anohni

Protest music won’t change the world but it can play a significant role in highlighting issues, starting conversations and – potentially – influencing perspectives. In order to impact positive change, however, these messages need to disseminate far beyond music circles and loyal fan bases, and permeate the mainstream’s collective consciousness. Crucially, for that to happen the artist needs to be afforded a platform.

When Anohni received an Oscar nomination for ‘Manta Ray’ – the theme to climate change documentary Racing Extinction – it seemed like she might be granted the most prestigious stage possible. Sadly, her invitation to perform at the Academy Awards was mysteriously lost in the post. The root of the snub is still unclear. Could it have been a) the prospect of broadcasting hard truths about the environment, b) Anohni’s lack of notoriety in comparison to her fellow nominees, or c) transphobic discrimination? Perhaps it was a combination of all three. But Anohni will not be silenced and, what’s more, with the arrestingly-direct social commentary on ‘Hopelessness’ she eliminates any possibility of obfuscation.

It’s impossible to engage with the album on even the most casual level and not come away with a firm grasp of Anohni’s agenda. There’s a broad range of concerns too, extending from ecocide (‘Four Degrees’; ‘Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth’) to US defence policy (‘Execution’) and surveillance culture (‘Watch Me’), and she’s unafraid to point fingers.

‘Obama’ contrasts the optimism surrounding the president’s initial appointment (“We thought we had empowered a truth-telling envoy”) with feelings of utter disillusionment during his final term (“Now the news is you’re spying, executing without trial, betraying values.”). What makes the song so powerful, however, is Anohni’s vocal delivery. Abandoning the tremulous soprano of her work in Antony and the Johnsons to lurk in the lower registers, her menacing, almost guttural melisma encircles dive-bombing sub-bass, distorted hip-hop beats, droning electronics and oppressive waves of static.

All arrangements are overseen by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, and it proves an inspired alliance. ‘Drone Bomb Me’, in particular, is astoundingly good; a searing indictment of capitalism you can dance to. Set in Afghanistan, and sung from the perspective of a young girl entreating death after being orphaned by US drone strikes, its desperate narrative is leant an eerie beauty by sparse production, elastic beats and almost-euphoric synth fanfares. ‘Crisis’ plays a similar trick, pairing celestial keyboard arpeggios with lyrics referencing Guantanamo Bay, decapitation and mass graves. Aside from some staggeringly strong songwriting, the genius of the collaboration is the juxtaposition between these synthetic textures and the soulful, innately-empathetic timbre of Anohni’s voice.

While there can be no easy solutions to the issues raised, ‘Hopelessness’ isn’t as bleak as its title implies. Quite the contrary: Anohni’s passion proves as infectious as her melodies. So while it remains to be seen whether these missives will make it beyond the confines of the music community, it’s a collection that demands and deserves to be heard.

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