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Games Without Frontiers? What The Music We Listen To Says About The Society We Live In

Deteriorating standards at the Home Office mean that more and more international bands are failing to get visas in order to play in the UK. Get used to it, says John Doran, this is only a small taste of the grim, monochromatic musical future post-Brexit Britain has in store for us

One of the privileges of writing about music, for me at least, has been the access it has given me to music from around the world. This goes beyond a supply of CDs, streams and DLs and occasionally takes the form of travel abroad to investigate exciting musical phenomena.

Sometimes it may present itself as an invitation to attend a progressive European festival which draws its bill from way outside the standard pool of Western artists. Since the Brexit referendum last year however, I’d begun to suspect that fewer artists from places like Africa and the Middle East were actually making it across the world, through passport control and to the stages of the British festivals that had booked them. It felt like time and time again there were gaps in line ups and I was hearing the phrase “Visa issues” more often than not in connection with these absences.

My suspicions that this was a trend rather than coincidence were strengthened by a news story in the Guardian last week. WOMAD founder Peter Gabriel said that not only had three acts been unable to play the festival after musicians had been denied entry to the country but that many artists now simply declined invitations to play in the UK in the first place because they fear a tortuous entry process with no guarantee of success and a lack of welcome on top of that. This is something of a dark day for the internationally respected music festival now in its 38th year. It’s not fair to suggest that Brexit and a rise in xenophobia in the UK are directly linked to the new automated visa process which has caused this bother as, in truth, the situation with the Home Office has been “deteriorating” for some time but the overall mosaic of how these elements connect is grim.

Both the Brexit vote and the overall shift towards nationalism and hatred or suspicion of ‘foreigners’ in Britain are part of a bigger tilt in consciousness towards the right wing in the West. This same shift has seen the rise of the alt-right in America, (a movement which was key to Donald Trump’s election to president), that prides itself on rejecting mainstream conservative values while promoting nationalism and painting immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity.

This is a subtle rebranding of the extreme right wing which has caused just enough confusion among classic liberals and traditional conservatives alike to allow mass media coverage and, sadly, mainstream support. It is a common belief among the most prominent voices of the alt-right, such as Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, that a history-altering rupture in Western society is upon us and that Trump is not the endgame of their struggle but merely the first agent of chaos in a line of many who will help affect this mass change in civilisation. If they get their way, the future will be one of rigidly operated nationstates with strong borders maintained along lines of race with deference to the regressive philosophy of Traditionalism.

As is always the case in the UK, the chances are we will not be far behind the States, given that the left is now divided to the point of inaction and the homegrown extremist right has reached levels of organisation and open membership not seen since the 1980s.  Figures such as Steve Bannon - Trump’s former chief strategist - are becoming ever more influential in this country and revelations continue to appear suggesting the same “dark money” was an influence on the election of Trump as it was on the Brexit vote.

So on both a national and international scale culture that supports inclusivity and open-mindedness has never been more under threat. This is particularly grave news for British music fans where our unique postcolonial history has in the past, at least, provided the catalyst for stunning innovation in the form of such movements as rave, jungle, drum & bass, dubstep and grime; not to mention acting as an essential amplification hub for such genres as ska, dub, Afrobeat and jazz etc. Even during some of the darkest days for race relations in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, cultural synthesis still led to some of today’s most fondly loved, canonically praised music made by acts such as The Clash, The Specials and The Wild Bunch/Massive Attack. None of this music would likely exist in the form it does now, if at all, without a history of immigration.

But such is the cultural weight and vibrancy of this music that it can often blind older critics to where its modern analogue can be found in 2018. Sure enough, these now canonical groups form an important spiritual link to many current acts such as Scotland’s Young Fathers for example. Young Fathers represent both Scottish immigrant and second generation diasporic communities; Alloysious Massaquoi is originally from Liberia (via Ghana) and Kayus Bankole was born in Edinburgh to Nigerian parents. (Third member Graham ‘G’ Hastings is a white Scottish man.) While their sound is innovative, it also stands on a well established continuum that stretches back (in musical terms at least) through their spiritual kinship with Massive Attack, to the arrival of the Windrush generation in post WWII Britain. But they only represent one traditional aspect of day-to-day multicultural life in the UK (or, as it is otherwise known: day-to-day life in the UK). The mainstream music press in this country is just about geared up to report on new phenomena such as drill or road rap but again this only represents one small facet of life in this country.

Lately, the paucity of this kind of coverage, and its very specific focus when we do see it, has started to make me more aware of my own failings as a music writer; specifically my failure to ask: where is the modern Anglo-Polish equivalent of The Specials? Who are the Anglo-Chinese Massive Attack? What is the Anglo-Indian analogue of grime? These three countries are the top three represented by immigrant arrivals in the UK after all. I’d like to take this opportunity to shout out the few music writers who have already raised these questions. It should also be acknowledged that in all of these three examples I’ve mentioned there are wildly differing cultural circumstances to take into account but that is not to say that these questions still shouldn’t be asked.)

None of this is meant in any way to diminish the traditional routes of influence on metropolitan/urban music (which tends to be from Jamaica and Africa via the USA); no one is forcing us to make a binary choice here and albums such as the recent Basic Volume by South London’s Gaika (Warp) show that there is still much creativity to be found on this continuum as he explores the murky intersections between gothic industrial hip hop, R&B and dancehall.

However, it needs to be said that a clearer, more representative picture of the UK’s musical ecology in 2018 would be one that take into account what is happening at our borders. At the very least it could make for a much more dynamic listening experience for British music fans and would paint a clearer picture of what was happening in terms of music around the world. And if we look to our closest European neighbours in Ireland, we can see an example of the magic that can happen when popular contemporary forms come together, rejecting entrenched tradition.   

This Friday, Gorilla Arthouse for Lush.com will be publishing a filmed interview between journalist John Robb and Emma Garnett of Fehdah, an Afrofuturist musical project. Emma, who was born in Sierra Leone, grew up in Maynooth, Ireland and now lives in Dublin, is largely influenced by the Wassoulou music of West Africa as well as more traditional R&B and soul. To my ears, this music paints a much more convincing sonic picture of what is going on in the world right now than any number of standard, traditional-sounding punk, indie or rap numbers being produced in the same country.

As always, when you listen to music, it is a political act. It cannot be anything else. And when we listen to bands like Fehdah (and Gaika and Young Fathers and some Polish grime and whatever other forms of immigrant and diasporic music we can dig up) we’re not only taking a more genuine look at what the Society we live in is actually like but we’re assessing all the things we could lose, very soon, if things keep on going the way they are.


Short author bio

John Doran is a founder/editor of Europe’s largest fully independent music and culture website, The Quietus which celebrates its tenth anniversary next month. A new, expanded edition of his memoir about alcoholism and mental illness, Jolly Lad, has just been published by Strange Attractor.


As always, when you listen to music, it is a political act. It cannot be anything else

Comment (1)
1 Comment


about 2 years ago

We are at a pivotal point in human history. I fully expected (foolishly) to be prepared. Maybe this is a test? Love and peace. You inspire me.