The Gutter Interview: Loki

This is an excerpt from an 8000 word interview that appears in Issue 14 of Gutter Magazine. 

Darren McGarvey is a writer, rapper, community arts leader, journalist and social commentator who goes by the name ‘Loki.’ To say that he attracts controversy and divides opinion would be an understatement. Having released seventeen albums, Loki is an established voice in the Scottish hip hop scene, and has, largely since the independence referendum, garnered a wider audience for both his music and his writing. He is currently working with Police Scotland and the Violence Reduction Unit, and sits on the Editorial Board of Bella Caledonia. His eighteenth album, Trigger Warning, is expected this year.

GUTTER: Let’s talk a bit about the referendum, which is when most people first heard your voice. How did you get involved?

DM: I was about a week sober, and I went to a Yes Scotland office. I met with a perfectly nice woman, and I suggested some things. I thought it was just a place where you could go spitball ideas. So I went in and was like ‘right okay, I think we should be having debates in schools, and I think we should take these to working class communities.’ And she’s just sitting there kind of like ‘who the hell are you, this is a place where you come and print out flyers, and go and hand out flyers, there’s a chain of command and what are you talking about?’ You know what I mean? That’s the feeling that I got. But I didn’t really understand what the meant until later.  She gave me an email address for National Collective and sent me on my way.

Anyway, that was my first instance, and then I wrote a piece and National Collective re-published it and declared me a member of National Collective, which was brilliant for me because I was like, here’s someone trying to adopt me. I just feel like an outcast, and here is an official-looking thing, that looks all fancy. It looks like the bloody Guardian online this thing, you know, and they’re saying I’m a member. I didn’t tell them I was a member. I didn’t sign a membership form. They obviously want me as part of what they’re doing. These are artists. These are hard core artists. I’ve found my tribe. Completely misunderstood the whole thing, you know, completely.

And then my journey was eventually, closer to the referendum, going to a Radical Independence meeting, talking at a couple RIC events, feeling a bit more at home there than I had at the NC events, where the awkwardness was hysterical. I mean, really hysterical. It was like a kind of mediocre Bob Dylan album, where everyone was just dead happy, and there was no sense of urgency or anger about the issues. So when I got up and started talking about poverty and child abuse and all that, they were just like *laughs* what the fuck are you?’. Leading up to the referendum the relationship that I had with National Collective just kind of broke down.  I had underestimated how closely aligned NC were to the mainstream Yes campaign and the SNP.  There was no desire to create radical art.  It was about giving the Yes movement a cultural feel.  NC were very kind to me in the beginning and in many ways were victims of their own success.  I was drawn in by the trouble maker rhetoric.  I wanted a stake in how the group was running but was always held at arm’s length because I happen to be a genuine trouble maker.  With me it’s not an image but I take responsibility for not reading the fine print.  I just thought it ironic they couldn’t facilitate democratic structures in their own ranks but were demanding democracy from afar.  I wish them all well.  We just have very different ideas about what political art looks and feels like.

GUTTER: So do you see yourself politically aligned to something in what you’re writing now?

DM:  Not really, I mean I just feel apprehensive about attaching to one thing now. See, it dawned on me just before the referendum that what we had done was just become the same as the side that we were trying to behave differently from. I think I became a bit nihilistic after that, once the dream was dead for me. The ‘yes’ movement is not any more virtuous than what came before. It’s more dangerous sometimes because elements of it can’t see how they’ve been corrupted already.  Political pragmatism has infected the public mind.  Now we all see ourselves as movers and shakers when really we are foot soldiers and sound bite repeaters.

GUTTER: They believe they’re the good guys.

DM: Aye. Cowboys and Indians.  There’s nothing more dangerous than that kind of moral certainty. I mean the ‘yes’ movement is more patriarchal than folk will admit, and it was made up of wee micro-empires all with guys at the top of them, calling the shots, with no democratic accountability – all demanding democracy from someone else, but incapable of facilitating it in their own ranks. So if the power had came up here after the ‘Yes’ vote, it would have just went sideyways, and nobody would have wanted to talk about class because they’d have felt vindicated in winning the referendum by postponing that discussion.

So I feel I have more clarity and focus now. What I draw out is the absurdity of it, the moral posturing that goes on on both sides, the distortions. And also in a lot of what I write – I try to bring my own frailty and my own absurdity to the fore, as a starting point, to disarm anyone who might think I’m trying to be holier than thou. I’m absurd, that’s my starting point. A lot of what I do is motivated by ulterior movies: prejudice, guilt, shame, all of these things. I think that that is all playing out on the stage of a public discourse except we’re all giving ourselves a free pass to be inauthentic. But that’s just my view.

GUTTER: Do you feel excluded? Do you think politics and the arts in Scotland in general doesn’t have a space, or enough space , for someone like you?

DM: Space is opening up because social media kind of democratises things a wee bit. It’s important to say as well that I don’t hink there’s a malign intention behind the institutions that at this point are still overly packed with a people of a certain kind of background. I don’t think there’s anything malign about that. But I do think that social media has become a vehicle not only for other forms of culture, to have a platform and find an audience, but also to create the dialog that needs to happen in order to get these institutions a bit more representative of the wider population.

You see there’s a lot of positive progress that’s happened in terms of representation for different minority groups in society. Whatever way you slice it. Progress is happening. But the one thing that falls to the bottom of the argument all the time is class and the background in which someone comes from. I think that class is the vehicle that distributes a lot of the other privilege.  Progressivism makes class struggle more difficult as it cuts diagonally across everyone, placing them into sub-groups competing against each other to be heard.

There’s always exceptions to these rules, and these social theories are problematic in themselves, when you superimpose them. I often think they’re better for individuals articulating their experience than they are for being applied to everyone. But there’s no quota for how many people from a working class background get into an organisation. There’s not even a way to measure that a lot of the time. You know, it’s based on things we can see, like are they female, are they black, are they Muslim, are they homosexual. Things that we can go ‘okay, yeah that’s objectively true’. But what you find is that people from middle class background who represent those demographics will ascend into those positions, and so they’re bringing with them that same, not narrow experience, but that same slice of experience, that sometimes unintentionally precludes things outside of that and becomes self-selecting.

Another thing worth mentioning is the fact that people from a high social class who are better educated and so on and so forth, they have had an immense enabling and empowering effect on my life. They key to it has often been that, because they’re not dealing with the chronic stress of poverty, they have the time and headspace to notice things about you that other people haven’t had time to notice.

Then, if you are actually spending time around someone who comes from further up the food chain, you get an insight into how their emotional framework can absorb stress. You get to see how their lifestyle is conducive to peace of mind a wee bit more than the chaotic lifestyle I come from. So you get an insight. This is another reason why we should look for more opportunity to cross-pollinate these worlds.

Social movements, revolutionary movements often have a very scary, working class, battering ram aspect to it, but there is also a lot of expertise and stuff that comes from further up the food chain. It enables it. It enables it and brings a shape, and a signature to what could be interpreted as just chaotic anger. And sometimes that’s how social movements progress. I think how society progresses, when people interface and mix.

GUTTER: But at the same time it can be a deeply patronising relationship, a middle class approach that’s about improving working class people, about ‘acceptable culture.’

DM: Aye, it’s like Tom Leonard says that about poetry. When he talks about how a lot of poetry came to be excluded. That when people write with that poetry voice, that kind of English poetry voice or British poetry voice, sorry. He says what that says about poetry is that it’s this class structure being reinforced: if you don’t learn this language you can’t write poetry and that is the perfect metaphor for a lot of how society works in Britain.

I come from a working class background but I’m sitting here saying my life has benefited from interfacing with people who I would say are middle class or upper middle class, because I’ve had that experience. The reason that that experience empowered me was because they took me as I was, so they didn’t ever try to tell me how to speak. They seemed just as interested in me as I was in them. That was the equaliser, you know, where, it’s like you say, sometimes people go on out with an assumption that they know better. Because why wouldn’t they? They live in a society that confirms them, that validates them all the time. Every form of culture available is from their perspective, so they would find it hard to imagine or relate to what it’s like when you don’t have that validation, when you’re really unsure of yourself. Your brain has formed in such a way, because of the chronic stress of poverty, that the external world is not information; it’s just noise and stress. It’s hard to perceive how someone else might be interpreting life in such a stressful way, so all you’re picking up is an attitude: ‘I’m just trying to help them why are they being so fucking angry, you know. Calm down.’ It’s really difficult.

But, like I say, the social media aspect actually gives a platform to these different forms of expression, and over time we will hopefully develop a new approach and a new language for explaining these instances in which we lose each other in translation, speaking across the gulf of inequality.

GUTTER: You write mostly your articles in a more Standard English than you speak, whereas your lyrics are more close to your speech. What’s that divide about to you?

DM: It’s actually that I love standard English as a form of rhetoric. Do you know what I mean by that? The written word in that form because it gives me a chance to show an aspect of myself that people might assume does not exist. So it’s a way for me to say ‘here, I can talk like you.’ I can talk as well or better than you, with these tools, and I can rhyme in this language here, my native tongue, my colloquial expression, whatever you want to call it. I quite like it, and also I’m quite inspired by orators, who I don’t always necessarily agree with, but I find them interesting because I see them going against things that no one else has went against, and I want to know how do they emotionally cope when everyone around them is saying, like they said to Christopher Hitchens, ‘you can’t go after Mother Theresa, what the fuck is wrong with you?’

I realise a lot of this game in public life is about sounding smart, it’s not about being smart. Certainly, it’s not about being smart. You know yourself, some of the muppets that are walking around out there, who sound clever. Oratory in this world is real power. It’s real power, to affect emotionally, because nobody’s interested in the data. Nobody wants to hear the facts. People are moved by emotional appeals to their sensibilities, to their identities. That’s just a sad fact. So if that’s the world we’re living in, then I’m honing my skills for that environment.

This sort of difference between writing Standard English for journalism is simply that I have two different audiences. Increasingly, I can bring them together in conversation. My Twitter is mainly followed by other culture whores like me, who are selling a point of view, right? On Facebook it’s totally different. So on Facebook, I share video content because video content insists on itself less, so someone can have it on in the background, on the train, on the bus. On Twitter I publish short-form articles, opinion pieces, long-form articles. I mean, there’s no structure to some of this stuff that I write, and actually people seem to go for that, because they’re so use to reading standardised, structured journalism, and they find that my stuff has a different rhythm to it, it’s more lyrical, and it’s refreshing.

GUTTER: Do you see a big divide between your private persona and your public persona? Do you think that to some extent you’re putting on a character?

DM: I have no control. I’m only now starting to get a sense of what people may think. I remember a time when I could publish an article and track its progress on all the platforms it was published on and engage in all the conversations that were going on about it. I don’t do that now. I don’t even know what’s going on, so there’s an element of resenting the fact you can’t control what people think. But obviously consciously I do enjoy the fact that people will make assumptions about why I do certain things, because I enjoy seeing how wrong they are. For a lot of what I write, people say I’m some kind of Rise lackey. They think I’m part of a conspiracy to propagate Rise politics and fight the SNP. When I’m not. I’m sharing Rise articles, and I’m thinking, maybe someday soon I’ll trust this movement the way I trusted the movement that came before. Maybe soon I’ll be ready to trust it. For many people, the whole experience of socialism in Scotland in the last ten years was a complete fucking let down. To the point where we all turned to the SNP, but without really looking, closely, at what they really were.

I annoy the Nationalists or Tories or Socialists or whoever might sit and go ‘ach, that’s just Loki, being Loki, writing this because such and such,’ and they don’t really know my motives. There’s a performance aspect to a lot of this stuff that I write that they don’t assume because they’ve only interfaced or seen me in a certain capacity. So they don’t know that Andy Kauffman is a big influence for me, and his whole thing was about creating discord to see how people would react, throwing the cat among the pigeons. Poke the hornet’s nest with a stick, for sport, you know? There is an aspect that I do enjoy about that, especially in such an uncertain time. It means that I can be unsure but still active because I go at each thing dead conscious about what I’m trying to achieve with it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be part of a big consistent belief system. The referendum completely fractured me in terms of what I believe and what I want.

Read the full interview in Gutter 14, available to purchase online and in all good bookshops.