Interview: Loki

Back in April, Common Weal’s Commonfest took place at the QMU. Common Weal emerged during the independence campaign as a pro-independence movement that provided an outlet and created a community. At Commonfest, many notable speakers, musicians, and artists during the campaign performed to a crowd that keeps the faith that independence is a matter of “when” and not “if.” One of those performers was Scottish rapper Loki. Scott Wilson sat down and had an extensive indepth chat with him.

[Scott also apologises for the huge delay in this article appearing. Student life.]

After everything to do with National Collective, what was it about Common Weal that made you think “I don’t mind attaching my name to that”?

I wouldn’t mind attaching my name to National Collective again. I hope that being critical doesn’t disqualify you from being involved in things. With Common Weal it was something I learned a lot about quite quickly. I’d heard about it during the referendum campaign but it wasn’t something I’d looked into, then I watched a video of Robin talking to some people in a bar or a coffee shop. What intrigued me about it was it took stuff past the theory. A lot of it is theory in the sense it hasn’t been tried in Scotland but it’s based on a lot of things that worked in other cultures and societies. I was interested in that. I thought that that created a bridge between the talk that can go on, which is very valuable but can be endless almost, and to “what does this society look like?” That was intriguing.

I have friends and associates who graduated towards Common Weal too. A lot of them are female, and I think there’s something significant in that. There’s something significant in an organisation, whether it’s meaning to or not, when it’s populated by women, the chances are it’ll develop or have some sort of fair mindedness where organisations that don’t have that won’t have that.

I remember after the referendum. Common Weal released information about what it was and what it wasn’t. Bella [Caledonia] released things. They restructured their whole editorial team and reached out to people like me, who have different view points and come from different backgrounds. I thought all of that was really encouraging.

To be here tonight, I mean, what’s the draw? I’ve just been asked to come here and do what I want. When I’m given that platform and that freedom, I won’t abuse it. It’s only when people start putting conditions on me that brings out my defects.

So there’s a mututal respect thing going on.

Exactly. I wouldn’t do anything to upset or offend anyone, unless it was part of an act.

When it comes to things like NC, Bella, and Common Weal, a lot of these things popped up in the campaign – do you think there’s a place for all of them or is there a chance it oversaturates the market?

I hear what you’re saying. I think there is a place for it. It’s important for me to be clear about National Collective that they were successful about what they set out to do. In the end I think they became victims of that success, because there was a perception they were bigger and more organised than they actually were.

A lot of the stuff that might’ve come out recently seems like I was just picking a fight with them. If people trace it back I’ve been talking about that stuff back since January 2013, since before I knew National Collective. Privilege, culture, ownership. Stuff people like Tom Leonard have been going on about since the 70s and beyond. It cuts deeper than the art and how it looks. Just now we’ve got a culture that says put something weird in a big white room. I’m like set that thing on fire and let’s take a picture of it. That’s poetry to me.

I don’t think there can be too many of anything, and it means more choice for people to gravitate towards. The only issue is if something is called “national” it’s got a remit because of its name. It’s got to be able to cope with a national demographic, which predominantly, at this point, it doesn’t. Although I am hopefully gonna be working with the new director starting in May. I’ll hopefully be going through to work on a cultural “what’s next” event in Edinburgh. I appreciated that offer. Maybe if there’s new people I haven’t met or dealt with and they haven’t met me then that’ll be grounds to start doing something constructive like people want.

Do you think this political engagement that’s happened in Scotland over the last couple of years is directly because of the referendum or was it always going to happen at some point? Was it just bubbling away and that was what caused it to happen?

I think the referendum was a catalyst in it becoming more focused. Although, I’m noticing more and more, especially after the referendum, I’m noticing dissent happening in more places, especially the education sector.

Do you mean that in a good or bad way? Dissent isn’t always a bad thing.

I mean like…take students for example. The idea is unionising, basically. We’re realising that it’s us that validate this organisation by being here. The people that think they’re in charge depend on us for their position. That rebalances the power dynamics. Managerial structures will struggle to cope with that because managers are taught to manage people.

In college there’s a big problem in the education sector. I’ve been covering it for a year but I’ve been restricted because I’m studying at the college. Further education policies have been a failure. Student applications aren’t being looked at, student numbers are plummeting, the regional board for Glasgow regional colleges is in tatters, and Glasgow Clyde College, where I’m studying, staff from dinner ladies and toilet cleaners all the way up to senior lecturers are just at the end of their tether and can’t say anything because of confidentiality clauses.

The merger was too quick. This SNP urge to centralise things, but create buffer organisations so that they can just install someone else instead of saying “hang on, our policy’s not working.” I think that there’s a number of areas where that’s gonna start showing its face. Maybe in the police as well, this centralisation stuff will be problematic further down the line.

The referendum served as a sort of reminder of the power we have as people. My only regret is my own inability at the time, in the lead up the referendum, there was an inperceptible nationalism running through me that I wasn’t aware of until later, until I reflected after. In light of the result you have to go back and reflect because of all the assumptions you made. You need to go find a pathos for the average no voter who’s fair minded and think “I can’t just assume that you’re an idiot, and I can’t assume that you’ve no morals.” That’s terribly arrogant of me. Which means existentially I’ve got to readjust to the reality.

Glasgow was a yes city so it was just a very big bubble I was living in, it was accurate the assumptions I was making based on where I was living. But at the same time I’ve got focus back on smaller issues like I did before because I think that’s where the real change comes. We can talk ideological stuff all we want but I try to use whatever platform I’ve got to support wee things that come to my attention.

It was a good insight to get into my own character to see this nationalism and how it manifested, and how we apologise for it by calling it civic nationalism, but really that’s us not wanting to let go of the idea that maybe there is a bit of nationalism at play we need to be careful about. I know there is at British level as well, but a lot of the no arguments are quite sound arguments, especially the counters to us calling no voters selfish. What we want to do is sort out all these problems in one part of this island, which could be seen as selfish. You can understand the frustration of the average no voter who thinks “these people, you can’t talk to them! They just ‘know’ they’re right!” That’s nationalism.

Sidetracking a bit, you talked about college, I went to the City of Glasgow College to study journalism too. First year was the Metropolitan College, second year was the merger to City of Glasgow College. So I saw it go from three separate campuses into one mega coporation and lots of people got cut, while others got promotions to do more than one job at the same time. Is that what’s happening at yours too?

Well in my college, staff have had to reapply for their jobs, or will have to, and two of my lecturers have left their jobs. That was when I started thinking “well, what’s going on here?” I made the mistake of asking around the college, so I haven’t yet found out the extent of what’s going on, but a lot of the information that’s now coming out in the press I’ve had that information for a while and have been holding on to it. So I’ve been looking for ways to allude to things. People are putting in freedom of information requests and getting information.

Do you think as a journalist there was a benefit of you going straight to them or was there a benefit of you being a bit quieter and letting the information come to you?

It was inexperienced of me to go to someone like Peter Laverie who’s the kind of union rep for the college, because he’s in close proximity to George Chalmers who’s the chair of the board the student reps are trying to get sacked because of his dereliction of duty which was remarked upon by Gordon Maloney at the National Union of Students. So if NUS are coming out and making strong statements about a dereliction of duty, what that shows is the students are mobilising behind one specific kind of dispute that’s going on.

As an aside to that, the picture at Edinburgh College is far more fascinating. In Edinburgh College, which is a merger between three colleges also, there’s a private staff forum. I’ve been tracking it for months. On there they talk anonymously about all their concerns. They’re really angry. There’s allegations of bullying, of cronyism, casual forms of corruption. Ten thousand student applications not been seen.

Four prinicpals across the whole of Scotland are on gardening leave which means suspension with full pay and no explanation as to why they’ve not been sacked or had to resign. £140,000 these people are on. What you’re looking at is a bit of a gravy train going on. Reoccuring people like Henry McLeish, who I’m sure is an upstanding guy, but he comes from that political managerial generation that call what they do “public service.” But he’s also ran up £130,000 of personal expenses as the chairman of a board that hasn’t even started functioning yet. These are just issues that irritate the shit out of me.

My capacity at college, I don’t want to rock the boat and I respect my lecturers, so I kinda backed away from it a wee bit. But it’s interesting to see it all play out. The policy’s failing. It’s actually failing, and I think the Scottish government underspend was the biggest ever yet, last year. So these efficiency savings they keep talking about, they haven’t made any efficiency savings, what they’ve done is sack staff and put the ones that are there under pressure. That’s all been documented in the recent Audit Scotland report on the colleges. It’s just not being reported.

I know it’s election time and all that but I have the feeling that the situation is being heavily managed by the Scottish government in this election period. It’s a hangover from the old guard at the SNP. It’s something Sturgeon’s going to have to deal with at some point.

I’ve heard it said that you as a journalist and they as politicians should not be comfortable in the same room as one another because you’re meant to be challenging them, so is there an element of that where you’re working under these lecturers who you do respect but at the same time you don’t want to piss them off because you’re learning from them?

It’s not so much I don’t want to piss them off, it’s the fact I’ve got to be careful not to get into too many conflicts at one time. It can be emotionally challenging. People might assume that I, like any other cad guy running their mouth, is just happy go lucky, like “fuck this lot, fuck them an aw.” Running on Youtube, just making ego trips all the time. But really it’s not, it’s difficult to be in a conflict. You don’t have any sense of if something you say is going to take root. You just say it. So sometimes it ends up going out there, then it’s like, so many people have an opinion on it.

In terms of the journalism aspect, I just backed away from reporting on it. One, because I’m in a course myself and I need to get my qualification. Financially I depend on the college. And also, truth be told, I’m holding out for a much bigger story, which is something I’ve been assured will come my way once these events which are currently happening transpire. So I’m kinda holding out for the big one that it all leads to.

In terms of when it comes to reporting, you’re not in a good position to report it right now when everyone is talking about the election.

Aye. Exactly. If something was to come out just now…if people made the link between the policy and the government, and not these buffer organisations, like the Scottish Funding Council for example, then it would be seen as creating unnecessary mischief.

Plus I think in order for the story to come out properly I would need to shephard it to a proper outlet so that it has to be taken seriously. Like the Herald or something. But with that also comes tighter legal constraints, so that means more groundwork. It’s easy for me to go on Youtube and say “this is what I know, here are some bits of paper, blah blah blah.” There’s not so much expectation on me not to say something defamatory or whatever, if any of these people even see it! We try to get the exposure it needs, it just means it has to be accurate.

I’m working on that, I’ve got loads of good contacts in journalism anyway and lots of support for things I’m doing. It was actually after I had watched the Edward Snowden documentary, I had been thinking “will I just drop this?” Sometimes I go into college and feel like I’m being deradicalised and I need to find the balance of “oh, I need to fit in here.”

But the way that the course is written sometimes worries me. There’s a heavy public relations element to it. But I get the feeling a lot of staff delivering the course haven’t looked into the history of public relations, where it comes from. Some of the other world leaders that were inspired by this public relations propaganda movement, propaganda evolving into public relations because that’s a public relations transition to make.

So some lecturers, they have scenarios, they have a public relations class and people will be given scripts, and it’s their job to make a statement on behalf of Topman apologising for people being offended at how skinny a mannequin is. And that’s all they need to do. I understand the college is there to prepare you for industry; their job is to get you a job. But there’s not a lot of room for critical discussion about this, not a lot of room to say “what is public relations? You’re teaching us to be dishonest, so what kind of society are we living in?” How many organisations have public relations? The college has one!

The college has one that, oddly, Henry McLeish used to work for, £700 a day, they’re called Halogen. When he left the office of First Minister under expenses confusions he then became a consultant at Halogen who are now doing all the college’s public relations. The merger’s a success according to Halogen. Just interesting, eh?

In terms of the upcoming general election, compared to the referendum is there as much for you to sink your teeth into for artistic creativity?

Not really. The big sort of artistic pursuit of mine recently didn’t just deal with the referendum, it dealt with possible events over the course of the recent future. What I’m trying to focus on now is the nationalism. Personally I want to rectify what I can see as a really emotionally biased, necessary piece of work in my album. But emotionally fervent. Which I think works, but now it’s about, the next thing is going to rectify that and show a bit of objectivity. Let’s look at this nationalism thing.

I’m already working out a scenario where in the album all we know is the union stays intact, it’s a really oppressive regime, we know the people of Scotland live in New Glasgow, a city fenced off from everywhere else. We don’t know how that happened.

So I’m proposing a storyline where the SNP start fielding candidates down south because they’re so popular. Eventually they drop Scottish from the national party and become the National Party. They promise to reform Westminster, people buy into it, they have great intentions, they get elected in Wesminster, they become the government and their movement up in Scotland is so gutted about it because of their black and white way of looking at Westminister. The 45 become like a terrorist organisation and get Scotland fenced off, so it’ll be this look at power, how it co-opts all the best intentions, it does not matter, and how sometimes it’s better to not want power, it’s better to agitate power.

Is this a sequel to Government Issue Music Protest?

Aye. That’s the direction the story’s got to take but there are lots of other components to it too. There’ll be different parts. Whether they’re all chronological or not it doesn’t matter, but there’s definitely going to be a present day part, from 2014 up to a few years from now.

Were you satisfied with the way G.I.M.P. had an impact in the conversation that was happening at the time? At the end of the year a lot of Scottish publications were saying this is an important album.

Aye I was actually. I was really satisfied. It was beyond my expectations. I realised the people who enjoyed it really sat with it and gave it the attention that’s required to get all of it. It was brilliant man. I had set goals and objectives as an artist, and Black Lattern, my label, were so supportive too.They helped me with all the aspects of the project I’d found difficult in the past, like just getting it to where it needs to be.

It’s the most successful thing I’ve done. I was just chuffed. I don’t want to say humbled, sometimes I wonder what does that word even mean. I was very happy with how it came out and it confirmed for me that if you visualise something and then work for it…a lot of things I visualised in my mind and worked and worked and focused on it. It came really true, right down to specific details. You can visualise these things and make them happen.

When it comes to the visuals you’re talking about, have you thought about taking the album and putting it into something else creative, like on stage for example?

Aye. Definitely. I’m not always going to be able to rap. The show I’m going to do tonight is a bit of a transition. I’m experimenting with a few other artforms to see, as a stage performer, what I can do when it’s not appropriate to do a hip hop show.

I want to be able to do any gig. I want to be able to warm up for a comedian, I want to be able to handle that. A political audience, whatever. Obviously I’m working with my band, the Kartel, and the music will be boom, but obviously, logistically, you can’t always do the band gigs, so I want to be able to have a really incisive stageshow.

Just now what I’ve been doing is just going into the gigs with some ideas in my head. Respond to the atmosphere, what’s went on that day, and really just going for it, improvising, with a few default things to fall back on.

Obviously as a writer the best medium for it would be a book but I’ve got a lot of reading to do before I attempt something like that. Good place for me to start would probably be Alasdair Gray’s work. Just now I’m grappling with Tom Leonard’s stuff which isn’t obviously like a novel. It’s really inspiring me because it’s about all the stuff I’ve felt for so long but didn’t have a language to describe it. Everything that he talks about, the satire in it, it’s really biting.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet with him on occasions now, we talk, I can go to him and say “these cunts are calling me mentally ill” and his response to it will be shrieking out as if someone’s stabbed him in the heart. In a coffee shop! That’s how angry he was. Because it was bringing up stuff from him. That’s how he’s been treated by cultured people, apparently. He’s relating to it, he’s really angry. He even said “if you need backup, I’m here.” It was comforting the idea that one of Scotland’s greatest living writers was like “not only do I agree with you, but if you need a hand…” Showing solidarity.

I’ve got a lot of reading to do. I think the existing aspects can be developed and now that the project’s more widely known I’ll be able to attract a bit of talent along with the team we already use to create more art and look at this in different ways.

Is this convergence of politics and music a new thing that’s emerging? Paloma Faith took Owen Jones out on tour with her, and we don’t have a lot of politically engaged music since a lot of rock bands in the UK are privately educated middle class folks.

Whatever’s going on in the mainstream, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. More and more what we’re seeing is the artist, the independent artist, being empowered because of the proliferation of the internet and how you can build a network through that. It comes in peaks and troughs.

Political art in Scotland, there’s a lot of it, and a lot of it relates to different groups. You’ll see with comedians, Stewart Lee does it, he offers a critique of other comedians. Not a personal thing, but he deconstructs what other comedians do. He says this is that kind of comedian, like corporate comedy which is what Jimmy Carr does. Breaks it all down. He sees this is a way to keep comedy healthy, he sees it as a real craft.

You need people like that, who other people might see as wanky, who come into conflict with other artists. You see in music people who say they’re humbled about things, they’re all Darwined oot their nut. They’d stab you in a back in a second. They wouldn’t share contacts, support you what you’re doing, they want it all to themselves. Fair enough, that’s cool, but I can see through all that.

For me, the focus is always on making the art, making creative decisions that satisfy me and then trying to get it out somewhere once I’ve got something solid. Because of the internet and things like Youtube, artists can start selling their own merchandise, they don’t need management until a certain point. If they work hard enough they can take control of every aspect they’re doing.

Look at some of these artists that are going up for Grammys, they’re not signed to labels. You can argue about their music but they’re not signed. They’re taking all of that and putting it into their music.

In Scotland the hip hop scene is as healthy as it’s ever been. The artistry, the diversity, it’s really paving the way. Stanley Odd, Hector Bizerk, with the live show aspect and taking things to an international level. Then you’ve got people like Andrew MacKenzie who are really good at a lot of things. Probably more talented than any of us in terms of different disicplines they can apply themselves to more than adequately, but maybe they’re lacking in that drive to be out in front which a few of us have. I need to make something happen with this because I’m not going to work in a call centre.

It’s a healthy environment. Scottish hip hop, we really are a community. We really do support each other. More than the folk musicians do.

I was on the last train home one night. This guy and his girlfriend were arguing about how he’s always pissed off, and he likes that, because when he’s not pissed off he’s got nothing to try and fix. Do you relate to that?

Aye, I think that makes sense. To be satisfied and grateful for what you’ve got, but wanting to further yourself and push yourself. I can relate to that. I used to confuse feeling agitated and resentful with self righteous anger.

The difference between constructive and destructive anger.

Well exactly, I’ve been guilty of it. In rap it’s rife. The rapper, whatever they claim to be, the rapper elects themselves from their community and their peers to be an orator and spokesperson for everyone. They critique the outside world so they’re picking holes and focusing on all of that. So basically they try to find salvation confessing everyone else’s sins. Underneath all that you find a highly agitated artist.

Obviously I’m referring to myself here. A highly agitated artist who wants more and more and more, and is getting more distant from the truth. When an artist is like “look over here, here are my songs about society!” I’m not looking at that. When I get into an artist I’m looking at them. There’s a human thing I want to learn from. The songs are all well and good, but that’s what the artist wants you to see.

Can you separate the art from the person?

I think you can as entities. But obviously in hip hop it’s all about authenticity. I appreciate artists who say “this is where I’m at fault. I’m part of the problem. These are my frailties and vulnerabilties.” Especially when predominantly our audience is young men who can’t engage with that side of themselves. That vulnerable side, that fearful side.

I appreciate the artists who do that and do it well. Mog being the perfect example of that. He sings about how he’s let himself, his community, his family down, but in his journey you see in his music how he’s turned his life around. We’ve all done it but no one has been more honest about the truth of himself than him. There’s probably lots he hasn’t said but he’s said enough to be authentic. He doesn’t attempt to be fancy, he rarely gets angry or agitated, but it’s enough. He’s got his tone, it’s packed full of truth and emotion. It just gets better.

Later in the evening, Loki performed to an attentive crowd that was open to being provoked, and may have been provoked already by his presence. Questions arise about National Collective, to which other members of the audience shout in response that he’s already adequately explained everything about his views on that topic. A joke about Madonna causes a few people to find misogynistic undertones in what he was saying, only for him to be told to calm down and not try so hard.

As an observer it’s all very entertaining, and it’s part of the act. Loki himself is introspective afterwards, but as time goes by, you have to imagine he looks back on it as a success. The highly proper voice telling his common drawl not to try so hard is exactly his point. Maybe his content is provocative, but in Loki’s own words, he makes sure to look at the artist and not just the art – and Loki’s presence was provocative enough for the comfortable crowd. Another job well done.

[Scott Wilson@HeartofFire]

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