Soundtracking the Resistance - An Interview with Benjamin Clementine

Reflecting on the World

Sep 15, 2017 Web Exclusive By Stephen Mayne Bookmark and Share


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This week Benjamin Clementine discusses the inspirations for his new record and the problems he sees around him, plus we round-up Trump's deal-cutting, hurricanes, mass persecution in Myanmar, The Beatles on the EU, and Mavis Staples on the state of America.

The Big Event

British singer-songwriter Benjamin Clementine sounds initially cautious when discussing the political themes in his new record. "I don't see what I write as political. I'm just talking about my time, and it's up to you to choose if what I'm referring to is political or not."

That caution is less surprising when his backstory is taken into account. Clementine grew up in London to parents of Ghanaian descent and spent years obsessively reading. After flunking his school exams, with the exception of literature, he fell out with his parents and ended up homeless on the streets of London, and later Paris.

Such a story tends to overshadow everything else, with questions invariably doubling back to the past, but there's more to Clementine than the experiences that formed him. After winning the Mercury Prize in 2015 with At Least for Now, he's returned with a more outward looking follow-up, I Tell a Fly, and it's rooted in the world he sees around him. "I do think it will be utterly useless to call myself an artist and not write anything about my time, and how I'm affected by what's going on."

Singing in an expressive tenor that jolts into his London accent, Clementine's new record includes the intricate piano playing and unusual structures of before while broadening the sound and the ideas that influence it. Visiting the United States last year got the writing process off the ground for him. "I started in New York. I was in New York mostly, but I did travel around. I went to Washington, I went to Portland, I want to Texas, and I also went to Arizona. America's a lovely place and I had a really lovely time."

Not everything was so pleasant. "I remember turning on the television in New York and this guy, his name I think was Castile; he was sitting in a car and he got shot by a policeman and he died. I remember bursting into tears and crying. I felt very sad someone had been killed. I don't know whether they did anything bad or not, but it just felt wrong. I had to somehow get up and start to do something about that situation, to see how I could reflect on it."

There's much of that kind of reflection on the new album. Using the narrative device of two flies travelling around looking in on the world, he addresses issues from bullying to war-torn Aleppo, and refugees piling up in Calais, France.

Earlier on this year, Clementine had already been involved in a nakedly political song after performing on the Gorillaz track "Hallelujah Money." Released the day before Donald Trump's inauguration, the lyrics attack the influence of money and race on the U.S. election, and the impossible dream Trump promised supporters. It's not easy listening, and it's not supposed to be. "The song wasn't meant to be settling. The song was meant to be uncomfortable because we are in an uncomfortable position at the moment."

The problem as Clementine sees it is we're obsessed with uncomfortable situations. "It's really hard to go to the start of a problem. We love to make certain things more dramatic. I remember when I was going on Twitter in America and I would find a tweet saying pray for Paris, or pray for New Orleans, or pray for Orlando. I thought to myself, let's see what's going to happen the next day, and it's full of people trying to find another thing to pray for. People seem to be addicted."

This year has been a particularly traumatic one in the U.K. as the country struggles to come to terms with the looming exit from the European Union while being rocked by terrorist attacks, and a horrific fire in the Grenfell tower block in London which killed at least 80 people. The reaction to it unsettles Clementine. "There's an addiction for Grenfell and more Grenfell, there's an addiction for more terrorist attacks, there's an addiction for more stabbing at [the Notting Hill] carnival. It's very scary. We've found a way to make entertainment for ourselves. Within minutes a journalist is standing next to a catastrophe. How is that possible?"

He's quick to point out the situation today isn't unique as far as human behavior goes. "Look at Roman times, go back to Greece, all the way to Africa and Asia: all the time we wanted to entertain ourselves by killing each other. There's so many wars. This catastrophe happened about 100 years ago, World War I, then World War II came, and now we're facing the situation in Syria."

Clementine isn't attempting to offer all-encompassing solutions. As he points out, "I'm not a politician, but I'm certainly a human being." If there is an answer, he doesn't think it will be found far away. "Charity begins at home. It's a classic rule we all know. If you're not willing to say hello to your neighbor when they walk by, there's no bloody way you would walk into a corner shop and not expect someone to have a gun. We have to look at ourselves and say how did we get here."

For him, home is London, and he both loves the city and fears for it. "Some places in London have no community. There are so many different people, which is fantastic, but they don't want to talk to each other because everyone is different and they talk with different accents and dress differently. You enter your house and you lock it, and you get in a car and go where you want to go without getting out. There's no community. If you can't look after your community, how the hell do you look after a country?"

For a person who avoids the word "political," he's clearly thought a lot about the world around him. As for what others make of it, that's not for him to decide. "That's all I'll say. You can pick out whatever you want and use it."

What's Going On

The new bi-partisan deal-cutting version of Trump appears not to have gone away yet. After finding short-term relief via the Democrats for the impending Federal spending crunch, conversations have moved to other topics. The President vowed not to cut taxes for the wealthy, and has the Democrats willing to work on a deal to save the 'dreamers' from deportation. It's impossible to say how far this might go, but it beats saber rattling.

Hurricane Irma has blown through and the devastation is still being assessed. So far over 80 people have died across the Caribbean and the United States with billions of dollars' worth of damage caused. Large scale power outages are adding to the toll after eight died in a nursing home in Florida, possibly because the air conditioning had been knocked out and temperatures were too high for the residents. Although Irma didn't fulfill the very worst predictions, which is no bad thing, it's still left a high cost coming so soon on top of Harvey.

A humanitarian catastrophe is picking up pace in Myanmar as upwards of 400,000 Rohingya Muslims flee towards Bangladesh to avoid a vicious crackdown. Persecuted for decades and denied citizenship, violence has worsened recently. The current head of government, the once lauded Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who fought against military dictatorship in her country for years, appears to be doing little to stop the situation, and the international community has been slow to react as it threatens to tumble out of control.

Speak Up!

Younger artists have not been so pleased by the vote in the U.K. to exit the European Union, but some of their more illustrious forebears are fine and dandy with the decision. After Paul McCartney previously admitted he didn't vote, nor did he know which way to cast a vote, the remaining Beatle Ringo Starr declared his delight telling the BBC "I think it's a great move."

More music stars joined the Hurricane Harvey telethon earlier in the week with the likes of Justin Timberlake and Drake also appearing. This comes on top of announced benefit shows by Solange, Band of Horses, and Amanda Palmer, and album sales donations from bands including Toro Y Moi, Speedy Ortiz, and Cloud Nothings.

The odd row between the Gallagher brothers over their response to the Manchester Arena terrorist attacked continued last week after Noel headlined a charity show and wiped tears from his eyes while performing "Don't Look Back in Anger." Needless to say, Liam didn't think much of it, and was quick to say so.

Song of the Week: Mavis Staples - "If All I Was Was Black" 

Mavis Staples is having a busy year, already guesting on tracks by Arcade Fire and Gorillaz. Now's she announced a new album If All I Was Was Black out in November (and produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy), and released the title track. A civil rights activist throughout her life, Staples wants to bring people back together in the face of increasing tensions. According to Staples in the press release for the album, "Some people are saying they want to make the world great again, but we never lost our greatness. We just strayed into division."

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