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The philosophical note that drives Young Fathers’ defiant progressive rock and soul music

The philosophical note that drives Young Fathers’ defiant progressive rock and soul music
'G' Hastings (centre), Alloysious Massaquoi (right) and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers perform live on the Other stage during the second day of Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton, on 27 June 2015 in Glastonbury, England. Image: Jim Dyson / Getty Images

After a stuttering start, the trio were eventually let loose in producer Tim London’s Edinburgh studio basement, there discovering a philosophy that still drives all Young Fathers’ musical output.

Does anyone ever know who Young Fathers are? There’s no obvious frontman to this prolific group, which immediately casts them as outsiders, outliers, cowboys out on the fringes, pushing into the wild frontiers of contemporary noise-pop, star-less but starry.  

From their catalogue of prickly, gorgeously provocative pop output, we know there’s three of them. They’re from Scotland by way of a world of sounds and influences and nationalities and orientations. They take – with set opener I Saw – to the stage in Amsterdam to a keenly focused Paradiso crowd as a six-piece, no introductions, no patter and no encore. 

The show seems more cathartic than evenly or even properly paced, the point designed to dodge what would be the easy features of a well-drilled set. And for about 70 minutes their outlandish swagger grew in size and deviant thrilling energy, fusing and forging and fixing a rhythm of heavy dissonance and vocally boisterous themes that amounted to something darkly, deceptively transfigurative and exhausting, but never contrived. 

Voicing, violating and brutalising, the bastard offspring of Massive Attack, Public Enemy, Can, Afrobeat, growling rock, pungent dance floor, bloody disco and celebratory electro to quite literally father something new and sweet and drenched with sweat. Voices and beats roll over and on top of each other. “Hits” like Geronimo are dispensed without fanfare or formality, short, sharp songs (Rice; Feasting) mixing with epic works to make a show that feels ornery, polished just enough to show the jewel, never enough to milk what other acts would shape their shows and recordings and personae around.

In fact, as the band’s devotees know (“I’ve been waiting nine years for this show,” said one elated concertgoer after the gig), Young Fathers is Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham “G” Hastings who met as teens in Edinburgh. Massaquoi had arrived as a child, a refugee from Liberia’s civil war in the city where Bankole grew up in a Nigerian household and Hastings in a working-class home. 

INDIO, CA - APRIL 17: (L-R) Musicians 'G' Hastings, Kayus Bankole and Alloysious Massaquoi of Young Fathers perform onstage during day 3 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 17, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella)

From left: Musicians ‘G’ Hastings, Kayus Bankole and Alloysious Massaquoi of Young Fathers perform onstage during day three of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on 17 April 2016 in Indio, California. Image: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Coachella

GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND - JUNE 27: (L-R) 'G' Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers perform live on the Other stage during the second day of Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 27, 2015 in Glastonbury, England. (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

From left: ‘G’ Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers perform live on the Other stage during the second day of Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton, on 27 June 2015 in Glastonbury, England. Image: Jim Dyson / Getty Images

After a stuttering start (signed at 15, they spent a decade evading attempts to make them into “some strange fucking boyband”, they told The Guardian) they were eventually let loose in producer Tim London’s Edinburgh studio basement, there discovering a philosophy that still drives all Young Fathers’ musical output: “mistakeology”. “The ‘mistakes’ are part of the creativity,” Massaquoi says, echoing a view into the creative process famously adopted by Eno, or in the art praxis of William Kentridge and Bronwyn Lace’s The Centre for the Less Good Idea in Johannesburg (a “physical and immaterial space to pursue incidental discoveries made in the process of producing work”).

Out of this has come a remarkable body of work of the kind that even if you discover Young Fathers through Heavy Heavy, their just-released album, you will take enormous pleasure in returning to the band’s decade worth of recorded music – among it DEAD, the album that earned Young Fathers the 2014 Mercury Prize, the first band from Edinburgh to win this prestigious accolade.

The Paradiso set is generous. It includes I Heard (with its affecting chorus of “Inside I’m feeling dirty/It’s only ‘cause I’m hurting’”) and Queen Is Dead off 2013’s TAPE TWO, the bass-heavy GET UP off DEAD, Rain or Shine, Feasting, and Shame from White Men Are Black Men Too (2015) and several songs off Cocoa Sugar (2018). One of these is set-closer Toy, a passionate, climatic song that reveals the joy of this anti-frontman trio who swap and share vocal duties in a way that feels both futuristic and ancient and transcends the recordings in visceral ways. The band is touring Heavy Heavy, and although the album has only been out for just more than two weeks, new songs like I Saw, Be Your Lady and Drum feel inviting, communal, wondrous and like we’ve known them all along. Perhaps we have: the most affecting music comes as transmissions of unworldly dimensions.

In 2015, a lucky few in South Africa got to see and speak with Young Fathers when the British Council brought them out for their Connect ZA programme. A Guardian journalist accompanied them as they played Soweto, Johannesburg and Cape Town, reporting: “At one point Kayus says, ‘I may come from Scotland but I feel more comfortable here’.” This feeling takes form in many ways in Young Fathers’ music but is overt in Heavy Heavy’s Ululation. Performed by Tapiwa “Taps” Mambo in Shona and driven by a jaunty keys melody, it feels like an anthem for a world perplexed and punished by the pandemic and cowed by war, corruption and natural disaster. And it lifts the spirits.

 

As we left Paradiso, we remembered seeing BLK JKS in the same venue last summer, and feeling similarly elated by their urgent humanism and shamanic potency without posture. A fantasy showcase of the new defiant progressive rock and soul music would be Young Fathers vs BLK JKS on a double bill. Promoters, take note. DM/ML

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