never even know that they made that decision or see that person.
Now in this case, it's not so much that it was unknowing, because we know that Arconic put in their brochure from 2006 that the PE-Rynobond polyethalene cord cladding should not go on buildings over 10m tall. And this was a building over 30m tall.
So, there's an aspect to it which was knowing and it's what Vicky Cooper and David White would refer to as a form of violence. I think that's important. It’s important that we start to perceive the phenomenon of deregulation and of privatisation and of austerity as violent.
It's an act of violence.
AG: And so your music has also sought to do the same thing?
AG: Was your music doing that prior to 2017?
Low-Key: It's quite a complex process. The sophistication of your music has to increase... The War on Terror is quite a hysterical age and so you can make hyperbolic statements in a kind of international relations lingo. It lends itself to a realist perspective. But the realist perspective that emphasises the role of states and the interactions between states, it doesn't necessarily take into account the dialectics that play out between social grassroots movements and the state of what it does, and so I think the music had to start to take into account these kind of things.
People can project onto Grenfell quite simple definitions. I know people that project those very simple definitions of what happened. But it's not simple like that. It’s complicated, but it just takes a little bit of patience, you know. Inside Housing have done really amazing work on their deconstructing a lot of the things behind Grenfell but also, amazingly Sky News, out of the corporate media they are the only people that have done a really substantial report of the crisis inside Britain's fire safety. It was an article as well as a 30 minute documentary. They did a great job.
But that information has not been generalised. It has not been really shown to the public.
If there's that many buildings across the country that have stuff on it which is endangering people's lives and is unsafe for human habitation, how is it that none of these newspapers who can adopt a letter-writing campaign to get Abu Hamza extradited from the country could adopt a letter-writing campaign to protect people in their homes? What does it tell you?
AG: What I'm understanding from what you're saying is that what changed for you in 2017 and what's evolved since then, in the way that you exercise your power, in the detail of your music, is a greater sophistication. Is actually taking on the task of reflecting the detail and pushing beyond what might be perceived as hysteria to a level of detail and accuracy that is kind of missing elsewhere in the media landscape. Is that correct?
Low-Key: I hope so. That would definitely be a generous way of describing it. I hope that's the case, yeah. It's what I would aspire to.
AG: So let's talk about... Point me, and readers that we hope will also be listeners, towards ways in which... Essentially we might now look at your recent album, Soundtrack to the Struggle 2, as the culmination of the process over two years, so how has that…? Point me towards that sophistication in the album. In the way that you've approached the music. In what you write. In what you've written. In who you work with, in who you've worked with. In the way that you choose to share the music with your audience and in the nature of the audience.
Low-Key: OK, so I'll give you an example. In the first album, we use a speech which is juxtaposing US foreign policy to the idea of terrorism pursued against the United States. It juxtaposes them. It lists them clearly. It's a skit for the track, Terrorist. Essentially, it's accusing US government of state sponsored terrorism. Now that's fairly interesting. It's definitely a discourse that's more complex than the one we're offered by the mainstream media which largely invisibilises US foreign policy and animalises and irrationalises any violence that is taken against any US troops anywhere. That's one way.
The second album, this recent one. We're opening with Noam Chomsky and me discussing JP Morgan Chase investing in fossil fuels and what that will mean for the hopes of organised human existence over the next half century. That's a slightly more complex point. It just is, by definition, slightly more complex. You're asking people to say OK, JP Morgan Chase are making investments in this company. This company is doing something which is going to hurt us in the future. It's a more complex point.
Whereas the first album is making a very large statement about state power, the second album is actually making a point about the relationship between state power and corporate power. How that then affects human beings. What that then will mean for the future. What that then will mean for people's lives.
With a track like Heroes of Human History, I'm identifying a way in which a lot of the music in the first one almost reifies the period, the colonial period. It centres it. So in an attempt to be postcolonial, what I was doing was making the colonial period a definitive era. But with a track like Heroes of Human History, I'm saying, well actually, there's an alternative way that things were, and alternative power relations that existed.
With a track like Heroes of Human History, I'm saying, well actually, there's an alternative way that things were, and alternative power relations that existed.
So I'm talking about King Offa's coin. King Offa's coin was a coin that was struck by a king of Saxon middle England at the time when England was a heptarchy, or believed to be a heptarchy. The Anglo-Saxon King Offa, in order to trade with Baghdad, which at the time was under the Abbasid Caliphate, needed to strike a coin, and so he imitated what was written on the coins that were coming from Baghdad and what happened to be written, in Arabic was: la-ilaha il lallah, mohamad rasool akbar.
We often look at the British museum as evidence of Britain's colonial domination of the rest of the world, which of course is true, but simultaneously there's other readings of history that we can also have. This is a point at which Baghdad was influencing people in England to such an extent that they would imitate writing in Arabic on a coin in order for them to trade with Baghdad.
So the whole point I was trying to make with that was that actually there are other ways that you can look back, before colonialism, before orientalism, and hope that in some way that could empower people that during this period may have been led to feel by the way things have been and by the cultural ambiance of the time, to some extent ashamed. This is a far more sophisticated point, isn't it?
Low-Key: It takes a lot more for a person to actually digest and get into. And you're seeing it with performing the tracks now, you know the tracks that people connect with more easily are Ragheads and Pakis are worrying your dad, but your dad's favourite food is curry and kebab. Kind of crude, kind of silly. But people can get with it.
But then if you're talking about Nasser naming craters on the moon after Khalifa, the Caliph of Baghdad in the 1900s and what that means or the root of the word ‘algorithms’ coming from al-Khwarizmi who was a polymath in the 9th and 10th century who was estimating the circumference of the globe and only about 14m off at a time when the consensus in Europe was that the earth was flat. You are juxtaposing the ritual of ablution or the medicine of Ibn Sina, being used really as curriculums in Europe until the 1600s. If you're juxtaposing that with Oxford scholars at a time when Ibn Sina was alive, telling people that bathing is a heathen practice. It's just a slightly more complex point. Nothing on the first album could come near to that level of critical thought which is needed for that kind of stuff.
AG: What about the people who you've been working with? Chomsky obviously features on the album but what about the other artists – Kaia and Kareem Kumar, Mai Khalil. These collaborations seem to me to carry a different feeling. More soulful.
Low-Key: That's true. I agree.
AG: Where does that come from? How does that connect with what we've been talking about?
Low-Key: I always had the inclination towards RnB type, Swing stuff because it was the stuff that I liked when I was a kid and got into. You can hear the influence on the music, even a song like Terrorist, you can hear the influence of a band like TLC, or some of these groups... So I was gonna say that influence has always been there.
Obviously Mai Khalil I work well with. I think we have a good balance. A good chemistry. I worked with her a lot on the new album as well. But you maybe hear it more prominently on songs like Sunday Morning, which I'm actually singing on. It's amazing to work with Karim and Kaia as well. They're just fantastic musicians.
AG: The song we haven't talked about is Ghosts of Grenfell which in many ways was a kind of, in terms of the stuff we're talking about, culmination in a way. The power of the video, your music, coming out of the community, coming out of that moment...
Low-Key: Like I say, it was a small component of a far wider movement. It was just a musical part of something that in the tangible real world was happening. People were aching. The sort of aching for a more just world. The kind of disbelief that something like this had happened and that people were talking about every day and that people were living, that people were seeing across the walls in quite a sad way.
What happened there in the tower was so horrific that it's become reflected in the walls all around the area, around the tower, so you never forget it. You can't forget it for a moment.
Being on tour, funnily enough, has allowed me to almost forget it. Walking around, in different places, it's not ever present. But when something becomes reflected on the walls… Graffiti, and the writing of people's names, in the painting, in the art, you're not gonna, you can't live as if it never happened. Even if you haven't been.
But obviously when it comes to air, when it comes to soil, all of these things are issues that are going to go on to be clearer over time.
I think the biggest failure of British society has been the failure to see itself in the people that died and in the people that afterwards were transformed into campaigners for health and safety. That's been people's biggest failure. To be able to think that the people that died were unlike them. If people in Britain actually saw themselves in the people that died, it would have been the national scandal it should be and those companies would not be operating in the country right now.
If people in Britain actually saw themselves in the people that died, it would have been the national scandal it should be and those companies would not be operating in the country right now
AG: Since the summer of 2017 you've also become a husband and a father.
Low-Key: That's right, yeah.
AG: How have these new roles in your life impacted on your music and your politics?
Low-Key: Politically, it makes you appreciate the urgency of the present in its long shadow it will cast over the future and so you understand that the battles that you'll fight today will be ones that your son or daughter will gain from or lose from. You realise the importance of you doing stuff…
The other thing is that you look at people with a greater sensitivity to their vulnerability and you understand how people's vulnerability can be personified in their children actually. They have something which is like the embodiment of their heart walking around the world and it can bring them the height of joy but it can also just destroy them in a flash.
They have a kind of physical bond which is different from any other human. If my son was to be harmed physically, or if I feel like he's about to fall, my body reacts. It's not a conscious process. It's my body that reacts to that potential thing.
So if something were to actually happen to him, it would manifest in my body.
It's a different way of viewing other people. I definitely think it's something that lends itself to looking at people with a little more sensitivity. Because it's a very sensitive position to be in. To be just a human alone in the world. You have, outside of yourself, depending on your situation. People have responsibilities to other people. There's not the same level of responsibility that you have to a child. And also, the potential for you to be hurt is not the same as it is if you have a child. It's not. The extent to which you can be hurt is limited by just you really, and people you love. You're a parent. You know what I mean.
AG: But you articulate it very well.
In terms of the personal and the cultural/political what lies ahead for you, what's next?
Low-Key: Well I think we really need to find a way to stop the governments of the world altogether subsiding the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $5 trillion per year. That is, as Noam Chomsky makes the point on the album, that is a moral imperative really, at this stage. We have to reconfigure our relationship with the environment. We have to stop allowing it to be dictated by companies which 95% of climate scientists are in agreement are taking us to the point of no return. Hopefully, I can play a role in that process which is being led by millions of people around the world as we speak. Yes, definitely the plan is to finish my masters and to write more and to make more music and to speak to people. That's the plan. And to make another album. Potentially before the end of this year.
AG: Another album this year?
Low-Key: Maybe, yes, another album or another EP to release or something like that.
AG: You're on a creative high right now? You're generating a lot of material.
Low-Key: I'm thankful that someone like yourself and others have looked into my music, been interested in it enough to write about it, to listen to it. You know I did an interview the other day with a guy who had gone through one of my songs and measured the amount of syllables I was rapping per second, and he found that at one point in the song I had rapped 10 syllables in one second and he had compared that to the Twister Guinness Book of Records entry which was 11.4 syllables per second. I just found that so amazing that somebody had actually looked at my music that deeply! If people are listening to it to this extent and it can be used to improve the situation then it would be wasteful to not use this kind of position to do something substantial with it.
AG: Are you releasing your albums yourself?
AG: That was the conversation that we still haven't had that's going to have to be another interview for another time, but have you got anything to say about the fact that you're not signed to a record label?
Low-Key: Well, I have a digital distribution deal with a company but it's my own imprint. We're running this tour at the moment with a team of really great people in their own right that contribute many different things to this process. All of them are people I care about. All of them are my friends, so that's nice. It's good to travel around, to meet new people, to see how the music is being interacted with. I think that's good. A level of autonomy and independence is fairly common these days, more than it has been any time previously.
But yeah, it's good, because I don't have anyone... No-one at any point has ever had the chance to say to me well maybe you shouldn't make this song about 10th century philosophers from Khorosan. Maybe that's not a good idea. Maybe no-one cares. Maybe you shouldn't make this song about this particular obscure building regulation about this or that. Or maybe you shouldn't mention this company, or maybe you shouldn't mention this particular figure. I just don't have any of those problems now. Which is good. And of course, Israel is a big one. Maybe you shouldn't say this about Israel, or Zionism. I don't have any of those problems. So yeah, it's great. It's a great position to be in. Definitely.
Ghosts of Grenfell 2 Lyrics
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