When Young Fathers, a hip-hop trio from Edinburgh, won the Mercury prize last night, they kept their speech short. “Thank you, thank you. We love you, we love you all,” Alloysious Massaquoi told the audience at the Roundhouse in London. They weren’t much more expansive in front of the press afterwards. "We'll take it in our stride," Graham Hastings said drily. "We always wanted to make something bigger than the city we were living in."
They've learnt to be sceptical about hype. Massaquoi, Hastings and the third member, Kayus Bankole, met as teenagers at an under-16s hip-hop night in Edinburgh, by which time life had already furnished them with visions beyond the city and, as their name suggests, wisdom beyond their years. Hastings grew up on Edinburgh's Drylaw estate, Massaquoi moved from Liberia when he was four, and while Bankole was born in Edinburgh he lived in Maryland and Nigeria before moving back as a teenager. Their prize-winning album, “Dead”, mashes hip-hop rage and sweet-voiced soul in African and Scottish accents, all set against pounding electronic beats.
According to some reports, they played their first gig when they were just 16—they are 25 now—and signed to a label called Black Sugar Records not long after that. They released a few tracks in those early years, some of which are still available on Spotify, but industry meddling seems to have stalled their progress: an album eluded them. After they got out of their early management deal, the music came quicker. Two EPs, “Tape One” and “Tape Two”, were recorded in a burst in a borrowed basement just weeks after they were free. Anticon, an experimental hip-hop label in Los Angeles, took note and asked to rerelease the tapes in 2013, by which time Young Fathers were already at work on the album that won them the Mercury.
“There was a lot of frustration after getting bad advice from other people and listening to the wrong voices,” Bankole told the Skinny in January. “Our intentions when we put 'Tape One' out as a free download was just do it, just have something out there. We wanted to get a record out because before that time we never had any.”
Their music carries that same kind of urgency. “Get Up”, the song they performed at the Mercury Awards, is one of their more accessible, pieced together from a distorted horn that sounds like a whale in its death throes, handclaps, and images of reverends, corpses and revolutionaries. The vocals on the album, “Dead”, are a mixture of rap, soulful singing and belly moans. One song is called simply “Mmmh Mmmh”.
It gives the impression that Young Fathers speak from the gut, screaming to be heard even when words escape them, like during their Mercury acceptance speech. The awards are stacking up—in June they scooped the Scottish Album of the Year—but recognition comes after Young Fathers spent years working out how to be heard within a system that now celebrates them. No wonder they are taking it in their stride. “What do you expect us to be doing,” they told the Guardian after the win, “jumping around?”