Young Fathers Pop Politics
Published May 11, 2015Young Fathers may appear to be courting controversy by naming their sophomore album White Men Are Black Men Too. But Alloysious Massaquoi insists that the Edinburgh-bred, Mercury Prize-winning alt-rap trio's choice of title was not about sensationalism, but social justice. For them, it's not so much a moniker as a mission statement.
"It came from the lyrics that we wrote for one of the album's songs, 'Old Rock n Roll,'" Massaquoi tells Exclaim! over Skype. "We try to talk about fairness in our music, how the world will always be unfair but can get better, how things aren't just black and white, and how we can promote the in between."
That blunt, socially conscious lyricism is merely one of the changes that Young Fathers embraced on the new full-length. Its predecessor, 2014's Dead, helped the trio — Massaquoi (a Liberian who moved to Ghana before immigrating to Scotland), Kayus Bankole (born in Edinburgh to Nigerian parents and raised in the U.S. before returning to his place of birth) and Graham "G" Hastings (the band's sole Caucasian, indigenous Scot) — snag the Mercury Prize, thanks in part to that debut album's elaborate lyricism and bold, sometimes abrasively eclectic instrumentation. Rather than sticking to that winning formula, Young Fathers opted to mix their earlier harsh sonic style with catchier melodies and sing-along choruses. The result is a sophomore album that careens wildly between pop and experimental music, sometimes within the same song.
The trio tempered that wider range with tighter vocals. As Massaquoi describes it: "Dead had lots of reverb. We wanted it to sound big. The vocals are dryer and closer this time; they sound like they're right here," he says, holding his hand up to his face. In an email interview, Hastings also highlights those intimate vocals, saying White Men's "drier sound brings the voices closer to you, the listener. Somehow it makes the words seem more sincere."
In a way, White Men's sonic and lyrical sincerity is a return to form. The trio first began performing as teens, over a decade ago, at Edinburgh's Bongo Club. Many of their high school peers would engage in 8 Mile-style rap battles at Bongo's all-ages nights, but instead of matching that aggression, Massaquoi, Bankole and Hastings subverted it with earnest-yet-catchy lyrics and cheeky, boy-band-style dance moves.
"We wouldn't freestyle. We'd dance and sing three-minute pop songs that had musical arrangements," Massaquoi says. "We weren't trying to annoy anyone — that came later, as a 'fuck you' to the 'hard' rappers that trashed us. So me, Kayus and G bonded over that, and over heavy bass distortion and sweet melodies."
But those ties were also forged by uglier factors. At the age of 14, Bankole returned to Edinburgh with his family, only to realize that he and Massaquoi made up two-thirds of their school's minuscule black population. That meant enduring rampant bullying — in an earlier interview with Clash magazine, Massaquoi recounted how a pupil asked if his skin "tasted like chocolate." But a shared passion for music brought Bankole and Massaquoi closer to Hastings, and spent hours at his house, building songs on the sampler that his parents had purchased for him. Bankole remembers that early friendship fondly. "It was reassuring to feel I wasn't alone. Even though the others were extremely different from me, we all had the freedom to express ourselves, and that was what brought us together."
White Men is almost reminiscent of the trio's early, exuberant pop music performances in the face of aggressive prejudice. Aside from containing the line that became the album's title, "Old Rock n Roll," also features the lyric that Massaquoi is most proud to have written: "I'm tired of blaming the white man / His indiscretions don't betray him." That leaner lyricism — in comparison to their debut's more obtuse lines — was inspired by Young Fathers' extended exposure to American Top 40 radio, as they spent hours driving through the U.S. during Dead tour dates.
"That Top 40 music was quite driven throughout," Massaquoi says. "It's simplified in that pop format, but the lyrics still carry weight." Bankole adds that those straightforward tunes inspired the trio to make White Men, "more concise and condensed. We had to be brutal — no fucking about. It was important that each word had resonance."
Massaquoi says that lyrical streamlining gave Young Fathers plenty of room to experiment with sounds outside of Dead's bludgeoning rhythms. "We sing more on White Men, which was an accident. It just happened because our raps have less words, so you have a lot more space to add things."
Aside from the additional singing, the trio also added some other pop radio flourishes like choirs and strings. And while they allowed the best of that influence to seep in, Young Fathers didn't approach pop perfectionism. For instance, White Men's strings came from a violin that had "all but one of its strings broken," Massaquoi reveals. "So we just used the one string. We'd just mess with it, and if it sounded good then it sounded good. But no one believes us. One interviewer asked if we were joking."
White Men may indeed be considered Young Fathers' offbeat take on American pop. But Massaquoi isn't likely to use the U.S. as his next album's muse. Instead, he's more excited to one day return to Africa, and dig into his deepest cultural influences.
"I'd love to go to Ghana first," he says. "I was born in Liberia, but only stayed until I was maybe a year-and-a-half old. When war broke out there, my family went to Ghana for a few years, then came to Edinburgh because my dad was studying here."
Upon arrival, Massaquoi was immediately exposed to the racial and cultural dichotomies that he's still contending with on White Men Are Black Men Too. "When I first got to Edinburgh I was still speaking Twi, my family's dialect," he says. "And Dad told me not to speak it. I guess he wanted us to fit in."
Now he's yearning to return and immerse himself in the language. Massaquoi hasn't been completely starved for African culture over the years, explaining that his cousins who remained still send him some of the region's hottest music. But instead of quenching Massaquoi's nostalgia, those homeland anthems only whet his appetite. "I like listening to everything my cousins send me from Africa. It's nuts, really interesting actually, because I'm coming at it thinking 'I grew up in Scotland, I'm just as Scottish as the next person here. But wow, this African music is a part of me.' That's always refreshing to hear."