'It was impossible to write about anything else': how musicians have – finally – tackled the refugee crisis

In the 80s, musicians simply released charity singles in response to humanitarian crises. But today’s artists have been relatively quiet about the plight of those in the Mediterranean – until now. From Coldplay to Benjamin Clementine, why has it taken them so long to find their voices?

Two years ago, the British musician Nadine Shah saw a news report with tourists complaining that refugees on the Greek island of Kos were spoiling their holidays. Already familiar with the refugee crisis through the work of her brother, the al-Jazeera film-maker Karim Shah, she was spurred to write a song, Holiday Destination. “Every day, there were more harrowing stories and images, and it was impossible to write about anything else,” she remembers. “At the time, there were no whispers that anyone else was writing about the same subject, and that shocked me.”

Around the same time, however, Paul Smith of Maxïmo Park was writing Risk to Exist about the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean. He had been inspired by a Guardian article about Migrant Offshore Aid Station (Moas), a Malta-based foundation that rescues refugees from the sea. He was also disgusted by the callous reaction of some MPs. “It’s like someone’s dying on your doorstep and you say that you’re not going to open the door,” he says. Like Shah, he thought he was alone.

Both songs came out this year, and, it turns out, they had company. It just isn’t true to say that nobody was singing about refugees before that. There have been songs by MIA and Elbow, and public statements by U2 and Lily Allen. But it is certainly a theme whose time has come, with a flotilla of songs including Coldplay’s A L I E N S, PJ Harvey’s and Ramy Essam’s The Camp, Ghostpoet’s Immigrant Boogie, Nick Mulvey’s Myela and much of Benjamin Clementine’s new album, I Tell a Fly. “I had that feeling I’m sure a lot of people can identify with,” says Mulvey. “‘I want to do something. What can I do?’ When you don’t see the messages you want to see in the world, you go and make them yourself.”

Refugees arriving in the Greek port of Piraeus last year.
Refugees arriving in the Greek port of Piraeus last year. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Shah and Smith considered, and indeed hoped, that their songs might be irrelevant by now. If only. In the two years since a photograph of the body of the three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, on a Turkish beach became the defining image of the Mediterranean refugee crisis, at least 8,500 people have been lost at sea between Libya and Europe, and the death toll is accelerating. European governments, now focused on deterring refugees rather than saving them, have largely ceded responsibility for search and rescue to the dysfunctional Libyan coastguard and NGOs such as Moas. At the current rate, Amnesty International predicts that the death toll in 2017 promises to be “just as high, if not higher”.

The metabolism of political songwriting is unpredictable. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released Ohio days after the killing of four students at Kent State University in 1970, but it took three years after the death of South African activist Steve Biko for Peter Gabriel to deliver Biko. In the case of the migrant crisis, musicians took their time finding the right tone. In the 80s, sincere yet gauche songs such as Do They Know It’s Christmas? and We Are the World portrayed Ethiopians as a mute, suffering mass, dependent on western charity. Now, great care is taken to give the subjects of songs a voice. Any artist under 40 has grown up aware of the pitfalls of writing songs about political and humanitarian issues, which can easily come across as sanctimonious, exploitative or crude.

“When you are writing about someone else’s life, you have a responsibility to do it justice,” says Shah. “The aim was to play a tiny part in humanising the dehumanised. There are over 20 million refugees globally; these figures take away the personal element. In order for people to properly listen, they have to be able to see themselves in other people.”

To that end, she did extensive research, watching documentaries and conducting interviews with refugees and NGOs in the UK, France and Turkey. “It was the most difficult album for me to write because I had to go back and fact-check it. I was very aware of having to make sure that what I was saying was correct.”

Paul Smith of Maxïmo Park … ‘It’s like someone’s dying on your doorstep and you say that you’re not going to open the door.’
Paul Smith of Maxïmo Park … ‘It’s like someone’s dying on your doorstep and you say that you’re not going to open the door.’ Photograph: Neil Lupin/Getty Images

Mulvey found writing Myela a similarly painstaking process. Inspired by Peter Gabriel’s “journalistic” approach to Biko, he and his co-writer, Federico Bruno, explored the archive of first-hand accounts of refugee journeys on the website of the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. The animated video was directed by Majid Adin, an Iranian refugee who came to London via the now-demolished Calais refugee camp known as the Jungle.

“I felt unworthy to write my own poetry around this subject,” Mulvey says. “How could I presume to know that degree of uncertainty and trauma? So we decided to make a research project out of it. We thought: why don’t we use their words in the song? If you present the facts as they are, there’s no need to be moralistic. The rights and wrongs of the situation are so clear.”

Maxïmo Park’s Risk to Exist, the title track of their current album, is more overtly political, addressing the legacy of Europe’s colonial past and military interventions, but it also encourages listeners to identify with refugees. “Hopefully, there’s empathy in the song rather than distant benevolence,” says Smith. “If you were in that position, what would you do? Would you wait for your family to shrivel up and die or would you try to move to a place that has been sold to you as the dream? You’ve got to be sensitive. If I didn’t deal with it correctly as a lyricist, it wouldn’t come out.” For Clementine, the desire to close the gap between artist, listener and subject means rejecting words such as “refugee” and “immigrant”. “I hate those words,” he says. “We have to remember that we’re all travellers. We move around. That’s what we’re made for. We’re all seeking refuge, we’re all seeking safety, we’re all seeking hope. We should stop putting names on human beings for just being human beings.”

I Tell a Fly, which he describes as a musical play, includes songs called Welcome to the Jungle and Phantom of Aleppoville, but also draws on his own experiences of living on the streets in Paris and London. “I have been through a lot in my life,” he says. “When people are beyond hopeless, I understand that. There’s nothing you can do but wait, or fight until you get what you want.”

Benjamin Clementine … ‘When people are beyond hopeless, I understand that.’
Benjamin Clementine … ‘When people are beyond hopeless, I understand that.’ Photograph: Stefan Hoederath/Redferns

Just as an old-fashioned, paternalistic protest song would sound jarring today, an all-star benefit concert such as Amnesty’s hugely successful 80s tours would be less effective now. On 20 September, Amnesty and Sofar Sounds are organising Give a Home, asking 1,000 artists to perform intimate concerts in people’s homes in 60 countries worldwide. “The sense of home is something we all empathise with,” says Augusta Quiney, the director of the charity’s offshoot, Art for Amnesty. “It feels more meaningful than that big-concert format.” The lineup includes Ed Sheeran, Laura Mvula, Hot Chip and the National. “We found we were pushing at an open door,” says Quiney. “I have to say, we have been bowled over.”

One of the main people recruiting artists for Give a Home is Stephen Budd from Africa Express, the ever-changing international collaboration established by Damon Albarn and journalist Ian Birrell in 2006. “There are perhaps fewer boundaries than there once were: less of an idea that you should stay in one place and sing about one thing,” says Smith, who participated in Africa Express’s 2012 train tour of the UK. “This pluralism is undoubtedly contributing to a more globally aware idea of what a pop song could be.”

For at least one of Give a Home’s performers, the crisis is personal. Last summer, Hamsa Mounif of the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians was touring Europe with Africa Express when she decided not to go home. In Damascus, she had received threats from Islamic fundamentalists, saying she would be killed if she continued to sing. After a terrifying introduction to Britain, when a flatmate attacked her, Mounif obtained permission to settle permanently, and now lives in Leicester with her husband.

Hamsa Mounif … ‘I want to be part of this country that said: You can stay here.
Hamsa Mounif … ‘I want to be part of this country that said: You can stay here. Photograph: The National Photographic

“That moment when I decided was not easy,” she says. “When we were playing the Royal Festival Hall, I couldn’t stop crying. Nobody wants to move from his house and sleep in his neighbour’s house, even if that neighbour is good. You can say thank you, but you miss your home. My heart is in my country.”

Mounif wants to present a positive image of refugees to counter negative stereotypes in the tabloids. “Sometimes the media gives a bad reflection of refugees. They judge them. I am full of hope to do something good here. I want to be part of this country that said: ‘You can stay here.’”

Despite inhospitable rhetoric from many politicians and parts of the media, a recent survey by the World Economic Forum found that 73% of 18 to 35-year-olds worldwide would welcome refugees to their country. “Not only are world leaders backtracking on their commitment to support and respect refugees’ rights but they’re actively seeking to demonise and scapegoat refugees,” says Quiney. “We need really bold action to grab attention and make it clear that everyday people do not accept where our leaders are taking us. Musicians are the perfect people to do that.”

Being thoughtful about the responsibility of writing songs about a sensitive issue goes hand in hand with a realistic assessment of what those songs might achieve. Amnesty has specific goals in mind: raising money and awareness, lobbying governments and working with local organisations to help refugees. The practical utility of a song is more nebulous. Now that Brexit and Trump are squeezing so many other stories out of the headlines, songs and concerts can at least help to remind people that the refugee crisis is worse than ever. “News is a form of entertainment, and at one point this was almost ‘trendy’,” says Shah. “It would get a lot of traffic. Now it doesn’t. If all we’re doing is putting it at the forefront of people’s minds, then that’s a great thing.”

Is that enough? Clementine thinks not. “I’m not doing this to raise awareness. How much awareness can one raise? Everyone knows what’s going on. I’m doing this so I can help people. I’ll be donating some of the profits from my album to people who need help.”

Many artists are doing similar things. Coldplay and Maxïmo Park have both teamed up with Moas, while Mulvey has donated all the proceeds from Myela to Help Refugees UK. Last December, Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice collaborated with Help Refugees UK to stage Bands 4 Refugees, a benefit concert in which members of bands such as Alt-J and Years & Years performed cover versions. She hopes other bands will take up the project. “It can be intimidating to talk about politics, but I think with the refugee crisis it wasn’t about politics,” she says. “It was about showing compassion toward fellow human beings.”

Coldplay’s A L I E N S

A song, Rowsell says, is only one way to make a point. “It’s not that I’ve never considered it, but I find it hard to put social commentary into poetry. I feel, like with social media, you don’t have to put your opinion across in your music. Things seem to be getting worse, and when that happens the rights and wrongs become a lot clearer. It gives you confidence to speak about it.”

Mulvey thinks the influx of songs about refugees is symptomatic of a new wave of political engagement rippling through music. “Since Trump became president, I’ve felt part of a global artistic response and a remembering of our duty, and that’s hugely inspiring,” he says. “This is not an isolated issue. I heard Naomi Klein say that refugees and climate change aren’t issues, they’re messages, and the message is that the system is broken.”

Recently, a friend asked Nadine Shah if she was OK with PJ Harvey releasing a song about refugees, assuming that she would see it as competition. “Of course I’m OK!” Shah says. “It fills my heart to know that my peers are taking a stance. For years, people were complaining that musicians weren’t writing political music. All of a sudden, there are lots of people. And so there should be.”

Give a Home takes place around the world on 20 September. Albums by Nadine Shah, Nick Mulvey and Maxïmo Park are out now; I Tell a Fly by Benjamin Clementine and Visions of a Life by Wolf Alice are out on 29 September


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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