LOWKEY: Tracks from a political rapper
Vijay Shah (editor)
Azzy (article idea & contributor)
Yesterday I took a quick bus ride down to my sister’s flat to hang out with her and two of my brothers who also came visiting for the day. My niece has been sent off to a family friend’s place round the corner to hang out with her 3-year-old best friend. Once I got through the front door, I heard the bass pummeling my eardrums from upstairs. One of my brothers, nicknamed Azzy, had rigged up the sister’s laptop to a widescreen television and was playing some music videos on the YouTube website in glorious technicolor and stereo sound. While I made myself comfortable, and engaged in the small talk, I was getting ready to step into a musical world, which is the inspiration for today’s feature. The videos you will see here are exactly the same ones I saw yesterday afternoon.
We weren’t on the video DJ thing very long as after that we decided to watch a film as well on YouTube (killing time is hard, but we have our methods!!). The music session more or less went through a selection of old school UK bhangra videos along with rap from a little known urban artist who goes by the street name of Lowkey. I had heard of Lowkey before, but had no familiarity with him or his back catalogue, though I had lived for two years in Forest Gate where there was an active grime scene, listening to local legends like Mobb Deep and Double D. Azzy has got into grime in a big way and introduced me to the work of a lot of local grime artists. We had friends come round who were forging their own careers in grime music and freestyle rapping as a sideline after school lessons and football training. As Azzy narrated to me the story of Lowkey and his work, I became more fascinated by this character, who has a strong physical resemblance to my brother and was tearing his way through our living room’s soundwaves with a skilled sucker punch of intelligent yet streetwise lyrical flow.
Lowkey, also known by his birth name Kareem Dennis, was born in 1986 in London. Two years younger than me, he is a rapper and political activist of mixed English and Iraqi origins. He began his career as many of his contemporaries have by releasing mixtapes from the age of 18, before a self-imposed break. Lowkey then returned bigger and better, showcasing his heavy rapping style on BBC Radio stations and scheduled appearances at several outdoor music festivals including Glastonbury, T in the Park and the Electric Proms. A supporter of the Palestinian cause, Lowkey is notoriously outspoken, too much perhaps for mainstream audiences and commercial rap, but despite the naysayers he still carries a substantial following in places like the grime heartlands of east London. He has had world tours as a solo artist, taking in the United States, Lebanon, Australia, and the West Bank area of Palestine, where he is involved in some charity work and activism.
With an Iraqi mother and English father, Lowkey once described himself as “an Englishman amongst Arabs and an Arab amongst Englishmen“. He first commenced serious rapping at the tender age of 12 by copying American rappers he saw on television. Though influenced by the rap lords of the West and East Coasts, Lowkey moved away from the American style, adopting a home-grown style of rap, which was at that time helping influence the grime scene in London. He started calling himself Lowkey after testing out his skills in rap battles, only to find there was already a rapper there with that name. They battled with ‘bars’ (rap lyrics) to decide who would get to keep the moniker. Kareem won the match, and so began an influential and controversial career. He survived a stabbing at the age of fifteen and three years later, his older brother, who had mental health condition, tragically took his own life by jumping from a car park or a high building. Lowkey is vehemently opposed to Zionism, which he considers to be in the same league as anti-Semitism and freely speaks out about oppression against Palestinians. He also has verbally challenged UK-US foreign policy, most notably the invasion of Iraq by the West in 2003, the same year his rap career started taking off. He was allegedly pressurised into giving up his music career after the U.K. government, which was disturbed by his hard-hitting political messages against their actions abroad, threatened his family.
Whether or not you agree with his politics, Lowkey has more than proved himself as an adequate rap artist, eschewing the moneymaking element of artists outside the world of grime, which has enabled him to steer clear of the ‘guns, hoes and drugs’ themes commercial artists always lean on. He possesses amazing delivery skills, strong vocabulary and an able self-confidence in putting the message across. He is quite underrated it seems, because as in a lot of music genres, it is those with the most marketing clout that get the biggest record sales and largest number of YouTube views.
The first video we are featuring is his seminal dedication to his deceased older brother. It’s a truly deep rap raw with emotion from the tragedy of a sudden loss. In this track “Bars to My Brother“, Lowkey is torn between the good memories of his family and the aftermath of his sibling’s suicide. Played over a soft instrumental backing track of choir music and drums, the rap is Lowkey’s search for understanding why his brother did what he did, the pain and the loss. He dedicates his whole career to his brother’s memory, yet at the same time hates him for making their parents cry. This is a song that makes you realise what family really means and the devastation wrought when the peaceful harmony of blood relations is shattered by an unpreventable tragedy. When I heard “Bars for My Brother”, it made me experience the strongest emotional roller-coaster ride I had ever felt listening to any rap song in a long time. I challenge anyone to listen to this and not feel their eyes welling up. Incredibly powerful and emotive and it leaves behind a lasting impression of thought of why we should treasure those closest to us.
LOWKEY – Bars for My Brother
The second track featured is “Who Said I Can’t Do Grime” was released as a response to critics who claimed that Lowkey did not fit the mould of a grime rapper and was purely about the politics. His retort very much shut up their mouths as he came in hard with an eloquent and gritty rap, littered with cusses, acronyms and fast flow that would pose a serious challenge to the world’s fastest rapper Twista. In this video, presented by Grime Daily (no less) and released under Lock Down Records on Youtube, Lowkey slams his word against the critics through 120 bars in a video filmed on a London housing estate while chilling with friends, therefore keeping faithfully to the conventions of a fiercely independent grime scene. “Who Said I Can’t Do Grime” is a diss track against Lowkey’s detractors, insulting them for questioning his talent while they are useless at the ‘spitting game’ themselves. Fast and furious a retaliation gets delivered, and Lowkey really proves himself more than capable of lyrically standing up for himself. Be warned, this rap is gritty, with expletives, so avoid if you find this sort of thing offensive.
LOWKEY – Who Said I Can’t Do Grime
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