Lowkey: Soundtrack to the struggle

Ashish Ghadiali interviews British-Iraqi rapper Kareem Dennis, aka Lowkey, about viral videos, power in the community, the Grenfell fire and writing lyrics at the cutting edge of political debate

August 10, 2019 · 14 min read
Photo: Jordan Robinson

Lowkey burst onto the political scene in 2009, during Stop the War protests against Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and quickly established himself as a unique and uncompromising voice in British hip hop. Aged just 24, he recorded Fire in the Booth for BBC 1Xtra, which went on to amass five million YouTube hits. Later that year, he joined American academic Norman Finkelstein on a US speaking tour.

After bowing out from the scene to focus on his studies, Lowkey resurfaced during the snap election of 2017. Alongside grime artists and rappers including Stormzy, Jme, Akala and AJ Tracey, he used his profile to help get out the youth vote for Jeremy Corbyn – an intervention that helped deliver an extraordinary Labour victory by just 20 votes in his home constituency of Kensington and Chelsea. Then, one week later, the Grenfell fire happened.

What led you to intervene during the 2017 general election?

It was seeing that we genuinely had an alternative to a political class dedicated to serving corporate power. As people used to throwing metaphorical molotovs from behind the barricades, we saw one of our number actually leading the Labour Party.

Did you worry that the integrity of your own political message could be diluted by association with the Labour Party?

Not really. Whether it’s Ramsay MacDonald’s social imperialism, or Clement Attlee – who, at the same time as giving Britain the welfare state, was involved in the [Malayan] Emergency, which had soldiers posing with the heads of the people they were suppressing – I’m quite realistic about the Labour Party. I look at a leader like Keir Hardie, who asked, when entering World War One, how is it that we can come to the defence of Belgium when Belgium is responsible for the deaths of millions of people in the Congo as a colonial power? I view Jeremy Corbyn in that vein.

It’s about having people in positions like that who are receptive to social movements from below. We could spend the day sitting in a room on our own being pure or put ourselves in a position where we have a chance to massively improve things. Standing on the sidelines is a luxury I just don’t think we can afford.

Yours was part of a collective contribution by high-profile artists in your constituency, which turned Kensington and Chelsea Labour.

Far higher profile than me. Jme, AJ Tracey, Akala, Stormzy – this is massive support. Not one of those people was doing it because the Labour Party paid them.

[We won by] a very small number of votes. I’m pretty sure that our intervention affected younger people in the area especially. I was saying, look, go register to vote, go on, do it, and they did it, they voted. They would not have viewed a Labour Party led by Ed Miliband as different enough to justify their participation.

What qualified you guys to be that agent of change?

A crude free-marketeer would describe it as ‘social capital’. While these young people we were talking to might not have participated in an election before, they would have definitely watched Fire in the Booth. Through years of work, we had gained an intimacy with them – in the way they understand the world, in the way they think about things. We spoke to them in a language that no – or very few – politicians spoke to them. They saw us support causes that mattered to them. They’d seen us in the area on a regular basis. We’d played football with them, we’d been in youth clubs with them, we’d taught them lessons.

Especially when it comes to me and Akala, there’s many young people that we’d see in the area and try to help in different ways. There’s that level of trust, so when coming out and advocating for something, they know we’re not doing it for an ulterior motive.

Jeremy Corbyn is also very well-known and has held his constituency longer than I’ve been alive. He is known for helping people on a myriad of things from immigration cases to housing. He has a good reputation as a politician with integrity. So when we’re coming forward and advocating for him it’s more likely to be believable.

What did you do during the campaign?

I could have done a lot more actually. I was part of a campaign to try to get people to register to vote. I did a video supporting that. I then did an interview which ended up being the beginning of the Double Down News initiative. I said I’d do interviews with anyone and everyone that will interview me. I didn’t go door to door but I don’t necessarily rule it out for future campaigns.

People remember my intervention because of the Double Down video. Over two days it had something like four million views on Facebook. These videos don’t necessarily have a very long life but they do have quite a high level of virality.

Then, a week later, the Grenfell fire happened. How did you respond?

It was the height of optimism and then the height of despair and pain. I felt things can really change, we’re really in with a chance. And then of course the fire happened.

Something I remember about the refurbishment to Grenfell. When it was going on, Margaret Thatcher died. Someone had written ‘RIP MAGGIE’ on the board around the tower. Someone had then crossed out the RIP and wrote ‘FU MAGGIE’. It’s weird. There’s something poetic about it that her mark [was there].

Because if we’re talking about politicians, despite the fact that legally the duty of care returns to the government, it’s very difficult to directly attribute blame and responsibility for the fire. We can, when we’re talking about companies, be really clear about who was responsible for what. But really it was the adoption of this way of viewing public institutions and this way of viewing labour, of this pitting of the global forces of labour against each other and into direct competition. It was this that Margaret Thatcher was a zealous advocate for. Her fingerprint was still on Grenfell Tower.

What did you do?

My wife was sleeping. I saw it happening out of the window. At first I heard fire engines. I hadn’t been looking at my phone. I saw people gathering, they were in their pyjamas, and then I looked to the right and I saw Grenfell on fire.

It was quite early in the fire but it was spreading upwards. Then obviously I woke up my wife and went down into the street. The cladding, the Celotex insulation, which it now turns out was giving off cyanide and could be carcinogenic, was raining down on us. It was all over our hair. That’s why I say in one of my songs, ‘black snow on a summer’s night’. The whole street was covered in it.

Talking to people. Saying, ‘Oh my god, is that person in there?’ ‘Has that person got out?’ I found out early on that my friend Ed, who was one of the main figures in the Grenfell Action Group and had predicted the fire, had escaped.

I was just watching the situation and trying to be useful in some way. Pretty much everyone in the street was from the area and was horrified. People were crying. It was just apocalyptic.

There was a particular family, on the 21st floor. We saw the mother, the husband that was with her, waving from the window. Helicopter comes towards them, within a hundred or so metres. Then it turns around. That turnaround was just so painful. Seven or eight hours later, I see on the front page of the Evening Standard, a picture of that family in their dying moments taken from a horizontal viewpoint. It’s one of the things that still to this day disgusts me, the media mill still rolling.

It upsets me how invisible Arconic and Celotex have been allowed to remain and how the government is providing camouflage for them. They’ve taken a public institution like the fire brigade and put them through the grinder, but then they’ve given Arconic and Celotex seemingly till 2020 to prepare their story, which is ridiculous when you consider how massive they are as corporations. These companies are just being allowed to get away scot free. It’s disgusting.

As a politically active citizen, who had discovered some kind of ability to change things, what was your response?

There is a theory of ‘hauntology’ by Derrida that was developed by the late Mark Fisher, about the process of being trapped in anticipation of more just futures. Something so unjust takes place that the human being is left pining for a more just resolution and a future which never was. This incident was so unjust and so wrong that people just can’t bring themselves to accept it.

The music I made was a small component of a much wider movement, which involved the founding of Grenfell United and other groups that were finding some way of bringing about an intimacy between decision-makers and the results of their decisions.

We’re also struggling to find some sort of accountability for what happened and so the music is really about that. It’s about that discord, that gap between the signature on a piece of paper and the way that signature manifests into violence that affects people’s lives.

It’s sad that while an event can be such a spectacle and cause such an outpouring of sympathy, it has not been translated into a national literacy about the issue of corporate penetration of regulatory bodies. It’s important that we start to perceive the phenomenon of deregulation, privatisation and austerity as acts of violence.

And so your music has sought to do the same thing. Was it doing that prior to 2017?

It’s quite a complex process. The sophistication of your music has to increase. The war on terror is quite a hysterical age and so you can make hyperbolic statements in a kind of international relations lingo. But the perspective that emphasises the interactions between states doesn’t necessarily take into account the dialectics that play out between social grassroots movements and the state, and so I think the music had to start to take into account these kind of things.

Is that how we should see your new album, Soundtrack to the Struggle 2?

It’s what I would aspire to. I’ll give you an example. In the first album, we use a speech juxtaposing US foreign policy to the idea of terrorism against the United States. Essentially, it’s accusing the US government of state-sponsored terrorism. Now that’s definitely a discourse that’s more complex than the one we’re presented by the mainstream media, which largely invisibilises US foreign policy and animalises and irrationalises any violence that is taken against any US troops anywhere. That’s one way.

The second album, we’re opening with Noam Chomsky and me discussing JP Morgan Chase investing in fossil fuels and what that will mean for human existence over the next half century. That’s a slightly more complex point. Whereas the first album is making a very large statement about state power, the second is making a point about the relationship between state power and corporate power: how that then affects human beings, what that then will mean for the future.

The tracks that people connect with more easily are ‘Ragheads and Pakis are worrying your dad, but your dad’s favourite food is curry and kebab.’ Kind of crude, kind of silly, but people can get with it. But then if you’re talking about Nasser naming craters on the moon after Khalifa (the Caliph of Baghdad in the 1900s), or the root of the word ‘algorithms’ coming from al-Khwarizmi (who was a polymath in the 9th and 10th century who was estimating the circumference of the globe when the consensus in Europe was that the earth was flat), it’s more complex. Nothing on the first album could come near to the level of critical thought needed for that kind of stuff.

Your song ‘Ghosts of Grenfell’ is a culmination of the things we’re talking about: the power of the video, your music, coming out of the community, coming out of that moment…

It was a small component of a far wider movement. It was just a musical part of something that was happening in the tangible real world. People are aching for a more just world. The kind of disbelief that something like this had happened and that people were living with it every day.

What happened there in the tower was so horrific that it’s become reflected in the walls all around the area. So you can’t forget it for a moment, you can’t live as if it never happened.

I think the biggest failure of British society has been the failure to see itself in the people that died. If people had, those companies would not be operating in the country right now.

How has becoming a husband and a father impacted your music and politics?

Politically, it makes you appreciate the urgency of the present in the long shadow it will cast over the future, so you understand that the battles you fight today will be ones that your son or daughter will gain or lose from. You realise the importance of you doing stuff. The other thing is that you look at people with a greater sensitivity to their vulnerability, and you understand how that can be personified in their children. They have something which is like the embodiment of their heart walking around the world and it can bring them the height of joy but it can also just destroy them in a flash.

It’s a different way of viewing other people. It’s something that lends itself to looking at people with a little more sensitivity.

What lies ahead for you, in terms of the personal and the cultural/political?

We really need to find a way to stop the governments of the world subsiding the fossil fuel industry. That is, as Chomsky says on the album, a moral imperative. We have to reconfigure our relationship with the environment. We have to stop allowing it to be dictated by companies which are taking us to the point of no return.

The plan is to finish my masters and to write more music and speak to people. And to make another album or EP, potentially before the end of this year.

I’m thankful that you and others have been interested in my music enough to write about it, to listen to it. I did an interview the other day with a guy who had measured the syllables I was rapping per second. He found that at one point I had rapped 10 syllables in one second, and he had compared that to the entry in the Guinness Book of Records, which was 11.4 syllables per second. If people are listening to my music to this extent, then it would be wasteful to not use this kind of position to do something substantial with it.

Soundtrack to the Struggle 2 is out now.

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