The election of Donald Trump on what was, basically, an anti-immigrant/minority ticket has already begun to have a major impact on the lives of visitors and residents of the US, while it is becoming ever clearer that the “Brexit” vote to leave the EU in the UK was also around little more than immigration concerns (as just about everything else promised was either debunked or plain lies), with PM Theresa May apparently happy to risk an entire economy just to get the immigration restrictions she wants.
Unlike May, I’m a passionate believer in being a “citizen of the world”. I’ve got friends across five continents, who speak multiple languages and offer to much my and other’s lives, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, I could pretty much talk to any of them within minutes if I so wished.
Needless to say, music crosses boundaries of identity, culture and language all the time, and much of modern music owes an enormous amount to mass migration and cultural shifts that have resulted in much of the world becoming a fascinating melting pot that is open to new ideas (my own current home of London being an outstanding example). And, of course, on many occasions artists have put their thoughts on being an immigrant into song, and this week I’m celebrating that, by covering songs by artists that, in the main, were immigrants themselves.
One thing, though, was that finding songs about immigration to England – and dealing with Britain generally – were harder than I might have thought.
The Blue Sky
Hunting High and Low
The song that inspired the post this week, as it happens. Hidden away amid their debut album – which is actually an exceptional album even aside from the two unforgettable singles (Take On Me and The Sun Always Shines on TV, the latter long being one of my favourite songs of the time) – is the one song that perhaps delves deeper into their lives of the time. The young band – they were all only just in their early twenties – had relocated from Oslo to London to try and get their musical break, and this song is about their insecurities of being foreigners in a country that doesn’t speak their language, and constantly conscious of their difference – the most telling line saying it all:
“The lady at my table / Doesn´t want me here / I just want to talk to her / But would she laugh at my accent / And make fun of me“.
I was thinking, initially, that we’re better than the early eighties now in London, right? But I wonder.
Meanwhile, in the US…ten years old now (!), Jack White’s searing take on the US relationship with Mexican immigrants – couched in the metaphor of prostitutes and those paying for services – appears to take aim at Americans being perfectly happy to use cheap labour, but then complaining about the immigrants that provide it. There is another sting in the tail, too:
“Well, Americans / What, nothin’ better to do? / Why don’t you kick yourself out? / You’re an immigrant too”
Of course, the rhetoric in the meantime changed rather wildly, with Obama’s efforts to improve matters for immigrants mired in court battles, and since Trump took office, he seems to think a wall along the border will be a magic bullet.
Without A Face
Rage Against The Machine used their prominent position and vast record sales to highlight a number of causes over the course of three albums – it’s perhaps notable that the Wiki page detailing this is about as long the main band one! In particular, de la Rocha is the grandson of a Zapatista – the original term, those who fought in the Mexican Revolution in the early part of the 20th century – and his righteous political ire has been at the core of RATM and his solo work over the past three decades. This song, though, had perhaps more of a human dimension to the protest music than maybe any other of theirs. Dealing with the issues of undocumented, “illegal” immigrants that have headed over the Mexican border to find work in the US, constantly having to watch their back in fear of arrest and deportation. The underlying issues (here are some them, but by no means all) causing the flow of people over the border into the US are complex – but simply trying to stop the migration is something of a fool’s errand in the end without actually dealing with these underlying issues.
MIA has been a fiercely political, singular talent in the time since she broke through to the mainstream a decade ago, and she has been entirely unapologetic for her strong views. An English born-Tamil (Sri Lankan), she moved across a number of countries in her childhood, before eventually returning to England and starting her career here, and her strongly political lyrics in her early songs got her on a Homeland Security watchlist at one point.
I was going to feature Borders (the video for which caused all kinds of a ruckus when it was released, due to it’s depiction of refugees crowded in boats and prisons – god forbid anyone shows the reality, eh?), but then one quote from MIA about (her glorious breakthrough hit) Paper Planes changed my mind. “People don’t really feel like immigrants or refugees contribute to culture in any way. That they’re just leeches that suck from whatever.” (hence the gunshots and cash registers that make up the chorus hook). Like this from Phillip Hammond a couple of years ago, or these ten from the US, or Farage. I could go on.
Led Zeppelin III
One of the most rousing rock songs ever released – particularly the monstrous intro – this was the product of a resolutely English band going to Iceland, and exploring Norse myth and legend, but also looking at the idea of the Vikings striking out overseas and colonising other lands (what became Great Britain was one of those regions, of course). A more recent cover for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo soundtrack – that in some ways is perhaps even better than the original – saw three people collaborate, all of whom have recent immigrant ancestry to the US – Trent Reznor has various European origins, Atticus Ross is English, while Karen O is a South Korea-born American, with Korean and Polish parents.
There has been a fair amount of debate over the years as to whether this was a satirical song (and album) or not. Dan Lilker’s oft-quoted quip is “The lyrics were never intended to be serious, just to piss people off”, which is fine, but more context is, I guess, very important. This album was a side-project, pretty much, of Scott and Charlie from Anthrax, and it’s fusion of punk and metal in 1984 ended up being an early thrash metal album (and massively, massively influential). But the lyrics here are the important area – a song that appears to be from the point of view of a White American, who can’t deal with the fact that others living around him dare to speak another language other than (American) English, and thirty-three years on, this narrow-minded viewpoint still persists, perhaps stronger than ever right now.
Also worth a read is this article looking back at the band with Scott Ian.
Perhaps one of the bands who celebrate their ethnic diversity and origins more than any other, Eugene Hütz and his merry band of “gypsy-folk-punks” came together in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what must have been amazing club nights that the band became the house band at – and have over the years become one of the greatest live bands around. Hütz himself comes from Ukraine, and along with his family left after Chernobyl and (eventually) ended up in the US, while the rest of the band come from disparate countries such as Ethiopia, Ecuador, Russia and the US.
But crucially, the band break down boundaries by including all kinds of styles (punk to dub, folk to rock, as well as various elements of their own roots too), and with an inclusive message that invites anyone to their party, to have fun and ignore any cultural differences that might result. This song tackles that idea head-on, especially in the video, and Hütz went into more detail about his views on the subject in this great interview with Boing-Boing when it came out.
A final note – only the (admittedly spectacular) Bassnectar remix is on Spotify.
The Fugees – not a band I’d usually feature, particularly as I long hated their breakthrough album – are a band that were always upfront about their origins, with both Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel being Haitian immigrants, and this song details exactly why Wyclef and his family in particular left Haiti when he was a child.
Haiti, of course, has a chequered but proud history – being the only nation to defeat three superpowers of the time (Britain, Spain and France), the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean, not to mention the only country formed from a slave revolt. Sadly it has been a desperately poor and unstable country for many decades, a victim of US interference, poor governance, earthquakes and hurricanes, not to mention the health emergencies that continue to ravage the population – and these various causes perhaps help explain why there is a vast diaspora across many neighbouring or nearby countries, and particularly the US.
Do You Like Rock Music?
I have to confess that despite a number of my friends having expressed a deep love for this band over the years, I’ve barely ever listened to them – so this was an education for me. Still, a chance conversation about this planned post got this song suggested, and it got me digging a bit deeper – and I was a little surprised to find that, on this album at least, there is something of a throwback to the days of post-punk in their sound.
Anyway, this song is interesting, in that dates from 2008, and is clearly a song about finding common ground with Eastern European immigrants to the UK, even in a slightly snarky sense – “You are astronomical fans of alcohol / So welcome in” – but also finds time to note how many of these people end up doing the lowest paid jobs – “Are here of legal drinking age, on minimum wage / Well, welcome in / From across the Vistula, you’ve come so very far / All waving flags“.
That “welcome” has sadly not been reciprocated by many, with UKIP and various others offering ill-informed scare stories that have made so many of my friends from overseas, as well as many others, feel so unwelcome in the country they now call their home. Much of the rhetoric spouted over this subject has, frankly, made me embarrassed to call myself British.
The Blanket of Night
The Take Off and Landing of Everything
Like British Sea Power, this is, I believe, the first appearance of this band in any of my Tuesday Ten posts. Not a band I’ve ever really got into, particularly, I’ve always associated them with shades of grey, a band who do middle-of-the-road indie rock for the masses. In other words, music that never really threatens.
So colour my surprise to find this elegant, sparse ballad closing their album, a tender tale of two refugees fighting against the odds to make it to their destination. And, as I close out this (at points rather bleak) post, a stark reminder of the risks that some are willing to take to make a better life for themselves. They aren’t just grabbing for handouts – they are often escaping indescribably grim, life-threatening situations for somewhere that might offer them a chance at a life. For those of us living in relatively wealthy, peaceful countries, it is a point worth remembering.