Massive Attack's latest (fifth) album, Heligoland, is out now. I am listening to it right now, because it is now available to listen to in its entirety, thanks to NPR. (This almost, but does not quite, make up for the execrable attack on All Things Considered last week on the late Howard Zinn. Almost.)
Go here for NPR's take on Heligoland. To listen:
I've only listened to a few tracks, so can't give an informed opinion, except to say that so far I like it. I've loved Massive Attack ever since the first one, Blue Lines, back in 1991.
Long after I had become an avid fan, I learned of another reason to admire Massive Attack: for their politics. I noted back in 2007 that the band had played benefits for the Hoping Foundation, which supports projects for children in Palestinian refugee camps.
I want to quote now from a longish article about Massive Attack that was published in New Statesman back in 2007 ("Two-man Army," by Alice O'Keeffe, Feb. 5), that tells us a bit more about the group's notions about Palestine, about the Iraq war, and about the potentiality for development of a Middle Eastern trend in the British music scene. NPR won't be talking about this aspect of Massive Attack. (In the photo above, which is "sampled" from Massive Attack's blog, Grant (Daddy G) Marshall is at left, Robert (3D) Del Naja at right.)
It quickly becomes evident that [Robert] Del Naja is unfashionably political, and not in the woolly way we have come to expect from our pop stars. "When you are travelling around the world on tour, you see all these places that you hear about on the news and you start to actually feel some connection with them," he says. "We've been to Israel, to Bethlehem twice, and to Lebanon, performing in Baalbek, which was heavily bombed in the last [Israeli] attacks. You see these places and you start to feel a connection, and to feel a bit more responsible for what happens there. I wanted to actually do something."
Thus it is that Massive Attack will be playing three benefit concerts this month in Birmingham and London for the HOPING (Hope and Optimism for Palestinians in the Next Generation) Foundation, a charity set up by Jemima Khan, Bella Freud and the academic Karma Nabulsi to support grass-roots organisations in the Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East. Primal Scream played a similar concert in 2004 (it was Primal Scream's lead singer, Bobby Gillespie, who introduced Massive Attack to Nabulsi), but Del Naja insists this is not simply a case of "sleb" guilt. "It is easy to get cynical about this kind of thing. As much as an event like Live 8 was monumental, it left me cold. It does raise awareness, but then you ask, 'Were any of those ambitions really met? Which targets have been reached?' This charity is a small group of people, with specific aims. You can understand that; you know where you are."
For more on some of the Hoping Foundation benefits, which have involved the likes of Elton John, Jade Jagger, Kate Moss, Hugh Grant, Chrissie Hynde, Nick Cave...go here. I've said this before, but here goes again: our US celebrities are lame on the question of Palestine compared to the Brit stars. Or is it that we have no Karma Nabulsi to mobilize them?
Del Naja has occasionally been sneered at by less earnest music-industry types for his interest in political issues - an indication, perhaps, of how disengaged pop music has become. On the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion, he and Damon Albarn tried to organise a group of similarly prominent musicians into an anti-war campaign, only to be greeted, he says, with a silence bordering on hostility. "We approached people who we knew, people who were our peers or who we respected. But no one was interested. The only ones who got behind it with us were [the British Asian rap group] Fundamental. The majority didn't even respond, and those who did asked us if we supported Saddam Hussein's regime.
"Everyone is happy to get behind a cause like Make Poverty History, or fair-trade and environment issues. But when it comes to politics, they are reluctant."
Comment: props, once again, to Damon Albarn--who, as far as I can tell, is not often credited for being so politicized. The heavy involvement he has had in promoting Arab music in England, through his Honest Jons label, is certainly connected to his politicization around Middle East issues. As for Fun'Da'Mental, well, if you read this blog, you know about Fun'Da'Mental.
I wonder if Asian and Middle Eastern cultures might begin to permeate popular music, in the same way as Massive Attack and their ilk absorbed African-Caribbean influences during the 1990s. "It's interesting - we have done some exciting work with Asian and Arab artists, but I think there is still an unbridgeable gap there in terms of what happens in clubs and bars," he says. "When I was a kid, the Asians got more passive abuse than any other race, just because people are ignorant - they don't understand the culture. And of course, integration is difficult in the current political climate."
Again, Del Naja is pretty clear-eyed on the problems of racism toward Asians and Middle Easterners in England. We can only hope that the work of artists like U-Cef and Natacha Atlas are helping to shift things, at least a bit.
(Wish I knew which Arab artists Massive has worked with.)
I seem to remember that Massive Attack had made some statement in the wake of Israel's assault on Gaza. If they did, I cannot put my hands on it. But check out the group's blog. Almost every one of the 'relevant links' is about Gaza. (And people think I'm obsessed!)