Ebony Bones' Giant Critique of a Post-Brexit, Trumpian Society

Ebony Bones' Giant Critique of a Post-Brexit, Trumpian Society

By Jhoni Jackson

Weighty subject matter sprawls from the theme of censorship on Nephilim, the new LP from Ebony Bones, who is based in Brixton, but sees with startling clarity the connections between the state of life not only in South London, but in the U.K. altogether, and in the United States — and throughout the rest of the world, too. Foregrounding issues of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, gender discrimination, and child slave labor is accomplished both explicitly, in lyrics that address the topics head-on, and more discreetly, at least at first glance, in the way that Bones operates, as well as the ways she adamantly does not.

Late in June, the video for "No Black in the Union Jack" was released, in which the independent artist, producer, and composer also assumes the role of director in juxtaposing visuals of everyday people with the frightening reality of the song's message. If Nephilim is a giant — the rough definition of the word, which has Biblical and mythological ties — then "No Black in the Union Jack" is where that being is at its most mighty, chest puffed with fearlessness and eyes piercing red with rage, delivering with searing satire an unrepentant criticism of post-Brexit U.K. And, of course, the anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric Bones is condemning looks a hell of a lot like what we're up against in the U.S., too.

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Bones has a long track record of disrupting industry norms: This work is the second she's self-produced and also released on her own label, 1984 Records, the first being Behold, A Pale Horse, released in 2013 and featuring The Mumbai Symphony in its titular track. A steadfast punk ethos is intrinsic in all she does, and not solely because it was Rat Scabies, drummer of iconic genre pioneers The Damned, who christened her Ebony Bones back in 2005. There is an inherent defiance fueling Bones — and on Nephilim, her spirit of resistance targets the transgressions of today's society, especially its politicians and corporations, with an intensity that, at times, is uncomfortable. (As it should be).

As moving as the album often is — there is rich, stirring orchestration, a marching band like a call-to-arms, a choir of children who bring an understandably chilling touch to Bones' rendition of the reggae classic (and later, a staple cover for The Clash) "Police and Thieves" — it can also be upsetting, at times even disturbing. Bones frames censorship as it manifests in Western countries as a symptom of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination, and that could skew the worldview of anyone who hasn't yet come to realize those connections. But demanding that you rethink the state of affairs and how we got here — including travesties in which we're all inarguably complicit, like on "Kids of Coltan" — is what Nephilim is meant to do.

PAPER spoke with Ebony Bones about the themes of the album, how they are applied globally, and how, despite opening a dialogue about censorship, she faced multiple hurdles in getting an unscrubbed version of Nephilim out into the world.

Congratulations on this album. It's incredible. Can you tell us more about its themes as they relate to its title?

When I was making the album, I was inspired by censorship. That came about with collaborating alongside the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra, and recording in China. I didn't personally experience any censorship while I was in China recording, [but] a lot of people will ask me, "What's it like there?" I started thinking about how censorship conveys itself in the West, and the more insidious or covert ways it presents itself: Who gets to speak, who doesn't get to speak, who gets their work reviewed, who gets their book published, who gets a seat at the table. But also looking at religious censorship; Nephilim happens to be a mythological creature that was censored from the Christian bible by the Roman Empire. I started with that theme, and then go through the album with different forms of censorship. Nephilim roughly means giant, and there are very big themes that I take on in the album. Working with the orchestra was also a very big thing, so it's using the word also in the literal sense of giant.

I really find that interesting, the way you've related censorship to racism and xenophobia.

Look at the average museum, for example. So many pieces of art that feature women, [such as the] Mona Lisa, and yet there are so few female artists in the world. What does that do to our perceptions of what good art is? And looking at the way that a lot of women are erased from history, particularly women of color, and just the way that we silence the voices that we don't want to hear in society.

Even with the situation in Puerto Rico recently, if it wasn't for the Internet and social media, I don't think, particularly in the U.K., we would have been as informed, because what was really happening just wasn't being shown on our news channel. I notice when I'm in the U.S., it's only news that reflects that city or that area, as opposed to internationally. Which keeps us all looking at our toes as opposed to looking up and around at the world, and realizing that the same things are happening everywhere in different ways.

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"It feels like a time that needs to be documented, and that's why I was inspired to write about it."

You make a really good point about how these things are happening globally. You touch on nationalism a lot in the album too, especially on "No Black in the Union Jack."

It's something that's happening globally, and the album really looks at nationalism post-Trump and post-Brexit, and the spread of xenophobia and the fear of foreigners. The song line starts with "red, white, and blue," and although these are the colors of the Union Jack, they're also obviously the colors that are in the United States [flag]. The song begins with a [1968] speech from a well-known Parliament member called Enoch Powell, and at the time, he was suggesting that all people of color, the situation of immigration be taken care of, otherwise the U.K. would end up as multicultural as America. And the speech was then banned and made hate speech, so a lot of people weren't familiar with the Enoch Powell speech when I made the song. I was feeling very isolated, and disconnected from the U.K. in general. I started making the album post-Brexit and post-Trump, and that's why I went to Tokyo to start writing the album before traveling to Beijing to record with the orchestra.

I wasn't familiar with the speech either. I want to believe it doesn't exist — it's really crazy.

It was strange. Even when we did the video, which I directed in London, there were publications that loved the song but wanted us to take the speech out for them to publish it. It was like, no, that's not happening. The speech is very much part of the song, and we're not going to censor the song, which is about censorship.

It's an ongoing drama. I think that most recently in the U.K. particularly we've had a lot of issues with immigration, and with Caribbean immigrants who've been in the U.K. for over 50 years being sent back to the Caribbean and being told that they are no longer British nationals, even though they were invited to come after the war to help rebuild the U.K. after WWII. And this affected members of my family. It's strange that this seems to be spreading, at the same time, post-Trump. It feels like a time that needs to be documented, and that's why I was inspired to write about it.

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Your father immigrated from the Caribbean, right?

Both of my parents, yeah. My mum worked in fashion, she was in London but in Europe a lot, and my dad had a vinyl stall selling lots of vinyl records, so that's where my love for music began. The U.K., much like America, is very multicultural, and made up of all these immigrants that have helped build the country into what it is today. It's an interesting time to see the sudden xenophobia, because as somebody who was born in the U.K., you feel like, based on your demographic, you are not seen as an actual citizen. At the moment, I'm not sure I feel like a citizen of the U.K.; I feel more like a tourist. I'm sure I'm not the only who feels that way based on recent circumstances.

What is the climate like for people of color and immigrants of color there?

I think our stories as people of color in the U.K. don't often get told. We get a lot of news about racial issues in America with African Americans, but often the stories based in the U.K. about people of color are not heard. The song "No Black in the Union Jack" was inspired by a book called Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, which was written a few years ago. Being an artist, I can't think of a more conservative time in music than right now. So much is happening politically and yet we've got no real soundtrack or documentation of it musically, which seems quite strange.

In mainstream music generally, there's obviously some really great artists speaking out, such as Childish Gambino [with] "This is America." But given the political time we're currently going through, I can't think of a more conservative [time]. Art and fashion are meant to be reflective of society. It's strange that we're not really seeing or hearing much of that.

With independent artists, yes, but in mainstream, no, you're right. Most often what you hear on the radio tends to be more frivolous and fun and lighthearted.

When I was in China, I learned about this empire, the Emperor Shun. When he was governing the provinces, he would request to see the musicians' scores because he believed if there was a change in the music then there was going to be problems, and that artists were the people who reflected what was really going on in society. If you want to look in history at what was going on at the time, we often look to art to document that. I'm not sure if we look back in time at this period, looking to mainstream art, we'd have a clear understanding of what people are feeling under the Trump administration and post-Brexit.

"If you are a person of color, you are never very secure in feeling that the police are there to protect you."

That's a good segue into this cover of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves," which was later covered by The Clash. I think that song makes a relevant statement, but I wondered why you chose it specifically. I'm curious about the Bones Youth Choir featured on the track, too.

It's amazing, when children sing a rendition of a song or a cover, the song becomes so subjective. At the time of the recordings, which was last year, the conversation of gun ownership was there, but we didn't have as many school shootings as we did after the recordings had taken place. It was a strange coincidence.

In terms of selecting the song, it was a song I had grown up loving and hearing all around the house as a child. I loved the Clash version, as well. But there was a lot on my mind in regards to the shootings of young African Americans in the U.S., as well as in the U.K. — the numbers of children that go missing yearly is quite high for Europe. A lot of these things were going around in my mind, and the song and the lyrics really spoke to me at the time. When I put together the Bones Youth Choir, it just seemed to cover quite nicely. The song's quite haunting, and the rendition deviates from the original in a huge way. I love also Lee Scratch Perry, who's also a Jamaican, and his production [on the Junior Murvin original], and in a way it's a nod to his work, as well.

What is the feeling toward police in the U.K.? How does it compare to sentiments in the U.S.?

I think it would depend on who you ask. If you are a person of color, you are never very secure in feeling that the police are there to protect you. I think that might go for the same in the U.S., sentiments toward the police are very different for people of color than they are for the average caucasian person.

In the U.K., I grew up in the Brixton area, and that has a history of racial aggravations, and the police riots with immigrants in the '80s when I was a child. Growing up, it's different for me as a woman of color, but if you are a male, constantly being stopped for no reason — we have something called stop and search which, anyone can be stopped for no reason and checked without any consequences. So in the U.K., if you have a son and he's a young boy of color, you have to explain to them at a very young age: Look, this is what's going to happen, and you need to be prepared and you need to know how to act. Perhaps it's the same in the U.S. You don't run, you remain calm, because you don't want to be arrested or even killed. And those are the realities that people of color face, unfortunately, not just in the U.S. but in the U.K. People perceive the police in a very different way depending on their race and their demographic.

The topics in this album are really heavy, and I'm starting to understand the title more. The next song I wanted to get into is "Kids of Coltan," and that's a very heavy subject and one that I think is hard for people to navigate because they are so complicit in it.

Oh yeah, it's a culture of complicity. There's a line in the song, which is "cotton to coltan," so we've gone from slavery, which was individuals picking cotton, and now we've got young kids picking coltan, and that is the world's modern-day version of cotton. And sadly, we're all complicit with it. It's interesting because there was meant to be a premiere of it with PRI's The World and they just cut it. They've taken the song out and our whole interview about "Kids of Coltan."

Why do you think it was cut?

It could just be the time, or it could be the topic. We all function through devices. Nobody is able to communicate or work without some form of electronic device, and all these devices have this mineral called coltan. I wasn't aware of the child labor that was involved in this at the time when I was researching it, and I just became more and more surprised that this wasn't common knowledge, and that the companies involved in using this mineral for their devices are multi-trillion companies. I thought it was a conversation that could be had, so ironically, while I was writing the song, Apple got in touch and invited me to do a workshop at Today at Apple talking about music. I decided to debut the song "Kids of Coltan" and discuss the subject.

I think they were a little bit like, What is this? What's going on with this girl? I don't even think some of the people working there were aware of this subject, or this mineral coltan of which we are all living off. But I thought it was a great opportunity to start a discussion, and I think some of the best music talks about things that reflect society and creates discussion. That's why I felt it was important to have it on the album.

"I believe truly that art is a reflection of society, and if you're not doing that as an artist, what are you doing?"

Did you experience challenges in getting this album distributed?

It was interesting, I'm an independent artist, I run my own record label, which I have since 2012-13, but even working out distribution for this album was a bit of a nightmare. So many distributors were like, "You can't have that song, you can't put that on there, take that off and we'll think about it." It's like no, it's an album about censorship, and I can't censor myself in order to speak about this. So it's been very tricky, actually, a very challenging album to get heard. It's definitely been a learning process, but I'm not the type of artist to shy away from these things. I believe truly that art is a reflection of society, and if you're not doing that as an artist, what are you doing?

I want to talk about working with the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra. You mentioned in your press bio the language barrier, that it's a risk not knowing if either side will be able to communicate fully.

These are things that excite me. I'm all about pushing myself; it was very pointless in me making an album that sounded like the last one or even trying to reproduce 12 songs that sound the same. That is not interesting to me at all as an artist or as a producer or composer. I want to know that I can redefine a woman's place in the music industry. We're talking about less than 5% of women who are producers and engineers in the entire industry, and gender and ethnic diversity are markers for many of the key things that make music and art vital and resilient. With so frighteningly low a proportion of female music producers, that means there's only currently one dominant voice that determines what everybody hears and what music is made and what music isn't. Women make up 50% of society, and the fact that we are not, that there is only one dominant voice, means that we're just not being heard.

I think the punk spirit in me constantly wants to challenge that. If I'm going to be an artist, I'm going to do things in the most ridiculous and biggest way possible. I'm not just going to make music. I'm going to go to China and work with the biggest orchestra in Asia, and it's going to be fantastic, and we're going to push limits to what a woman's place is in music. And the next generation will do it and it will be even bigger, and we'll keep challenging that. In very small ways, I think art can challenge spaces.

So working with the orchestra, did the issue of communication come into play?

Music is the one galvanizing voice that brings people together. Even though I had a translator with me and I had already written the score and sent it to them in advance, they were so ecstatic when I got there. I think curious, as well. Who was this girl from Brixton coming to Beijing and collaborating and making this very alternative version of classical music? Because in my way, it was about redefining classical music, an art form which is mostly for, about, and by white males. Classical music is quite an elitist form in itself. It doesn't necessarily lend itself to inclusivity and I think there are certain genres that are not as open about inclusivity, in the same way that hip-hop or R&B are. That's interesting to me, so I deliberately put myself in those spaces, and perhaps select individuals who are not stereotypical to that genre, and reimagine classical music in that sense. Songs like "Nephilim" and "Kids of Coltan" have that inspiration.