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We’re now at a stage where anything that contradicts too strongly with the main line, or the way they want young people to perceive the world, and the things they want young people to find important, it’s not deemed worthy of exploitation. In the UK they very much keep their eyes on America, what American hip hop is saying, and if you look at American hip hop the moral of story is: get money, because that is the only thing that defines you and that defines every single aspect of your worth and that defines how you view yourself. Therefore in this country, people are not thinking in terms of what can I say to change the world, or what opinion do I even have about the world – it’s what is the best way I can get signed. In reality it’s what is the best way I can be exploited.’
On a crisp April evening in west London, Kareem Dennis, better known as rapper Lowkey, is a young man with plenty to say about why other British rappers are not, unlike him, addressing the political issues of the day in their lyrics. At just 23, Lowkey is taking his fierce denunciations of the state of the world to a rapidly growing audience, increasingly puncturing the confines of the hip hop community to include those on the left, both in Britain and beyond, who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves rap fans.
Born in London to an Iraqi mother and an English father, it was through his family that Lowkey first encountered rap. ‘I just got into rap when I was young, from my brother’s record collection. My parents had a Public Enemy vinyl but I didn’t really find them to be very entertaining at that age to be honest, it just sounded like shouting to me.’ It was through artists such as Gil Scott-Heron that Lowkey’s attraction to rap intensified and at 17 he started taking it seriously and rapping in public regularly. Since then he’s been part of various rap crews, even venturing outside his genre in 2008 when he joined forces with indie/rock musicians from the Arctic Monkeys, Reverend and the Makers, and Babyshambles to form Mongrel, a band playing a hybrid of indie, rock and rap.
Long live Palestine
A watershed in exposing sections of the British left to Lowkey’s uncompromising prose occurred in January 2009 when Lowkey took to the stage and addressed a Stop The War Coalition rally in London against the Israeli military’s devastating assault on Gaza, dubbed Operation Cast Lead. In a poem entitled ‘Long Live Palestine’, released earlier this year as a charity single to raise funds for Gaza’s victims, Lowkey offered a performance charged with both anger and humanity. In one section he rhymed:
Talking about revolution, sitting in Starbucks,
The fact is that’s the type of thinking I can’t trust,
Let alone even start to respect,
Before you talk learn the meaning of that scarf on your neck,
Obama promised Israel 30 billion over the next decade,
They’re trigger happy and they’re crazy,
Think about that when you’re putting Huggies nappies on your baby,
Palestine, Ramallah, West Bank, Gaza,
This is for the child that is searching for an answer,
I wish I could take your tears and replace them with laughter,
Long live Palestine, Long live Gaza.
Lowkey is nearly always seen performing with a Palestinian keffiyeh on his shoulder, and it’s clear that it’s an issue he holds very dear to his heart. I ask about the roots of this commitment.
‘I can’t lie and pretend it has nothing to do with my Arab heritage,’ he says. ‘But that’s [Palestine] something I always grew up feeling was so misunderstood… In my opinion the actions of Israel point to an attempt to eradicate not just the existence of the Palestinian people but the existence of the word Palestine. They [the Israelis] don’t even refer to them as Palestinians, they refer to them as Arabs. They’re ethnically cleansing Jerusalem as we speak.’
There is an urgency and intensity to Lowkey’s words. Recalling his performance at the London rally he chuckles at the memory that ‘Convincing people to let me speak at that event wasn’t easy… After that the reaction was surprising and that kind of pushed me forward and I’ve moved on from there.’ He’s since travelled and performed in the West Bank, Gaza, and most recently Lebanon.
Soon after meeting me Lowkey is set to fly to the US, where he’s been invited to join Jewish academic Norman Finkelstein on a speaking tour. Unlike many high-profile US rappers, who have been heavyweight champions of Barack Obama, Lowkey is deeply unimpressed with the first black resident at the White House.
These sentiments have been most recently collected in a song entitled ‘Obama Nation’, where Lowkey offers a scathing attack on the policies of the US president. In the first month of the song’s music video being posted on YouTube it was viewed over 80,000 times; Lowkey has also collected an impressive following on the social network site Facebook, with nearly 11,000 ‘fans’. Lowkey’s songs are clearly stridently confronting the global political talking points of the day and reaching an impressive and growing number of people around the world. But, with a general election looming at the time of the interview, how does he feel about domestic UK politics?
Apathy in the UK
‘Here only about 45 per cent of the population voted at the last election,’ says Lowkey, speaking before the 2010 election. ‘This shows the extent to which people do not believe the politicians, do not believe in the politicians, and do not relate to the politicians.’
‘And look at our relationship to Britain’s political history,’ he adds. ‘Words like Balfour Declaration don’t mean anything to the average person here … There’s a gap between the elites and the people.’
Lowkey sees signs for hope beyond our borders. ‘On the Palestinian issue, things are changing, perhaps too slowly and perhaps it’s too late, but they are changing. I’m looking on CNN and I’m seeing [US] General Petreaus saying Israel is hurting the US’s interests in the Middle East. So you do have these changes happening.’
This doesn’t lead him to make unrealistic predictions about the possibilities for change. ‘I’d rather be a pessimistic guy who’s proved wrong than an optimistic guy who’s proved right,’ he says.
Even so, Lowkey carries a certainty about his future that is uncommon in uncertain times. ‘I won’t be dictated to about what I can and can’t say. Under no circumstances,’ he declares. Young though he may be, in Lowkey Britain has found a new forceful and influential voice of rebellion.
Lowkey’s new album Soundtrack to the Struggle will be released later this year. More info: www.lowkeyuk.net. To read a longer version of this interview: www.levelground.info