Just over a week ago in the immediate aftermath of major rioting, NME Editor Krissi Murison produced an article for The Observer, lamenting a lack of political content/youth representation in contemporary music. What follows is an open letter and appeal to Krissi, from a fellow journalist, music lover and NME reader:
In the spring of 2008, Libertines front man (and personal friend) Carl Barat talked with fervor to me of an underground music project he felt I should be aware of. You'll know that recommendations of this nature fuel and disappoint every night of the week, but being Carl: someone who listens a lot, reads a lot and with obvious credentials, can source authenticity and rage quicker than anyone I know, I agreed to take a look.
Carl led me to the subterranean Dean Street Studios in Soho to meet an extraordinarily diverse collective of musicians bouncing of the walls with creative anger. Led by Reverend and the Makers Jon McClure, the outfit contained around 20 artists crammed into a small room, a good 14 of whom as it happens were very young, urban rappers and musicians from ethnic minorities. To the biting, screaming, gouging, popping of guitar, drums, bass, samples and vocals, I observed from a stunned sedentary viewpoint the recording of a song called "Act Like That". Here is a lyrical sample:
"Why these men gonna act like that, lets break in down fact by fact, governments sell gas like crack [...] on TV its blam blam blam, on CD's its blam blam blam, in the middle east its blam blam blam, so on these streets its blam blam blam [...] I wanna put a 9 down but I ain't never seen a politician walk through my town"
The song - a furious reproachment of gangland culture and central government hypocrisy - is just as full blooded, downright livid and educational as anything The Clash produced. And here is the relevance to your Observer article, which despite my respect for your editorship of the NME, I'm afraid to say incensed me.
For precisely the same motivations presented in your piece - namely regret for a lack of angry, political music to speak up for young people - the drivers of the Mongrel project such as McClure, Drew McConnell of Babyshambles and other notable indie musicians - scoured and sourced their cities at their own expense for the finest, rawest, most original and intelligent political music that they could find. Their most vivid discoveries were very young, politicized men and women of black and British Arab ethnicity, many of whom lived and live in the deprived areas worst affected by the recent riots, and the social conditions that fuelled them.
When the record the project produced (the now fantastically prescient roar that is "Better then Heavy") was released, it was greeted with an almost universal ignorance or at best hostility by the mainstream music press, including the NME. Your magazine in fact decided to review the magazine by attacking McClure personally for the audacity of taking on such a project.
The high profile indie boys were devastated. The black and British Arab rappers and writers - including the inordinately talented Mic Righteous, Low Key, Pariz1 and Tor Cesay - were not. They seemed to expect and anticipate a media blackout. Their assumption was that if your material openly rages against turbo-consumption, urban deprivation, foreign policy disasters and government negligence; even in a unique, infectious, spell binding way, forget it; which is just what the mainstream media tried to do. As quickly as possible.
Thankfully, a lone voice of faith in the wilderness; then Independent deputy editor and co-founder with Damon Albarn of "Africa Express" Ian Birrell disagreed. He brokered a deal to give 300,000 copies of the record free with that weekends edition of the newspaper. There must have been many spilt cappuccinos that Saturday morning, when readers browsed through the restaurant reviews and popped the free CD into the system. But thanks to this rare, brave cultural intervention, many involved with the project have gone on to decent success, millions of you tube hits for a single post and packed out live venues: all outside of the mainstream, all despite the mainstream media which remains deaf to some of the finest, angriest and most articulate musical talent in the UK.
In your piece you talk of the "stigma attached to caring about those things enough to be outspoken". I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the stigma you regret comes directly from the artist knowing perfectly well that if she or he cares too much in their artistic expressions, they will be dressed down or humiliated for doing so. A senior NME journalist told an emerging (highly political, happily now signed singer song writer) in my presence that it was "oh, all a bit too worthy".
Of artists articulating anything meaningful about important things, you say "in my eight years as a music journalist, I've never found one. "To anyone at all even faintly interested in different genres of music, different urban cultures and social and music scenes in the last, say five years, I have to put it to you that this is utterly inexplicable, untrue and I'm afraid only demonstrates a laziness or staid, deaf editorial house style at the magazines you have worked for/edited.
I appreciate of course that in 2008 you were not editor of the NME, but you have been for 2 years during which the ignorance detailed above has continued. It is not just the NME, but the thrust of your post-riot piece now dictates that you have an above the parapet editorial challenge.
As the Mongrel project and the continuing success of some of its members, despite a stupid, indefensible mainstream media blackout shows, angry kids don't need new bands to represent them, they are representing themselves. What they need is an imaginative, open, pluralistic and de-corporatized media.
This generation is not losing its voice as you suggest, it has been gagged and suppressed, and yet to its very own highly punk credit, it has kept shouting. I'd be happy to introduce you to any of the artists I refer to, and more, at the drop of a hat.
Yours in optimism,