Young Fathers’ Music Has Always Been Subversive. Now It’s Joyful, Too.
When the Scottish band Young Fathers were partway through writing their new album, “Heavy Heavy,” Graham Hastings, known as G, played his brother-in-law a song called “Rice.” The track features cascading drums and bouncy, booming bass as the three-piece chant lyrics including “These hands can heal” and “See the turning tide.”
“What are you doing?” Hastings, who sings and plays keys, percussion and synths, recalled his brother-in-law asking. “That’s far too happy for Young Fathers.”
For years, the group’s music had been labeled abrasive or forbidding. Being told it was too upbeat, Hastings, 35, said, was “another surprise, another sense that we were doing something we hadn’t before.”
Over the past decade, Young Fathers — which also includes Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole, who both sing, rap and play percussion — have made music that juxtaposes gospel, hip-hop, electronic music and even the swagger of punk. Despite winning the prestigious Mercury Prize in 2014, their songs have a habit, Bankole said, of “falling between the cracks,” and rarely get played on pop radio stations.
The director Danny Boyle, who used Young Fathers’ music for his 2017 movie “T2 Trainspotting,” said in an interview that they “are like a boy band, except no other boy band you’ve ever heard in your life before.” Their music, with oblique lyrics that touch on topics including masculinity and attitudes to immigrants, sums up the loneliness of urban Britain, Boyle added, but he said the group sings with such “white and Black soul,” it lifts listeners up.
That uplift is the focus of “Heavy Heavy,” Young Fathers’ fourth studio album and first in five years, though not necessarily by design. In a recent interview at its messy studio — a squat building wedged between a graveyard and a furniture upholsterer in a working class district of Edinburgh — the trio said it hadn’t taken an intentional direction on the LP. It was just trying to “expel all we needed to expel,” Massaquoi, 35, said.
At the end of 2019, the group started working on “Heavy Heavy” following a rare year off, so when the three men finally met up to write, they could really “appreciate what we have: the arguments, the fallouts, the joy, the happy moments,” Bankole, 35, said.
The trio has been having those ups and downs for over 20 years, after meeting when they were 14 at an underage club in Edinburgh. They each had very different backgrounds: Massaquoi arrived in Edinburgh as a refugee from Liberia’s civil war; Hastings grew up in a working class home in the city; and Bankole lived in a Nigerian household where he was expected to become a doctor or a lawyer. But Massaquoi said that on the club’s dance floor, surrounded by tipsy teenagers, their connection was immediate.
Soon, they were making tracks in Hastings’s bedroom, crowded around a microphone hanging in a closet. As teenagers, they initially tried to be a “psychedelic boy band,” Hastings said, performing upbeat rap songs, complete with dance routines, at the club where they had met. They secured a manager, but got stuck in limbo, spending a decade writing songs that were never released. Frustrated, their music took a darker turn, which unlocked a new level of their creativity. Once they started putting those new tracks online in 2013, they once again had the industry’s attention.
When Young Fathers reconvened for the “Heavy Heavy” sessions in 2019, it was the first time they’d written music alone since those early days in the bedroom. Massaquoi said going back to their childhood connection simply “made the most sense.” Sometimes writing felt like “toil,” Hastings added, but he said the trio were addicted to “the moments of ecstasy” they create together. It was only once the album was finished that they realized many of its songs had a real “communal aspect,” Massaquoi said.
The album includes “Ululation,” in which the band hands vocal duties to Tapiwa Mambo, a friend who ululates joyfully in Shona, a southern African language; and “Drum” in which the group urges listeners to “hear the beat of the drums and go numb, have fun.”
“Sometimes the most radical thing you can do is create a sense of community,” Hastings said, “to get people together and to dance.”
In the past, Young Fathers were known for taking a disruptive approach to their art. In 2015, they released an album titled “White Men Are Black Men Too” hoping to encourage discussion around issues of race and identity (Massaquoi and Bankole are Black, Hastings is white.)
Two years later, the group made a video for Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery. As Bankole danced in front of the gallery’s paintings of white aristocrats from centuries ago, Massaquoi pointed out that there was no one like him “framed in gold” in the museum.
“Am I meant to admire the brushwork and the colors and the historical context without considering how you came to be here, and the people who look like me aren’t?” Massaquoi intones in the track. “Am I meant to just accept this?”
Today, discussions about Britain’s legacy of colonialism are commonplace, even in the country’s museums. But in 2017, some social media users posted racist responses to the video.
“Sometimes we’re consciously subverting things,” Hastings said. But as a multiracial group working across genres, “we’re accidentally subverting things by just being.”
At a recent album release show, a handful of fans in the 900-strong crowd said the group’s racial mix and politics were a vital part of its appeal. Greg Shaw, 40, a personal trainer who’d driven two hours to the gig at Chalk, a club in Brighton, southern England, said he loved that the band “sing about Black issues, about working class issues, about being together as one.”
For most of the 40-minute set, the band seemed lost in its own experience of the music: Bankole prowled and danced around the stage, dreadlocks flying; Massaquoi crooned soulfully into a mic with his eyes closed; and Hastings glared intensely at the crowd as he sung gruffly.
But just before Young Fathers began a final number, an old fan favorite called “Toy,” Bankole beamed at the crowd.
“What a beautiful family we have here,” he said. Soon, much of the audience was dancing and jittering just like him. As the track ended, Hastings twisted knobs and hit buttons on a bank of electronic equipment to fill the venue with noise. Then he turned and grinned at everyone.
There’s nothing wrong with happiness, Hastings had said in Edinburgh: “There is a lot of power in joy.”