Journalist (ex-BBC, RFI, TV5), writer (first book on Massive Attack and Bristol), I also work on film projects. Born in Paris, I have been based in Prague, Miami, London, Nairobi (covering Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia), and Bristol, UK. I travelled from Italy to Haiti, via Tunisia, Liberia, South Africa, India, Mexico, Niger, Turkey, Iraq... My passions: Africa, Europe, literature, music, arts. This blog is to share my work and cultural discoveries from around the world.
The Story of Massive Attack and Bristol's Underground Culture
Posting again: my interview with literary website Bookwitty about my book about the cross-pollination Massive Attack's 'Blue Lines' unleashed in England... Multi-culturalism at its best:
Interview: The Story of Massive Attack and Bristol's Underground Culture
Melissa Chemam is a French journalist who has been reporting on culture and international news since 2004. She has worked on four continents, for France 24, the BBC World Service, RFI (Radio France Internationale), and with the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck. Since 2003, she has been based in Prague, Paris, Miami, London, Nairobi and Bangui.
To start off, how did you come to write this book? Is there anything specific to your life that sparked an interest in Bristol and Massive Attack?
Yes, there was a special event. In my work at France Culture radio station, in the summer 2014, I was covering the Middle East a lot, and I heard that the band members of Massive Attack were playing in Lebanon for the Byblos festival. I read that they were visiting Palestinian refugee camps to meet people they had been helping for years. And it was very moving because they were talking very directly about the responsibility of their own country, and how they wanted to raise awareness. It felt to me so genuine; I was touched by their will to help. I thought to myself ‘this is a beautiful story’: they could have just talked about it from England or on stage, but instead they were out there, in the camps, trying to build bridges.
So I kind of became obsessed with their story, and started reading articles about Bristol and how the band came about. At the same time, a friend of mine who is a music journalist, said ‘why don’t you stop going to war zones? Every time you come back you are so depressed…’ And I thought: ‘Yea! I’ll just start working on this Massive Attack project!’ I knew from the start that it would be difficult to get in touch with them, especially since they are not known to be media-friendly, and I had no contacts to go through a big organization. But I managed to get a meeting with 3D (Robert Del Naja), who was the person I most wanted to meet. 3D is for me the core member of the band, and also the most committed to the discourse beyond the music.
What sort of book did you set out to write? Did you see yourself as more of a cultural historian, or as a journalist?
I wanted to write a piece of cultural history, but you have to keep in mind that Massive Attack is still very contemporary. The band members are still quite young (Tricky just turned 50 but has the same energy as at 35). So I had to take the analysis of a historian on events that are still very close to us. That was exciting for me, but of course it's risky for a publisher. And since this was to be my first published book, I knew I wanted to keep a journalistic approach, because by going on-site and talking to people, it would be more appealing for a publisher; it wouldn’t just be me talking the whole time. So I went to Bristol and stayed there for a while, and I met a lot of people connected to Massive Attack I wouldn’t otherwise have known about – it was kind of like piecing together a family tree.
One of your central ideas seems to be that Massive Attack is the product of the unique history and cultural context of the city of Bristol. Can you briefly outline some of the main features?
The history of Bristol is not very talked about compared to other cities that shaped the British Empire, like Liverpool or Manchester. But Bristol was a huge port in the 18th century, and was one of the richest cities because it was the bridge between Great Britain and the Americas. And because of this connection, it also became one of the centers of the slave trade. Slaves from Africa passed through port cities like Bristol, Nantes and Bordeaux before going on to America (this is something that museums tend not to mention very much). Because of this unique context Bristol became one of the first places to call for the abolition of slavery, and this was probably the start of the rebellious, anti-establishment tradition still present today.
During the World Wars there was a huge influx of people from the Caribbean who were called to fight for the British Empire, and they brought new influences with them, and later the Windrush generation even brought Reggae. It’s a bit of the same history as South and West London (Brixton, Ladbroke Grove), except that in London it was diluted by a lot of other trends. But for Bristol, the Caribbean influence was much more concentrated, and you can see that in Massive Attack, for example in their collaboration with Horace Andy. In the 1980s there was a wave of rioting, notably in St Pauls (the Caribbean neighborhood) because the youth were getting harassed by the police. It was a classic case of discrimination: it was easy, and it reassured the public. All this gave Bristol a big underground culture made of DIY, punk energy, mixed with reggae influences and a strong political attitude.
All this is a bit underreported to my views, and I thought it would be fun to look into how Massive Attack made visible all of these influences. The band works as a focal point for all this history, some very negative but some very positive as well, because out of it came this incredible energy and creativity.
You mentioned already that Massive Attack is politically active, for example by raising awareness for Palestinian refugees. Are there any other political issues that they deal with, either through their music or through their activism?
People often didn’t really take their lyrics seriously at the beginning, because they made a joyful kind of rap. But I looked into the lyrics, for example in Blue Lines, and they are often talking about political issues, like the effect we are having on the environment. And this was in 1990, before it became an obsessive topic. They also deal with issues of integration and identity, picking up on Rastafarian themes present in reggae but in a very British way. In a song like Karmacoma, they talk about being British but also from somewhere else in a very joking way. 3D is half Italian and Tricky is half Jamaican, so these are issues relevant to them personally.
They became much more politically active after 2003, because 3D was very vocal in opposing the war in Iraq. At the time, most pop stars had nothing to do with politics so he was very alone in that movement. They really had to put themselves out there, and they did by putting on a show in 2003 completely centered around the Iraq war. They used screens to display information found in the news, a collection of headlines, facts photographs, and quotes aimed at raising awareness about the realities of the war.
Another explicitly political song is False Flags (Released on the ‘Collected’ compilation in 2006), which is about the riots in France in 2005. The lyrics deal with the direction that Europe is going, and how we missed a lot of changes that happened and still deny that they happened. This theme was picked up already, less obviously in a song like Eurochild . The lyrics of their songs, mostly written by 3D, can usually be interpreted in many different ways. It’s interesting because 3D was a big fan of punk music, which tends to have a very simple and direct message, but he writes in a very mysterious and literary way.
Massive Attack is so much more than their music, and part of it is a very strong visual aesthetic, rooted in street art. Could you tell us about the connection between these two forms of art, and how 3D in particular was an inspiration in the Bristol street art scene?
The early steps of the street art scene in West England are still relatively unknown. 3D was first and foremost a street artist - he was in fact the first to emerge from Bristol at 18. In the early 80s there was graffiti all over the place in Bristol, inspired by New York, because you had a lot of Jamaican kids who had their cousins there, and were aware of the new trends. But 3D used graffiti to make an artistic statement: he painted very large murals in specific venues, and became known under his pseudonym. Street art was very closely linked with the hip hop scene, and 3D started designing the flyers for some rappers. By 1983, he had emerged as one of the main figures of the Bristol street art scene. He was a hero at the time. In 1985, an art gallery in Bristol decided to have an exhibition about street art, centered on 3D (the first of its kind in the UK).
From there, he got into rapping. And it’s a bit of a magical thing, because he was doing flyers for hip hop events, and 3 months later he was the best rapper. It was a very competitive spirit, based on writing witty lyrics, and he became one of the best because he’s just very good with words. Graffiti also started as wording, so for 3D rapping was just a different way of expressing himself. This was the Thatcher era, so everybody was unemployed, and almost all the Massive Attack members actually met on the dole, collecting their checks as unemployed youths. So they were probably very driven, because they didn’t have many prospects, and art was all they had!
The universe that Massive Attack create through their music is often quite dark and unsettling - it doesn’t have a mainstream appeal. What is it about them that you think captures the imagination of a global audience 30 years later?
It was a mix of things, but mainly I think they were always very ahead of their time. Until Mezzanine, Grant Marshall used to say that all of their albums came out too early. They had already transitioned from rap to electronic music in the early 90s, when people were still making sense of trip hop. So that helps explain their longevity. They also had this way of disappearing for a few years, and then coming back with lots of noise, often in collaboration with famous artists from a variety of fields like Madonna, Tracey Thorn or Michel Gondry. I think this created an aura of mystery around them, which influenced someone like Banksy very much. It showed him that shying away from the public gave him much more power than trying to grab attention all the time.
Then there is something about the darkness in their music which for me is something very cathartic. It’s a way of talking about suffering, and turning it into something alive and beautiful, which is rooted in their soul influences. I think it’s a very universal feeling that people seek to experience through art. Why do we love Picasso’s Guernica so much? This trauma from the war turned into a painting gives us a feeling of relief: it’s finally out there and it's not just painful anymore. Massive Attack manage to give meaning to this darkness through their rhythms (like the heartbeats in Teardrop). Because the drums are so present in their music, it gives off an incredible energy, it becomes almost tribal.
Massive Attack will never be like generic pop stars. They don’t have that kind of mainstream appeal. But by managing to reinvent themselves time and time again, they become timeless. It’s the only band I own all the albums from, and I love them all equally.
Can you briefly talk about the process of turning the French book into an English version?
I got a deal with a French publisher easily, because of the appeal of the story, and because we have a wonderful publishing system in France that is probably more subsidized. But I thought it was also important to publish the book in the UK, so I tried to raise interest but this only had the opposite effect! British publishers don’t like to buy foreign rights, because they often fear to lose money, and I did not have an established record as an author. So instead I re-wrote the book in English myself, thankfully not from scratch because I had all my quotes in English, and had already written some English summaries. Eventually, I worked with a small, Bristol-based publisher called Tangent Books, who was delighted at the opportunity to work with Massive Attack. It keeps the project edgy and independent, and everyone is happy about that!
What are your next projects coming up?
I am working with Raoul Peck on his films, and I have a project to write another book about music, exploring its links with Africa. I also wrote a novel a few years ago, dealing with post-colonial issues, and am trying to get it published in France. For my next novel, I’m thinking of publishing it the UK or US.