Darren “Loki” McGarvey talks Poverty Safari and resisting “political juvenilia”

Caitlin Logan

The community activist turned rapper turned writer spoke to CommonSpace about his new book, representing the unrepresented, and breaching the political divide

DARREN MCGARVEY, otherwise known as rapper Loki, originally from Pollok in Glasgow, didn’t think people like him wrote books. In fact, he says, “I don’t see myself as a proper writer or journalist, I don’t see myself as any of these things”.

And yet, he has written a book, Poverty Safari: Understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass, celebrated by literary legends Irvine Welsh and JK Rowling and reviewed in the pages of Scotland’s broadsheets.

There are multiple layers of irony to the title, as becomes clear from speaking with McGarvey. The words are taken from his own scathing assessment of artist Ellie Harrison’s project entitled the “Glasgow Effect” – a term used to describe the entrenched poverty and inequality in the city, although, it emerged, this was not the focus of Harrison’s study. 

McGarvey addresses the incident directly in the book, and he says the experience of meeting Harrison, who had been through an “ordeal” as a result of the backlash, and the sense of being “confronted with the human reality behind what I thought was my activism”, led him to re-evaluate his own approach to engaging people in political dialogue.

“People become less interested in what I have to say if I don’t preface it with a testimony about my dead mum.” Darren “Loki” McGarvey

This sense of the need to find common ground and shared humanity across the often harshly drawn lines of political and social opposition is a running theme in Poverty Safari.

At the same time, McGarvey’s book in itself is something of a “poverty safari” – to his own admission, the book has “misery memoir leanings” – however, he explains that his personal account of abuse and trauma was effectively used as a “Trojan horse”; a way in to the wider social and political issues he wanted to address.

The effect, in fact, is powerful: with Poverty Safari, McGarvey has illustrated with acute honesty the idea that the personal is political, that politics is personal.

However, McGarvey felt a sense that interweaving this personal experience was necessary in order to get the book published. “People become less interested in what I have to say if I don’t preface it with a testimony about my dead mum, or my addiction,” he says.

“So I fulfil this culture that a lot of people fulfil at different points, which is the sort of “survivor trope”, the person who’s lived to tell the tale, who just talks rough enough that middle class people feel comfortable enough to give him a platform.”

At times, McGarvey says, having this personal history scrutinised in the public domain can be a trying experience in itself. “It’s very difficult going on national TV and national radio shows and the first thing everyone wants to ask you is about your mum trying to stab you.

“You’ve went in and done front-line journalism, talking in really vivid, descriptive detail about aspects of working class life that no one has really covered in any depth, but they’ll come in first and say ‘so your mother tried to chase you with a knife?’.”

That being said, he acknowledges that personal experience provides the context for some of the problems within working class communities which the book aims to unpick, such as political apathy, aggression, or addiction.

“There’s an emotional interior to the behaviour that’s not accounted for, because the way we discuss it is largely set by people who haven’t experienced it,” McGarvey says.

 “The ravine in experience between people in poverty and people who manage poverty is so wide now that even the best intentions are doomed to be misinterpreted.” Darren “Loki” McGarvey

At the core of the book is a critique of the institutions in the third and public sectors “tasked with engaging poor people”, around which McGarvey says there is a “murmur of resentment” in communities.

“What I try to argue is that the ravine in experience between people in poverty and people who manage poverty is so wide now that even the best intentions are doomed to be misinterpreted,” he explains.

“You end up with this sort of ham-fisted, clumsy, attempt to superimpose a very middle class way of seeing things and talking about things onto working class communities where there’s a whole other lexicon of language, a whole other way of thinking about these things.”

By contrast, McGarvey speaks in defense of the “wee tier of organisations that are just above grassroots, that engage directly with the public”.

These organisations, he says, should be regarded as the “experts”, and yet they are subject to an “unhelpful power dynamic” through which they must continually “justify their existence to a rotating cast of third sector executive, ministers, political parties”.

He explains that the book, in part, aims to voice the criticisms which these organisations can’t, because it’s too “politically awkward” .

“[The book] is also for all the people who live in these communities who feel excluded from the decision making process, who feel shooshed when they pipe up about gentrification, regeneration, all these things in their community that they’re told are for them but that they somehow feel kind of locked out of,” McGarvey says.

“I wanted to write a a book that people in schemes will go ‘that’s me, that’s exactly how I feel’.” Darren “Loki” McGarvey

An important aspect of writing the book, he explains, was to “reflect a certain experience that a lot of people don’t see accounted for in mainstream culture”.

“I wanted to write a a book that people in schemes will go ‘that’s me, that’s exactly how I feel, I know exactly what he’s talking about!’.” he says.

McGarvey stresses that he doesn’t see this underrepresentation as a “conspiracy”, but says: “People who are more socially mobile tend to ascend into positions of influence in society, so it follows that people who come from more affluent backgrounds and face less adversity will be commissioning, editing, broadcasting, proscribing all of the different domains of culture that we call culture.

“So there’s always something in that culture that doesn’t reflect our experience accurately enough.”

Acknowledging the way in which this deficit of representation can affect a number of marginalised groups, McGarvey says: “Think about the recent phone in on BBC Radio Scotland on Harvey Weinsten and how many women – how many people – were raging at the angle of the questions.

“The producers of the programme don’t understand that the way we discuss these things has evolved because they’re in a wee media bubble.

“And that’s the same, not only for women, or people of colour, or disabled people, but also for working class people, whose experience is not unique but very specific.”

At the same time, McGarvey says, he endeavoured to write a book which “invites people who haven’t had that experience into the conversation”, and which “accommodates a diversity of political perspectives”.

“There’s enough of the book that people will agree with that they’ll lower their guard when it comes to the stuff that jars them a bit – and I include right wing and conservative minded people in that,” he says.

“There’s something about the complexity of life we can’t understand that leads to this need for political juvenilia.” Darren “Loki” McGarvey

This notion of avoiding polarisation was integral to the book, he explains. “I feel like that’s what you need really to happen at this point if you want to have any change on anything, at least if you want consensus on any issue you care to mention,” he says.

McGarvey has not been a stranger to political debate and controversy himself, be that through his writing, his music, or his social media presence. It is through this experience and some deep introspection that McGarvey has concluded that the means and manner of communication on complex political and social issues needs to change.

“A lot of the positions that I’ve taken on things over the last few years, if I’m honest now that I reflect on it, were based on a handful of people on the internet that annoyed me,” he says.

“I decided to ascribe what they had said and done to annoy me to a whole ideology – I’ve done this with nationalists before, and I’ve done it with social justice activists before, I’ve done it with radicals, I’ve done it with Tories.”

McGarvey argues that this is, in part, a fact of human behaviour. “There’s something about the complexity of life we can’t understand that leads to this need for political juvenilia, pantomime villains, ‘red Tories’, ‘yellow Tories’, ‘the Tories’.

“We sort of reduce all the issues to sound bites and all people to caricatures, which we then argue against as if it was the real thing.

“In the book I’m explicit about the areas where I’ve been guilty of this and I invite the reader to analyse their own behaviour.”

The growth of social media, McGarvey says, has only exacerbated the problem. “[Social media] just leads to the manufacturing of unfathomable confusion, which then creates more need for simplicity so we just get farther and farther away from the truth that we’re all looking for.”

“The recovery aspect of my life has changed the way I see everything, and that’s including my politics.” Darren “Loki” McGarvey 

He recalls his own reaction to Ellie Harrison, in which he learned that “social media can give you this false sense of propulsion and this false sense of righteousness”.

“I’ve since been treated the same way in similar kind of backlashes to things I’ve said or things I’ve not said – things that people have said I’ve said – and it’s helpless,” he says.

“And this is the left – there’s no Tories involved in this – and we’re all eating each other, because we’ve underestimated the interplay between our own irrational impulses and social media’s ability to distort reality, creating all sorts of false ideas.”

McGarvey’s “political maturity”, he explains, has been in many ways informed by his recovery from alcohol and drug addiction: “I can’t, in my recovery, say I need to be more willing to see where I’m at fault in things so I can keep my resentment levels down so I don’t end up drinking – because that’s why I drank – but then go into politics resentfully, angry all the time.

“The recovery aspect of my life has changed the way I see everything, and that’s including my politics, and really I’m trying to say I think that might be a good thing, and I want to share that experience with other people because it might work for them as well.”

With all of that taken into consideration, McGarvey says: “I think a lot of people who read the book who have heard of my work before, or me, might be surprised by some of the conclusions that I come to, some of the ways I interrogate the issues and myself.

“You only need to take a cursory glance through the news to see all of the ways masculinity is being expressed currently.” Darren “Loki” McGarvey

“I mean, for me, the book is at its core about honesty.”

And with his first book hot off the press, McGarvey is already planning his next, which promises to explore an issue equally as complex – masculinity.

“You only need to take a cursory glance through the news to see all of the ways masculinity is being expressed currently, whether it’s the harassment or abuse of women, or violence, or terrorism, or in the States with the gun culture,” he explains.

“Obviously it’s not all men that do all these things, but we can say with certainty that masculinity is in the mix as a proximate cause of a lot of these problems.”

With that in mind, McGarvey would like to write something which speaks to young men about these issues, in a way which is mindful of the fact that some men feel threatened by “the Zeitgeist which is pushing back against male dominance”, and which broaches the issues in a way that they can understand.

Part of this, he says, will be about exploring his “own journey through what has at times been a sort of unconscious misogyny, where I would never have thought I was behaving misogynistically, but since have realised why my behaviour would have been interpreted as such”.

“There’s a time when I would have become closed minded to a lot of feminist ideas and ideas around social justice,” he explains.

By tackling these issues head on, McGarvey hopes that other men will be invited to analyse their own behaviour. “It’s the right time now to discuss those issues,” he says.

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass was published by Luath Press on 2 November. 

Picture courtesy of Steven Reynolds

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