This article originally appeared in NARC. Magazine.
“Do you want us to describe White Men Are Black Men Too? Luckily for us that’s the job of people like you…” Challenge accepted, Young Fathers. The Scottish trio are usually described as hip-hop, but on their new, second album there’s a heavy punk ethos that flies in the face of the egotistical and self-congratulatory mentality of much mainstream rap and modern hip-hop. Indeed, the album has more in common with the scatty, genre-bending alt. rock of TV On The Radio than mainstream hip-hop, something that’s most apparent on the stand-out track Shame. It’s a melting pot of influences and ideas that isn’t as immediate as their Mercury Prize-winning debut Dead, but rewards repeated spins.
With the power of persuasion however, they put it best: [White Men Are Black Men Too is] “the zing of sugar and ice on teeth whilst holding a cloud of soul-smoke in the mouth.” With their sophomore album, the trio are continuing to rail against a musically diluted mainstream, which they say has become “quite conservative.” As G puts it, “there’s an orthodoxy, what you’re ‘allowed’ to do; it’s about keeping it real, being authentic.” White Men Are Black Men Too is just another step on their increasingly epic quest to re-energise a genre and inject some urgency and creativity into it.
There’s an issue not-so-subtly embedded within White Men Are Black Men Too, though, that’s something of an elephant in the room. The title of the album alone had caused some controversy (although much less than the actual lyric “some white men are black men too” probably would have). I suggested that the title was making an obvious statement about equality but, as Alloysious points out, not everyone has seen it that way. “The general reception has been that it is about equality,” he explains, “but equating a white man’s experience with that of a black man’s in the USA, for instance, is not just difficult, it’s quite wrong.”
Focusing on the album title deflects from the real issues behind it, and people forget that the group were broaching difficult and arguably controversial subjects on Dead as well. “There’s been so much pain over shades of pink and brown. It was important to show it wasn’t a trivial matter, that we weren’t just being provocative.”
Despite raising these deep issues though, the group have always resisted the term ‘political’. I asked them why they didn’t want to categorise themselves in such a way. “’Political’ indicates strident and militant and believing in a particular economic philosophy,” G explains. “There’s only been a few truly political groups over the years in the UK, who live it like they say it. We are signed to a record label and we want to be played on radio. We recognise the way we deal with the industrial side of things as being part of making our art. It would be stupid of us to say we know the way and that we’re in the right if we haven’t got the balls to go and live it, like Crass did, for instance. So we bring what we can to the art and recognise a compromise that involves trying to make a living whilst being true to ourselves personally.”
This links back to their thoughts on race in their music, as they say “there’s no need to preach” when it comes to these concepts. “In our own way we show it’s integral, part of our experience and what we observe and it slots in with everything else in our lives,” Alloysious says. Thus, the album lets you make your own mind up. It’s the audience that have to decide what the band are trying to say; they’re far from being holier-than-thou preachers of a certain ideology.
Throughout the conversation, I got the distinct impression that although raising issues such as race were important to them, the trio were more interested in the music itself and bringing these themes in on a more subconscious level. G all but confirms this: “Telling it like it is can take different forms,” he says. “It can be that boring, oppressive wanker on the bus telling you it’s ‘got to be like this’ with a mild undertow of violence. Or it can be the smells and sights of a sunset over concrete that make a suggestion that is almost undeniable.” Young Fathers are that beautifully warm glow over the asphalt implying the existence of something more.