Interview: Awate

Interview: Awate

Awate on why his music is breaking the mould, measures of success and why young people should demand democracy:

Raised on a council estate in Camden, after being born in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah to Eritrean parents. He bears the name of Eritrean independence leader Hamid Idris Awate, and 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 algology 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 cloths, 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 Duvonchy 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’m 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 specific to him in many ways, his unique background and upbringing, 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.

In fact 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 battelled the state and won. You can see him being led away by police on the intro to his song Out Here for demonstrating against fascists in his local 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 of Wake Up Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, he displays an unapologetic and unwavering stance that shapes his music.

I wanted to know how he has traversed between two contrasting elements of Britshness which he has explored in both music and past interviews. On the one hand there is a rich artistic tradition associated with Britain; the comparison himself to the protagonists 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 legacies of the empire and British 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 aversion to the royal family, power structures and how him getting excluded in school subsequently translated into police harassment. When class came up in conversation, Awate claimed 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 in Jewels as he knew certain white people would go mad for that reference. I was one of them. He links this back to his upbringing, where things like Withnail & I or being intelligent were usually classified and confided as ‘white’. Awate viewed them as ardently pro-black in his mind from a Caribbean working-class environment.

In terms of music and success, Awate’s self-confidence once again permeates his response. Nothing is more evident of this than lifelong musical heroes of his, Mos Def & Talib Kweli asking him to support their Blackstar tour last year. I questioned whether this was a benchmark of success, he responded: “Nah, nah... I should have been doing that when I was 15!” This attitude is informed in part by his experiences after his last court cases finished 3 years ago and where he “came out” from his house and his mind with a new attitude to life. It was built on the firm belief that, “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 just 2:55 minutes, further communicates the listener with Awate’s sense of urgency. Both within the message being told and his limited time to deliver them as a black man.

The decisive point in Awate’s journey to 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 instrumentals. Turkish also draws on old soul vocal samples, afro-jazz piano and brass sounds and much more besides.  

Conversation move on to discuss Awate’s relationship with activism and why he fell out of love with it. After 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 oppose injustice, which he does largely through his music. We then get on to why he became disenfranchised with activism. As we were running short of time at this point and the last 5 minutes were not long enough to discuss his complex 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…  

“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 snowballed into animated discussion over the recent student occupation over staff strikes and within minutes our time was nearly up. So I had to slip in the final question of the interview and it is 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 humours 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.

Links to Artist Page:


Sam Lockwood