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How do British musicians feel about Brexit?

Artists including Young Fathers, Shura and more reflect on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and what it means to them

The UK is still dealing with the fallout of the vote to leave the European Union on June 23rd. The Conservative Prime Minister has resigned, giving way to a string of new leadership candidates who would seem cartoonishly evil if they weren’t so frighteningly real. The Labour Party is tearing itself apart, with its left wing struggling to stay on top of a civil war against a right wing who can’t understand that their neoliberal policies were the reason for the Leave vote. New developments are happening every day: Boris Johnson didn’t run for leader, Nigel Farage quit as head of UKIP, and the forthcoming Chilcot report is hardly welcome news for the Labour right. In and amongst all this are people trying to make sense of what’s actually happened and how they’ll be impacted, many of whom made their voices heard at recent rallies like the March For Europe and the nationwide Keep Jeremy Corbyn demonstrations.

Though the dust hasn’t necessarily settled on the referendum, by now people have had time to ruminate on the result and how it might impact them. Amongst these are musicians, who – like almost every industry – are likely to see their livelihoods negatively affected as a result of the vote. Still, when we spoke to them, most weren’t wanting to offer a detached analysis of the result or talk about its effect on their incomes. Instead, they were eager to discuss how they felt about the referendum personally, and how it’s affected their perception of themselves and the country. They were also keen to consider how their platforms, no matter how small, can help in these times.

BOK BOK

Alex Sushon, aka Bok Bok, moved to the UK from Eastern Europe as a child. He co-founded the Night Slugs record label and clubnight, which advocates for inclusivity and stresses the importance of club spaces for marginalised communities.

Bok Bok: A part of me was really optimistic – well, not optimistic, but I just didn’t expect it to happen. It didn’t really seem like it was feasible, because it just seemed so… dumb! But it’s difficult – a lot of us live in cities; me and my friends live in London. It’s a bit of a bubble. Stuff’s so separate from the rest of the country, so it’s pretty hard to know what the majority in the suburbs are thinking. I felt stranded and a little bit scared straight away. It does seem like a real lurch to the right. And it’s populist – the scary thing about it is that it does come from the people. That in itself is really, really scary, because it’s not like a 1% that you disagree with and you’re rallying against them – it’s people on the street that you’ve got to watch out for, in a way. That’s how I feel, as an immigrant. I don’t feel like I’m in any danger psychologically, but just emotionally speaking, it doesn’t feel good. It’s basically saying ‘We don’t want any more of your kind here; you’re not welcome’. And I blend really well because I’ve been here a really long time, but for anyone else that doesn’t blend quite as well as me, I imagine it must be very uncomfortable.

I was born in the Ukraine and I grew up there until I was seven. I wasn’t aware of this as a kid, but growing up in this country and becoming aware of its history, and the colonial outlook of some factions of this country – seeing that urge for the ‘greatness’ of Britain, the Britain lost, that (type of) Boris Johnson rhetoric – is frightening to someone like me. I just think it’s a divide of education; that’s really what it comes down to. The void of education was filled by confusing emotions, and that’s dangerous because you can affect people’s emotions and sway them in a different way. When there’s a void in education, it’s so easy for something negative to fill it up. There’s young people I know that voted ‘Leave’ because they don’t trust Europeans – it’s quite a shit reason to ruin the rest of our lives.

I don’t know how much I can do with my platform, but in general we want to make music that has more of a bearing on real life, (that’s) a bit less escapist. Just getting back to the roots of dance music, which was quite political when it started. Rave music is about togetherness – it’s basic stuff, but it really comes down to that. It’s not about dividing people, it’s about uniting people. It comes back to all these values that we’ve always stood for and that we’re gonna continue to stand for, we just need to stand for them more virulently now. It’s even more important that we keep at it and keep throwing parties. Everyone’s welcome in one of my raves.

“(Populism) is really, really scary, because it’s not like a 1% that you disagree with and you’re rallying against them – it’s people on the street” — Bok Bok

DARKSTAR

Last year, Warp-signed electronic duo Darkstar released their third album Foam Island, which captured the voices of a generation in West Yorkshire who’ve been left disenfranchised by the London establishment. It felt potent in the wake of the General Election, and feels even more potent today.

James Young, Darkstar: Earlier in the year we toured Germany, and we had an interview. Brexit, on mainland Europe, was much more visible – people were concerned about it more than in the UK. I remember when the journalist asked about Brexit, I was so confident we’d vote Remain. ‘Mate, there’s no point talking about this. It’s not even an issue.’ And then towards the date, you realise there’s an agenda within the Conservatives and the red tops and the right-leaning press (to vote) in favour of it. It starts to become very real very quickly. It still caught me off guard. I can’t quite believe it. Already, you can feel a change – subconsciously, I think people will panic even more than they are now. I think to not have a clear Brexit plan, and then for it to actually go through, is indicative of where this country is at the moment.

I think pure frustration is how I feel about it on many levels. The question (of what musicians can do to help) was levelled at us a lot with Foam Island. I think the question is valid now. If your livelihood is gonna be changed now that we’re not gonna be part of the EU, and things like travelling between countries and visas and carnets come into play, you only need to set out a pro-Remain narrative and I’m sure that people would respond. But I dunno, man – a lot of people don’t seem to want to be politicised within music. I think it’ll cause a reaction for people to be more responsible, in a sense. I don’t want to sound preachy, but some people just aren’t turned on by the prospect of that.

I think the country has to become more inclusive. Being from the north and living in London for 10 or 15 years, you realise how London-centric – economically and culturally – this country’s become. Provincial cities are in many cases reliant on EU money, right? So it’s bizarre; the decision to exit on their part is bizarre. But these places feel lost and alienated. I think, for the most part, (the Brexit vote was) a protest from people that have been, for want of a better word, neglected. Inclusivity would surely cultivate a culture that included and benefitted people from various race, religion, creed, ethnic, and class backgrounds. It feels like the whole system is being brought it its knees, and different points of view would be healthy in the lofty places where decisions are made.

Labour need to sort themselves out very quickly. Now would be an ideal time to be organised, at the very least.

GAIKA

Gaika’s intense electronic music draws on dancehall, dub, industrial, and hip hop. Born in Brixton, the vocalist and producer ties his music to the streets of South London, his Jamaican and Grenadian heritage, and his life as a black man in Britain.

Gaika: The referendum marks a corner the UK can’t turn back around from. It has revealed to the world the ugly side of Britishness that we all hoped had gone for good. Whether a Brexit will actually occur, and the socioeconomic impact that may or may not have, are secondary to me at this point. It’s the cultural significance of the vote, a vote ultimately against immigration, that as a child of immigrants makes me want to leave ASAP, burn my passport, and never look back. You know that sinking feeling when you walk into a room and everybody has been plotting, running you down, behind your back? That’s how I feel right now; alienated in the most literal sense.

But I’m not surprised, not one bit. The proverbial cat has leapt out of the bag and no amount of liberal soul searching and gnashing of teeth is going to recapture this angry, frightened maddened beast. There has been an insidious and largely untested growth of the far-right across Europe and the United States – it’s the post-Obama kickback – and I think it’s going to get worse, as clearly racism and xenophobia work politically because they’re ingrained in the national psyche. For the last 500 years, elites have stoked anti-‘other’ sentiment and amplified it through an echo chamber of mass media operating on class strata to quickly and efficiently increase influence on the general public. From Trump and Farage to Gert Wilders and Le Pen, it’s the same awful shit everywhere, and it’s one small stop away from neo-eugenics and plain old-school fascism. Until our society faces its inequalities head on and some sort of revolution occurs, pulling at nativism and a deep seated perception of superiority will always be the shortcut button for anyone looking to exert control on the British population.

I hope music can be a force to unite all of us who feel different. It’s a hugely emotive art form, and as such is a hugely effective weapon against the charlatans and snake oil sellers I mentioned before. I want to make records that destroy the imaginary boundaries that exist between us. I want to put the music in spaces where people can come together in real life and share culture. I’m a multiculturalist and proudly so. I think it’s time we stood up and fought for it. Music may be our biggest sword.

“I hope music can be a force to unite all of us who feel different... I’m a multiculturalist and proudly so. I think it’s time we stood up and fought for it” — Gaika

LET’S EAT GRANDMA

Let’s Eat Grandma are a duo from Norwich who make enchanting, psychedelic pop music. Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth are both currently aged 17, and as such weren’t allowed to vote in the EU referendum.

Rosa Walton, Let’s Eat Grandma: We’re quite cross that we didn’t have the chance to vote, and we’re also quite upset about the result. People were saying not enough young people turned out, but that doesn’t apply to us, because people our age didn’t even get the chance. I think 16 and 17 year olds should be allowed to vote because it’s our future. We’ve seen a lot of people on social media who are our age and clearly have strong views. Social media’s good for raising awareness.

Jenny Hollingworth, Let’s Eat Grandma: It’s difficult, because people are talking about it being a democratic vote when we (under-18s) aren’t even involved. People are like, ‘This is democracy – you should’ve voted’, but we didn’t get the chance! We were quite vocal about our opinion before the vote – we hang around with people who were all voting Remain. I haven’t actually come across anybody, other than on the internet, who voted Leave. We do (talk about politics) a lot individually, but we want to do it more as a band. We don’t want Jeremy Corbyn to resign. That’ll be the final straw.

SHURA

As Shura, Aleksandra Lilah Yakunina-Denton writes, produces, and sings hook-filled electronic pop music. She has British and Russian heritage and, as an up-and-coming young artist, has a lot of experience touring around Europe and internationally.

Shura: I think what’s happened in the last few weeks has come as a great shock for many. Namely 48% of the country – a not insignificant number. I was asked recently if I felt ‘betrayed’ when I woke the morning of the result in which 17 million people in the UK voted differently to me. I think the use of that word is wrong, and on this occasion potentially dangerous. So much of the rhetoric surrounding the referendum result has been of winning and losing, as if this were a game or a competition. It’s neither of those things. It’s the future of our country we’re trying to discuss.

I’m immensely proud of those who decided to march in solidarity with Europe – it was an opportunity to demonstrate how unhappy a huge portion of the country are with the result. It was about continuing the conversation of whether or not we leave in the EU (let’s remember, after all, that a referendum is advisory and not legally binding). I’ve seen venom on social media from both sides, as well as an overarching ‘shut up, you lost’ mentality, which is altogether baffling. Those of us who voted Remain belong to a minority, and it’s the right of the minority to protest – if we were a majority it would be unnecessary. To say that those who protest are protesting against democracy is madness, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of democracy. It’s absolutely part of the democratic process to voice concerns and discontent.

The fact is that we’re now in a very precarious position and as a country we need to be incredibly careful over the coming months and years. It’s especially frightening that so many that campaigned to leave, even though they’ve been ‘victorious’, have since resigned. This suggests to me that they’re unwilling to partake in the implementation of change they campaigned so fervently for. If that doesn’t raise alarm bells about whether or not leaving the EU is the right thing for this country, I’m not sure anything will.

“So much of the rhetoric surrounding the referendum result has been of winning and losing, as if this were a game or a competition. It’s neither of those things. It’s the future of our country we’re trying to discuss” — Shura

YOUNG FATHERS

Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, and Graham 'G' Hastings form Scottish trio Young Fathers. Massaquoi is originally from Liberia (via Ghana) and Bakole has Nigerian parents, while G was born in Edinburgh. They have been vocal about the music industry’s need to embrace bands from across the working class spectrum who live outside of London.

Graham ‘G’ Hastings, Young Fathers: In the last couple of weeks I knew it was going to be tight. I’m disappointed, more than surprised. I think a lot of people voted Leave because a lot of people are xenophobic, even if they don’t say it out loud. If you think we should go back, that’s only because you’ve had it too good at the expense of those who haven’t. Yes, it was a simpler time when people weren’t aware of other cultures or how the UK has raped half the world for its own benefit – simple, but a lie. Ignorance is bliss. What we’re seeing now is an old world’s flaccid attempt to hold on, and it spreads across everything. But they will fail. You can’t stop it. The world will mix, people will move, cultures will adapt and make whole new cultures. Mixed race babies and a bit of understanding, it’s already here. Don’t stop it forfucksake, relax. It’s better.

What role can music play in this? Take a typical event – gig, club, or festival. It’s one of the places where it becomes so fucking obvious that everything the mainstream media spews, all the stereotypes, all the stuff maybe your racist parents have shoveled on you or whatever, it’s just utter bullshit. It’s extra weight that you can lose. There’s no one waving the finger at you, telling you what to do or how you’re wrong. You learn for yourself. We’re just happy to provide such a platform. (I’d want to see) a change in attitude (in the next few years). Calling people ‘scum’ won’t change them – it'll just help you feel better. I’m as guilty as anyone so I understand, but you are giving them what they want. I hope there’s a better way, to rise above it and actually change people whose frustrations are misplaced.

There's no other option (than Scottish independence right now). I’m by no means a patriot or nationalist, and I wish we could do it without all the flag waving shite, but it’s the right thing to happen.