From the start, Lowkey’s album Soundtrack to the Struggle 2 (STS2), released on April 5, 2019 dives into imperialism, racism, militarism, and the corporate takeover of virtually every aspect of human life. While some might find these topics overwhelming or controversial, those familiar with the work of the British Iraqi hip-hop artist and campaigner will immediately recognize the deep political analysis and clever lyricism that have come to define his work.
Just like its predecessor, Soundtrack to the Struggle 2 focuses on our reality, rather than hiding behind the comforts of escapism. Eight years after Soundtrack to the Struggle part one, Kareem Dennis continues to address topics few artists, let alone rappers, dare to touch. His persistent criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, mainstream media’s vilification of Islam and Muslims around the world, condemnation of the U.S. gun lobby, and embrace of people power over Empire, have earned him a reputation of a fiercely independent artist and truth-teller.
Lowkey’s new album is a much needed reminder why hip-hop and organizing are intrinsically connected. A fast-paced rapper can pack a lot of complexity in a 3-minute cut and, as anyone who has listened to him can attest, Lowkey takes complexity in rapping to another level. His songs — which mix the credibility of a history lesson with the intimacy of a personal letter — compel the listener to explore the numerous political and cultural references flowing through his bars. The rapper’s ability to inspire a pursuit of knowledge outside of hip-hop is what allows his music to transcend the Spectacle of mainstream media.
“Through making music, if you can move someone to tears, then you can move them to action. If you can combine that deeply touching aspect of music with a political message that is trying to make a listener aware of a situation they may be entangled in, but don’t otherwise have awareness of, that’s powerful. My music is about visibilising those entanglements,” he said in a April 2019 interview with VICE.
While many rappers focus on affairs from their personal lives, Lowkey puts the spotlight on the perpetrators of terrorism and their victims. This makes it difficult for right-wing propagandists like Sean Hannity to attack his music, because they face the arduous process of negating the historical facts and perspectives that live in his songs. His criticism of the Obama administration and Third Way politics makes his work equally uncomfortable to the Democratic establishment.
Being on the bad side of the ruling class is a given for any artist who challenges the status quo; it’s also what separates the work of artists like Lowkey from opportunistic attempts to package and sell our reality as a caricature. He doesn’t need to spin the truth to prove his point, or use publicity stunts to sell albums. His work is supported and informed by some of the leading intellectuals of our times, whose anti-war stances and calls for economic justice have also pushed them to the margins of the information business industry.
On STS2, Lowkey features audio clips from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges and world-renowned dissident and professor Noam Chomsky, among other journalists, authors, and activists who are rarely allowed on mainstream programs.
“Thank you for joining us, Noam,” the rapper says in the opening track and proceeds to ask Noam Chomsky whether he thinks civilization can survive capitalism. Chomsky explains how neoliberal doctrines have destroyed the possibility of decent human existence:
We read that the major banks like JPMorgan Chase are increasing their investment in fossil fuels — including the most dangerous, like Canadian tar sands, and all of this is quite understandable on the assumption that the structure of our institutions is geared to maximizing short-term profit and power, without regard to what might happen to the world in another twenty or thirty years. That’s called capitalism. We can’t survive that.
Lowkey then takes over with an explosive verse that sets the themes of the album:
Is it the economic system vs the ecosystem?
How we gonna define deep when the seas have risen?
How can we define ‘woke’ when our sleep’s commissioned?
Drowned out by Koch brother bots, how can the people listen?
Can’t detoxify as we watch the sky fade to grey
The source devoured corporate power killed the nation’s state
Sophisticated murder defined as innovation
Corporations wine and dine just to mine the information
Eight men versus humanity, terrorist who
His search engine knows your thought pattern better than you
In an environment resentful uprising is essential
The horizon is torrential, thinking silence will protect you
Subject to propaganda that terrifies the slumbered
We can jeopardise their cover if we energise the numbers
Collectivise or die, protect your mind or suffer
Life is paradise to some and a pair of dice to others
From the very beginning, it’s clear that this is not your typical hip-hop release. There are no salacious stories, no sex scandals, no psychedelic fantasies, manufactured conflicts, or gangsterism. The result is an album that portrays the beauty and brutality of our lives better than most corporate news shows, while including trap-inspired bangers like “The Return of Lowkey” and “GOAT Flow” that highlight Lowkey’s showmanship and skills, without compromising on substance.
As made evident by his 2019 tour, Lowkey continues to fill up venues and “supplying” the public — to use a term executives understand well — with ideas and topics that many people care about, but won’t hear from many mainstream artists. Take for example the eleventh song from STS2, “McDonald Trump”:
ExxonMobil are writing this Trump script
The Koch brothers are riding this Trump ship
Wall Street is writing this Trump script
Raytheon and Lockheed are riding this Trump ship, shut him down
The red face can’t contain the rage and hate inside ya
Aching in your pride but take a major nation, make it minor
Engage in nativism, now your state is just a paper tiger
Cover up your face with a solar panel made in China
A weapon of mass distraction in this twisted age of decadence
Government, big business, the relationship incestuous
Hope workers in your businesses unionize and shut you down
A million people march when you try to enter London Town
Do another speech to inspire the next militant
May your nightmares be haunted by vexed immigrants
Mother of all bombs, I hope that every death lives with him
Corporate revolving door from Bannon to Rex Tillerson
The system was was fixed for him, sicker than Nixon
With Clinton, Winston and Kissinger mixed with him
The missiles are blistering, pistols on kids
And he spits on the immigrants, isn’t it interesting
Donald Trump and his forked tongue, let ’em all come
The precedence never been a president that is more dumb
Slave to the bankers, slave to the gun lobby
There’ll be permanent war, always demonize somebody
Families broke up, sanity closed shut
How can it be this man receives a salary to show up
Private jet nervous, disturb ’em with turbulence
Merging with mercenaries working to murder us
They’re hurting the Earth and our urges to nurture it
It’s one thing to rebel against “the system” or brand yourself as a “Trump resistor,” and another to place your work in the tradition of social and economic justice — to state the facts and name the names, as Lowkey does throughout the album. What would happen to a mainstream artist if they chose to criticize Raytheon, Exxon, Lockheed, the Koch brothers, Clinton, Churchill, and Kissinger in the same song?
The rapper exposes the uncomfortable truths about our reality, including the complicity of both Parties in the U.S. in enabling militants, extremists, sociopaths, and racists to seize control of our government and manipulate our culture. In just a couple of verses, he describes the circumstances that led to the “Trump phenomenon” better than any corporate talk show in the United States.
Soundtrack to the Struggle 2 is as much about condemning and exposing military aggression, as it is about illustrating the human cost of state terrorism. In “Ahmed,” Lowkey raps about a three-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless image made global headlines after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in September of 2015. “Ahmed never knew the politicians he was murdered by,” he says in the outro, illustrating the brutal consequences of war and structural violence when it comes to the most vulnerable.
Another emotional cut from the album, “Lords of War, ” portrays the psychological effects of militarism and drone warfare. Lowkey tells the story of a child murdered by a drone, and contrasts it to the life of a drone operator in Nevada who “watches death from a distance” as he presses a button to take the child’s life. “Skit 4” features a clip from an ex-drone operator who recounts his experience:
I killed thirteen people — and this is how you make life cheap. You show someone you can end a life by the push of a button. When I was younger, war had no meaning to me; it was something of distant lands and it was something of history. And here it was very real. I was a gamer, I was an athlete.
Soundtrack to the Struggle 2 illustrates how the bureaucratic system responsible for military aggression and violence abroad manifests itself at home — making invisible violence visible. In “Ghosts of Grenfell” part one and two, Lowkey pays tribute to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster that occurred in London on June 14, 2017 (the rapper witnessed the tragedy which resulted in the death of 72 people and made hundreds homeless).
“I think that we felt trapped in the sort of voyeuristic spectatorship of suffering, really, that was quite painful,” the rapper said in a September 2017 interview about Grenfell. “What we are doing when we are bringing the council face to face with the pictures of people that died, with their names in the video, is we are seeking a death of distance. I think that’s a really important part of it … Through music, we have the possibility of creating the cultural ambiance within which subversive ideas can be exchanged more, and that they can really affect the lived reality,” he added.
“Death of Neoliberalism,” “Letter to the 1%,” and “Neoliberalism Kills People” delve deeper into the systematic neglect and widespread corruption that define modern capitalist societies. As in most of his songs, the rapper pays respect to the ordinary people who fight against the odds — the servants of humanity who clean, teach, and fight for all of us without expecting anything in return.
“My music and my shows are partly about political education, but also partly about politically organising as well. Songs and poems have always accompanied dissent,” Lowkey says in his recent VICE interview. “There is a film by Ken Loach, What Side Are You On?, about the miners’ strikes, and it looks specifically through the lens of the poetry and the music that was being made at the time. I think his films are really brilliant in terms of encouraging people to collectivise.”
Lowkey has paid the price for being a progressive campaigner in an increasingly fascistic political climate. In one speech, he shared how his home was raided by the British government in December 2010. His lyrics, clothes, merchandise, and anything with Arabic writing on it were confiscated. He referred to his targeting as “being part of a systemic effort by the powers that be to control the way people look at the world by preventing individuals or groups from awakening members of the public to the actual reality we face in our world.”
Around 2011, Lowkey took a long hiatus to “focus on his studies.” During this time, he became a father, debated at the Oxford Union, and is now on track to complete a masters in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS University of London. “Jeremy Corbyn being leader of the Labour Party offers a far bigger alternative to anything that existed 8 years ago. The reach of musicians is further, and the potential for an alternative politics is further. So it made sense for me to come back,” the rapper says about the timing of his comeback.
With a new album under his belt, Lowkey continues to be a central figure in the world of hip-hop, reporting on the fight against oppression not through cynicism and political posturing, but through a historical and political framework that is rooted in the international struggle for freedom and liberation.