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Immigrant Is Not A Dirty Word: An Interview With Nadine Shah
John Freeman , July 27th, 2017 08:06

Nadine Shah explains to John Freeman why her career-high third album, Holiday Destination, was inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis and why we should all be proud about being immigrants

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According to the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are currently 22.5 million people worldwide who are classed as refugees. Approximately 5.5 million of those are from Syria – a country that has been locked in a brutal civil war since 2011. If the sheer mind-boggling volume of displaced people wasn’t heartbreaking enough, the images of those who’d drowned, having been packed onto capsized boats whilst desperately trying to find a safer life across the Mediterranean, were utterly devastating.

It was the plight of the Syrian refugees and the subsequent extremes of public reaction to the unfolding tragedy that inspired Nadine Shah’s third album, Holiday Destination. It’s a brilliant and courageous record – bold, angry and brimming with a deep empathy. Collaborating again with producer and co-writer Ben Hillier, Holiday Destination, is a more urgent, uptempo beast than the glorious, gothic introspection of 2015’s Fast Food album.

Nadine and I have met several times before. Our last interview for tQ took place in Nadine’s home town of Whitburn on the North East coast. After lunching with her mum, we strolled along the beach eating ice cream cornets covered in lashings of ‘monkey’s blood’. However, for our chat about Holiday Destination, we have no time for such frivolities. Nadine is understandably fired up – and talks passionately about the motivation for writing her most politically-charged songs to date.

By sticking her head above the social media parapet, and as a second generation immigrant herself (her father moved to the UK from Pakistan and her mother is of Norwegian stock), Nadine has direct experience of prejudice and stigma. When describing the concepts bound up in Holiday Destination, she’s energised, measured and proud of her immigrant heritage. The album is Nadine Shah’s call-to-arms. It’s a war cry in the name of empathy and tolerance - and she has never sounded better. As her T-shirt says, Choose Love.

How did you first become aware of the humanitarian crisis in Syria?

Nadine Shah: My big brother, Karim, is a journalist and he predominantly works for Al Jazeera. He was making a documentary on the border of Turkey and Syria at a Syrian refugee camp. This was before the Syrian refugee crisis was really in the news, even though the civil war had been going on for a while. My brother asked me to make some music for the documentary. The film was about how the war was affecting children. It was called No Strings. It featured a puppeteering company that had gone to the refugee camp to work with the kids, because these children had stopped trusting adults due to being exposed to horrendous things. The kids wouldn’t converse with the adults and the company found a way of explaining what the situation was via puppets. It was a really beautiful story and it was how I first became aware of the situation in Syria. I knew then that I needed to write about it.

I believe the album title, Holiday Destination, was inspired by a TV news report. What was the report about?

NS: The news piece was berserk. It was when there were thousands of refugees and migrants coming to Europe from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places. Many of them were coming to Kos, which is a holiday destination for a lot of people. The news piece was focussing on the tourists and asking them for their response to the influx of refugees. Some people were sympathetic but others were complaining about how much it was ruining their holiday. I kind of get it - you work really hard all year and go somewhere to relax and then you see all these awful things. So, it probably would ruin your holiday. However, the thing that shocked me the most was the complete lack of empathy and that the holidaymakers were happy to convey that on live television. It’s the rise of nationalism and the unashamed lack of empathy, where people aren’t afraid to say disgusting, racist things, which really scares me.

So, that was the catalyst for you wanting to write the album?

NS: It was. Also, there was the harrowing photograph of the man holding his dead child on the shore. You couldn’t avoid what was happening when you saw the image. It galvanised a lot of people. I think artists need to document the times that [they] live in and what I wanted to do was to humanise the dehumanised by narrating first hand testimonies. I wanted to give people a voice who don’t normally have one. That’s what I wanted to do with the album. I hope I have done that. Also, it was virtually impossible to write about anything else. My crap love life really pales into comparison.

Did you have any concerns about writing about such powerful subject matter?

NS: Yes. I was really worried about appearing opportunistic. In fact, I had loads of worries. I remember thinking about people like Russell Brand and Lily Allen, when they spoke out on issues and people said to them, “If you care so much and you are so political, why don’t you become a politician?” I think that’s pretty absurd. It’s almost as if an artist is not allowed an opinion about the world they live in. Also, I would say that I am not that well-versed politically. I am just someone who wants to speak out about anyone who is in a situation where they are suffering. I always want to stick up for the underdog. However, I was worried people might think I was jumping on a bandwagon, or using these people’s awful situation for my own gain. It’s just not the case – it is just something I had to write about.

There is a sense that political viewpoints have become very polarising, with little room for reasoned debate. While you and I share similar views on the refugee crisis, can you see any merit in the counter arguments?

NS: Yes, and you do have to think about those opinions. I am aware of being in an echo chamber, in which we all think the same. We are never going to get anywhere unless we have an open dialogue that allows people to speak. If we just go in with anger towards those who hold a different opinion, we won’t ever get anywhere. Take Brexit - the notion that everyone who voted leave is racist is bullshit and I really hate that. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society have been targeted and they have been brainwashed and lied to. The last thing we should be doing is shouting at them, blaming them and calling them names. You only have to look at some of the major newspaper publications that target certain sections of society. They are told their jobs have been taken by migrants and, if they don’t live in a multicultural society, then of course they will believe these things. That’s why I wrote a song called ‘Yes Men’, which is about the lies of the mainstream media. However, I do understand the opinion that there isn’t enough room and that we don’t have enough resources and we have our own food banks to worry about, but we promised to accommodate 4,000 child refugees and we haven’t – and there is definitely room in the UK to accommodate 4,000 kids. It’s disgusting.

Compared to writing about primarily yourself on the previous album, how easy was it to write these new songs?

NS: It was really difficult to write, because all the time I was really aware of how people might perceive the songs. Normally when I write, I am not bothered or worried about what people think, because I am speaking about my own experience. When you write something political, you divide people and I didn’t want to point fingers at people or preach at people on what’s right or wrong. I wanted to provide them with information from someone else’s point of view. I love Billy Bragg, but I didn’t want to be ‘Billy Bragg political’ on the album. Some people can find Billy Bragg quite preachy. I wanted to be ‘Stevie Wonder political’. I grew up with songs like ‘Living For The City’ and ‘Higher Ground’, but I wouldn’t have necessarily known they were political songs. They are highly political songs, but they are musical and they have a driving force and you can dance to them. That’s kind of what I wanted to do with this. Also, I constantly revisited the lyrics. I was always fact-checking, as I wanted to ensure what I was saying was correct. So, in that sense, I found it difficult and I spent a lot of time worrying what people would think. But, I would have regretted it more if I hadn’t written this album. I would have been kicking myself.

What is it like to perform the new songs in a live setting?

NS: There is a lot more anger. I didn’t realise that I had that in me. I have seen videos taken of my performances of the new songs and there is a lot more energy. In the past, especially with the songs from the second album, it was like hanging your dirty laundry up in front of everyone and there was a part of me that would reel in my performance, as there were aspects that were a little humiliating. Now, I am telling other people’s stories and they are stories that are so important that they need to be heard and there is a sense of urgency behind them. The performances have gotten a lot more physical, especially on a song like ‘Out The Way’. I sometimes lose my head a bit when I perform that song and I am almost screaming on stage and beating my chest with the microphone. My audience have been quite shocked, as they have never seen that side of my performance.

How have your audience responded to that side of you?

NS: Well it has been really bloody lovely seeing the audience’s response to these songs. I went on stage a few weeks back wearing a ‘Choose Love’ T-shirt, which was designed by Katherine Hamnett, with sales going to refugee charities. Then, very recently, I went to a Maccabees gig in London and I bumped into a guy wearing a ‘Choose Love’ T-shirt. He recognised me and said he’d been to my gig, been moved by the songs and had gone and bought the T-shirt. He was then at the Maccabees gig with a really diverse audience, wearing the T-shirt and spreading the message. I thought that was amazing. I was very chuffed. So, maybe what I am doing is working in a tiny way.

It’s clear that over the past couple of years, you have become more politically active. How has the reaction been, especially on social media, and do you think the reaction has been influenced by your ethnic background?

NS: Well, I have been thinking about that myself. And I am Muslim – maybe not the archetypal Muslim – and it is really important that I am a voice for Muslim women. There has been some negative reaction and quite a lot of threats and racist abuse. However, if I wasn’t a ‘Guardian/6 Music artist’, I would probably receive more. I do worry that I am merely preaching to the converted. Part of me worries that when I sing these songs to my audience, will I be actually informing any kind of change. I am making a conscious effort to try and play in places that I wouldn’t normally go to. For example, I haven’t played a gig in my hometown of Sunderland for a long time. I’m currently working with the council as part of the City of Culture bid. They acknowledge there is a problem of racism in the town and are battling to overcome it. I have received some racist abuse, but you will never see me fighting back or being aggressive on Twitter. When I do reply, I try to be as kind as possible in order to change these people’s opinions. If they look at me as a Muslim voice, and they are being negative and I am being aggressive back, that’s only going to reinforce their opinion. So, there is a quite a weight of responsibility. I am constantly checking what I am saying and reigning in my anger. And, I never go on Twitter when I am drunk.

Can I ask you about the subject of immigration and the concept of being immigrant. Your mother is of Norwegian heritage and your father is from Pakistan. How did this shape the way you viewed the refugee crisis?

NS: Well, it’s obviously a subject close to my heart for lots of reasons. I am human and don’t like to see other humans suffering, plus my father, as you mentioned, was a migrant. He came over to the UK in the late 60s. It was only when I started writing this album that I asked my dad about his journey to England. It was pretty harrowing. He was young, he was travelling alone and he had to go from country to country, begging, borrowing and stealing his way through places. I always assumed that he had gotten on a plane from Pakistan straight to the UK, but he made a really difficult journey. I think my dad is allowed to say he is proud to be British. He worked hard at it – he followed his dream and he has now made a life for himself in a new country. He has integrated brilliantly, he has three kids and a business that provides hundreds of jobs in the North East - a place where they really need jobs. So, when I saw footage of Pakistani men in the camps at Calais, there was part of me that thought of my father.

I’d like to ask you a clumsy question. Your mother’s family immigrated to England from Norway. Do you sense any differences in the perception to her family as immigrants, compared to your father?

NS: I do – and it’s a great question. Put it this way, if the refugee crisis was blonde, white people, would folk have the same reaction? It’s a disgusting thing to think about. Would we empathise more if it wasn’t brown-skinned people who were the refugees? I think there is truth in that – and it’s become an ‘us and them’ thing, which is terrifying. My mother’s family are all immigrants, but she is not considered an immigrant. In Newcastle, part of our dialect has its roots in Norwegian. Being immigrants is so ingrained into the North East that we forget. There isn’t really any such thing as indigenous English, so it is weird that people consider my father to be an immigrant but they are not.

It’s like that classic Stewart Lee monologue – we are all immigrants in England.

NS: Exactly. ‘Immigrant’ has become a dirty word. It is not a bad word. It’s not a curse or a swear word. I have had a T-shirt made up that says ‘Immigration, Immigration, Immigration’, as we need to reclaim the word. It’s not a dirty word and it’s nothing to be ashamed about. I am proud to be a second generation immigrant. I am proud of my heritage. We are all immigrants and we need to start owning the concept.

The album Holiday Destination is out on August 25 via 1965 Records. Nadine Shah plays several UK and German dates this Autumn including Simple Things on October 21. For tickets and more information, click here

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