FEATURE: Ma Nishtana: Why This Year Is Balancing Progression and Change with Tragedy



Ma Nishtana


IN THIS PHOTO: Kendrick Lamar/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Why This Year Is Balancing Progression and Change with Tragedy


EVERY year in music…



we witness heartache and unexpected loss. A few days ago, the super-producer Avicii lost his life and sent shockwaves through music. People from all corners of music and social media have come together to pay their respects to a wonderful and unique talent who had the potential to truly add his stamp to music. It is no secret that Avicii shunned some of the limelight and did not feel comfortable with the glare on his face. There were reports of depression and anxiety; he died in Muscat (Oman) with police reporting no foul play or suspicions. Back in 2016; Avicii was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis due to excessive alcohol use. Although one cannot draw a line between that diagnosis and his untimely death; the fact the Swedish producer is no longer with us has shocked many. Someone so young (twenty-eight) has left us and some wondering if more could have been done – if he should have gone into rehab or medical intervention could have prevented such a tragic loss. It is difficult to avoid every decline in health and sad loss – we have to go through this, unfortunately. Some of the best musicians and talents from the industry have died at a young age. The infamous 27 Club is the collective group of musicians who died aged twenty-seven – including Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse.


IN THIS PHOTO: Amy Winehouse/PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Bergen/Redferns

There is no scientific or correlated reason why that age has become so synonymous with high-profile deaths. Maybe excess and certain pressures arrive at that age; when an artist reaches a sense of maturity and the critical acclaim gets too hot – the need to escape or find solace and comfort in drugs and alcohol. That is all speculation and lazy science. Of course; there are reasons why some of our finest musicians died at twenty-seven. Avicii’s fame and sudden prominence meant, of course, he was expected to be a certain way and in demand. His drinking issue might have had personal reasons and other contributory factors – perhaps his celebrity was not wholly culpable. It seems, though, we have an artist who suffered immense pressure and struggled to deal with all the trappings and roles of fame. He wanted to influence people – and left a great body of work – but was not completely happy having his every moment and movement planned. Again; there is no blame on anyone or the music industry as a whole. I am sad someone so young has died and warning signs were there. Should we expect this kind of thing to happen now and then?! I think it is a tragedy any artist, who is clearly over-indulging or struggling, should struggle so much. It seems, heartbreakingly, we cannot escape tragedies in the industry. My hope is Avicii’s sad and shocking death should open conversations and query whether we need to do more and raise awareness when it comes to young artists and excess.

Peter Yang for Variety.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Peter Yang for Variety

One of the positive things that have come out of music this year is acknowledgement of black music and a greater focus on artists of colour. Kendrick Lamar, rather wonderfully, was the first black musician to win the Pulitzer Prize. The award usually goes to Jazz or Classic artists – the fact they awarded Lamar’s superb album, DAMN., is a big shift and seismic evolution. The ceremony has been accused of being stuffy and ludicrously narrow-minded. The rigidity and one-dimensional nature of his past winners mean nobody was expecting such a radical about-face. Lamar’s win follows on from Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win for Literature last year. Few expected a popular and decades-enduring musician to get the honour. Kendrick Lamar’s victory is not really needed from his perspective. He has accrued awards and huge fan numbers; the man has won critical affection and is one of the most popular and successful artists in the world. Those who criticise Hip-Hop – some bigoted commentators feel it has done more to damage black American youth than guns or drugs – need to look at the changes being felt and how the likes of Kendrick Lamar are coming to the forefront. Black music has suffered a turbulent and hard past. From Jazz innovators and Soul kings; the new wave of Hip-Hop and Pop artists – one can argue there has been racism and ignorance for many decades in music.


PHOTO CREDIT: Peter Yang for Variety

A piece in The Guardian argued why DAMN. warranted that elusive award:

But even if it weren’t a cultural phenomenon, Damn would be deserving on a compositional level. While there will always be those who flatly refuse to accept hip-hop as a valid artform, for everyone else Lamar represents the pinnacle of the form. His combination of technical virtuosity, moral complexity, political acuity, wit, empathy and musical depth and breadth makes him the only MC (sorry Kanye) who can unite teenage hip-hop fans, Golden Age aficionados and people who barely follow the genre.

Raised in Compton, Los Angeles, Lamar, like many rappers, grew up amid poverty and gang violence. He continues to wrestle with survivor’s guilt and the moral responsibility that comes with success, constantly interrogating his own weaknesses and hypocrisies. When I interviewed him in 2015, he was hugely impressive in a low-key way: calm, reflective, deeply religious and wise beyond his years”.

I am not suggesting Kendrick Lamar’s achievement will reverse the trend we have always seen – where black artists do not get their due and are neglected when it comes to awards and festival slots. As recently as a year ago; we were wondering whether racism and the lack of attention paid to black artists would subside and redress. There seems to be more of a balance than there was back in 2017!

The most recent Grammy ceremony featured a lot of fantastic black artists and its major categories were supple with fantastic black artists. Although it did not go far enough – there was still imbalance and Bruno Mars, a Pop artist who produces music, not all critics love, won most of the awards – it was a great improvement and signs things were starting to change. The fact a black Hip-Hop artist won an award usually reserved to white artists of a certain genre…that sends a message that we cannot keep going on with ignorant practices. Another event I wanted to allude to was Beyoncé’s much-lauded and fantastic set at Coachella. The iconic singer-songwriter put in a career-spanning, life-affirming set that saw a reunification of Destiny’s Child and some of the best theatrics and dance displays seen at any gig. The artist has been out of the public eye since she gave birth to her twins last year. She is embarking on a co-headline tour with her husband, Jay-Z, and many wonder whether she will follow up 2016’s Lemonade with a new album. The confident and emphatic set she turned in at Coachella has put black music to the forefront again and showed our strongest and most impressive solo artist is black. You can argue there are better white artists who are more iconic and popular playing right now.



I would argue against that and state nobody has the same power, pull and panache as Beyoncé. We need her in music right now and that singular, divining voice can do so much to a divided world. All of these events and changes might sound like a small step and minor occurrence. If we look back a few years and see how far we have come right now – I feel 2018’s big steps and breakthroughs will continue for the next few years. I cannot argue we will see a complete reversal and there will be true equality in our lifetimes. I am positive genuine evolution can happy so we do not see black artists confined to the shadows and seen as inferior to their white peers. I realise commercial artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé have been performing for years – there are many more in the underground who have not received the acclaim they deserve. With the likes of Cardi B and Leon Bridges, between them, delivering some of the most affecting and stunning music at the moment; I wonder whether the recent acclaim of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar needs to be highlighted and used as a guide. There are still steps to be taken and more we can all do. I am pleased a body like the Pulitzer Prize decided to give an award for music to Kendrick Lamar. Nobody saw it coming and, whether compelled by pressure or recognition of genuine talent; walls are coming down and the always-stuffy are starting to relax their stringent and homogenised ideals. This year has seen some tragedy and great loss: alongside it has been some big steps forward and signs parity will come about. Many might say 2018 is no different to any other year. I feel very different, indeed. So far, over the past few months; there are signals that suggest this year will be…

VERY different to every other one.