April 15 2015 03:54 PM

Mercury Prize-winning Edinburgh trio challenges the mainstream

From left: Alloysius Massaquoi, Graham Hastings and Kayus Bankole

Kayus Bankole has a bone to pick with pop.

In a Skype call from Edinburgh, the musician, who makes up one-third of U.K. eclectic pop/hip-hop trio Young Fathers, vents about the narrow conception in media outlets (radio, TV music channels) of what pop should be. And though he doesn’t single out any one artist as being a particular offender in commercial radio’s continuous parade of homogeneity, he expresses his frustration with “being bombarded with something that feels… very stale and repetitive.”

But there’s something he finds even more offensive than that: being told that Young Fathers’ music isn’t what a pop audience wants to hear.

“It was said to us that our music is too aggressive, and that an old lady driving home from work doesn’t want to hear something like that,” he says, with bemusement. “Who the fuck are you to say what an old lady driving from work…wants to hear? It’s patronizing to the general public to assume what they want to listen to. Who’s to say she doesn’t want to hear something with a little more edge, or a little more bite?” 

If it’s bite that you’re looking for, Young Fathers provide more than their share. Bankole and his bandmates Graham Hastings and Alloysious Massaquoi have been engaging in a perpetual exercise in artistic evolution since the release of their debut album, Tape One, in 2011. Last year, the band won the coveted Mercury Prize—awarded to the best British album of the year, as decided by an independent panel of musicians, journalists and industry figures—for their 2014 album Dead. And last week, the band released their fourth album, White Men are Black Men Too, their most accessible album to date, through Big Dada Records.

For a pop album, White Men Are Black Men Too is still pretty abrasive and odd. On an upbeat standout like “Shame,” the group pushes hooks and melodies forward, emerging with a buzzing, fuzzy indie-pop sound reminiscent of TV on the Radio. But even more fascinating are tracks like “Feasting,” which juxtapose thumping bass and distorted hip-hop beats with eerie vocal loops and off-kilter synthesizers. And even at their catchiest, Young Fathers are prone to wallpapering the landscapes of their songs with noisy effects or the wow and crackle of warped vinyl.

“I’m a lover of contrast, and when you have something so beautiful and put it against something so raw and so dirty, to me that’s when you get the true beauty from both sides,” Bankole says. “So the contrast is something we’ve always enjoyed doing. Sometimes you gotta have something so, so sweet and… you have that little flavor of bitterness, and that’s your payoff. That’s the bit that gets you excited.

Young Fathers play April 22 at The Casbah

“My favorite singers are singers that can’t sing,” he continues. “Take Fela Kuti, for example. You can feel the passion, you can feel the emotion, and that to me conquers any vocal acrobatics—the true passion and the true feeling.”

Much like they do with their music, Young Fathers confront their audience with ideas that go a little deeper than your typical Top 40 single. The title of their album, White Men Are Black Men Too, is taken from a line in the album track “Old Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which examines race through a complex and nuanced lens: “Some white men are black men too/ A nigga to them/ A gentleman to you.”

The band’s management raised some concerns about the title of the album being perceived the wrong way. The band published their response in an email exchange over the disagreement, which said, among other things, “How do we help tackle one of the biggest hindrances in people’s lives and the world… by not putting the question forward and not letting people debate positively or negatively about the statement?” As Bankole explains, White Men Are Black Men Too is ultimately a positive statement, and one chosen to begin a conversation.

“There’s a lot of different people, a lot of different colors,” he says. “We’re referring to mankind. We’re referring to everybody. The important thing is to open up the doors where people aren’t afraid to talk about these issues. Although it is complex, although there are differences, it’s OK to want unity.”

Young Fathers might not be pop by any conventional definition of the word, but the band is in the strongest position of its career right now. They’ve toured the globe once, and are making another lap this year. And their Mercury Prize victory exposed their music to an even wider audience than ever before. But as good a year as Young Fathers have had, Bankole notes, their mission is never really done.

“It was a big year for us,” he says. “We had a chance to get our music heard by so many people that wouldn’t have had a chance to hear it, or catch us live.

“But apart from that, we’re still busy and still ticking along. When you’re as original as us—and I’m not even shy about saying that—you’re playing the slow burner. Even after the Mercury Prize, I still feel there’s not enough people who have heard us.”

Email jefft@sdcitybeat.com or follow him at @1000TimesJeff