“I identify myself as human.” These are the first words that Lowkey says to me. And really, that’s the best way to describe his new album Soundtrack to the Struggle. It’s been two years since the Iraqi-British rapper released his debut album — lots has happened, both to him personally and to the world at large.
The Arab revolutions have reframed any and all genuine rebel music. Lowkey saw his radical rhymes gain unprecedented attention when “Long Live Palestine” unexpectedly became the most popular hip-hop download on Amazon UK in January last year. On the other side of the pond, right-wing media figure Glenn Beck went out of his way to mock Lowkey, which arguably has had the effect of making him even more well-known stateside.
Lowkey (whose real name is Kareem Dennis) retains a refreshing amount of humility throughout all of this, as is evidenced by the 26 tracks of this boldly original new album. Yes, you read that right: 26 tracks. That kind of length normally makes for an unwieldy listening experience — especially in the world of “political” artists, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a hackneyed slogan.
Because Lowkey keeps it close to the heart, however, the album’s ninety-plus minutes remain an engaging listen. One can plausibly argue that the “struggle” this album provides a soundtrack for is just as much his own personal struggle as that of the world at large. The opening title track features the profound and memorable line “I am the product of the system I was born to destroy.” It’s a lyric that may as well apply to any of us. And there’s the rub.
From here, Lowkey takes us through his most general beefs with that system — the excess (“Too Much”), the violence and brutality (the humorously disjointed “Keep Your Hand On Your Gun”), the scapegoating (“Terrorist,” target of Glenn Beck’s derision). It would be easy — and enjoyable — enough to keep it on this straightforward material level, and the next track, “Something Wonderful,” is on the surface a solid anti-sexist track.
But as we’ve been led in this direction, Lowkey has snuck us into his own fears, pains and deep sense of empathy. “Something Wonderful” isn’t just a blase denunciation, it’s a profoundly vulnerable glimpse, along with the next track “Dreamers,” into the hurt of watching others suffer:
“I’ve seen my brother die and seen my mother cry
Seen the winds change with the flutter of a butterfly
Seen people get sectioned for life, I think and wonder
A small twist of fate that could’ve been my brother
Twenty-five years of life can say thus far
I always have wondered who the sane ones are
Though I live by the words ‘fear not,’ [but] I’m afraid
When I wrote this so many tears dropped on the page.”
Labels are insufficient
In a music industry eager to slap the titles “conscious,” “gangsta,” or “underground” on anything hip-hop, songs like these are what makes this album different. Lowkey’s not afraid to be more complex than any of this, while also being fearless in standing up for himself and his beliefs. Lots of artists would love for their work to deserve the simple designation of “human.”
When I ask why such a broad label is the one that applies best to his music, Lowkey answers that “labels are rather insufficient, I would go as far as to say they are limitations, especially within the genre of hip-hop. It is almost a way of ghettoizing a person’s work and keeping them on a leash. My music is about being human, that is the essence of what I attempt to appeal to in my music, the experience of being a flawed human being.”
This context, and the journey from political to personal and back to the political again made with so little lyrical effort, gives Soundtrack its poignancy. Go ahead; throw a rock. You won’t hit anything hackneyed.
For Lowkey, these aren’t just political beliefs; they are expressions of deeply-felt outrage rooted in the real, human experience of injustice, and the essence of solidarity.
“Ultimately, I want my music to be about empowerment of the listener rather than self-glorification,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “I believe all good music is soul music, music which moves the soul and interacts with that part of us which cannot be physically defined. I feel hip-hop allows you a large amount of scope for expression, there is a lot you can say with one song.”
It’s a good thing that Lowkey has so firmly rooted this album in his own humanity, and that he’s dared to plumb the depths of his own soul, because the lion’s share of the album’s last two thirds is relentless in his attack on what he terms “capitalism on steroids.”
Yes, that’s Tariq Ali sampled on “Skit 2,” delivering an eloquent critique of Barack Obama (“if you wear Caesar’s clothes, you have to behave like Caesar”) before Lowkey launches into “Obamanation.” And he’s just as devastating in his assault on the American empire’s destruction of Iraq in “Cradle of Civilization”:
“Is there enough words that can say
How deeply Baghdad is burning today?
And it’s not about pity, hands out or sympathy
It’s about pride, respect, honor and dignity
Babies being born with deformities from uranium
Those babies aren’t just Iraqi, they’re Mesopotamian
What I view on the news is making me shiver
Cause I look at the victims and see the same face in the mirror
This system of division makes it harder for you and me
Peace is a question, the only answer is unity!”
Even here, though, Lowkey couches it in terms of his own sense of disjointed identity — not quite Arab, not quite English — and his mother’s pain at being forced to flee Iraq in the 1970s. He never quite loses sight of what it is that makes these ideas matter in the first place.
A healthy perspective on “the biz”
Likewise for “Long Live Palestine.” It might be trite to say that an album’s most famous single is also its best song, but that (hopefully) won’t stop readers from believing that we’re only talking about degrees of brilliance here. Still, the balance between the personal and political are quite possibly in the most perfect balance here, even within two individual lines (“How many more resolutions have to be violated? / How many more children have to be annihilated?”), and the incorporation of heart-tugging strings and Shadia Mansour’s beautiful voice on the hook merely drives it all home. That a version of this, of all songs, was briefly a number one download on Amazon UK is truly a thing to behold.
This doesn’t mean that Lowkey now has his sights set on becoming the “next big thing” and racking up the Grammys. On the contrary, he exudes a large amount of distrust for the industry on tracks like “My Soul.” In our interview he revealed a great amount of healthy perspective on “the biz.”
“I think a song like mine which denounces Zionism as an anti-Semitic ideology being placed next to [US pop star] Rihanna in the charts, for example, sends a very powerful message to those in positions of power and influence,” Lowkey told The Electronic Intifada.
“It ultimately says, people agree with this sentiment, it exists, we exist and you can’t suppress it … I do, however, feel that getting too close to that world can be like playing with fire, and also can very negatively affect the art you are trying to create,” he added.
And so, Lowkey remains thankfully and joyously independent in his ability to speak truth to power through his rhymes. Soundtrack includes not just one but two songs titled “Obamanation,” as if to make doubly clear how little faith he has in the man who during his campaign was dubbed the “first hip-hop president.”
“I believe people should be held accountable for their actions,” Lowkey explained, “so really the question is how could I not make two ‘Obamanation’ songs? Should I leave fashionable war and murder to go unchallenged because the Commander-in-Chief has apologists that include rappers I grew up listening to?”
The quick answer is no, and Lowkey is more than happy to elaborate on the track along with M1 from dead prez, Black the Ripper and a sample of Lupe Fiasco’s declaration: “Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit!” Of course, these lines have only recently experienced a rebirth in relevance; Lupe himself performed them to a live, nationwide audience at the BET Hip-Hop Awards wearing an “#Occupy” t-shirt and with a Palestine scarf draped over his mic.
This performance, however, along the increase in hip-hop acts allying themselves with the Occupy Wall Street movement, begs yet another question. Is there an increasing amount of room for hip-hop artists in the mainstream willing to spit the truth?
The answer: only if the kinds of fiercely independent, principled artists like Lowkey keep doing what they do and get the support they need. If this songs like these are indeed the Soundtrack to the Struggle, and if the struggle is growing, then maybe a fundamentally different world is on the table after all. Maybe, just maybe, we might be on the verge of a society, a culture and music that is more, well, human.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist based in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies, and his writing has appeared in Z Magazine, TheNation.com, New Politics and the International Socialist Review, among others. He is a founding member of Punks Against Apartheid and is also on the Arts & Recreation committee of Occupy Chicago. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies AT gmail DOT com.