The two London-based musicians and Dazed 100ers muse on mental health, making queer music, and how their communities shape their workConverse
The Dazed 100 is back, but not as you know it. For 2020, we’ve partnered with Converse to spotlight not only 100 of the world’s most creative, outspoken, and passionate next-gen names, but also their creative and philanthropic ideas. Explore the list, and you’ll find 100 manifestos to create, inspire, connect, and power change.
Lava La Rue and Arlo Parks make music that sounds totally different, but both preach an uncompromising message of self-acceptance in a world that often tries to pigeonhole them. “Fragile masculinity put on me / but I can only be myself to a T,” La Rue raps on her laid-back hip-hop anthem “LETRA”. The 20-year-old west Londoner is part of NiNE8 collective, a group of artists, musicians, and DJs united by two things: their upbringing in and around Ladbroke Grove, and their commitment to self-love. La Rue is on a mission to create music for kids who, like her, haven’t always felt like they quite fit anywhere, growing up between identities, cultures, and homes.
In some senses, then, she’s a kindred spirit to Parks, who grew up on the other side of the city in south London. 19-year-old Parks started out by writing poetry, and so her sparse and searing indie songs are full of poignant images that capture something of her “super sad generation” – the ones who are “eating Parma Violets on the way back from therapy”. Like La Rue, she didn’t quite know what subculture she fit into growing up, and now she’s making music that embraces the awkward in-between spaces, and breaking down the white, straight archetypes that existed in indie music before her.
Both artists are included in this year’s Dazed 100, and both are hoping to use a grant from the Dazed 100 Ideas Fund to give back to their communities. Parks plans to publish a poetry book about adolescence, and then hold a launch event for it that would platform young, queer artists, “in order to champion representation and create a safe, creative space for young people that may feel marginalised.” Meanwhile, La Rue hopes to produce a documentary about NiNE8 and the work they do.
In a sprawling head-to-head conversation, the two Dazed 100 names spoke via Zoom from their bedrooms about finding their communities, redefining queer music, the desensitiation of Gen Z, and why they want their music to make vulnerability cool again.
How did you each begin writing songs?
Lava La Rue: Growing up, I was always taken to gospel church with my grandma. I was raised by a Jamaican woman, and so much Caribbean culture is based around music and rhythm. It just intertwines with everything you do. By the time I was 12, I knew I wanted to be in a band. When I was 16, I started going off and developing my own music taste. I was meeting different subcultures, chilling with kids who skate a lot, kids who were really into hip-hop and Biggie Smalls, and I started (taking) all the poetry I’d been writing since I was a kid in my diary, and mixing that with all these new sounds I was finding.
"I was in was a crazy-musical class... with BiigPiig, Mac Wetha... It’s funny because our teacher said none of us would make it in music" – Lava La Rue
I went to this shitty community college, and it was so weird because the class I was in was a crazy-musical class. In my class was (singer-songwriter) BiigPiig, (producer) Mac Wetha... It’s funny because our teacher was telling us none of us would make it in music. We all just started jamming outside of school together, and suddenly it was my full-time profession.
Arlo Parks: For me, it was almost the opposite, because only very recently did I feel like I was involved in a community of other artists. It started off for me when I was very young. My dad was very into jazz, so it was a lot of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus. When I was around 13, my uncle gave me his collection of records that broadened my music taste, because there was Portishead, Bob Dylan, Sade. I was playing guitar and piano, and then I guess I just started writing songs, and taught myself how to work GarageBand. It was very much always a solo mission. I didn’t really know anyone around me who made music. It was only recently, when I started putting out music, that I felt like I was meeting other people.
You’ve both mentioned community and when you came to it – how did you each find your communities, growing up in your respective parts of London?
Lava La Rue: As someone who doesn’t just identify as one thing – like, you know, I identify as Jamaican, I identify as black, but at the same time I identify someone who’s really into indie... The way the society works, you’re taught to be one thing, or have one identity. It took me a long time to navigate. From the age of 12 to 16, I was just not sure where I fit. Because the area I grew up in was relatively ghetto, but to all the ghetto kids, I was this weird kid who was into poetry and had white friends. Then there’s the indie kids who went to art school – I didn’t feel like I fit in with them, because I come from a very different economic background. So community was hard for me to find in that aspect.
But I always did have the community of the area that I grew up in, the local people, just kids from Ladbroke Grove. When I hit the age of 16, I realised, ‘I’ve got my own vibe, my own community, and I don’t need to be one thing’. So that’s when I started building my own community around me, of kids who didn’t expect me to pigeonhole myself, my DIY arts collective, NiNE8. Once I did have that I started accepting elements of my identity; I was completely happy and free to be queer, and just – wherever I wanted to fit, I had my own group backing me. You only find your community when you stop questioning yourself, and you’re just like: ‘This is who I am’.
“You only find your community when you stop questioning yourself, and you’re just like: ‘This is who I am’” – Lava La Rue
Arlo Parks: I had a similar thing, up until when I was 16, there is a thing where you try and fit into these like, pre-existing spheres, and you just find that you don’t really fit completely into any space, or you’ve got a little bit of each thing in you. Like you, it took a little while for me to just accept that you can be more than one thing at once.
Arlo, you named your EP Super Sad Generation, and you’ve said that’s because you see the prevalence of mental health issues in your peers. Does that ring true for you, Lava – and what do you both think is most misunderstood about your generation?
Lava La Rue: We as a generation have more access to information than any other since the beginning of time. We’re an over-stimulated generation – and when you over-stimulate someone, they begin to desensitise. I think that’s where the super sad generation comes from. Back in the day, if you look at the 60s, 70s, 80s in youth culture and subculture, it was the dream to be in love and find your person. Now, it’s like, ‘fuck love, get money’.
Everyone’s so afraid to be vulnerable, especially in the hip-hop world and R&B. So much music that’s popping off now is based around being emotionally unavailable. At the same time, people (are making music) about how they’re depressed and taking Xans. In NiNE8, we always wanted to be a hip-hop collective that was all about self-love, and acceptance, because there is definitely a need for that in this generation.
“You try and fit into these like, pre-existing spheres... it took a little while for me to just accept that you can be more than one thing at once” – Arlo Parks
Arlo Parks: I think you’re right. I also think the reason why, as you were saying, before there was this focus on finding ‘the one’, and having these simpler goals, (is that) now we can compare ourselves to everyone in the entire world. When there was no technology, you didn’t have that perspective. You couldn’t look out and see thousands of other people living lives that you, for some reason, saw as better or cooler. I guess that’s why now, it’s almost impossible to feel satisfied and content. Because you’re just being bombarded with other people’s lives and existences and achievements 24/7.
Lava, do you feel like you’re more inspired in times of distress or hardship, or when you’re feeling content and at peace?
Lava La Rue: I make angry music when I’m angry, and I make vibey, chill music when I’m in a chill mood. I’m one of those people where like, I’ve literally got to keep making stuff or I go insane. I’m so much better at communicating a feeling through music. What about you?
Arlo Parks: I definitely have more of a drive to make things if I’m upset by something, or I want something to change. But I’m like you in the sense that, if something happens, no matter what it is, I have to write about it in some capacity. I do think that I pull more from negative experiences, but I like to put a hopeful twist on bad things that have happened.
“Everyone’s so afraid to be vulnerable. NiNE8 is a hip-hop collective all about self-love, and acceptance, because there is definitely a need for that in this generation” – Lava La Rue
Lava La Rue: Obviously it’s a new decade, it’s the 2020s now. As artists, considering you and I have relatively just debuted, most of our careers will be known as something that came up in the 20s. If you wanted to leave your print on the 20s sound, the same way, say, Nirvana left their print on the 90s, what would you imagine your print would be?
Arlo Parks: My music occupies a lot of different pockets, sonically, so I feel like it would be more to do with the lyrical side of things. I think it would be about reintroducing that sense of vulnerability and openness, in a time when – like you were saying – a lot of people are becoming desensitised, and looking at the world through a glass pane, not really feeling that much. When I write songs, it’s always very feelings-based. Because I’m interested in so many different types of music genre-wise, I couldn’t say I have one specific unique sound, because it’s always changing. But one thing that is a constant is the vulnerability.
Do you think genre will be less relevant in the 2020s?
Arlo Parks: I’d like to think so. There is a lot of music coming out now that operates as a kind of fusion of genres, rather than existing in one specific thing. I’ve always hated the idea of pigeonholing.
Lava La Rue: I dunno, I think if you look at the history of music, all the greats, like Michael Jackson, Prince, Grace Jones, they weren’t sticking to a genre. The thing with artists like that is there’s less quick overnight success, and there’s more longevity in their careers. For it to be organic and for it to be good, it’s got to be real. I’ve heard artists before go from hip-hop and (decide they) want to be on an emo flex, but it wasn’t actually who they were... so they’ve tried switching genres, but it doesn’t sit right because it’s not really them. The thing with flowing with your sound is you’ve just got to be representative of who you are and how you feel. As long as that music represents you, you might not see the results straight away overnight, but people will respect you in the long run.
Arlo Parks: What do you see your imprint as being on the 2020s?
Lava La Rue: I really want to redefine queer music. I think, as a young person, when I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I was looking at what queer anthems were. And what was weird was, all the queer anthems were made by non-queer people. I don’t want to @ them, I love them – Madonna, Kylie Minogue, do your thing. But they were all straight women. When gen Z came through, and you had other artists who are actually women who loved other women making music – like Hayley Kiyoko for example – I thought, ’Amazing!’... But obviously, they were making stuff on a pop level.
“I want to redefine queer music, working class music, London music, all the intersections that I exist in” – Lava La Rue
I still think there needs to be a representation of music from queer people made for queer people, and I think in terms of genre and sound and narrative, there still is space for more complexity, more than, ’Girls love girls, woo!’ I love those songs, I dance to them, but people (should be) able to listen to artists where it gets a lot deeper than surface level. This decade, I really want to progress what it is to make queer music, working class music, London music, all the intersections that I exist in. I want people to hear that on a level that takes it beyond the surface.