Culture: Reset!

What role does culture play on society and politics? How should artists react to current events like Brexit?

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Authors : Matt Black & Richard Dent

Matt Black – part of Coldcut duo and founder of Ninja Tune records – and Richard Dent – a PhD researcher of the University of Cambridge who helps Coldcut to design their civic engagement projects and cultural activism – reaffirm in the article below their political engagement.

It’s the right time for more cultural responses

Cultural activism has never been more important. Here in the UK, artists from different genres, forms and styles are responding to current events like Brexit and inequality. Whether it’s Grime artists promoting progressive politicians, Banksy’s sly comments on multiple fronts, video remix artist like Cassetteboy putting out political cutup videos on Facebook or Ninja Tune using its social channels to promote what we believe in, the cultural sector has an important role to play in society. Social media allows us to be legible to our audience. We think it’s the right time for more cultural responses to the various social and political challenges we face, especially when it comes to Europe.

Coldcut and Ninja Tune are a part of that. We’ve put out enough politically themed records and other media to occupy that space. We don’t intend to retreat. We are partisan. One of our slogans was “Don’t hate the media, become the media”. In the age of a brilliant video camera and netcast capability in every pocket, this is possible for anyone. 

But we’re not making music, art and apps just to serve our political or social agendas. It’s a combination which feels natural. We want to make wikked tunes with humongous bass lines that also have political heft. We want to take people on journeys beyond just the musical. We think it’s possible to rock the crowd and be political in music. But if you don’t rock the crowd they won’t listen.

Surprisingly, we still get asked in interviews “do you really believe that music can be political”. The very question shows a risible ignorance of history! Every good revolution has a soundtrack. Check out the protest song “Sun City” by Steven Van Zandt as a solid example of what can grow from a seed when one musician says “fuck this I’ve got to do something”. This song had a real impact on the South African anti-apartheid movement.

Our most recent collaboration with Adrian Sherwood called “Robbery” addresses inequality and corruption. Something that is being hotly discussed in UK politics right now. We created a tune and a knowledge web page with links to videos and books about unfair wealth distribution. TL:DR the kids may say: Too Long, Didn’t Read. So we created a free addictive cut’n’paste video game also called “Robbery” where the player has to jail the Bankstr, a cartoon character who is making off with the people’s money. It’s down to the player to return the cash and serve justice. 

It makes no sense financially for us to do this (though actually one can develop a game in Unity 3D for less than the price of a boring pop promo) but its art and Coldcut believe in developing new approaches to agitprop, or agitpop as we could term it. We can do this because we set up Ninja Tune to release our own music and art without compromise or needing to get Babylon or anyone else’s permission. Having your own label is freedom (though it can be more complicated than that, like having kids and a family who don’t always agree with you!) Such is tribal democracy.

Ninja Tune was founded on a “do-it-yourself/fair trade” basis. As such Ninja supports its artists with a much higher share of the revenue from sales than corporate major labels. Why? Because we believe in cooperative relationships where both sides are equally motivated to make it work. We also make music and visual apps, tools and instruments to help inspire others to be creative. Music making app Ninja Jamm and our upcoming app for visual generation Pixi are examples of this. 

Diversity is the lifeblood of culture

We hope recent events in the UK are part of a wider realisation. See for example the significant boost to Jeremy Corbyn and the left from young people. Grime scenes voice reached the youth – a youth who in recent decades seem to have been led sleepwalking by the hyper-capitalists who surround us on every billboard. The youth may now be awakening.

This could lead to a rediscovery of the role culture plays in society and politics. It is essential for all of us to understand how things work. As McCluhan said “All media work us over completely”. The race to the bottom with monoculture reality TV, tabloid celebrity obsession and endless super-hero knock off films is getting old. It’s the same trope, same storyline and same sensationalism over and over. It doesn’t reflect the real world. They call it reality TV but it’s a highly artificial reality, like a refined sugar that whilst tasting sweet actually is poison.

This is what is most exciting about this time and projects like We are Europe. We need projects that shine a light on cultural activists who have previously been held back by the barriers to being creative. Or ignored by the corporate and cultural elite who have a hidden agenda to maintain the status quo of their hegemony and hence screen out anything that might catalyse change. We must ensure we give cultural progressives a platform. Diversity is the lifeblood of culture.

Let’s not get complacent. Just because culture is alternative or indie doesn’t guarantee it will reach the masses. Even if you’ve produced a masterpiece of underground electronica doesn’t mean you’ll end up like Aphex Twin or Bonobo. Our advice is: don’t do it for the money or fame, do it because you love it and you know what’s right. And don’t give up. Your experience is your main resource as an artist. Take every opportunity available to expand that.

Doing something non-mainstream takes guts – it’s risky. It’s an act of rebellion in its own right. And of personal revolution. Don’t be afraid of that. Embrace it.

And work on your bass lines too!

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