interview: singer naomi pilgrim on xenophobia in sweden & her recent cover of the specials’ “racist friend”

April 25, 2017

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK contributor

With xenophobic sentiment and the far right rising all over Europe and the United States, Swedish singer Naomi Pilgrim’s latest single is a call to action. The reimagined cover of The Specials’ classic “Racist Friend” updates the sound and lyrics for 2017, but the story’s the same: there’s no coddling hateful people. We recently got the opportunity to talk to Naomi about the struggle for social justice in Sweden, and art’s ability to transform the narrative.

What brought you to “Racist Friend?” It’s kind of obvious what brought you to the message, but what brought you to that song in particular?
[laughs] It was actually very related. I was born in 1984 and I was searching for songs that were released that year. And I was like this song is super relevant to right now still, so let’s do a cover of it and see where it lands.

Did you grow up listening to The Specials?
Yeah my mom always listened to The Specials, but I’d never heard the song before. So it was fun to do something—the ska scene in Sweden is so big—for all the ska and punk kids.

How did you approach updating the song?
I sat down with Embee who produced it, and he’s like a hip-hop pioneer here in Sweden. He’s one of the first big hip-hop producers. He blends hip-hop, jazz, and soul. It was a process. I think I sang it a billion times, and we were like “we need some more strong female voices on this track.” And with Yugen BlakRok, I was familiar with her work from before and I love her energy, and the same with Sa-Roc. I love the way she sings about the universe; how she speaks, how she talks. It really resonates with me. So I was really happy when they both wanted to join in.

Were you thinking about the differences between the issues from 1984 and 2017?

For sure. And it’s like scary too that we haven’t come further. Well it’s easy to say that too. There’s progress happening every day. So we focus on the steps we take backwards. But it’s scary to see with all the far right movements. They’re winning marks here in Europe, and the US of course. The far right movement is winning ground. Serious stuff is happening right now in Sweden. I don’t really know what it is. I think it’s the propaganda. There’s a lot of propaganda everywhere. But we are a very welcoming people as well. Sweden is progressive as fuck. But at the same time, you hear about all these things happening out in the suburbs. People have been talking about this for quite some time. We need to work on our integration. Segregation has been an issue in Sweden for a long time. We’ve had these issues for quite some time, but now all of a sudden it’s the immigrants fault. The immigrants living in these suburbs, they’re saying you can’t forget about us. You have to think about us when you run your politics, you know?

The immigrants, they have a voice as well. They’ve been saying these things for years and years. You need to include us when you do your politics. You need to have our back. We’re out of the system. This isn’t working. People get frustrated. And now the right wing has started to benefit from all these voices. They try to make it their own question. Like now they’re acting like “we own this question.” They pretend it’s the immigrants fault. But they never listen to the immigrants. And that’s the problem in Sweden. It’s a problem within our system. It’s fucking broken. And all the other parties they’re scared of what’s happening. They’re losing voters. They’ve adapted the far right’s rhetoric. You get what I mean? They don’t say what they want to do anymore. They don’t say what’s their ideology and stand firm.

Right. They’re focus-testing their message and playing to the lowest common denominator. It’s the same here.
Yeah, exactly.

Have you felt like the song has been a part of that national conversation about race and immigration and social justice?

It’s been both. I’ve seen many people stand up and say “yeah this is actually exactly what we’ve been saying the whole time. We need to stick out when we see social injustices and stuff.” but I see a lot of bickering about it too like “no we can’t just end relationships, we need to show them the right path, with kindness.” But that’s what the song I all about. Like speak up speak out. You don’t have to unfriend anyone, that’s not the issue here. The issue is that too many of us are staying silent when we need to speak out.

That was actually something I wanted to ask you about, because I feel like there is a tension between wanting to guide people who you otherwise care about but who have really problematic views, and just wanting to be done with it all. What’s your threshold, personally, for someone you just can’t take anymore and would cut out of your life?
I don’t know actually. That’s a tricky question. I think its when people are starting to get aggressive. Like “no, you can’t tell me what I can’t say or can’t do.” And that’s true. I can’t. I don’t have that power over people. But if you want to continue to use that word then maybe this relationship isn’t as solid as I thought it was. People are scratching their eyes out, because they want to use certain words. But Sweden was kind of built on a racist system. We have natives here as well that we oppress and murdered for hundreds of years. And it’s not something we’re taught in school. They don’t teach us about the Sami people in school for instance.

Who? I don’t know about them.

The natives of Sweden. We murdered so many Sami people. And we hurt them still. It’s not something we talk about in Sweden. Like “that happened in the past, and we’re here now.” Because we’re simply not taught. And that’s in the system as well, we don’t confront our dirty laundry. And I get it, it’s very hard for white people here in Sweden to instantly know what we’re talking about when we say “that’s a microaggression. You have both power and you have prejudice.” It’s hard for people to understand how heavy that is here.

I guess like in America, you’ve talked about this for a very long time. For us in Sweden, we talk about it a lot. Like people are so tired of hearing the word racist nowadays. [she laughs into a sigh] I guess it’s the same in the US. But you’ve been talking about this for a long time; we’re kind of new to this. We’re getting empowered by black voices in America for sure. When we hold Black Lives Matter demos in Sweden, people don’t understand. They’re like “oh…” Do you say ‘seperatistic’ in English? In Swedish it’s seperatistishka.

I can’t think of the English word offhand, but I get what you’re saying. I feel like internationally there’s a narrative of Sweden being sort of peaceful and benign. We don’t talk about, especially not in the States, any of the historical issues in Sweden.

And I do I get that. Because how would you know if not even we are talking about it? Like in Germany they have this thing. You need to learn about the Holocaust if you’re in school. We didn’t have a Holocaust in Sweden, but we did actually murder a lot of Sami people to get this land. And we still harass them to this day. I don’t know. But we are a progressive country in Sweden. Most people are walking in solidarity with us.

You mentioned that there’s been Swedish Black Live Matter demonstrations. What’s the response been?

It’s been a good coverage. People understand. But there are always these few voices who are going to say “What the fuck are you demonstrating about Black Lives Matter? We don’t have this in Sweden. Why are you out resisting for Americans?” And like Sweden, we did have our colonies in St. Bart’s. We did have slaves. We did own slaves. It’s like people don’t know. We don’t get educated about our history. We get educated about all our wins and how important we’ve been. We were neutral in World War II. How can you be neutral in World War II? You choose a side by not taking one. It’s like yeah, we’re so diplomatic. We have one of the strongest passports in the world. We’re super at our diplomacy. That’s not a word is it?

No that’s totally a word!
Oh good! You get what I mean. We’re neutral. We only sell guns and steel to countries that are not at war. That’s why we’re a rich country. We sell guns that actually kill people, and planes that kill people, but not to people who are at war.

Right. But not to countries at war yet.

Yet. Exactly.

I mean we do that all the time. It’s easy to sell gun to a country now and then in 10 years be like “oh we didn’t know they were going to use them to kill people!”

Right. “That was not what we intended it for!”

Like what did we think they were going to use the guns for, coat racks?

Why would they? [laughs] It’s super weird. Then there’s people out here. They call it “luxury refugees” because they come here with a fucking iPhone. So it’s super weird because it’s our guns that made them flee their homes. And it’s a travesty. But they say they’re coming here and eating off of our countries money. But no, you’ve got it all wrong. We’re responsible for it.

They leave Syria at Swedish gunpoint, but Sweden wants to bear no responsibility. And that’s the same thing we’re doing. But of course it’s our responsibility.
It’s the whole point. We are actually selling guns. And guns kill people. So we are responsible.

Do you feel like music has the power to help educate people about these things that aren’t being talked about? Like it has the power to sort of help course correct?

It’s like there are two camps. And both camps want to feel secure. And both camps want love to win. We all want the same thing. But one camp is acting out of fear. And the other camp—they might be scared as well—but they get that it’s foolish to be scared of other people. Human rights are for everybody. Not just for those of us who were lucky enough to be born here in Sweden. I actually think we want the same things.

I think it’s the same thing with Trump versus Bernie Sanders. Well. No. That’s stupid. Trump obviously just wants to make money. He doesn’t even care how he will be remembered. But I think most people have the same inner goals. Like peace. I think everybody wants peace. And people are like so we need to do a little war over so we can have peace, and the other camp’s like no we have peace right now. Why can’t we just continue having peace? But at the same time, when you walk into a Facebook commentary, it doesn’t matter if you’re right or if you’re left, we have cray people on both sides.

That’s for damn sure.
So now you’re saying this but you’re sounding exactly like the guy saying that, but you have different agendas. So you’re not going to meet just because you don’t want to learn anything? You get what I mean?

We need people to be bold. For people to show who they are. And it’s like here in Sweden we have a saying called “lagom.” I don’t know if you ever heard it. It means “I have enough so everyone around the table gets food too or a drink too.” You say “so what size do you want?” “a lagom,” so everyone around the table gets to have it. We need people to lead the lagom state of mind. There’s a time for lagom. There’s a time to show solidarity. But you shouldn’t get a cookie for doing it. You need to show who you are. We need to raise our hand and say stop. That’s what we teach our kids here in Sweden. That’s what we teach in kindergarten. “put up your hand and say stop.” With the song I guess I wanted people who actually are on our side to have the confidence to put up their hands and say stop. You’re free to say, you’re free to think. But please do it in a different room.

So to change gears, I have a weird question. Any time I do an interview I’ll spend the day before thinking about what questions I’m going to ask and kind of try to imagine what the interview will be like and where it’ll go. And I guess I was doing that last night right before I fell asleep, because I had a dream about this interview.
Oh really? That’s amazing!

In my dream, apparently Radiohead had recorded an EP of covers of your songs.
That would be so awesome!

And when I woke up I was trying to figure out whether that was a thing I had read somewhere or whether that was just something my subconscious came up with. So I wanted to ask you, since obviously that didn’t happen, or at least it hasn’t been announced yet. Since you just covered The Specials, if you could pick anyone to cover one of your songs, who would it be?
That’s a big question. I don’t know. I mean now you’ve mentioned Radiohead so I can’t get that out of my head. But that would be cool. Massive Attack would be kind of nice. I think it’s nice when worlds are colliding. To go somewhere totally opposite from where I am. Should I say Radiohead or Arctic Monkeys? Or Air! Air would be nice.

Yeah I could see Air doing something cool with one of your songs. But Arctic Monkeys would be a really different take. I’d listen to that.
That would be dope! Me too. Me too. That would be nice. If you know them, tell them.

I mean, it’s gonna be on the website so maybe they’ll read it and one thing will lead to another and you’ll have the Arctic Monkeys doing “No Gun” in 6 months.
That would be lovely!

So is there anything else you want people to know about before we go?

I would ask people to look up Falling Whistles. It’s a campaign for peace in Congo. We sell whistles to raise awareness about the deadliest war since World War II and we use the revenue to support entrepreneurs in the region to build a different future. It’s a tool to elevate conversations and stuff like that. And it’s kind of awesome. It’s a way to do something bigger.

Are you involved with them?
I’m one of the founders for it here in Sweden, but it was actually started by a guy from Texas, Sean Carasso. It’s a growing community of people who are opening peoples’ minds about what’s happening in Congo and what to do. And the organization invests in Congolese visionaries and entrepreneurs and people who have a dream for their country and their communities. And they might have a plan to do something they might be missing out on investments. So that’s what they do. It’s an awesome project.

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