The Blog

Ibeyi, Gil Scott-Heron and Israel

I don't find the concept of a cultural boycott easy. The arts (especially imported from outside, looking in) can be such a powerful tool to hold up a mirror to people wilfully overlooking schisms of injustice or brutality in their own societies.

I just got home from the Ibeyi show at the Brighton Concorde; my second time seeing them this year. It was a beautiful gig, moments of real transcendence.

Unexpectedly there was a small protest outside, as we all filed in, by Palestine Solidarity. Ibeyi have two gigs booked in Tel Aviv this month, which break the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). This is a subset of the broader BDS Movement, which calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Spoiler alert: this blog entry is not a rant about Israel.

The last time I thought in any depth about the cultural boycott was back in 2010, when Gil Scott-Heron had his late career comeback and was booked to play. After international calls - in particular comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa (about which he'd been so vocal in his earlier career) Scott-Heron cancelled the shows. He later received a letter from 50 organisations across eight countries, thanking him for joining the boycott.

Funnily enough, the same person was behind both Scott-Heron's comeback album I'm New Here and Ibeyi's sublime debut; media-shy genius Richard Russell of XL Recordings. And not only behind the albums as label boss - but also as producer. Both these acts are Russell's personal projects. So tonight I did briefly ponder if the Israel thing was somehow connected - if Russell and XL have a link there, or an ideological drive to bring a particular kind of artist of colour and what you might call 'conscious heritage' to Tel Aviv. Ibeyi aren't activist in the Scott-Heron mould - but onstage they talk about their jazz musician father and roots in Yoruba culture transported to Cuba via slavery.

Of course not. It's a coincidence and wishful over-connecting on my part (it's not like a record producer or label boss has anything to do with day-to-day tour routing) but it'd be fascinating to know if Russell's experience with Scott-Heron has any bearing on how (if at all) he reacts to that stuff, or even discusses it with artists.

Now (treading carefully here) I don't find the concept of a cultural boycott easy. The arts (especially imported from outside, looking in) can be such a powerful tool to hold up a mirror to people wilfully overlooking schisms of injustice or brutality in their own societies. But in the end, I think I do support the BDS approach to Israel, as she ramps up oppression and her population slides towards the intolerant right.

So I do hope Ibeyi are able to cancel their shows. Certainly that they won't just land in Tel Aviv, play to a load of rich Israelis, say nothing of substance and bugger off again with the cash. If they do go, I wish they'd visit Jerusalem and go on into Gaza or the West Bank - though of course that's an expensive, complex detour to expect of a touring pop duo.

But it's not like they're doing a stadium - just two gigs in the same small club. Easy to ditch, let's face it.

At the same time, the Brighton protest had (in my opinion) a badly misjudged tone-of-voice for the audience entering the gig. Handing out leaflets is fine (and the leaflet itself is OK, though the word "please" might've come in handy somewhere) - but protesters were a shade too combative; "We need to bombard them, challenge them," or "we must force them to pull the shows."

This may be OK language to use beforehand, planning with your team behind closed doors. But it's a daft line to take with fans queuing for a band they love. Surely a better approach in that context would've been informative and mollifying? "We'd like you to tweet the band, to let them know about the boycott?" or "ask them to think again about performing"?

Ibeyi didn't mention the protest. Their minimal onstage chat placed them in a vacuum: no mention of Brighton or the UK or anything else really; no mention of the real-life context of being on tour, just a bit of simple singalong, a little about family and heritage (the dominant topic of the material). Nothing to place them within the wider world. Oddly vacant (detached?) for such a highly engaging, joyful show. Disconcertingly ideal for an audience like they'll have in Tel Aviv, that doesn't want to think about how it behaves the rest of its life. And probably I only noticed that absence of "between song reality", any bigger picture, because of the issues raised before we even got in the front doors.

We left with no evidence Ibeyi even knew a protest occurred, though it's impossible they didn't. For me, the elephant in the room lasted the whole night.

I'll let you know what they did, once they've done it.

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