- Interview by
- Taj Ali
With more than fifty million views on YouTube, British rapper and activist Kareem Dennis, better known as Lowkey, has been lauded for his contribution to UK hip hop. He’s known in particular for lyrics exploring issues like racism, imperialism, and politics in Britain and beyond. Unafraid to speak out, he also, inevitably, faces opposition.
Lowkey has recently been the target of a campaign by pro-Israel lobbying group We Believe in Israel who have attempted to get his music removed from Spotify. In March, the organisation launched a petition against ‘extreme anti-Israel content’ on the streaming platform, citing Lowkey tracks released more than ten years ago as examples.
In response, Lowkey and a swathe of other artists and campaigners have come out fighting, with a statement of support signed by major figures ranging from Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd to Mark Ruffalo and Anwar Hadid. Tribune spoke to Lowkey about the campaign against him, the outpouring of support from around the world, and the wider effort to drive pro-Palestine voices out of public life.
We Believe in Israel has accused you of incitement and pushed for your music to be taken off Spotify. The tracks in question are more than ten years old. Why has this group targeted you now? What’s the background?
I think it’s important for us to establish what We believe in Israel is. It’s a project which was launched and cultivated by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, or BICOM, the largest Israel lobby group in the country. BICOM was founded and is bankrolled by its chairman, Poju Zabludowicz, who is also a Conservative Party donor. His wealth comes from his father, who founded Soltam Systems. Soltam is an arms company which has now become part of Elbit Systems, and has been for the past ten years or so. BICOM’s former director, Daniel Shek, was initially an official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and afterwards went on to be the Israeli ambassador to France. So there are ties here with the Israeli government.
The war against Corbyn and many others during his time as leader of the Labour Party enabled Israel lobby groups to really build up and fortify their forces here and strengthen their mechanisms, in the name of anti-racism. People have lost their livelihoods, been disqualified from political subjectivity. This campaign arrives in the wake of that.
It’s not the first time the censorship of Palestine has come up in the music industry. In 2010, the word ‘Palestine’ was masked with sound effects during rapper Mic Righteous’ Fire in the Booth freestyle on BBC Radio 1 Extra. It seems censorship on this topic is so embedded that even the mere mention of Palestine is enough to set alarm bells ringing. What does this campaign to censor pro-Palestine voices say?
This campaign against pro-Palestinian music is an extension of what has been happening to Palestinians, and in many cases, Palestinian children. The Palestinian Prisoners Study Centre found that between 2015-2018, over five hundred Palestinians, among them many children, were arrested and imprisoned by the state of Israel for the crime of incitement on social media. This is an extension of that understanding of the term, an attempt to export that kind of policing of language from the occupied territories to Britain.
The poet Dareen Tatour, for example, was imprisoned for almost a year for her poem Qawem Ya Shaabi Qawemahum (‘Resist my people, resist them’) under the charge of incitement. She was so steadfast in her poetry that she actually used the zipper from her jacket to write some of it on the wall of her cell.
This is ultimately a campaign to clamp down on Palestine solidarity. They are trying to stop pro-Palestinian music being made. That’s the key here. What they didn’t bet on, and what I’m sure is a cause of concern for them, is quite how much support we’ve received.
The campaign against you seems to have backfired spectacularly given the outpouring of public support from musicians, artists, and, of course, the wider public. The last time I checked, there were nearly 40,000 signatures on the Change.org petition supporting you. Did you expect that level of public support?
I didn’t expect such a huge outpouring of support—and that support is still growing, every day, with more and more people from unexpected places getting in contact and saying they’d like to be involved and to sign the statement. That’s a key point to establish as quick as possible—that you’re not isolated, and you have widespread support. There are people on there who might also have their own experiences with the Israel lobby, or may have seen others have experiences with the Israel lobby, and they are asserting very clearly that they reject that. This time, they’re not going to let it happen.
The key thing with these campaigns is to establish very clearly that you are not the isolated one, that you are not a pariah, as quickly as possible. Lobby groups like We Believe in Israel want people not to stand with you. They want people to be embarrassed to stand with you. They want to use standing with you as a reason to blacklist others.
You’ve got the names of some major artists, including Wretch 32, Ghetts, and Avelino on the open letter. Many are signed to major record labels. Is there a fear that their careers could be impacted as a result of the stance they’ve taken?
They won’t be affected now, because there are enough of them. The lobby won’t be able to isolate them because of the extent of the mobilisation. It’s meant that it isn’t possible.
There are people on my letter who together are worth tens of millions. In fact, there are individuals who signed that letter who alone are worth tens of millions to Spotify. So what you’re betting against is the extent to which I am connected to others—but I am not isolated.
I want to say thank you to all who are supporting me. I hope this momentum can help us build solid mechanisms to come to the aid of others in similar situations with none of the infrastructure around them which I have been able to use. The struggle continues.