Monday, 29 June 2009


Interview with Lowkey

Lizzie Cocker
Morning Star

The "Iraqi rapper" with an approach to life, politics and music that's anything but low key

"People are trained to see things in a black and white way. Every day we make split-second judgements, it's almost a human way of surviving."

With his baggy jeans and T-shirt and his striking Arab looks, this young London hip-hop artist from a working-class background and a broken home is living proof that "the world is not black and white."

The British hip-hop scene has long been crying out for someone to bring listeners back into the real world and, as the prospects for more and more young people get bleaker, there has never been a better time to find out about 23-year-old Kareem Dennis, aka Lowkey.

Abhorring the mainstream, "which glorifies and condones all the worst things in life: violence, misogyny, drugs and materialism to a disgusting degree," he has nonetheless engaged traditional hip-hop audiences through his solo work and collaborations with well-respected artists like Wretch and Logic.

Determined to be as vocal as possible, the super-group Mongrel has propelled Lowkey into the indie orbit with artists from bands such as Babyshambles, Arctic Monkeys and Reverend And The Makers.

Yet despite gaining much critical acclaim over the last few years, Lowkey bypassed the potential wealth and fame his ascent from the open-mics could have brought.

Instead, he chose to channel a lot of his creative energies into engagement with the Palestinian cause. Since Tears To Laughter - his no-budget song which raised money for victims of the Israeli assault on Gaza - reached 18 in the prestigious iTunes hip-hop chart, he has become a highly appreciated performer at fundraisers.

He went down a storm at the recent Gaza Music School benefit at London's Hackney Empire, as well as performing for and participating in the Gaza 100 world record run on his birthday last Saturday.

Moments before our meeting, he and the Stop the War coalition were discussing launching a summer anti-war music festival in London's Trafalgar Square.

From a mixed British-Iraqi family (dad from Dover, mum from Baghdad), Lowkey is acutely aware of the crisis of identity such a mix can engender. "My name's Kareem, I've never felt accepted as a British person in this country, but I've never felt truly accepted as an Iraqi person - what do I know about Iraq? People accept me as an Arab because that's my racial appearance," he declares.

"I'm an Englishman amongst Arabs and an Arab amongst Englishmen. But I have to look at things my own way. I can't stand fully on either side."

"?I'm an Englishman amongst Arabs and an Arab amongst Englishmen. But I have to look at things my own way?

This contradiction is a running theme in his music, where the Gill Scott Heron inspired welding of political and emotional themes challenge the listener to think again. The song Relatives from his Dear Listener album, co-written with long-time creative partner Logic, is a dialogue between a young squaddie from London and a young man in Basra.

Lowkey deliberately assumed the role of the British soldier, swapping experiences with his collaborator as his Basra counterpart. "I was being pigeonholed and stereotyped as the Iraqi rapper," Lowkey says. "I thought it would be good to flip it and have me rap from the other perspective just to show people."

The lyrics hammer home that whether you are male, female, Palestinian, US citizen, soldier or suicide bomber, we are all human beings and "in essence we are all the same."

In February, on the back of Tears To Laughter, Lowkey was approached by Palestinian music organisation the Sabreen Association to participate in the Hip Hop For Gaza tour of the West Bank and parts of Israel.

On the trip he was to get a bitter taste of what Palestinians are forced to endure every day of their lives.

Instead of performing the nine shows scheduled, just seven came to fruition. He missed the first after being detained and interrogated for nine hours in Tel-Aviv airport, where typically the people who get detained are "those with dark features and Muslim names." His mobile phone was confiscated for two hours and on return he found that the only number barred was that of the British embassy in Israel.

He was advised against the second show in Birzeit University near Ramallah. On the same day Palestinians had flocked into the streets to demonstrate and strike in protest at the pending demolition of 88 homes in Silwad to make way for a Chessington-style theme park. More than 1,000 people faced homelessness.

His experiences of the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem and of Palestinians living in Haifa draws him to highlight how luck is the dictator of destiny.

"No matter what you do in your life, you can never be anything different from what you were born into. Palestinians with the better quality of life have Israeli citizenship, even though Israeli Arabs are treated like the lowest of the low within Israeli society.

"Then, in the Israeli-governed refugee camp, all problems are settled through gangs. There's no policing. Imagine being governed and controlled by people who hate you. They have no rights."

Lowkey's scope is emerging as part of a vital piece in the jigsaw for the peace movement, which so far has struggled to engage with the wider generation of young people who have inherited the responsibility of rebuilding a world obliterated by the wars and exploitation of those who came before.

But how can his radical take on hip hop be a medium for change? He reminds me that the genre was wrenched from blacks who had used the medium to vocalise their situation in the 1980s and transformed into "the tool of the oppressor" by those who saw knowledgeable black people as a threat in the US.

He insists that "hip hop is not dead," assuring that "in these times, particularly with the recession, it is more likely to go full circle at some point.

"The majority of rappers advertise a capitalist lifestyle which has been proven can't support itself, one which is pretty much non-existent, a fantasy. So at some point someone's going to turn round and say this whole thing we've been advertising is bullshit."

His mantra of "you can't pick up a book, go straight to the last page and say you have read it" could be applied to getting to know the man himself, and there will without doubt be plenty more time to read other pages from his story.

Unlike many artists whose success is built upon the flimsy foundations of one song or concept, the longevity of Lowkey's art is fuelled by his passion for every aspect of human interaction and his refusal to be neatly pigeonholed.

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