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We first saw Young Fathers from across the street as they were getting into a cab. Signals had gotten crossed—we had planned to meet the band at their radio session and then head to the shoot, but as their car disappeared into the New York traffic it occurred to me that they might not feel the same way.
Thankfully, the three Scots were patient. We arrived at the amphitheater to find Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, and Graham “G” Hastings making the most of the empty stage. Kayus had filled his empty water bottle with some gravel for a shaker, and they were testing the tone of a nearby trashcan, considering whether it was worth flipping over for some extra percussion. The song of choice was “Only Child,” a drum-heavy group-sing off 2013’s Tape Two. We were, by New York standards, completely alone, flanked by FDR Drive’s dull roar on one side and the East River on the other.
After the performance, we talked with the three friends about life after stardom—namely, how they hadn’t let success get in the way. Just five months after taking home the coveted Mercury Prize for Dead in 2014, Young Fathers released White Men Are Black Men Too, a tour de force album chock full of the spontaneous, infectious energy and bare-faced honesty they call their own. The title, they said, is an entry point. Not just to the music, but to a much larger conversation.
How have Americans responded to the title thus far? Is it any different than the reaction back home
Graham Hastings: The point of all this, the tour and stuff is just to get out there and get a conversation going, really. I want to know what it means to Americans and they can ask us what it means to us. I think it’s an opportunity for us to learn from different backgrounds. It’s not just us putting it out there and leaving it. That’s why we liked the title, because with everyone we spoke to, we asked them how it made them feel. They could say “Oh, I don’t like it” and then they would say the reasons why and the next day, they would say “I’ve actually thought about it and I do like it.”
We just realized that the conversation we were having was good and it’s another reason to have it. Because it’s an album title, people often mention it. If someone doesn’t know who we are but they just see that poster and those words, that’s good enough for us because we are starting a conversation about it. You just think about it. Because for us, it kinda sums us up as a band. But it also acknowledges that the world is not a separate place that you can box up in black and white. It’s not equal by any means and that’s why you need to combat it.
It came at a very pertinent time for Americans, between Ferguson and Eric Garner and all the documentations of police brutality.
Kayus Bankole: Exactly. The album embodies that and more. We took the album title to South Africa and got people’s opinions on what it made them feel. The discussion about identity was a very prominent topic of discussion no matter where we’ve taken the album. We’ve just arrived to the States now, this like our second day in New York on this tour. So I’m interested to see what will happen next.
Graham Hastings: One of the songs on the album, “Sirens,” that’s from being back in the UK and just watching the TV and news and such, just looking and thinking ‘for fucks sake, its 2015, what the fuck.’ And it’s funny because it’s just because someone’s filmed it. That’s the reason it’s on the news, because someone’s filmed it. It happens all the time. And “Sirens” is our song about that. One of the lines is “police are on cocaine,” because that’s what it looks like. It looks like they have too much power and are abusing it and getting away with it with fucking murder all the time. And it’s only in situations where it’s filmed by some member of the public that it gets raised. But the truth is that it happens all the time.
Alloysious Massaquoi: There’s a human aspect of it as well that gets ignored. Because whomever the person is, he or she, who has done the crime and killed a person, it’s about making them seem more human. In “Sirens” I start with the character, driving in his car with a picture of his family members. It’s having a balance in the sense that it’s wrong what’s happening, of course. It’s terrible but at the same time you need another perspective to make it seem a bit more real. Instead of just saying “oh, the police are bad the police are terrible.” It doesn’t go across the board. It’s not all the police officers, it’s certain individuals who have done something terrible that tarnish everybody else.
Graham Hastings: Although they’re wearing uniforms, they’re still human. If they’re racist in their uniforms, they’re racist out of their uniforms. If you abuse that for your personal beliefs, you shouldn’t wear that uniform. You shouldn’t have that job.
Did the urgency of these issues contribute to the speed with which you released White Men Are Black Men Too?
Graham Hastings: Nah, I think that’s just how we operate all the time. We like to record. We try to get a song done everyday. So, that’s just something that we’ve always had because we’ve been working together for 13 years. We know each other very well. We know our skills and strong points and we just use them to that end. And plus it helps, it lends itself, when we have a gut feel in it. If you turn in the first take and you get the gut feel in it—that’s usually just best, the best take. We always have a sense of urgency because we always get bored too quickly. So we try to move on to the next thing as quick as possible.
You were once quoted as saying “pop doesn’t represent culture as it really is.” Where do you see the band fitting into that landscape?
Graham Hastings: I think what we mean by that is if we keep saying that, that we’re a pop band, then you’ll ultimately believe in the end that we are. As it stands just now, because the internet came along, everybody can get there stuff out there. Now the main channels, TV and radio, they just need to keep it safe with all that conveyer belt pop star stuff and music that doesn’t mean anything.
And we think that’s not good. Because most people don’t really look for music. Most people, it’s just the noise that’s on when they’re driving in their car or getting home from work when they’re picking a music station of whatever. So what those stations are playing, that’s important. And if you just feed them the same stuff all the time, the people won’t take anything from it. And if they had a contrast to pop music, you can keep that shiny stuff and that business model of pop, but balance it off with something from somewhere else, that’s actually different. Not just with the genre, but with thinking behind it. Even if people hate it, they know that it exists.
I think for us, even with the album title, it works back in with that. Because it’s about gaining acceptance with other people—their religious beliefs or their music taste or how they act—the more aware of it that you are the more accepting of it that you become. And I think that culturally, that’s something that’s missing from a lot of the big media channels because they’re desperate. They need to keep their business model strong.
Kayus Bankole: And play it safe.
Graham Hastings: It’s actually the opposite, for me, I think that if you actually reflect society as it truly is, with different people, then that’s good for everybody.
Kayus Bankole: It will have a ripple effect on how things are changed. It moves things forward.
Do you still feel like parts of hip-hop are conservative, that this idea of “real hip-hop” constricts the genre? Or do you see that changing at all with people like Young Thug who are really outlandish in their style and delivery?
Graham Hastings: Maybe in that sense, hip-hop is gaining, with certain artists like Lil B and stuff like that. It’s almost like they’ve done their punky answer back. To me, that’s made it interesting. I still think that people still don’t cross boundaries and now it’s more about a lifestyle.
Alloysious Massaquoi: The projected idea of a rich and famous lifestyle is only a fraction of reality. Only a fraction of that. It’s a lifestyle but then you go home and you watch the TV. You’re bored. You go to your cupboard and there’s no milk. You go to the shop. It’s that type of mundane thing that you try to pretend doesn’t exist in hip-hop, so people read into that and think that’s how you live your life. He or she is living it up. It’s dangerous.
Kayus Bankole: What it boils down to is that the music has to speak for itself. Not the lifestyle that you live or the personality behind it. It’s the music that should just speak for itself.
Graham Hastings: Sometimes you just hear a good song and it’s fucking good. If it’s a pop song and it’s catchy, there’s something that’s interesting about about it.
If you could have your album played for anyone in the world, what kind of person would you like to have it played for?
Graham Hastings: We could play it to a bunch of racists. For us, if you’re just preaching to people who are already on your side, people who already believe, then you don’t really change anything. Maybe their feelings might become a little stronger. If you play it to people who think opposite to you and it’s like what I was saying earlier, you give them an insight that not everybody is the same. Show that there’s no black and white.
Young Fathers’ tour dates are below. Find tickets on their website.
Apr 09 Boston, MA – Great Scott
Apr 10 Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall Of Williamsburg
Apr 11 Philadelphia, PA – Boot & Saddle
Apr 12 Washington, VA – Rock N Roll Hotel
Apr 14 Raleigh, NC – Kings
Apr 15 Atlanta, GA – Masquerade (Hell Stage)
Apr 16 New Orleans, LA – Republic
Apr 17 Houston, TX – Fitzgeralds
Apr 18 Dallas, TX – Trees
Apr 19 Austin, TX – Parish
Apr 21 Phoenix, AZ – Valley Bar
Apr 22 San Diego, CA – Casbah
Apr 24 Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
Apr 25 San Francisco, CA – The Independent
Apr 29 Portland, OR – Holocene
Apr 30 Vancouver, BC – Fortune Sound Club
May 01 Victoria, BC – Distrikt
May 02 Seattle, WA – Neumos
May 05 Boise, ID – Neurolux
May 06 Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge
May 07 Denver, CO – Larimer Lounge
May 08 Lincoln, NE – Vega
May 09 Minneapolis, MN – 7th St Entry
May 10 Chicago, IL – Lincoln Hall
May 13 St. Louis, MO – Firebird
May 14 Nashville, TN – Exit In
May 16 Gulf Shores, AL – Hangout Fest