Awate premieres 'Uncontrollable Dopeness' on Huck and talks about confronting racism on the streets and his family’s freedom fighting heritage.

Awate premieres 'Uncontrollable Dopeness' on Huck and talks about confronting racism on the streets and his family’s freedom fighting heritage.

In the shadow of the towering Mount Toukbal, the tallest peak in North Africa, rapper Awate launches into razor sharp bars that connect the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio with the racist bullshit he’s had to deal with police on the streets of North London.

The screen splits into three, with Awate’s piercing eyes shining out from the centre section, powerfully conveying his emotions throughout the track.

‘Uncontrollable Dopeness’ has already picked up love from actor Idris Elba and was played first by Gilles Peterson on his BBC Radio 6 Music show. Now Huck premieres the  ‘Uncontrollable Dopeness’ music video, the latest from Awate’s Shine Ancient EP and shot by filmmaker Becka Hudson.

We reached out to Awate to find out more about his Eritrean roots, taking on the UK’s racist system and the pressures and inspirations of growing up in the multicultural melting pot of North London.

Photo by Jake Lewis

Photo by Jake Lewis

Tell us a bit about what inspired ‘Uncontrollable Dopeness’ and your message on the track?
‘Uncontrollable Dopeness’ was a piece I started writing the day that I finished up my last trial with the police. I was found guilty of some laughable bullshit when I had an ‘altercation’ with some Nazis in west London. The feds arrested and tried to batter me for the incident with the fascists, pressed mad charges and after losing the trial, I had to wait a few months and won on appeal.

Turkish sent me the beat knowing I needed something to pick me up and hearing those Ethio-jazz musical modes come in made me feel like a person again. I wanted to assert where I was from and our ancient greatness then it became about the murder of Tamir Rice by the police in the States. There’s footage of a twelve-year-old with a toy gun being killed in three seconds by a fed and it means nothing in the end other than the fact that we can witness it.

Something my mum would always be sure to let me know was that we weren’t gonna have any toy guns in the house because she thought that if the someone saw a black child with a multicoloured toy gun, they would call fed and I would be shot on sight by SO19 with their fuck-off machine guns. I think she must have reminded me of that on a monthly basis. Also, I think the family’s history with war gave her a perspective many don’t have in England and meant she didn’t want us to glorify that kind of stuff or see it as fun. In her experience, guns were only real things that took friends and family away. It must also be why she never bought me any clothes with camo. Again, that is work-wear and you’re not going to war.

Photo by Benyamin Farooqi

Photo by Benyamin Farooqi

How did you come up with the concept for the video and what inspired you to go shoot it in the Atlas Mountains?
I wanted to do something for that video that could express just how fractured I felt at the time. The trip to Morocco was time to clear my mind and get the past few years of the police cases behind me. My partner, Becka Hudson, is an incredibly talented filmmaker, writer, actor and theatre director. I talked to her about what I wanted from on screen, to have it split up into three segments with my eyes in the middle showing my emotions. Windows to the soul and all that.

The last two videos, ‘Fever’ and ‘Cure’ were actually shot in the same indoor location on the same day and both don’t show my face that much, so I wanted to continue that a little bit. It’s the beginning of my career, even though I’ve been in the music scene since I was 15 and I’m now 25, so I want to build up to different musical and visual conventions (like showing my face or being outside!). Once we got back, I explained to my longtime director, Saoud Khalaf, how I wanted him to edit it and after he got past the fact that it was strange, he understood it as an art piece.

Behind my head is Mount Toukbal which is the tallest peak in Northern Africa, you can just about see the snow on it. Also, what I experienced was that the Tuareg, Berber tribes are really similar to my grandmother’s people who were beduins from the other side of the Sahara in East Africa and seeing the similarities was extremely interesting.

Photo by Benyamin Farooqi

Photo by Benyamin Farooqi

You’ve got a pretty incredible family history. Could you tell us a bit about your background?
My entire family, as with most Eritreans, were freedom fighters in one way or another. My dad joined the Eritrean Liberation Front at 16 and was around the leadership for the next thirty years, both in military and diplomatic capacities. Actually, when he was seven, Haile Selassie came to his village in the highlands and gave him an award for being the best student in the area. Five years later, he was invited to go to the United States by the Peace Corps but his family very quickly declined that offer!

My mother is just the most tireless and sociable organiser I know, and I know so many great people from various movements. She’s dedicated her life to helping others, within the women’s movement, relating to refugees and for human rights in Eritrea – all with the most positive attitude I have witnessed. She used to wake me up every morning by singing, “Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.”

What have been the biggest pressures put on you growing up as a black guy in North London?
When my mum brought me to London from Jeddah in 1993, it was all I knew as my first memories are being here. There were some National Front families in the area. One lived two doors down from us and they would try to chase me around the estate, throwing rocks, calling me ‘afro’, ‘paki’ and telling me to go back to where I came from and shit. I always fought back and that’s basically the story of my life.

It was the same treatment at school but when teachers ignore constant racial abuse that they cannot see or identify and a black kid reacts, the black kid gets sent out of the class or excluded. I think I set records in primary school for exclusions, which was fine by me as it meant I got to read in peace at home or when I was in secondary, it meant I could go sell CDs in central or go in to the studio with Stylah from the Poisonous Poets in Kingston.

On the estate, the rules were different, all the Irish families made sure any big incidents ended with a fair fight but when the system got involved in the form of racially oblivious teachers, governors, Local Education Authority etc., you start to see that it exists to punish black kids and ignore white working class kids.

So from fighting racists on road to the classroom, I graduated to being harassed and assaulted by police, which is the natural progression. Stop and search was serious in the mid-2000s. Those times you and your bredrins would have to factor in a fifteen minute stop and search into any plans you had. The most ridiculous thing was, most of the time it was the same feds - like, you can’t figure out that you’re never catching us with anything offensive at this point?!

Photo by Cesare di Giglio

Photo by Cesare di Giglio

What have been the biggest inspirations you’ve drawn from growing up in such a diverse, multicultural area such as Camden?
Camden is the place of the biggest cultural mixes in the country. Not just in terms of ethnic and financial diversity but the different music scenes that have sprung up and made Camden their home, from punk to ska to the indie scene ten years ago. The Roundhouse is a real example of the different cultural movements we’ve had in the area in the past fifty years. There were a lot more hip hop events in the area but like everywhere, police, developers and councils have worked tirelessly to shut down black nights and music venues. It’s bohemian. It’s a place with a lot of mental illness around due to the disparity of wealth from one side of the street to the next but it somehow goes unnoticed or is seen as just part of the quirky nature of the area.

When I had to move out of Maiden Lane a few years ago, it was seriously emotional. Nearly all of my memories from as far back I can remember were when I was living in that massive white concrete estate. Also, one of my big inspirations and something that I always look out for on the train or when going around London are TOX tags. The speed at which these fuckers are tearing down our buildings means that every time I see one I get a jolt of joy.

The police aren’t shooting thousands of young black men each year in the UK, but what are the parallels between what’s happening in the US and what you see happening on the streets here?
Well the police, prison guards and publicly funded security firms are still killing unarmed black people in the UK, don’t worry about that! Whether it’s Mark Duggan, Sarah Reed, Sean Rigg, Sheku Bayoh, Jermaine Baker, Jimmy Mbenga, Mzee Mohammed, Kingsley Burrell or the more than 1,500 other people of any ethnicity that they have murdered with no consequences.

The press, government and your own liberal mates will talk all day about how terrible America is for black, brown and poor people – essentially making it seem as if the police we have don’t taser people all the time, knowing that it could be lethal. Again, none of them will even get a suspension without pay. Look at the way the Metropolitan Police Commissioner defended and laughed about PC Savage smashing up a brother’s windscreen, impairing his vision, with an illegal knife in Camden the other week.

They may not all have guns but the British way of doing things is a lot different. What they do here is deny access to housing, welfare, decent work and essential services such as mental health, leading people to despair, self-harm, abuse, neglect and death. What was it, more than 2,000 people died just after being declared fit for work by that born rich dickhead Iain Duncan Smith?

What can we expect for you in the months and years to come? What are your big ambitions going forward?
Well, the next two videos from the EP, Shine Ancient, are being planned at the moment so there’s a bit of work to do with Saoud there. Turkish is sending me some new beats so there might be a few more songs before the album as well as some surprises. This year I’ve done around 20 huge shows, supporting Lowkey on twelve sold out dates around the UK, opening up for Smif n Wessun at XOYO, headlining a show at The Roundhouse where I’m a Resident Artist – it all helped me get back into the swing of things and having just signed with the respected Serena Parsons at Primary Talent, who are a formidable live agency, more shows! I’m supporting Digable Planets at Under The Bridge in a few weeks on their London date so come see me there!

Awate’s Shine Ancient EP is available on all major platforms now.

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