Tag Archives: Grenfell

David Rovics (interview)

David Rovics’ life has been political since the day he picked up a guitar. Listening to his songs one can hear that storming from his guitar and lyrics. His latest album, Ballad of a Wobbly, covers topics such as the recent Grenfell tower fire in London, the Rojava conflict, the FBI’s Palmer Raids of 1919, the attack in Charlottsville, as well as general pleas of love and understanding for the people, creatures and nature all around us. The first and title track of the album focuses on the so called Wobblies, or the International Workers of the World (IWW), a union formed in 1906 and still operating today is some way. From there David takes us on a journey around the world and back and forth in time. I contacted David and asked him a few questions about his career, the educational part of his music and about an upcoming Facebook Live Event that he is hosting in a few days.

 

As a veteran protest singer and songwriter, many people know your work, but for those still in the dark, who is David Rovics?

Well, that’s a very existential question to begin with…!  I grew up in a woodsy suburb of New York City and I was raised by musicians, one of whom is a lifelong union member (the other of whom would have been, given the opportunity).  I haven’t really fallen too far from the tree (not that I would have admitted that when I was younger).

Has your music been political since the day you picked up the guitar?

I guess I have been political since I first picked up a guitar, but whether the music has been has varied.  I’ve gone through phases of playing a lot of bluegrass, Irish traditional music, and other kinds of things.  There are political elements everywhere, but in terms of writing songs about current and historical events, I got into that pretty early, but not right away.

Political music has not been known to go hand in hand with popularity. How do you feel people are accepting your activist music these days? Has it changed since when you were starting out?

I’ve never had any kind of mainstream success, I would say to put it simply.  Whether that’s because the music is political or not is hard to say, because most artists never have mainstream success, whether they’re political or not.  But I have a good base within the left in many countries.  In Europe this has been a brilliantly consistent thing ever since I started touring there almost 20 years ago.  In the US it’s been much less consistent.  I used to mainly tour in the US, but now I mainly tour in Europe, as a result of these changes, out of necessity.

What do you hope to achieve with your music?

Hopefully it functions on many different levels.  My hope is to educate people about current and historical events they’ve never heard about, or to help them think about events they have heard about in different ways.  In addition to the education aspect there’s the very important aspect of community-building — for that, people need to get together physically in physical spaces and do things together, like talk, sing, eat, drink, tell stories, listen to stories.  As a musician I give people an excuse to get together, which is important.  So basically there’s education and there’s inspiration, I suppose, those are the two main elements.

Do you think you will ever run out of subjects to write and sing songs about?

No, as long as the universe continues to constantly be in flux, there will be things to write about — as long as the Earth turns on its axis.  If the universe became completely static, that would be a problem, but it shows no signs of stopping. 

If all of a sudden all people on the planet were simply patient and kind to one and another, as well as to all creatures and the nature, what would you like to write about then?

There would be many beautiful stories within all of that patience and kindness.  That’s also true when kind people save others from being massacred, for example, but then there’s also death involved with such a song.  But it could be a great song with nobody dying in it, too.  In some of my favorite songs, nobody dies…

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Outside the music, do you partake in any activism?

Well, I’m currently organizing a gig for someone else — a Nigerian actor/singer named Tayo Aluko, so I don’t know if that counts…?  But basically no.  I found a long time ago that for me it’s best to specialize.  I sing at a lot of protests and do a lot of fundraisers for activist groups, but my only role within the unions, left parties, squats, etc., is to sing for them.  I know a lot of really good musicians and a lot of really good organizers, and I know very few who do both really well.  Which makes sense to me, because just between writing songs, recording albums, organizing tours, doing the tours, and raising kids, there’s no time left for anything else as far as I can tell.

Do you follow other active protest musicians? Do you have any favorites, current or old

Oh yes.  Favorites include Jim Page (Seattle), Robb Johnson (England), Christy Moore (Ireland), Silvio Rodriguez (Cuba).

You have a Facebook live event coming up on the 4th of August. Can you tell us about that? What else is on the horizon for you?

One of my main projects over the past year has been writing and organizing a section of my website that teaches people about history and current events through music and prose, at www.davidrovics.com/history.  As part of that project, I’m doing monthly internet broadcasts where I talk about this month in history, and any other subjects people want to discuss.  I’ve been moving from one platform to another to do these broadcasts because I can’t decide which to use, and I was banned from Facebook for a long time.  But this time I’ll use Facebook (I know it sucks, but I want to broadcast to people rather than to crickets).  Oh and as for what else is on the horizon, I have tours coming up in various parts of North America and Europe from August through November, and my first vinyl album coming out in December.  I’m going to the studio in a couple hours to record some songs for it…

Lastly, thank you very much for participating and for the music you make. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

I love the image of shouting from rooftops.  It makes me think of the art of Eric Drooker of New York City, which has the world’s best rooftops.  And it makes me think of my friend Brad Will, with whom I smoked joints on many rooftops, whether or not we shouted from them.  So yeah — go to www.drooker.com and look at some of my favorite paintings of my favorite rooftops…

Lowkey reminds us that Grenfell victims are still fighting for justice

After a five year hiatus, in 2017, Lowkey returned to the mic with a personal, political music essay on the Grenfell disaster who many have said could have been avoided with proper construction practices. Now he has release a sequel as a reminder to his government that victims of this avoidable tragedy are still fighting for justice. Check it out and pass the music video along!

The Four Fathers (interview)

According to the code of ethics of various journalist groups around the globe some of their main tasks are to be vigilant and watch over its societies. Journalists and media shall honor the responsibility their voices hold and lend those voices to the voiceless part of the population. They shall hold the ones in power to account and be courageous in seeking the truth.

Musicians do not bear the same responsibility exactly although it can be argued they have a powerful voice that often reaches across international societies. So it can likewise be argued they shall use that voice responsibly. Some musicians hide their socially conscious message for they believe in creating music solely upon feeling and heart. Others are more explicit in their lyrics or performance and send a strong message of protest out into the ethos in every single song. The Four Fathers are of the latter type.

The band hails from the UK, where there has never been any lack of protest music. The band recently released their second album entitled How Much Is A Life Worth?. The band’s main songwriter, Andy Worthington, is (besides being a musician) a journalist and an activist and a source on various issues such as Guantánamo and the so-called war on terror. I contacted Andy and inquired further about the band’s new album, his activism and his take on the protest music of today.

 

For those not familiar with your music, who are The Four Fathers?

We’re a group of fathers, from the borough of Lewisham, in south east London, and we got together in 2014 because we had all had various musical endeavors in our youth, and wanted to revisit them. We started off playing covers, but I soon started writing new material, and pretty soon my political consciousness found songs to be a useful vehicle for musical storytelling; protest music, essentially.

You are a journalist and an activist as well as a musician. How about the rest of the band?

We’re a mixed bag — a gardener, a teacher, an architect and a full-time dad. Fortunately, we’re all left-wing politically, and the other band members have been happy to follow my forays into topical political songwriting.

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The Four Fathers performing at the ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ gig that Andy organised at the Birds Nest in Deptford, London SE8, November 2017

You recently published your second album. Can you tell us about the production process?

We found a local studio for our first album, ‘Love and War’ — Perry Vale Studios in Forest Hill, and liked it, so we returned there for our second album, ‘How Much Is A Life Worth?’ We recorded the new album over several weekends in 2016, mixed it in early 2017, and then released songs as online singles until the album’s release in November.

How does the state of the world affect your songwriting, i.e. do you find it hard to strike a balance between releasing a song in time with a current issue and releasing it when it is ready as a piece of music?

I think there’s something to be said for being very topical, but we don’t have the facilities for that, and, in general, it takes me some time to come up with the lyrics, once I have the tune. (I don’t know where the tunes come from, but they generally come to me while cycling around London on my bike). To give two new songs as examples, one, ‘Grenfell’, was inspired by the terrible and entirely preventable fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London in June 2017. The tune — and the lyrics for the chorus — came to me quite quickly, but I spent the summer working little by little on the rest of the lyrics. For ‘I Want My Country Back (From the People Who Want Their Country Back)’, which is about Brexit, the tune — and, again, the chorus — came to me quite quickly after the referendum in June 2016, but I decided the lyrics were too literal, and I wanted something slightly more poetic, and that took me many months to work out. A video of us playing ‘Grenfell’ live for a German film crew is here, by the way, and we hope to record both songs in a studio soon.

What came first for you, the music or the journalism?

I was going to say the journalism, but in fact I’m from musical family, and was in choirs as a child, and in bands as a teenager and in my 20s. I also did some studio-based work in my 30s. I began working seriously as a writer in 2002, when I began writing my first book, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, about Stonehenge and the British counter-culture, which was published in 2004, and I then followed up with a related book, The Battle of the Beanfield, in 2005. In 2006, I began researching and writing about Guantanamo, which I continue to do to this day, along with other writing and campaigning, and it was alongside this that I got involved with my friends in what became The Four Fathers.

What made you want to use these two mediums to tell stories?

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Andy’s book about the detainees at Guantánamo.

I suppose telling stories and/or the desire to communicate take many forms, and people find whatever vehicle suits them. For some people, that’s just one field, but I’ve always been interested in different forms of expression — writing is a big thing for me, of course, and it’s liberating that writing lyrics is in some ways different to journalism, but I’ve always loved singing, I’ve played the guitar since my 20s, I’ve also loved photography all my adult life, and continue to do that in various ways, and I’ve also engaged in other media — in film-making, for example, as the co-director of a film about Guantanamo, ‘Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo’, and recently as the narrator for ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, a documentary film about the destruction of social housing in London, and the residents who are resisting the destruction of their homes. See: http://concretesoldiers.uk

What are some of the stories you care about?

I care about human rights and social justice. I want to see Guantanamo closed, as an icon of lawlessness in the “war on terror,” I want to see the rise of racism and xenophobia challenged, and I want to see the horribly greedy and aggressive form of current capitalism that has degraded the world and that is currently beginning to cannibalistically devour all but the rich in the western countries of its origin to be resisted and broken, so we can have a better system. That’s what my involvement in social housing campaigns is about, but it’s just as important here in the UK for people also to find way to, for example, save the NHS, the greatest achievement of the UK, from being destroyed by the Tories.

What are the main differences you find between writing a book, a media article or a song lyric?

Well, a book is a huge project, in general, and a real challenge — although it is one I hope to do again. As for media articles, because I’ve been writing them for over ten years, often on a daily basis, I find them generally easy to do, especially as I largely self-edit my work, but lyrics are definitely more elusive.

Besides the writing, journalism and music, do you partake in other activism or social engagement?

I’m involved in various forms of campaigning, as well as writing and playing music, and since 2012 I’ve also been cycling around London on a daily basis taking photos across the whole city. Since last May, I’ve been posting photos once a day on Facebook, on a page called ‘The State of London’, and I hope to expand this project this year.

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The Four Fathers performing at Lewisham People’s Day, London SE13, July 2017

Performing protest music such as yours, do find that it lands on deaf ears so to speak or do you feel there is willingness to take in music with a message?

I don’t think that there is, in general, an interest in protest music as there was when I was growing up. As a child of the 70s becoming a young man in the early 80s, politics was everywhere — the Sixties, and the protest music of the likes of Bob Dylan, was like the recent past, and a heady source of inspiration, and in my own teenage years the punk scene exploded into life, with its interesting crossover with the roots reggae scene. Both the singer-songwriters of the 60s and the 70s, aspects of the punk and post-punk scene (the Clash and the Two Tone movement, for example), and the roots reggae music of the late 70s, which I particularly love, and which was, of course, often militantly political, provided the direct inspiration for what I write for The Four Fathers, but I find that in general political protest has been cynically expunged from most modern-day music. It can still be found in aspects of youth culture — in the grime scene, for example — but there’s very little crossover in general between different scenes, so the general situation would seem to be one on which politics have been marginalized by self-censoring rock bands, by a bland corporate pop world, and by a juggernaut nostalgia industry, safely peddling people an aging facsimile of their youth. As a result, we’ve been trying to move more towards taking part in political events, where there’s a guaranteed audience that is probably prepared to listen as well be entertained.

Do you find that there is an abundance of protest musicians out there today or on the contrary?

There are many, but they tend to be scattered around the country — and around the world. However, I’ve started to try getting some of them together, and in November, at the Birds Nest Pub in Deptford, a celebrated music venue, I put together an evening, under the heading ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’, featuring three bands (including The Four Fathers), two spoken word artists, a rapper and a socialist choir, and it was a huge success, and a clear demonstration that you can be both entertained and politically aware. I hope to do more gigs along the lines throughout 2018.

Who are some of your favorite protest singers or socially conscious artists?

I still listen to many of the artists I grew up listening to, so lots of roots reggae and West African music, which I’m a huge fan of. I love Fela Kuti, I love Bob Marley, and numerous Jamaican artists from the same period, and I also love the conscious musicians of America from the same time — Gil Scott-Heron, for example. Currently, I have a lot of time of some of the spoken word artists I know here and in the US — Potent Whisper here in the UK, who tells complex political stories in rhyme, and the Peace Poets from the Bronx in New York, who also perform uplifting spoken word pieces rooted in political struggle. I know them from my Guantanamo work, and my annual visits to the US to call for the closure of the prison on the anniversary of its opening, every January.

“If everyone who claims to care about the state of the world actually did something, it would make a huge difference. But you have to believe it, shake off your apathy, stop shopping and screen-watching all the time, and actually do something. Remember: we are many, and they are few.”

What is on the horizon for The Four Fathers and for you?

More playing, wherever we can find what we hope will be appreciative audiences. And more recording, as we start work on our third album. We are always open to invites and suggestions.

Thank you very much for participating and for the music you make. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

Just my mantra from our song ‘Fighting Injustice’: “If you ain’t fighting injustice, you’re living on the dark side.” If everyone who claims to care about the state of the world actually did something, it would make a huge difference. But you have to believe it, shake off your apathy, stop shopping and screen-watching all the time, and actually do something. Remember: we are many, and they are few.

Check out Andy and The Four Fathers at the following sites:

https://thefourfathers.bandcamp.com
http://www.andyworthington.co.uk