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Chris Redmond: “There’s always been a political element to the world of poetry.”

Image credit: Photo of Chris Redmond

Created in response to Trump’s America, Brexit Britain and the refugee crisis, Tongue Fu’s debut album Boat Building slams together the talents of singers, musicians and spoken word artists. Chris Redmond, the group’s founder and live performance front man, talks political poetry, missing performing to an audience and how lockdown gave them the space to create.

Run-Riot: Tongue Fu have just released their first studio album, Boat Building. What’s it about and who’s involved?
Chris Redmond:
The album is a political, musical and poetical snapshot of the past three years, as seen through the eyes spoken word artists, poets, singers and musicians. It’s very much a collaborative effort: there’s an amazing singer called AMYRA who is an New Yorker poet, writer, singer and activist; Dizraeli, a rapper from Bristol and a multi-instrumentalist; Vanessa Kisuule who is a Bristolian poet and theatremaker; Joshua Idehen who is a poet and the frontman of Benin City;  Zia Ahmed who is a poet from London; Rafeef Ziadah, a Palestinian poet, academic and activist; Anthony Anaxagorou who is an amazing poet and publisher; Kweku Sackey who is a Ghanaian rapper and singer from Sheffield - and myself. And then there’s the Tongue Fu Band and a bunch of other guest musicians.

Run-Riot: Was the decision to record an album influenced by being unable to perform live shows during the coronavirus pandemic?
Well, we started this several years ago. The impulse to write it came from the time when Trump had just been elected, Brexit had just happened, the refugee crisis was kicking off and it felt like a number of things were coming to a boiling point.

Initially, my hope was that we’d create something quite quickly… but it turned out that was quite difficult! Life gets in the way, people have commitments and we would put it down and come back to it six months later. Lockdown gave us some breathing space.

Run-Riot: Can you tell me a little about the title, ‘Boat Building’?
The boat is a metaphor for a vessel in which we all sail. The urge to create it came from political rhetoric, which was becoming increasingly divisive and polarised. I wanted to make something with other people celebrating our differences. The boat was sort of a vessel for those voices - however you want to interpret that.

Run-Riot: A lot of different musical styles and influences can be detected on the album. How would you describe its musical genre?
Trying to upload it and put in ‘moods’ and ‘genres’ for Spotify was almost impossible because it’s drawing on so much. It’s borrowing from contemporary jazz, but I don’t think it is a jazz album. There are elements of hip hop, but it’s definitely not a hip hop album. There’s fuzzy ambiance, psychedelia. A friend of mine wrote and said: it’s kind of like a mixture of free jazz, afrobeats, Terry Callier, Steve Reich, and a messy night out in Shoreditch!

Run-Riot: Could you say more about how the album is a direct response to political and social events?
Yes, absolutely. There’s always been a political element to the world of poetry and we have a platform we can use. A lot of the narratives around things, whether it’s Trump or climate change or the Black Lives Matter movement or Grenfell, use language which is negative and fearful, because the media push the most traumatic angles. I wanted to make something interrogating those angles. Music and poetry offer an emotional window into events. They allow us to sit with the messiness of things without it constantly being an intellectual exercise.

Run-Riot: A hallmark of Tongue Fu live shows is the lack of rehearsal – poets and musicians spontaneously collaborate onstage. How different has it been with the album?
It was important for us to start with that feeling of spontaneity. All of it came out of improvisations and some of it stayed that way, and some of it was taken away, broken down, reconstructed and layered into a much bigger production. So it’s a mixture of the two.

Run-Riot: When I saw you perform in Bristol, I got the impression you thrived on the live audience and their energy. Have you missed performing this year?
Massively. It’s a bit like losing a limb. For me, it’s only when you put your work in a place where other people can receive it that it has a life beyond you. Every time you perform something in a room full of new people, the experience is what you are sharing. The most powerful bit of performance is that communion, when we’re on one little trip together for a couple of hours and sharing whatever is happening on stage. We need it, don’t we? As humans, we need to get together.

Run-Riot: If you had to choose a favourite track, what would it be?
I can’t choose, I genuinely like all of them! But there’s one we did this summer with Dizraeli and K.O.G [Kweku Sackey] responding to the removal of the Colston statue in Bristol. It’s probably one of the most hopeful and positive tracks on the album.

Run-Riot: In contrast, one of my favourites, ‘Before We Are Epitaph’ by Vanessa Kisuule has quite a note of sadness to it. Do you feel like melancholy is quite present on the album?
Yeah, that wasn’t intentional but when you’re writing in response to the things we’ve talked about, it’s inevitable there’s a tone of reflection. There’s quite a bit of grief and difficult stuff in there. But I do think there’s a lot of love in it too. It’s not romantic love, it’s the sort of deeper, messier, unresolved love for humanity in all its flaws. We wanted to make something responding to the challenges happening in the world and it’s hard to write about those in a chipper way!

Run-Riot: Does Boat Building mark a new era for Tongue Fu – will you make more albums in the future?
I hope it leads to more. Shows are ephemeral - they’re magic - we make them and they’re gone. I’ve really loved making something which exists and we can go back to it, and anyone can listen to those artists whenever they want.

Run-Riot: Any final things you’d like people to know about the album?
It’s a completely independent project and Band Camp is our main way of selling stuff. There, people can buy vinyl, books with the lyrics and much better quality downloads than are available on the streaming platforms – and you’ll be investing in artists, not massive corporations.


You can buy a Digital Download, Limited Edition Vinyl or Limited Edition Lyric Book now on bandcamp here.

Image credit: Artwork

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