Features I by I 31.07.13

“Labour has become a bland, spineless party”: Optimo’s JD Twitch talks radical politics and his Autonomous Africa project

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"Labour has become a bland, spineless party": Optimo's JD Twitch talks African aid and radical politics

Although he rarely speaks about it in interviews, radical politics is one of a clutch of thematic strands running through Keith McIvor’s work.

He has been known to close Optimo sets with an anthem of the Spanish International Brigades. He is “vehemently anti-nationalist”. In 2008, he produced 10 Inches Of Fear, a collection of edits of tracks drawn from Crass Records’ anarcho-punk catalogue.

In the last two years, though, JD Twitch has made the most overtly political gestures of his career. Autonomous Africa is a 12” series with an unequivocal mission. It is intended to further the cause of an independent Africa, governed in the interests of its people and without interference from abroad. It calls for African land to be put into the service of Africans, and not sold on to foreign countries eager to exploit the continent’s resources. Today, as Africa suffers ever more violently at the hands of the market, these are radical demands.

The first EP set the tone for the project, featuring Twitch’s Sofrito edit and a track from his excellent Cumbia set, alongside an Auntie Flo rework of Atakora Manu. This week sees the release of the series’ second instalment, and perhaps its best. The EP opens with Midland’s ‘Checkbob’, a stygian workout reminiscent of an amped-up revisiting of Honest Jon’s excellent Mukunguni compilation. On Auntie Flo’s ‘Water Of Life’, splashing hats effervesce over a peppy bassline that contains as much threat as it does joy. Twitch’s own tracks, meanwhile, are perhaps more celebratory, in particular ‘Olaiyo’, which reconfigures Afro-funk to disorienting effect.

The first Autonomous Africa raised funds for Médecins Sans Frontières, and this instalment aims to provide cash for the Mtandika Mission, providing practical education to girls in a large village 400km to the west of Tanzania’s largest city. The Mission teaches its students to be self-sufficient, while offering accommodation to those who do not live locally.

Benefit releases tend to be characterised by an intolerable paternalism, of which Live Aid is of course the ultimate instantiation, and of which McIvor seems acutely aware. How wholly repulsive to imagine that what Africa needs is privileged white men. Autonomous Africa, then, seems to hold a contradictory position: it’s a charity release that calls for independence on the part of its beneficiary; a Western intervention that calls for an end to Western interventions. That contradiction is reconciled by the project’s explicit anti-capitalism. “Many of the problems Africa faces are a result of outside interference,” the press release insists. “As the 21st Century progresses we will see the continued pillage of African resources to feed the global capitalist machine on an unprecedented scale.” The beauty of Autonomous Africa is in Twitch’s recognition that the problems faced by the poor, in Africa and across the world, are structural. He is not labouring under the pretence that any amount of fundraising will ‘fix’ Africa. The Mtandika Mission is undoubtedly a worthy cause, but Autonomous Africa is as much about pressing for a truly progressive agenda as it is about fundraising. Twitch understands that the solution to Africa’s exploitation must be applied at the level of capitalism itself: it must attack the cause of the disease, while also providing a salve to the symptoms.


“Labour has become a bland, spineless, focus group-led, ineffectual party that completely fails to serve the people of this country that it was meant to help.”


What is the motivation behind Autonomous Africa?

A very old friend of mine has lived in Africa for the past twenty years. He came back for a visit a couple of years ago, we met up, and he told me about the work he had been doing with Médecins Sans Frontières getting supplies into Darfur. He has experienced and seen things no human being should ever have to endure, and told me stories that haunted me for a long time. He was the inspiration behind this project.

The motivation was simply to do something, because I am in the privileged position of being able to do that, and putting a record together and getting it out there isn’t a very hard thing to do. Raising money is the most important motivation but I felt it was a good opportunity to perhaps make people aware of and think about things that are happening in Africa.

How did you go about selecting artists for this instalment?

The first record featured myself and Auntie Flo. I asked Auntie Flo if he’d contribute because I knew he had a deep love of African music, I knew him personally, and he thought it was a positive thing to do. He was happy to contribute to the second one too. I played a gig with Midland last year and we stayed in touch and through conversing with each other he said he’d like to contribute to a future volume. It was his enthusiasm that got the ball rolling on the new EP. He told me he grew up in Tanzania and that his parents ran a charity there helping the Mtandika Mission, comprising primary and trade schools, a hospital, a clinic, and an orphanage. It seemed a perfect fit to have the record raise funds for that, and made the project a little more personal. Anyone else who appears on the records doesn’t necessarily have to share my views in any way whatsoever.

The press materials highlight the connection between global capitalism and African poverty. Could you expand on your views about this?

First of all, one must remember that Africa is a diverse continent, not just one homogenous landmass, and some countries there are doing well. They don’t all face the same problems. But, as the global population expands, we are going to see more and more countries “buy” arable land across Africa to grow crops to feed their people. In Ethiopia, tens of thousands of people have been driven off land that has belonged to them for generations so the government can lease or sell the land for commercial agriculture. Much of this land has been sold or leased to China, India, and several Gulf countries. To quote a Human Rights Watch report: “These land grabs have been widely criticised as a new form of neo-colonialism that leaves large parts of Africa in the hands of foreign states and investors while displaced local populations are left to suffer and go hungry.”

This scramble is now intensifying, with investment banks, hedge funds, commodity traders, sovereign wealth funds, corporations, and business tycoons out to grab some of the world’s cheapest land, for profit. At some point this will inevitably lead to conflict and it is the people in those countries who will inevitably suffer the most. Simultaneously, immense reserves of natural resources across Africa are being sold off with little benefit accruing to the people. China is desperate for resources and has become the leading player in appropriating African resources. They take Africa’s primary goods and sell African manufactured ones, which is the essence of colonialism. This is something European countries have been doing for centuries, but China is doing it on a far grander scale than we have ever seen before.

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What concrete steps would you like to see on the road to African autonomy?

Well, it seems a bit of a pipe dream, doesn’t it? But I’d like to see all African countries’ debts wiped clean, and for the IMF and World Bank to leave well alone and end their draconian economic policies that they insist are implemented in exchange for loans that a huge amount of many countries’ GDP is devoted to just paying the interest of. Those two organisations’ policies are responsible for much of the poverty in Africa. They loan money to African countries in return for the structural adjustment of their economies. This means that the economic direction of each country is planned, monitored, and controlled in Washington, often to the detriment of the people living in these countries. The IMF and the World Bank preach that globalisation is the best way forward for the planet, but their policies put many countries on a completely uneven playing field that makes it impossible for them to compete. It should be that African countries are given very low interest loans so they can invest in the infrastructure required to keep control of their resources themselves, rather than having to accept a low royalty rate from outside multinationals with most of the money then flowing out of the country rather than benefitting the people that live there.

Many of the regimes in Africa that are the most corrupt are put in place or supported by Western governments so that they are open to doing business that would be beneficial to the companies from these Western countries. Ultimately there should be an end to all interference in this respect, although of course this isn’t going to happen any time soon and corrupt people will always end up in positions of power. The West preaches the globalisation doctrine but this is a fallacy as all sorts of tariffs are in place that make it very hard for African farmers to export their produce. The European Common Agricultural Policy makes life particularly hard for African farmers, as on the one hand they can’t export their products as they are unable to compete with subsidised European produce, and on the other hand European countries dump thousands of tons of subsidised exports in Africa every year so that local producers cannot even compete on a level playing field in their own land. I’d like to see a reappraisal of the Common Agricultural Policy.

What would you like to see Westerners do, if anything, to help this process?

It’s very easy to think we are powerless to do anything but collectively people are powerful, and our decisions with regard to how we spend our money en masse can have huge repercussions. Paying attention to what one buys: for example, trying wherever possible to buy fair trade produce, and generally trying to always buy ethical products can make a big difference, or if you are investing then check up on the practices of that company before investing. Get educated as a consumer and use this great power wisely, encouraging other people you know to follow suit.

On another practical level, making even a small donation to a microfinance nonprofit organisation such as Kiva can radically change and empower lives. In my opinion this is perhaps a better thing and more effective than aid. Respect for a people’s dignity and right to self-determination needs to be at the forefront of any talk of aid, and the aid issue is very complex and controversial. Really, we’d need a whole other article to discuss the pros and cons of it.

One other thing we as a nation can do is get over our obsession with immigration and all the negative connotations we are force fed on a daily basis by fear mongering newspapers and a government that kowtows to these hate rags. Money sent back home by immigrants far outweighs aid both in volume and in terms of reaching the intended beneficiaries. This is never going to happen in the current climate, but opening our borders to more people from Africa who want to come and work here could have a massively positive impact for their dependents. With regard to the European Common Agricultural Policy, hardly anyone votes in EU elections. I’d suggest people look into the position on such issues that their MEP holds, and vote for ones with a progressive African stance in future Euro elections and likewise in UK elections. That is if candidates with a progressive stance even exist at all!

The first Autonomous Africa release featured an anarchist ‘A’ on the label. Do you consider yourself to be an anarchist? If so, to what degree has this informed the project?

I don’t consider myself to be anything. I think if one completely aligns themselves with a philosophy it’s very easy to get trapped in the dogma of that belief system, and I suppose I hope to be a bit more flexible and pragmatic than that. Anarchy has become a much abused term which for many instantly conjures images of people smashing things up, which of course isn’t what it is about at all, and isn’t very helpful. I was a long time Labour supporter who became sickened by what the Blairs and Milibands did to the Labour movement. Labour has become a bland, spineless, focus group-led, ineffectual party that completely fails to serve the people of this country that it was meant to help. A lot of people on the Left were cast out in the cold with no party they wanted to vote for, and that is probably the main thing that led to me becoming interested in different ways of looking at things.

I am definitely drawn to a lot of Libertarian Socialist thinking, and truly believe that at some point, perhaps not in my lifetime, the population of this planet will have to find an alternative to the capitalist system. We are consuming such enormous quantities of the planet’s natural resources with little regard for the legacy we are bequeathing to future generations. Capitalism only operates on a short term view, looking for maximum profits and maintaining share prices at the highest possible level. As with governments who are only interested in being re-elected there is no imperative to think about the longer term. Africa is seen as a cheap and easy, endless supply of the resources needed to feed the machine. A hundred years from now our descendants will probably look back at this time and think what an incredibly selfish, thoughtless, myopic people we were. It’s easy to imagine that technology and science will overcome all our problems in some hazy, mythical future but if we’ve used up all the resources and permanently messed up the environment, it is not going to be an easy ride. Meanwhile we bury our heads in the sand and overindulge ourselves to an extent that would have made the Romans blush.

The anarchist symbol on the first release was meant to be provocative rather than being a statement of intent. I’m under no illusions that a 12″ single can do very much to change anything, but if it makes even a handful of people think about things in a different way, and one of those people is inspired to do something, then that is a success in my mind. The fact that FACT wanted to run this piece means the project has been successful. I don’t want to preach to anyone or tell anyone how they should live their lives, but releasing these Autonomous Africa records was a way for me to vent my frustration and feel I was doing something positive, no matter how insignificant that might be.

Would you like to see more explicit politics in dance music? Can you identify any other artists who are explicitly political in a way you appreciate?

Dance music is an incredibly broad church, and for a lot of people going out and dancing is about escaping from reality – which is perfectly fine, and something I like to do too. At the same time, I don’t see why it isn’t possible to feel very strongly about issues without coming across as if one is evangelising. I rarely talk about this stuff in interviews, so I thought it fair enough to have one dedicated project where I could bore for Scotland on something that is very important to me. I know a lot of other people in dance music have strong political opinions (I’d rather not name them as it’s not really my place to do that), and I’m very glad that that is the case. Hopefully there will be future volumes in the series, and I am open to approaches from anyone who would like to contribute.


Optimo will be playing FACT’s stage at this year’s Dekmantel Festival, with Levon Vincent, Ron Trent, Morphosis, Vakula, Midland and many more. For more on Dekmantel, head here

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