INTERVIEW | MEET RAPPER & ACTIVIST AWATE (@AWATEMUSIC)

AWATEAwa­te simply inscribes his social media bios with “I make great rap music”.  If we talk about the value of speak­ing words into exist­ence, then the Cam­den rap­per is prov­ing those words and is quickly rising as a for­mid­able for­ce in the UK hip-hop scene. Check his resume: he was named as one of the sev­en most inspir­ing people in Lon­don by the Even­ing Stand­ard, he’s writ­ten for the Guard­i­an, toured with Lowkey and has sup­por­ted the likes of Jay Elec­tron­ica, Big Daddy Kane and Yasi­in Bey (AKA Mos Def).

Ori­gin­ally arriv­ing in the UK as a refugee from Erit­rea via Saudi Ara­bia, Awate’s music focuses on the inter­sec­tion of pover­ty, race and social justice. His lyr­ics are a scath­ing indict­ment of the powers that be, so it’s no won­der he’s also a pro­li­fic act­iv­ist and writer.

He dropped his first release Shine Ancient in 2016 and releases his long-awaited debut LP, Hap­pi­ness on 22nd Feb­ru­ary. We caught up with the North Lon­don rap­per to dis­cuss his album and his thoughts on the way the world is going.

 Let’s talk about the Hap­pi­ness LP drop­ping in Feb­ru­ary. What can we expect from the pro­ject?

You can expect to be trans­por­ted to a world with a new set of rules. Where every note of music sounds like the best option and every word is delib­er­ate. It’s my mani­festo for qual­ity.

I wro­te and recor­ded it when I was out on bail for two years, fight­ing four court cases again­st the police. That gave me a lot of time in limbo to think about quite elab­or­ate ideas about what makes the per­fect lyr­ic, song and album.

Who are your music­al influ­ences?

I like witty artists who flood you with melody. Early on my first music­al hero was 50 Cent, then Mos Def (now Yasi­in Bey), Lauryn Hill, The Stone Roses.

I’m miss­ing out 100 artists because this ques­tion is so open ended it’s like ask­ing a chef what their favour­ite ingredi­ents are!

A lot of rising or aspir­a­tion­al artists go into music want­ing to go main­stream: play­ing on main­stream radio sta­tions, mak­ing big fest­ival appear­ances, etc. But on Jew­els you rapped: “Wack atti­tudes remain, but I’m not sweat­ing it/ I’m not con­cerned about my work being credited/ but if they’re sleep­ing on me they’re on sed­at­ives.” That raises the ques­tion: what’s your main goal with your music? 

There is no main goal really. It’s a funny ques­tion — prob­ably because I’ve been doing it so long. Start­ing out, the goal was for me to do some­thing cre­at­ive that would take my focus away from beat­ing up bul­lies and throw­ing chairs at racist teach­ers. Then it becomes an ego thing as you real­ise the com­pet­it­ive aspect of it and are bat­tling people at lunch time or in the smoking sec­tion of a show.

At this point, I just want to make a liv­ing by cre­at­ing art after work­ing so many ran­dom jobs. Say­ing that, ulti­mately of course I want to break through and rap my way into being in Star Wars 14 or star in Black Pan­ther like my bredrin Daniel Kaluuya.

Just by mak­ing music, it helps my self-esteem and the next goal is to get that out to young people, poor people… black people, may­be a little bit more spe­cific­ally, in order to fill the void that liv­ing in this world cre­ates.

As far as Black Brit­ish music goes, the music press appears to be mostly pre­oc­cu­pied with grime. Do you feel that makes it harder for UK hip-hop artists who don’t fall strictly into that gen­re?

Yeah but that’s because UK Hip-Hop lost the Cold War with Grime in 2007 when Deal Real closed and grime acts star­ted get­ting signed left right and centre.

I’m a com­plete rap artist, in the sense that labels won’t really stick if you listen to my music. I’m a mix of gang­sta rap, battle rap, dense intel­lec­tu­al rap, blues, jazz, funk and psy­che­delia. That’s what you have to be in order to cre­ate your own sound and stay away from labels. Switch it up on ‘em.

AW

Your music is very polit­ic­al, and you do a lot of act­iv­ism as well. Was there a spe­cific moment in your life that made you become polit­ic­ally and socially aware?

Here we have a philo­soph­ic­al dis­agree­ment. All music is polit­ic­al. Everything is polit­ic­al. The abil­ity to see the reas­ons behind situ­ations may­be means that I’m more aware but not more polit­ic­al.

The more you’re aware of injustice, the harder it is to ignore it. Oth­er people let me know early by how I was treated that I was dif­fer­ent. The reas­ons: being a refugee, black, Muslim, work­ing class or whatever hap­pen to be things that are eas­ily tied to polit­ics, but nihil­ism and con­sumer­ism are just as polit­ic­al.

You talk about racism and inequal­ity a lot in your music. What do you think are the most press­ing issues for BME and work­ing-class people in the UK?

The same issues from fifty years ago. Noth­ing has changed oth­er than per­cep­tion.

I just want to break down a few lyr­ics from The Ghetto. You start off your verse describ­ing impov­er­ished places in Lon­don as being areas “where the police are a plague on our com­munit­ies” and end the song with, “don’t call feds to report our dis­turb­ances”. What are your main gripes with the way poli­cing is done in the UK and how would you fix them?

My main gripes with the police is that they exist in the first place and have powers of arrest. Hand in hand with the pro­sec­u­tion ser­vice, they ter­ror­ise and trau­mat­ise us.

I’ve been punched in the face ten times with my hands cuffed behind my back while sit­ting in a van. I’ve sat and seen police just wildly invent stuff that could be from an action movie in court while my future was in their hands.

There is no quick fix. Sys­tem­at­ic change is needed.

You grew up in Cam­den and were a Res­id­ent Artist in The Round­house. You even say on Jew­els, “I roman­ti­cise everything in Cam­den; poor, young and still an artist”. What’s it like being a rising artist in Cam­den, do you have a lot of sup­port from your home turf?

Cam­den is like another coun­try entirely. Some fairy-tale world with wiz­ards, punks and mer­maids float­ing around on broom­sticks while the feds chase youts up the high street past some millionaire’s street into their estate. I get a lot of sup­port from all types of people. When size? opened a new loc­a­tion in Cam­den they got me to do the launch and bring some of my people’s down. It feels really good to see rep an area that hasn’t had a big MC put it down before.

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Mark Mukasa

Mark Mukasa

Mark is a South Lon­don based writer and avid fan of all things hip hop. He’s also an MMA and his­tory enthu­si­ast who tries to keep his love of animé under wraps.

About Mark Mukasa

Mark Mukasa
Mark is a South London based writer and avid fan of all things hip hop. He's also an MMA and history enthusiast who tries to keep his love of anime under wraps.