“I’m an anarchist and an angry academic activist”
Within weeks the rapper, who in 2012 said he was hanging up his mic for good, announced a tour including a September 17 date in Cardiff.
Whether it was because it was a Saturday evening or due to Lowkey’s eagerly awaited return there was a better than average attendance for the early support slot with a healthy number already in the main room as Barry-based Joe Dirt delivered his introspective lyrics.
Dirt also had to contend with shuffling his own beats on the CDJs as the promoters, who deserve credit for bringing Lowkey to Cardiff and on a weekend too, had appeared to have overlooked booking a support DJ.
That was apparent between the acts as a hip hop compilation CD made do for low-level background music. You could have been forgiven for forgetting it was a Saturday night or you were at a rap show until the lively Awate bounced on to the stage and immediately upped the tempo and brought the funk.
Towards the end of his first track Awate also made the welcome plea to increase the volume before dropping a cut from his Shine Ancient EP produced by Turkish, who runs the Dcypha label with UK rap legend Sway. The crowd now occupied most of the room and could easily understand why Awate’s Twitter bio simply states: “I make great rap music”.He does so without cursing on record, “as those (explicit lyrics) stickers really mess with your artwork”. But there’s nothing soft about his soulful brand of hip hop including Displaced, a response to the inflated property market driven redevelopment of the London council estate where Awate grew up and that has pushed out its working class residents.
The 25-year-old Saudi Arabian-born, London-raised Eritrean, who has been performing as Lowkey’s DJ since he was 18, can also make the crowd relax as well as think. He drops verses over the theme tune from the Fresh Prince of Bell Air (the sitcom that starred that most well-known non swearing MC, The Fresh Prince Will Smith) before easily pleasing the crowd by inviting them to join in the famous lyrics about being “West Philadelphia born and raised…”.
Awate’s short set injected energy and excitement into the crowd and he wasted little time before moving behind the decks to introduce the headliner.
“They’re calling me a terrorist/Like they don’t know who the terror is,” blasts Lowkey from his 2011 Soundtrack to the Struggle LP – immediately demonstrating his ability for making catchy hooks from the least pop of subjects.
The classic soul sampling My Soul is another demonstration of Kareem Dennis’ ability to put his non compromising lyrics to sweet and funky music as he spits: “They can’t use my music for advertising anything but the truth.”
Lowkey does have a message though and he never forgets to put it to music no matter how important or difficult the words and subject. This is demonstrated by comeback record Ahmed.
Inspired by the almost hapless situation faced by refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe truly explicit lines such as “Toddler lying lifeless on the beach with his back bent,” recall the heartbreaking death of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi in August 2015.
But the anger is to a soft piano soundtrack and Lowkey is joined on stage to make his point by Mai Khalil who beautifully sings the chorus of a horrific song. Without the juxtaposition Lowkey would sound like an angry activist.
Khalil doesn’t feature again during the 50 minute set, UK MC Black The Ripper also makes a brief cameo, which I find a bit strange as both have made the effort to travel to Cardiff.
Always soulful, funky or just hype Lowkey’s music is fired by anger and intelligence as he tackles subjects from racism to the arms industry and questions everything from Rolls Royce – “you probably think they only make cars” – to Obama’s revered presidency: “Nobel Peace Prize, Jay Z on speed dial/It’s the substance within, not the colour of your skin/Are you the puppeteer or the puppet on the string?”
Alphabet Assassin is a tour de force of Lowkey’s abilities with a pen, a pad, a microphone and a dictionary while Long Live Palestine, with the crowd chanting “Long live Palestine, Long live Gaza”, produces the sort of energy and passion from people that might explain why Dennis has come back as Lowkey.
If a period of absence builds an almost legendary status and great expectations Lowkey’s return has shown his place in hip hop is more than a myth and the faith of his long term supporters is justified.