Soundtracking the Resistance - An Interview with Nadine Shah

Always Political

Nov 17, 2017 Bookmark and Share


This week we speak to British musician Nadine Shah who covers everything from Syrian refugees to musicians entering the political fray, the rise of right-wing nationalism, and the extent to which she has to address her multi-cultural heritage through her music career. Alongside that, we have tax bills, dictators overthrown, Al Franken, Curtis Mayfield, and some good news from Australia.

The Big Event

Some way into our conversation, Nadine Shah tells a story about a party she was at. "I'm quite light skinned and there was a guy at this party. He started saying some pretty fruity things. Pretty racist, scathing comments. My friends in the room raised hell, shouting at this guy. My immediate reaction was to stay calm. I say, 'Can you explain to me why you think that?' I found that kind of a dialogue works better than fighting it with outright aggression."

Shah tells the story because she's pondering a question she herself set in one of the songs on her third album, Holiday Destination, which came out at the end of August. On the track "Evil," she sings "How can I compete with an ingrained thought?" As far as Shah is concerned, that's how.

She's not one to shy away from these difficult issues, having tackled mental health on her debut, Love Your Dum and Mad, and the plight of Syrian refugees on Holiday Destination. The title track on the latter references tourists who complained that their Mediterranean vacations were ruined by barely surviving refugees washing up on the beach.

Talking from her house in Tottenham in North London where she opens by telling me "I'm just fixing a gin and tonic," she's enjoying downtime having recently finished touring. I tell her I used to live a little south of where she is now, in Hackney. It turns out so did she. "We were in that area but then it got too pricey and gentrified. Me and few of my best mates moved to Tottenham, and ever since people keep bloody following us."

London might be home now, but this wasn't always the case. She hails from the northeast of England, and sings over her driving, post-punk sound with a distinctive Geordie accent. She's also the daughter of a part Norwegian, part English mother, and a Pakistani father. This is something that comes up regularly when anyone writes about her music, and it's something she's chosen to embrace.

"I took the decision from day one to have my stage name be my real name. Shah is a very common Muslim surname, there's no hiding away from that fact."

Shah sees it as a way to inspire others and hopefully offer the examples she didn't have growing up. "We haven't got a proper representation of what music is really like in the U.K. South Asian musicians, especially women, are so under-represented. I felt a kind of duty to speak up."

It appears to have gone down well. "I still check Facebook messages from time to time. I've had some really bloody lovely messages, from young Asian girls. One said she was talking to friends in school and they said there's no Asian artists and she said, 'Yes, there is, there's Nadine Shah,' and showed them a clip of me on guitar. So, it's a duty but I'm also more than happy to talk about my cultural heritage because the response has been really beautiful."

Not everything has been quite so positive. "Out the Way" on the new record directly tackles the rise in right-wing nationalism, while "Evil" picks apart the way someone like Shah is condemned by others for what she is, not who she is. We talk about this right-wing wave and whether it's always been there.

"I've noticed the odd racist comment towards my father and towards my cousins. It's hard to spot where I'm from because people just think I'm like them, but from the stories I've heard from my cousins, I've seen and heard racism for years. I think it's something that has been present for a long time, but more and more recently."

In Shah's opinion, much of the blame falls on the media and the way they manipulate audiences, causing these kinds of negative feelings. She mentions this in reference to the vote to leave the European Union last year in the U.K. It's another issue she's addressed in song form, this time with "Yes Men."

"I was really angry after Brexit. I live in London and I'm from the northeast of England and a lot of people were pointing their fingers at the north of England calling them racists. I think that's disgusting because it's not true. I grew up in a village where my dad was the only brown guy and has never had a spot of bother."

She's sees much of this sentiment as having been stoked directly by the media instead. "What I think happened was it was more a protest vote of sorts. People have been lied to and they've been treated like crap and the media has really manipulated them. It's been pointing the finger and blaming immigration in capital letters on the front page all the time. I think with the rise in nationalism, the right-wing media are the biggest criminals. They've manipulated the most vulnerable people in society."

Which is why Shah is determined to use her music as a platform to discuss pressing issues. "I always believe it's an artist's duty to document the times we live in."

Holiday Destination addresses a number of themes, but at its heart is the situation in Syria and the appalling plight faced by those caught in the middle. It was her brother who first drew her attention this way.

"My brother was making this documentary on the border of Syria and Turkey focused on the effects war was having on children. He was in this refugee camp. I made the music for it. Up until then, three or four years ago, I had no idea there was a civil war in Syria and I felt pretty stupid. But then to be fair I think I can be excused. It wasn't front page news.

"Then it was front page news and I'd just finished the last album and was straight in the studio again and it was impossible to write about anything else. And it's not just me. There were lots of musicians doing the same thing. Friends of mine-Ghostpoet, Maximo Park-were all writing material of a similar nature. It was unavoidable."

It's music with a purpose. "I wanted the record to play a part in humanizing the dehumanized. To tell people's stories from a personal point of view. The best way to get somebody to understand someone else's point of view is to get them to empathize."

"There's one song on the album called 'Mother Fighter' from a mother's perspective," she continues. "Everybody has a mother. I think it's a character or a role we can all identify with. I really wanted to sing from a mother's point of view and make people listen."

Bringing this to the attention of her audience has seen Shah suddenly labeled a political artist. "I find it weird because people started referring to me as political. My first album I made years ago was to do with mental health issues and my frustration about the lack of mental health awareness and the stigma towards people suffering with it. For me, I believe that's a political issue. I think I've always been a political artist."

It's not a role she's ever going to step back from either. "I think I'm going to be doing this until the day I croak it. It's impossible for me not to write political work."

I ask where she stands on artists who shy away from such statements in their work. "I guess a lot of musicians are scared to because they don't want to divide their audience. We're afraid because our careers are very delicate nowadays. A music career can last only one or two albums. I think there's a lot of fear for artists, and also with social media they're scared of getting trolled."

Shah freely admits it might be easier for her to speak up than it is for others. "If I was Adele or Taylor Swift, or Ed Sheeran, maybe it would be a lot more difficult and I would see the backlash. I'm played on certain radio stations; only certain magazines write about me. They tend to be towards the left and I think a lot of people that I'm talking to kind of agree with what I'm saying. I haven't received negative feedback but that's because I'm kind of within a little echo chamber. It can be frustrating because I want to inspire change."

She goes on to posit a situation in which Adele joined the fray. "I keep joking about it with mates, but at the time with Brexit, if Adele just came out and told her fans to remain, I bet you it would have been a completely different scenario because she has such power."

Joking aside, Shah has noticed positive movement in this space. "You did see a bit of it in America. You saw a lot of people supporting Hillary and speaking against Trump. Some of them were really commercial pop artists. It was exciting."

Engagement is what it all comes down to for Shah. We return to that guy at the party and whether she thought she got through to him. "I was the only person who didn't shout at him. I doubt he'd have said anything bad about me when he went away. I honestly believe that would have planted a seed in his head, I really believe it would have. So, I think it's possible, but care needs to be taken to do so."

Which is not to say these things don't get to her. "Don't get me wrong though, I still get bloody angry. I just don't go on Twitter drunk."

What's Going On

Over in Zimbabwe, it's possible the long and awful reign of Robert Mugabe might have come to an end. The world's oldest leader had been trying to set it up for his wife, Grace Mugabe, to assume power after him. The army appears to have taken issue with this and launched a coup. It doesn't bode well for Mugabe, even if he has been posing with military men, but coups don't necessarily mean the rest of the country will fare much better. After being led for so long by one person, transitioning to something better will be extremely hard.

The House of Representatives has backed the Republican tax bill this week, allowing it to sail through to the Senate. The Senate will vote on a different version and it will probably still pass, but with a tighter fight. Even then both chambers are going to have to come together to thrash out differences. Trump wants legislation signed by the end of the year, leaving a tight deadline to resolve a lot of different problems.

In the past week, longstanding allegations about entirely unacceptable behavior by acclaimed comedian Louis C.K. have been confirmed, and now former comedian and Democratic Senator Al Franken has been accused of groping and kissing a woman against her will. Franken's apology for the picture showing the groping has come under attack from pretty much everyone, while he claims to remember the kissing incident differently. His behavior also demonstrates this is not a problem confined to any one part of the political spectrum.

Speak Up!

On a more positive note, Australia has seen a strong vote in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. Despite an odd set-up using postal voting, a high turnout saw over 60% backing the proposal. It will now go to a vote in the Australian Parliament. With the public already behind it, this is expected to be a formality. Musicians are amongst the many celebrating the result, with a few examples below.

Song of the Week: Curtis Mayfield - "Move On Up"

It's not been a year of optimism so far, with long cherished values feeling like they're under constant assault. Even where there has been positive movement, it's come from a dark place. While it's great so many voices are speaking up against the Trump administration, it means we have to have a Trump administration to inspire it in the first place. While it's positive that an environment seems to be emerging where women can speak out against the men who have attacked them, they have to have been attacked in the first place to have something to speak out against.

But there has to be hope that things can be better, otherwise there's no point in trying to do anything about it. So, this week we turn to Curtis Mayfield, himself no stranger to bleak politically motivated material, to find that kick to keep pushing on. "Move On Up" is probably the most positive song Mayfield released. Hopefully it will do the trick.

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