“Here’s another ticket…”
Whispered and reverberating as if they were recorded inside a snare drum, three unassuming words invite you in to Young Fathers’ second studio album, White Men Are Black Men Too. There’s no subtle meaning or potential metaphor associated with this particular phrase. Its sole purpose is to begin the twelve-song journey through racial discourse, late-twenties self-reflection, and liberated shame, all while being shepherded by some of today’s strongest and most melodious pop music.
A year ago this month, the trio from Edinburgh, Scotland (featuring Kayus Bankole, Graham “G” Hastings, and Alloysious Massaquoi) made their New York debut at the Bowery Ballroom in support of Dead, their record that would go on to be awarded the prestigious Mercury Prize (think the Grammys, but with value and British), beating out FKA twigs and Damon Albarn. Throughout 2014 they toured our country, driving state by state, gobbling up radio reception, and absorbing influences spanning Top 40 hits to Mexican soul.
“The idea of the album came up in America,” acknowledges Hastings. “You have some great radio stations here that are quite alien to us, coming from Britain.”
Hastings and his bandmates are Brooklyn-bound, riding in an Uber on a recent gray morning. The background murmur sounds as if the other band members are completing interviews as well, taking full advantage of this 30-minute gap in their demanding schedule. Hastings is articulate and well-spoken, holding forth in a thick Scottish accent reminiscent of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting read aloud.
The band was recently in South Africa touring behind White Men Are Black Men Too, and during this leg they compiled and edited a short advert for their North American tour with band manager Tim London, providing a riveting narration detailing the group and the style of music they command:
It’s pop music: You own it. When you are young it becomes yours forever, but it also belongs to everyone else who earned it.
“Pop is a genre that has quite a lot of respect, and it can be anything, really. It’s the only genre — and if you’re going to be a genre — rock and pop are the only genres where we can say, ‘Yep, this is us,’ ” explains Hastings. “It can be anything, and pop music through the years has been anything. It’s seen as a challenge: How do you affect and mean anything in a three-and-a-half-minute song, and can you change somebody’s mentality? That’s what pop music means to us and why we keep telling people that [we’re a pop group].”
It almost seems belittling for a rising band with an alternative edge to consistently refer to themselves as pop music, a genre that’s so frequently dismissed, but Hastings insists — and does so with purpose.
“We want to be involved in pop music; we don’t want to be on the sidelines. We want to be involved in pop music almost to destroy it, to destroy what pop means by even having us included,” he says. “I think if you have stations playing music that’s actually different rather than just slightly different, that makes people think. And that’s a good thing for everybody — for culture in general. That’s our mentality, to be involved and not be sidelined, because I think it means everybody gets involved, even if people really hate us. You know that it’s there.”
Young Fathers intend to be noticed. Not for fame, riches, or glory, but for opening dialogue and motivating important conversations regarding race and misconstrued ideas held in our world culture. The cover of their album features organic blue lettering supported by a red backdrop that reads White Men Are Black Men Too, with the two O’s conjoined as if to signify unity and/or infinity. This provocative statement not only serves as the hook during their song “Old Rock N Roll” but is also devised to prompt a response from any person whose eyes scan the phrase.
“It’s a direct message as well as a metaphor. You can look at the context in this country and even for us at home in Scotland,” says Hastings. “That’s us trying to combat [stereotypes]….People try to categorize us all the time: Are you a religious person? What do you act like? Unfortunately, I think we live in the age where media drives stereotypes and images of people and puts them all under the same umbrella and says these people are like that. And even though it might not be directly said, it’s insinuated like dog-whistlin’. If it gets people talking, even if they don’t know who we are, if they just see a poster or just hear it on the radio, that phrase, the album title, that’s enough. Even if people don’t have a conversation, it exists and maybe gets people to think. That’s our hope, ultimately.”
Throughout WMABMT, a marriage is formed between intriguing lyrics (“He cleans his pistols while I reload my pistols,” as heard in “Dare Me”) and infectious beats courtesy of Hastings’s production. Almost instantly you can locate their charm, best exhibited in “Nest” at the 0:16 mark when the piano melody arrives. Since meeting at a club at the age of fourteen, Young Fathers have been linking together their individual styles to form a musical tessellation that interrupts pop music for the sake of progression.
“Growing up, even before we met, we hung with different people. We all had different gangs of people all the time, and that’s where you pick up from everywhere. It’s just these tiny bits from here and there,” says Hastings. “We’ve been together for thirteen years now, so we know each other very well — we’re a family. It’s all for the benefit of what you can make for the group. You’re going to create sounds that are not going to be made by anyone, and it’s going to be completely original.”
Young Fathers will perform at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Friday, April 10. Although tickets are sold out, they’re currently available on secondary markets.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 9, 2015