Interview: Awate

Interview: Awate

Raised on a council estate in Camden, after being born in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah to Eritrean parents and bearing the name of Eritrean independence leader Hamid Idris Awate, Awate has an acute self-awareness that is inseparable from his music.

The first question I asked him was how this mixture of heritage and upbringing shaped his music. His answer was definitive: Everything. It is “the only thing I talk about, it’s the only thing I know” he said. We came to this definitive answer via an analogy that perfectly encapsulates Awate’s creative approach to music and life. After a brief pause, he begins:

“You can make music that is just generic, cookie cutter music. The same way you can with clothes, you can put out a t-shirt that has like the number 42 on it and that can be in Primark, H&M, a market stall or a £1,000 Givenchy t-shirt. Or you can do something that is completely individual, even in the cut. Most people are just doing customised t-shirts when they are making music. I’m making new designs; one arm is out here, one out there” (at this point he is animatedly showing where the imaginary garment stops at unusual points on his arm). “I make music that is completely individual”.

This individuality is what is so captivating and refreshing about Awate’s approach to the craft. The content is so contextual to him in many ways, his unique background and perspective, yet simultaneously also universal for anyone growing up on a council estate that has seen their area become gentrified or any person of colour that has felt the institutional racism of the state.

And it would be a hard task to replicate Awate’s life up until this point. His full debut album Happiness, was written largely after his four court cases. From the first arrest for simply smoking a cigarette on his estate to various attempts to punish his activism, Awate has battled the state and won. You can see him being led away by police on the intro to his song Out Here for opposing fascists in his area. The album exudes an anti-establishment sentiment born out of Awate’s experiences. From the song ACAB (an acronym widely known in certain circles) to the call to Wake Up Aneurin Bevan (founder of the NHS), he shows unapologetic, unwavering stance that shapes his music.

The next question I asked was about how he traversed between two contrasting elements of Britshness which he has explored in both music and interviews. On the one  hand there is a rich artistic tradition associated with Britain, which he draws upon to compare himself to the protagonist of Withnail and I in his track Jewels or the wealth of music exploding from London as he was growing up. This is alongside the colonial, imperial legacies of the empire and state which Awate has tackled in Channel 4 interviews and regularly addresses in his music. He acknowledges the difficulty of the juggling the two, expressing his objective aversion to the royal family, power structures and how him getting excluded in school then translated into police harassment. He then goes on to say that despite his working-class roots, he is into some extremely niche “super middle-class things” like Stewart Lee. He admits that he hasn’t actually seen the movie Withnail & I but included it as he knew certain white people would love that reference. I was one of them. He links this back to his upbringing, where he read a lot and saw things usually classified as white (films like Withnail & I or traits like intelligence he said) he viewed them as ardently pro-black in his mind from a black Caribbean working class environment.

In terms of music and success, Awate’s self-confidence once again permeates his response. As musical heroes of his, Mos Def & Talib Kweli asked him to support their Blackstar tour last year. I asked whether this was a marker of success, he replied “Nah, nah... I should have been doing that when I was 15”. This attitude is informed by his experiences after his last court case finished 3 years ago and he “came out” from his house and his mind with a new attitude to life: “Anything opportunities that come to me, number one: I fucking deserve it… Also I knew my age, I was coming up to 25, the second half of 25 for black people that’s the last 5 year period I can make it”. This sense of urgency is conveyed in his tracks, from the clustered and dramatic horns on Jewels to the call for revolutionary struggle by Fred Hampton’s voice at the start of The Ghetto. The short length of the tracks (the longest song coming in at 2:55 minutes) further communicates the listener with Awate’s sense of urgency, both in the message being told and his limited time to deliver them as a black man.

The decisive point in Awate’s journey to this refreshing self-confidence and appreciation that is backed by skill and content, was meeting the producer of the album, Turkish. He was drawn by elements of 90’s hip hop sounds in his work but also the innovation and novelty of his tracks. Turkish also draws on old soul vocal samples, afro-jazz piano and brass sounds and much more besides.

We then move on to discuss Awate’s relationship with activism and why he fell out of love with it. When probing as to how he became involved he simply said: “If fascists are coming to your ends, what do you do?”. The rhetorical nature of this question reflects his definitive commitment to opposing injustice, which he does largely through his music. We then get on to why he became disenfranchised with the activism. As we were running short of time at this point and the last 5 minutes were not long enough to discuss his experiences as person of colour in activism, he directed me towards Reni Eddo-Lodge’s podcast series “About Race” as an answer. He talked of the un-comfortability surrounding conversations about race within activism as a movement and the superiority of direct action to get things done. I asked if he had a message to disengaged young people about politics:

“I don’t believe in activism, so firstly the thing to do… is demand democratic process. If you should have a say because something affects you, you should implement democracy. You need to do things to make that happen, whether its occupying, petitioning whether it’s a protest, if it’s a protest outside why you don’t just protest inside until they meet your demands?”.

This got us on to the recent student occupation over strikes and within minutes our time was nearly up, so I had to slip in the final question of the interview and a hard question for any hip hop head. Who are your top 5 favourite emcees’? His answer comes with a disclaimer that these are his top 5 he doesn’t often mention: Saigon, Jay-Z, Estelle, Lowkey and Styler.

His performance on the first night of his debut solo tour was full of energy and humorous crowd interactions. Humbled that people came to see him but also supremely confident in his music and ability to perform, Awate is making his mark on UK hip hop in a unique way. Support on the evening came from ex-Caxton Press member Kingpin, who was equally entertaining and thought provoking.

Listen to Awate on iTunes

Photo and words by Sam Lockwood