For many, home is a word merely describing your country or region of origin. A place you are expected to live in peace, enjoy familial ties and build communal relationships. A place that allows you to lead a dignified life and accords you the opportunity to earn a decent livelihood. A place you are free to leave and return as you wish…
Yet this isn’t always the case. According to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at the end of 2022, 108.4 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced from their homes. Reasons for displacement vary from persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations to events seriously disturbing public order.
UNHCR says that out of this number, nearly 35.3 million are refugees who have sought safety in other countries. But as any refugee will tell you, reaching new shores away from violence doesn’t always guarantee peace of mind.
Living in a foreign country presents a new set of problems for asylum seekers, key among them the issue of identity. This is something that Canada-based Somali musician K’naan is all too familiar with and explores it on his new single ‘Refugee’.
The song, whose video was released during World Refugee Day on 20 June, wants to help restore humanity and reinstate a sense of pride among this group of people, who are often weighed down by feelings of hopelessness, grief, longing – and worse, the inability to tell who they are any more.
Commenting about the song, K’naan says: “Growing up, every time someone called me a refugee, I recoiled. [This is why] I wanted to flip the meaning of the word, and make it something that people will wear proudly.”
Forced to flee Somalia at a young age as the civil war raged on, K’naan temporarily found refuge in Kenya before ending up in Canada. A refugee may find the comfort and security his homeland could not offer but the feeling of alienation lingers on, creeping up and depriving the chance to find true inner peace. This is not helped by hostilities, implicit or explicit, sometimes directed at people in the face of rising ultranationalism.
It’s this conflict that K’naan has sought to address on the single, pointing out why refugees need not cower in shame because of their situation. Sparse in instrumentation, it’s the vocals that carry the message-laden song with K’naan’s singing elevated by a choral-like background accompaniment that gives the song a haunting, cinematic feel. The video itself is a central device delivering the song’s message.
As it cuts to clips of refugees around the world – some in camps, others on the move: on foot, on rickety, overcrowded sea vessels, on trains, K’naan sings:
If I was gonna be free, I’d have to change my name Mama don’t feel shame. My old name was all wrong I have waited for so long to decide my destiny Somebody call me refugee and I will wear it proudly.
Praised for incorporating Somali folk traditions in his work, K’naan is at his socially conscious best, as he continues to call for an end to conflict, especially in his home country. ‘Refugee’ heralds K’naan’s first full album in nearly 10 years, expected to come out this summer.
Song: Refugee Artist: K’naan Year: 2023 Distribution: [Merlin] Symphonic Distribution
Gordon Koang is a South Sudanese musician who recently dropped a new song titled Asylum Seeker. According to the artist’s YouTube page the song is “a love song and a message of hope and support, praising their [asylum seekers and refugees] courage and asking them to have patience in the long wait for permanent residency status in Australia.”
Gordon himself has had to go through the terrible process of seeking refuge in a strange place and along with his cousin, Paul Biel who also accompanies him in music, he was granted residency in Australia after a 5 year wait.
‘Stand Up / Asylum Seeker’ 12″ out now on Music in Exile and also in the USA via Light in the Attic. http://musicinexile.com.au email@example.com
Video shot and edited by Dan Kotsimbos in Melbourne, Australia.
When searching the internet for contemporary protest musicians I have my techniques and keywords to filter out the real deal from the posers. With all my requirements and strategies I likely never would have found the music of Portes. She is a Guatemalan-born protest musician and activist based out of Colorado, US.
Lucky for me, her PR company contacted me after seeing what the Shouts webpage is all about and so I interviewed Portes about her brilliant latest album, the electro-pop ‘National Anthems’. She also told me about her experience fostering a child, her activism and musical inspirations and her rather unusual day job – cybersecurity and computer networking.
Halldór Kristínarson: First off, for those who are not familiar with your music and your work, who is Portes?
Portes: Portes is a Colorado-based solo indie artist creating music in all genres. As the name implies, it comes from the French, des portes, meaning doors. Each style of music represents a door to explore. Thus far, the music is primarily electro-pop, dream pop, synth, R&B, and crosses with the more aggressive industrial music that sounds like Nine Inch Nails, but stretches to ambient and even worship music.
HK: How did you first get introduced to creating music and has it always been political and protest driven?
P: I’ve been creating music since I was in elementary school coming up with song lyrics and melodies. It hasn’t always been of a political or protest nature, but I recall an early song that I wrote in high school called, “Glory?” that dealt with the Vietnam War, so maybe I had some idea early on in life that I could write music of a deeper, more thought provoking nature.
HK: Can you tell us a bit about the creative process and production behind your album National Anthems? You speak of being new to the electronic music scene, yet it sounds natural. How did the sound you have on the album come into existence?
P: It helped to write music with a producer who had the same political ideology and stance as me. There wasn’t a conflict in content or style between us. The best inspiration for me at the time of making National Anthems was to look at the music of Nine Inch Nails and that aggressive, in your face, angry vibe. It was the feeling I was feeling watching the Trump administration constantly lie to the American people and who continue to do it today, to the detriment of millions of people and the thousands who have needlessly lost their lives to COVID-19. We started with the song, “Pressure” and used that song as the base for the others. Really, the album came together effortlessly. In fact, I had “Sister” as a different type of song and I had the chorus lyrics and melody mapped out a year before I started National Anthems, so it was just a matter of turning it into this new style and revamping lyrics to address the theme of female empowerment and turn it against these high profile sexual aggressors, like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Larry Nassar. I’m glad you think it sounds natural. I appreciate that.
HK: Being originally born in Guatemala and later growing up in the United States how has that affected your music, lyrically and melodically?
P: I lived in Guatemala as a baby for about six months before being adopted. But, you ask a good question about how that experience has informed my music. Knowing I’m from a multicultural family grounds me in being open-minded and willing to experience other people and cultures, including their music.
HK: Have you been back to Guatemala? Do you follow what is going on there or in nearby countries? Or Guatemalans coming to the states these days?
P: Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to return to Guatemala. It is something I want to do in the future, when it’s safe to do so. I do follow the news of what’s happening in Central America and issues around societal violence, cartels, and immigration. It saddens me greatly to know the people are being mistreated and displaced. It makes me realize just how blessed I am to have the opportunities I do by virtue of having been adopted and being raised in the U.S. I don’t know other Guatemalans, so I can’t speak to that issue.
HK: Some people believe that the arts and activism should be separated, that the arts should be a form of entertainment only. Other people put forth the same argument about journalism. What is your take on how artists, journalists and other people with a voice should use that power?
P: I personally know where I stand on the intersection of arts and activism. But, I won’t dictate how others should use their creative platform to promote their activism. I can only encourage others to find their passion in politics for speaking truth in a time of when untruths are the norm. Some do it to music, like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, CSNY, REM, among others. I would love for “National Anthems” to have that same gravitas as other protest albums and artists. I have something vital to say and that should manifest into something, so I do it with my music. I’m also grateful to media outlets like Shouts Music Blog who share my art and activism with its audience. So, thank you for that! Journalists have an obligation to investigate, verify, and validate facts, so it’s about truth more so than activism. However, there are journalists like Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! who are more involved in activism.
HK: Who are some of your influences, whether them being musicians, activists or anyone else?
P: Some of my music influences are Sia, Nine Inch Nails, Iron & Wine, and Thievery Corporation to name a few. In addition, I appreciate the informative documentaries by Michael Moore. I recently watched Planet of the Humans, which was eye-opening about our dependence on fossil fuels and problems surrounding renewable energy. I was a QA Engineer for a photovoltaic manufacturer.
HK: Besides the music, you are working on a computer networking and cybersecurity degree. What drew you to that field?
P: I haven’t made music and songwriting my full time career yet, though I’d love to be at a publishing house, until then my actual career is in technology. I’ve been a technical writer, IT project manager, and customer experience consultant. However, in my previous roles, I was hitting a wall in advancement since I didn’t have a background in computer networking, so I went back to school after earning a master’s degree. Turns out I’m pretty good at cybersecurity and have a 4.0 GPA and am seeking a role in my field.
HK: What about your extracurricular activities, do you partake in activism outside of the music you make?
HK: The act of taking in a child into foster care and eventually adoption, how has that changed your view of the environment around you? I can only imagine it has also affected your music?
P: It changes everything! You still have to take care of yourself first. That’s what good mental health counseling has taught me. Self-care and self-love is a necessity. He’s incredibly empathetic. He cares about the littlest bug and other people. It’s important that he knows that this planet is finite and we have to take care of Earth by cleaning our messes, recycling, reusing, and reducing our waste. He’s also so sweet, so I actually had him sing on my last single, “Human”, which is a song about global warming, climate change, and social injustice. Although “National Anthems” isn’t really for kids, he heard enough of it that we’ve talked about some of the themes and I want to empower him to have his own voice and stand bravely against injustice and uphold the values of our nation, like liberty and freedom of speech.
HK: What do you hope to achieve with your music?
P: First, I want people to hear what I have to say because I do value the truth and this album was carefully and thoughtfully put out to have an effect that motivates people into action. Second, I hope people find their own stance about the content. Maybe there’s a person who can relate to my experience of sexual assault or who want to protest against gun violence at schools. My son shouldn’t have to do lockouts and lockdowns, but that’s what we’re dealing with now. Lastly, I hope people like the music. I think it’s badass.
HK: What is on the horizon for you?
P: Once I can get back into the studio, I need to do vocals for “Sanctified”, which is a delicate, breathy worship song in the same style as “Human”. Finished songs in queue for release are, “Rocket Crown”, a female empowerment song that blends classical music and hip hop. “I’m on Fire” is an electro-pop love song. “Good Girl” is a fun, catchy EDM song. I can’t be serious all the time. I need some levity too.
HK: Thank you very much for participating and for making your music. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
P: Listeners can find the music on various streaming services, except Spotify. Other than that, saddle up! We’re going on a long ride with Donald Trump, so it’s going to be bumpy, but Portes is here for you in those moments when you feel like screaming from that rooftop, I’ll scream with you. It’ll be very therapeutic. I promise!