Young Fathers | Nataal
“’Dunne do nothing fancy’. That’s the mantra growing up in Scotland,” says Alloysious Massaquoi as he tucks into a sizable plate of fish and chips. “You’re told: ‘You’re not special. Dunne be different. Just line up with everyone else.’” He and his fellow frontmen, Kayus Bankole and Graham Hastings, have resoundingly ignored this advice ever since they first met on a sweaty Edinburgh dancefloor 16 years ago. A Mercury Prize and three critically acclaimed albums later, Young Fathers certainly have a touch of the fancy about them now.
We’re in a London pub and the group are refuelling after a morning of radio interviews. The comfortable, good-natured banter between them is infectious as they grapple with stubborn ketchup bottles and finish each other’s sentences. Hastings is calm and considered, Massaquoi is direct and assured, and Bankole, as he puts it himself, “shoots from the lips”. This close-knit spirit is what makes their music tick, even though sonically, it’s rarely an easygoing listen. Far from it. This is music that broods, soars and spikes, at one moment lifting you up to the skies, the next dropping you down into a dark malaise. I won’t attempt to describe the sound in terms of recognisable genres as this is folly. Blurring musical boundaries beyond recognition, it’s like everything and nothing that’s been before, all at once. It’s sweet and it’s bitter. It’s pleasurable and painful. It’s damning and redeeming. It’s polemical and loving. Or, to use Hastings’s definition, it’s “Good.”
“We’re three very different individuals working together, and we fight and squabble, but the one thing we agree on is that we want the music to be the best it can be,” he says. “We all have our own competencies, which gives us freedoms, and in the studio we support each other to push things forward. It’s the place where everything comes alive and anything goes. Our sensibilities are so similar that a lot can go unsaid. We go in and whatever that thing is, that mash up of our lives, just happens. That’s why no other group will sound like us. You can’t make that up.”
It’s true that the Young Fathers line-up isn’t run of the mill. Massaquoi was born in Monrovia but left, aged four, with his mother and sister, to escape Liberia’s first civil war. They later joined his father in Scotland. Bankole was born in Edinburgh to Nigerian parents and spent time in Nigeria and the US before returning to Edinburgh, where he met Massaquoi at school. They came across born-and-bred Scot Hastings at an underage hip hop night and bonded instantly. “We’d grown up listening to soul and funk music because all of our parents liked it, and we had the same mainstream pop and hip hop references, but none of us were loyal to one scene. That’s become normal for us, which is why we don’t fit in anywhere,” says Hastings.
So into the bedroom studio they went, to start cooking up their own sound. “We just liked writing songs. Since the age of 14 we were having hits in our heads; the hits came when we were walking to the bus stop. We’d record a song onto tape, listen back and imagine the video,” recalls Massaquoi. They started performing by the age of 16 and stepped out as Young Fathers (so called because each of them is named after their fathers) in 2008. With Hastings co-producing alongside Tim Brinkhurst, and all three on writing and vocals, they released the mixtapes Tape One and Tape Two before signing to Big Dada for their debut, award-winning album Dead in 2014. This was quickly followed by the provocatively titled White Men Are Black Men Too long player a year later. And the first place they toured with it was South Africa. As a biracial, multicultural group making musical statements about identity, there perhaps was no better place to bless their sophomore record.
“We’d never been to Africa as a group before, and it was amazing to see how interested South African people were in what we were offering,” says Hastings. “Aside from shows, we also held meetings with small groups of people to discuss the album title and what it meant to them and got all sorts of honest feedback. Plus, the whole music, film and art scene is so far ahead of anything else in the world, it was great to take something there and be appreciated.
Bankole agrees. “The atmosphere was so encouraging. Here when we started out, we’d go on stage and the audiences would be like ‘Fucking prove yourself’. But over there, it’s like, ‘Fucking go for it, we’re here to support you.’” So next stop, Nigeria? “Yeah! I was there a couple of years ago and met so many artists and photographers becoming masters in an emerging scene. There was a great energy.”
Young Fathers followed White Men Are Black Men Too by contributing tracks to the T2: Trainspotting soundtrack, including the lead song, ‘Only God Knows’ – featuring Leith Congregational Choir – which director Danny Boyle called “the heartbeat of the film”. They were also approached by Massive Attack to collaborate on the Bristol band’s Ritual Spirit EP. They’ve since toured together and have a joint show at the Eden Project this June. Unsurprisingly, the two groups are a match made in melancholic heaven. “When we first met there was a common understanding and humour about all the bullshit you have to go through to get your music heard,” says Hastings. “They’ve managed to straddle this weird and rare line of creating original music, having their own ideas and executing them well while achieving huge success. We underestimated how big they are and how loved they are until we saw it in the flesh. So that gives us hope.”
All this rings increasingly true for Young Fathers, too, who have taken another leap forward with their latest album, Cocoa Sugar. They recorded over 40 songs and then distilled it down to 12 lean cuts that see the group grapple ever more strongly with themselves and the world. While the lyrics remain stubbornly abstract, the feisty spirit of each track still somehow threatens to incite a revolution. From the eerie ‘Fee Fi’ to the heartening ‘Lord’ to the twitchy ‘Toy’ to what Massaquoi calls the “instant gratification” of ‘Wire’, each one is powered by their woven voices – by turns irascible, tremulous, guttural, velvety, and spoken in tongues – over primal, insistent drums. There’s no point trying to work out what any of it means because for them, and the listener, all that matters is the emotions.
“The whole record is us getting to the essence of the music, getting to the essence of Young Fathers, and stripping away everything else to find the source – that melody, that directness. For each song it was about deciding in that moment what to keep and what to dismiss,” says Massaquoi, to which Hastings chimes: “You have to feel something in the music or else it’s pointless. Each of us has our own interpretation of what that feeling is, but we agree on when it feels good.”
Fast forward two weeks and Young Fathers are back in London for a show at Camden’s Roundhouse. True to form, they arrive on stage without fanfare and wearing all black – Massaquoi with a flurry of gold studs on his jacket, Bankole looking irresistible in a lace shirt (which he later whips off) and Hastings keeping it simple in a bank clerk-style shirt and trousers. Their performance is intensely to the point – no chitchat, no complicated light show, no encore. Bankole puts in the most dance miles, cavorting around the stage with a boundless, slinky energy, yet all three command attention in their own way, the new tracks going down as well with the audience as their old ones. Young Fathers might not fit in anywhere but they certainly fit in nicely here.
Photography: Adama Jalloh