“The ethos is love and resistance, pro-love and anti-hate” – Steve ‘Papa’ Edwards on blaxploitation and the Sheffield music scene
You’ve got a distinct voice and stand out by creating thought-provoking, action-inspiring soul-music; it brings to mind Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Sly & the Family Stone. Do you think this is missing in today’s music?
SE: Totally. In soul music, yes. I’m careful when I think about how we’re described. I put psychedelic soul because on record we’ve got some weird trippy sounds but there’s also an existential, soulful tip that’s always questioning and live we’ve got Hip-Hop, Funk and Blaxploitation; I want to make sure that’s there so people are under no illusion, we are definitely coming from a certain point of view as a band and pushing that envelope.
Tell me more about blaxploitation and what it means to you?
SE: Growing up in the 70s, the first things I saw on TV with black actors were blaxploitation movies like Cleopatra Jones, Shaft & SuperFly. Yeah, fair enough, they were parodies of pimps and the like, but they were actually heroes of those pieces and the music was to die for. As a kid, I looked at that and thought it was empowering: the black actor is the star. The reason I’m happy to use that term is because of the whole idea of black culture taking it back, taking some power back, and being able to curate something that was from a black perspective, for every kind of people.
Does the Sheffield scene favour indie bands over artists inspired by black music culture?
SE: Yes. That’s simple, it just does. It’s not even a criticism; it just is and if it walks like a duck, it’s a duck.
Being someone who’s reached incredible heights that transcend genres, have you ever been labelled ‘urban’ and if so, does that term come with limitations?
SE: The success I’ve had has been in house and dance music, which is a spin-off, if you like, from a branch of urban music. I started in house during the early 90s, going out to clubs, and early Chicago house was black music – so if urban equals black then, yeah.
I feel that rock bands get to be more understood within a genre-specific context. You’ve got psych rock, prog rock, punk rock, indie rock, classic rock, but often black artists get bunched all together under one term: ‘urban’. Childish Gambino said “White kids get to wear whatever hat they want, but when it comes to black kids, one size fits all.”
SE: You know my alter-ego, my moniker, if you like, is ‘Northern Black’. It started as a song because I was writing about my upbringing and parents who came from Jamaica in the 50s as part of the Windrush Generation. My dad was miner and my mum was a nurse. I’m not from south London, I’m from Yorkshire and I thought ‘Northern Black’ was a strong term. So, writing that song with the lyrics “My daddy came ashore about 58, tried knocking on doors he couldn’t get a break” – that was the truth. It’s about being proud of my roots and culture; I’m a black man who’s proud of it and I’m singing and writing about it. I put my money where my mouth is, I’m not hiding from anyone.
I’ve kind of been a black artist that’s done something quite colloquial, so for some people hearing me it’s like: “What did he just say then? The black dude with the dreads. ‘Int he nice, him! He’s just like us!” Well, you know what? I am just like you because I’m a human being.
You made a conscious decision for Universal Tree to be diverse, stripping it back to this idea of humanity. I feel you’ve got a certain optimism for humanity?
SE: Absolutely, my glass is half-full … it’s still only at half, but half-full.
I recently watched a video of you playing ‘How Did We Get To This?’ with the crowd wholeheartedly participating; it felt anti-establishment and unifying.
SE: Lennon once said “You’ve got to sugar the pill” – because if you beat people over the head with a message they stop listening. Give them a sweet melody to get their heads nodding and they’ll listen to the words. Universal Tree is like a family tree, like humanity that went around the world at the beginning of time. It started with Africa, which is another unpalatable truth for people – the first man was a black man. The ethos is love and resistance, pro-love and anti-hate; of the people, for the people. If anti-establishment means keeping the status quo, then we are anti-establishment. We’re pro-love for everyone, equality, and it’s a positive message – but as artists, we feel obligated to talk about the things that are palpably wrong.