Young Fathers want to change the way you think about pop music.
For a group whose first album, Dead, was released just last year, that may seem like a bold statement. But for the Scottish trio, which consists of Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham “G” Hastings, bold tactics appear to be working. In October, the group won Britain’s highly coveted Mercury Prize, beating out other contenders such as Damon Albarn and FKA Twigs.
Speaking ahead of the group’s May 16 performance at the Hangout Festival, Hastings was nonchalant about the win.
“It was an extra bonus,” he said. “Things were ticking along nicely, with or without that. Winning the Mercury just gave us that extra kick, but it never told us anything that we didn’t know already.”
“With the kind of music we’re making, we’re playing the long game,” he added.
That long game, Hastings says, involves rebelling against a perceived homogeneity in mainstream pop radio.
“What you need to remember is that not everyone has the luxury of time to actually delve into the Internet and discover music that is [different],” he said. “When you think about someone with a nine-to-five job, they wake up early in the morning, they get in their car and they go to work. By the time they get home, they have something eat, or spend time with their kids or whatnot, then [it’s time] to get into bed and get ready for the next day. The only music they hear is what they heard in their car on the radio.”
Hastings, who produces the band’s music in addition to serving as a vocalist and playing keys, says that mainstream radio is failing in its “responsibility” to provide a wider variety of music for those listeners who might not be able to find it themselves.
“They’re not doing their duty of promoting diversity. They’re not doing their duty of just providing a mix and letting people see that there’s a lot more out there than just polished pop music,” he said.
Young Fathers’ own version of pop music, a woozy lo-fi combination of hip-hop, soul and indie rock, defies easy categorization (though stickers attached to copies of the group’s newest album instruct record stores to “file under rock and pop”).
“We’re making what we want pop music to sound like,” Hastings said.
The group’s vision of pop is unfiltered by record labels or third parties. Big Dada, Young Fathers’ current record label, gives them complete creative freedom.
“We wouldn’t have signed a deal [with the label] if it wasn’t a case where we were allowed to put out the music that we wanted to put out,” Hastings said. “It was important for us to be in a situation where we could express ourselves in full.”
That creative control is perhaps most apparent in the title of their sophomore album, released in April: White Men Are Black Men Too.
It’s a deliberately challenging title that, like their music, aims to change mainstream discourse.
“It’s got issues of race and so what?” Massaquoi wrote in an email defending the title that was shared on the band’s website. “Why should alarm bells start ringing, even though in general conversations race, politics, sex and religion are always the subject matter? Why should it be discussed behind closed doors and never confronted head on?”
“How do we help tackle one of the biggest hindrances in people’s lives and the world… by not putting the question forward and not letting people debate positively or negatively about the statement?” Massaquoi continued.
Hastings hopes that the jarring nature of the title will facilitate discussion.
“[The title] becomes scary if you’re not familiar with it,” he said. “You feel uncomfortable. We’ve opened the door for conversation. If you look at it as a metaphorical statement, you become very much aware of the complexity of race, religion and gender, all that. It’s not as simple as everyone else or the powers that be would like you to think.”
The band’s recent tour of South Africa reinforced their goals.
“Apartheid is still fresh in people’s minds [there],” Hastings said. “You could feel it just from talking to them. They’re very articulate about segregation and oppression. The most important bit was that they were looking for solutions. There are things that hold people back, but they’re looking for solutions and how to move forward.”
If conversation is the goal of the album’s title, it’s certainly not an issue for Young Fathers themselves. The three have been together since they were 14-year-old members of the under-16 club scene in Edinburgh. Now 27, they possess a unity of vision that extends into the nonverbal.
“The idea [for the new album] was already forming in our heads last year when we stepped into the States and started touring,” Hastings said. “We were thinking about being more direct and keeping everything concise.”
During a meal at a Washington, D.C., café the three began to discuss their plans for the album for the first time.
“To be honest, not a lot of words were spoken,” said Hastings. “We all had it in our heads where we wanted to take it.”
Now, Young Fathers have shifted their focus to touring and getting that conversation started. Their performance at the Hangout Festival is the last of their currently scheduled U.S. shows and the only American festival date on their calendar.
Hastings said he hopes that the band’s revolutionary ambitions make them one of the festival’s must-see acts.
“I don’t think that most people have heard of us yet,” he said. “But it’s all part of the process. Some people get baffled and say that our music is too aggressive, but we have as much melody and harmony as any other pop [artists].”
Hastings promises that seeing the band live “makes everything make sense and come together.”
“We’re very confident that what we’re making is special,” he said.
Young Fathers will perform at the Hangout Arts and Music Festival in Gulf Shores on Saturday, May 16. For more information on the festival, visit hangoutmusicfest.com.