Up-and-coming soul star Jodie Abacus has just released a powerful song about the refugee crisis. He performed it live for the first time on Jo Whiley’s BBC Radio 2 show on Wednesday night – but ahead of the session, he sat down with BBC News to talk about the story behind the song (and Elton John’s helicopter).
Pop is getting a long overdue dose of politics.
Lady Gaga issued a subtle rebuke to Donald Trump at Sunday’s Super Bowl, singing the protest anthem This Land Is Your Land and quoting from the pledge of allegiance.
Pop trio Muna were more explicit. Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel’s chat show this week, they added a new verse to their single I Know A Place. The final line? “He’s not my leader even if he’s my president.”
In the UK, Stormzy prompted an overhaul of the Brits after pointing out the ceremony’s lack of diversity in his song One Take Freestyle.
Called Keep Your Head Down, it tells the story of a family fleeing a war zone, only to be met with fear and suspicion in the country they had thought would provide safe harbour.
“I focused on Syria when I was writing,” he says, “but there’s a load of places in the world that are going through the same thing.”
Why did you decide to write about the refugee crisis?
I was in LA for a session, and I saw something about refugees on the television in my hotel. That’s what triggered it.
I wanted to give a perspective of what it would be like to go from one country to another. I can only imagine it’s a terrifying feeling. We need to be a little bit more empathetic.
How did you write the lyrics?
The beat of the song triggered the emotion in me. The first lyric was the chorus: “We’re moving on, but the road is long / Don’t get your hopes up, you’d better keep your head down.”
Don’t get your hopes up is the father saying “we’re running out of chances”, and keep your head down was like, “pray that we get out of this”.
I’d assumed it was about having to keep a low profile in a new country.
It’s both. There’s a lot of double meanings. It’s also about keeping your head down to escape the bullets.
The thing is, you do all this to save your life – then you’re not accepted by the country where you thought you’d be safe. People hate you or they think you’re going to steal their jobs or take their benefits. But there’s a lot of people running away just to save their own souls.
Your musical references are very eclectic. I hear Stevie Wonder, ELO, Steely Dan, even Hall Oates in there. How did you get into music?
I was born in south-east London in Lewisham Hospital. My dad used to be a DJ. He’d carry around these big speakers and play reggae, soul, funk. I was just surrounded by music.
What was the first time you performed in public?
I gave a foyer concert at college. What I’d done was reproduce the Jacksons’ Show You the Way to Go on a little computer, and I’d written my own lyrics to it.
No one really knew I could sing – I wasn’t one of the stand-out guys in college – but I thought, “OK, I’ll give it a go”.
And all of a sudden there were people watching from on top, people crowding round the sides. At the end they were all like, “Oh my gosh, he can sing!”.
It sounds like a scene from a movie.
It was actually quite nuts.
What inspired you to write your own music?
There was a lot of trauma. My mum and dad divorced and I missed out on a lot of things because I had to go to court. Being creative took my mind off what was going on.
So there was a custody battle?
They were fighting over me and my younger brother and it got nasty. It was harsh. Not a lot of people, not even your parents, understand how the kids suffer, mentally.
When you’re that age you trust your parents and suddenly this black hole of chaos opens up. But that’s what built my character, in terms of deciding I wanted to do music.
But you studied acting at college, is that right?
Yeah, I got my diploma in performing arts and I loved it.
Why did you decide to pursue music instead?
I literally decided on a notepad. I drew two big arrows in blue biro, one for music and one for acting. I wrote little notes about what I wanted to do… and I wanted to make great music. I didn’t know any notes, I didn’t know anything. I was just going with my feelings.
You’re in your mid-30s now, so it certainly hasn’t been an overnight success. What happened?
You leave college, you get a job, you get another job – but all that time you’re taking the money you earn and you’re investing it in the thing you want to do. There’s always times where you think it’s going to be your turn, but it just doesn’t happen.
How close did you come to giving up?
You get tormented a lot. You get tormented to the point of thinking, “why do I keep going?” – but then you realign yourself.
There’s nothing worse than hearing an old person say, “Oh, I wish I’d done this or that”. When I’m in my rocking chair eating apple crumble and custard, I want to say I had no regrets.
Your big breakthrough was a song called I’ll Be That Friend. How did that song arrive?
Three years ago, I came down with pneumonia and almost died. I was bedridden for about three months and, in the middle of all that, I finished with my ex. She moved on to another dude, like, really quickly. I saw pictures of them kissing and, even though I’d broken up with her, it was still a shock.
At the end of that year, I needed to be comforted. I needed someone to say, “it’s going to be alright’. It didn’t matter who it was. I just needed someone. I’d never felt that way before, but I needed a hug.
Those feelings all came out in the song. As I was writing it, I was crying and singing at the same time.
And yet that song, like a lot of your music, is very positive. Was that something you felt pop was lacking?
Yeah. I feel there’s a fun element missing. Everyone’s thinking about the formula of how to write a hit song. I don’t. Music is such a spiritual thing, it has to move you.
You’ve been getting a lot of support from Elton John on his Beats 1 show. What did you make of that?
That’s incredible. He’s one of my heroes. He’s given me a couple of proper big shout-outs.
And you’ve covered Bennie and the Jets in concert.
That was nuts. He was meant to show up – but he didn’t because the cloud level was low and his helicopter couldn’t land.
Wow. First world problems.
So is there an album on the way?
Yeah, it’s called Take This and Grow Flowers – because I’m using every little traumatic memory as fertiliser, and then making it grow. All of these things, all of these problems I’ve had… every memory is like a seed.
What’s the best thing about success?
I love travelling. I love the adventure. There’s not a day where I’m not thankful. I’m happy that Radio 2 have supported me as much as they have done.
Have you become a connoisseur of hotel rooms?
I’m not that fussy. I get annoyed when there’s no kettle. It’s not just for tea – I use it to steam clothes, and it’s useful for steaming your voice as well.
But do you know what? I always get paranoid that someone’s done a wee in it. I always wash it out, just in case.
Jodie Abacus’s single Keep Your Head Down is out now. His debut album follows later this year.