Dizraeli on Mental Health & Music
A quality interview with rapper and musician Dizraeli, about music, depression, the system that brings about mental health problems, and, well, life as we know it.
Dizraeli is a rapper, a multi-instrumentalist and a bit of a hero. Having caused considerable excitement with his unique brand of socially conscious hip-hop/folk explored in his band Dizraeli & The Small Gods, the man also known as Rowan Sawday went through some dark times with his mental health. Now he’s back, as a solo artist, re-energised, focused and with a refreshingly open attitude to talking about his depression and his route out of it. Something which we will be further exploring when he appears at our Workshop for Better Mental Health on 19th May (don’t miss it). But ahead of that, read this in-depth interview with a highly-engaged and engaging spirit whose upcoming album, ‘The Unmaster’ looks like being as inspiring as he is…
Can you tell us about the new single?
It’s called ‘Oi Oi’ and it’s basically an expression of panic and bafflement. It’s a tapestry of different stories that I’ve lived or witnessed in London. One of which was the stabbing of a shopkeeper a couple of years ago.
When I was writing it I had one of those weeks in London when there seems to be a seam of manic violence around you. It felt like there was a lot of conflict, and it was written at a time when I had a lot of conflict in my own mind as well. It’s hard to say whether it was just a perception of my mind. But it’s from an album called ‘The Unmaster’, which will becoming out this August. And ‘The Unmaster’ is a story of a collapse, both internal and external. I had a mental collapse a couple of years ago and this album is basically made of that material. Made of the matter of that meltdown.
So your mental collapse mirrored the dark times going on in the outside world?
Yeah and for me, there’s a sense of it being exactly the same thing. A sense of alienation, a sense that the rules we thought we were playing to, and aspiring to, in order to be decent humans, had changed. And also the rules we were playing to with the ecological and economic system we’re in, this idea that we can keep growing, keep expanding, keep growing economically, that everyone on the planet can live like a greedy Westerner. Those were the rules we were given at birth, that we were indoctrinated into, where the basic goal is that everyone should be to buy as you can, as many clothes and take as many planes…but now it’s now all up in the air.
I guess that’s the sense at the minute: where the fuck is the foundation that we thought we had? And it is obvious to me. All the talk about mental health at the moment; I think it’s really healthy to have these conversations about sanity and our interior worlds, particularly as men. I think it’s really great, but it seems to me that there’s something inherently missing from that conversation quite often, which is that the world we live in is very well engineered to make us mental. Unhappy and confused. And even the driving force, the engine of this whole system, in terms of the economy, is dissatisfaction. And where does that leave us mentally?
How did you begin to move through this period personally?
The last two or three years have been a hell of journey. I got into the music industry, had a measure of success, some validation and self worth based on the amount of social media hits I was getting. And then I hit a wall, in terms of overworking, and then I put a record out and it didn’t do very well, and then everything just fell apart in my head. And because everything was deconstructed I had to work out how to put it all back together again. How to piece together a perspective on the world, a way of living, which wasn’t a messy pile of rubble. It gave me an opportunity to do a lot of things. The first one, was to have a good look at myself and work out what it was that I considered important, and what I was spending most of my time driving for.
I also joined a men’s group, The Men’s Circle. I did a lot of looking after myself. Looking at the scented candles stuff, learning that I need to get up in the morning and do some exercise, and meditate. I need to make sure I have friendship and community in my life that’s not about my work and career. I did a lot of that, of making sure I had those tools sorted out. But then in the last year I realised there’s such a huge disjuncture, a lot of friction between the outside world and my soul. Which I think there fundamentally is with humans, in relation to what there is around us. I started looking at how that outside world is structured. It was really interesting and new coming to that place of questioning society from that angle of personal need. I had been profoundly unhappy and anxious and depressed. And I’m now looking for the root causes of that. Injustice. Poverty. Ecological collapse. Prejudice. All these things are swirling around us like weather systems, and inside us as well.
We tend to look to the arts in troubled times, for answers or at least reflections. Has that been the case for you?
God yeah, for me one of things I’ve been trying to do in last couple of years is to integrate my creative practice into my day to day life, in a way that’s healthy, rather than it being a pursuing of validation. Which did used to be the case: if I do this thing that I’m impressive at, people will tell me I’m worth loving. And that quickly became an underlying thing for a long time with me.
So I’ve been really discovering that I should do music and write because I love it. I do music because it helps me to understand myself and understand the world around me.
My creative practice has really become really integrated with my spiritual practice and that’s such a relief. I do music because I have to, because it makes me happy. To take it back to a systemic understanding of things: in the world of the free market everything that can be exchanged becomes a commodity. So if I have some music to offer that music becomes commodified. It becomes a source of income, and especially in a free market society where there’s no sort of support for culture or very little, it becomes a question of how many likes can your thoughts get, how many tickets will your personality sell. So I became wrapped up in that and now I am grateful to rediscover music and art are fundamental mechanism of the human condition. You can’t be a human without having art in you, and that goes for everyone. We are all producing culture all the time, insight and creation all the time. And for me it’s a really internal fundamental part of who I am.
I do workshops with a mental health facilitator and trainer in the Mankind Project. I recently did my Mankind initiation in Ireland. And it’s based on Jungian psychological theory. The idea of that is within the masculine personality there are various archetypal tendencies which you can loosely break down into Lover, Warrior, King and Magician. And they are tendencies within yourself which are to do with making connections with people or going out and doing or problem solving. And the ideal is that you become a balanced self by integrating all the different aspects of yourself. It’s basically a way of envisioning how you become a more balanced human.
Did you find it transformative?
I did. It’s nice to have some kind of positive masculine initiation which is not about mutual mockery or competition, but also does contain elements of strength and robustness and resilience. Endurance.
I think I always had a complicated relationship with my masculinity because the model of the guys around me made me think being a bloke meant being cruel and strong and isolated. So I had to do a lot of pretending I was those things but in reality I’m a bit of a sensitive flower. So I felt that the part of me that were sensitive weren’t masculine. There was something unmanly about parts of myself.
It’s nice to think about those parts of my life that are about being a man, but that being a man can be something you’re not ashamed of and can be more loving.
Did you find different role models in music?
Yeah for sure. One of things I found attractive about hip hop, as someone who was a bit poetic and sensitive and also bisexual – which was fucking problematic in terms of thinking about myself as a man – but one of the things I found attractive was that it was one thing I could do that was liked by the kind of people who bullied me at school. And secondly it gave me a model of masculinity which I could cling to, which made me feel safe. I could wear the baggy jeans and wear the trainers and walk in the right kind of way, and it would be a bit of a suit of armour for me.
I feel like I’m only just about feeling I can be myself in the world, and be ok.
The music industry is supposed to be a creative and free place but often it can apply certain pressures on artists to conform. Did you find that?
I’m a bit of an anomaly, but I haven’t been in the big money bit, I’ve carved my own path really, so I definitely haven’t been in a situation with a manager saying you should look more like this, or a label telling me to get my hair cut in a particular way. But it’s interesting that even though I haven’t been in the corporate machine I’ve still managed to impose a lot of these ideas on myself. Amazing how many policemen of our life are inventions of our own brains.
Are things become freer and easier in society in terms of gender and sexuality?
Yeah for sure. Growing up in the west country in the 80s and 90s as a bisexual boy, I was just drowning in homophobia all the time. It was everywhere, including on the front pages of the newspapers; with the AIDS epidemic all the talk was homophobic, all the terms being bandied around all the time. The major insult at school was that you were gay. There was one kid in my school, a comp of 1500 people, who came out as gay and he was torn to pieces. Whereas when I go and do talks in secondary schools now there’s always a couple of openly gay kids in a class or trans kids who seem to be accepted, looking from the outside at least.
Mad changes, man. And that’s really exciting. But also if you do a bit of ear wagging outside a pub on a Friday night you’ll still hear an awful lot of homophobia. It’s very much there below the surface of a mainstream of wider acceptance. And with people like Bolsonaro being elected in Braziil,who’s openly expressed homicidal feelings towards gay people, and trans people, it shows there’s huge numbers of people in the world who are still interested in what people do with their penises. And feel really personally slighted by someone wanting to hold hands with another man.
There’s a lot of work to do and long way to go. There’s this idea that history will move towards greater justice and enlightenment, I think Heidegger said that, but I don’t agree with it. We have a lot of fascists and bigotry and small mindedness bubbling up through us all the time and it’s an internal and external work to keep ourselves loving and tolerant and understanding. We have to study. We have to be students of the world around us. Seek to find ourselves in other people and other people in ourselves.
The puritanical tone on social media, the idea of perfection, morally or physically, feels like a disturbing trend…
There’s a slight tendency to not just being a perfect Instagram human but also a perfect version of what you’ve staked a claim to. The perfect trans person or the perfect rapper or the perfect woke intellectual. Actually we’re all a big tangle of idiocies and wisdoms, all the time. I’m definitely homophobic, I know that because I fucking hate myself sometimes for being gay. I carry around a lot of prejudice. It’s been a great teacher to me to be queer myself because it means I know what the effect of prejudice are on the person to whom its directed. And it’s pure fucking poison.
I try not to claim moral high ground these days. That’s the idea of the title behind the album, The Unmaster – it’s the idea of the beginner’s mind, being always in a place of learning, and not choosing to be the master, the king, the conquerer. Just thinking, ok, what haven’t I noticed yet?
Musically what can we expect from the new album, what new challenges wanted to throw at yourself?
Oh there’s so much that’s new about this, it’s not like anything I’ve done before. It’s the first record I’ve ever produced the whole of myself, I played all the instruments on it, so it really feels like my flesh and bones.
In terms of the sound of it, I’ve been listening to a lot of grime and garage. I grew up in Bristol and it was all about jungle. You can definitely hear elements of that. I started out as a drummer before I was a rapper so I really went to town on the percussion part. I went to West Africa, Senegal, to study the balafon, which is a hardwood marimba-style instrument. Not just that instrument but West African instruments and rhythms have been a really big feature and inspiration in the background of this album.
The song ‘Madness’ feels very raw and direct but also hard to categorise…
I take that as huge compliment. I was going for something not too premeditated. Just throw in a lot of passion and impulse and ideas in the pot. Madness is a good example of that. When I was writing the lyrics it was one of those mornings where everything felt very intense. The world around me was going bonkers and everything was moving too fast. It was too hot, too much traffic too many people, and those lyrics properly just fell out in a way that isn’t always the case.
And then I went how to the studio and wrote the beat and the bassline that same morning, so that was one where it came together really fast. And that’s the result of making a fuck of a lot of tracks before that that didn’t come together fast, or at all.
It’s quite fierce and quite sparse this album.
What were you reading at the time of writing?
I read a lot all the time. Henry Miller popped in my head. ‘Black Spring’ by Henry Miller. One of the reasons I loved Henry Miller is he was a constant scribbler, he wrote indiscriminately all the time, and then would bend what he had written into the final thing we read. It reads like a stream of consciousness but I’ve always thought that’s a misleading term for literature because its always mediated by your mind and your hand and how fast you can scribble. But that is very much the style I write with. I write every morning, pages and pages often a verse before breakfast and that’s not to sound impressive because a lot of what I write before breakfast is absolute gash. But I have a policy to keep the tap running. If you get out of the way, you’re capable of greater things. When I get out of the way I’m a much more interesting writer, when I stop fussing and judging. I really think that when we judge, we shrink. And I think that’s the same in everyday life and in art.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Firstly, I wanted to be an inventor, but I kept inventing shit that already existed. Like a plane. Then I wanted to be a journalist then I wanted to be an actor then I wanted to be a rapper. I guess being an inventor and an actor fits into being a rapper and a musician.
I wanted to be Jim Morrison. When I wast about 15 I watched The Doors, the Oliver Stone film, and I was like I want to be Val Kilmer and Jim Morrison.
Jim Morrison wasn’t a particularly good hero he was a bit of a fucker really. Quite misogynistic, but he was also very poetic and he was wild. I wanted to be wild. I wanted to be this elemental force on stage. Just whirling around like a wild man. I wanted other people to feel like they could be the same.
When you were going through your most difficult times, how did you recognise something was wrong? And how important was music to you in your darkest times?
One of the things that made me realise I was not well was my relationship with music actually. I couldn’t listen to music. I couldn’t bear music. All it was to me was punishment. An exercise in negative comparison and self detriment and self loathing. My own music was even worse because it was evidence of how much a piece of shit I was.
Another thing was I was having a bad time in a relationship and definitely a lot of that affected my state of mind. I was a big weight on my partner, I was very needy, very erratic. I guess there were a lot of moments when I realised there was definitely something wrong with me, this was definitely not how I am in the world. A sense of not being able to trust your mind, you know? Not knowing what’s going to pop out of it next. There were four different house parties going on in my head at all times. And I had a lot of violent imaginings, constantly imagining horrific shit happening to me. There was this whole period where every time I closed my eyes I’d imagine two guys rushing towards me with metal bars and caving my skull in. Really persistently. Who were these two dudes? I guess they were an embodiment of my self hatred at that time, because I really didn’t like myself at all. But interesting that they were men and interesting that it was expressed with an act of physical violence.
Did any particular music during that period finally get through to you?
I’m thinking of this whole string of bands that I went to see who I just fucking hated. I went to see such good music at the time, but just had such a miserable time at all of them.
I remember having a really beautiful moment with Mumdance, the electronica producer. It was sunset and I was walking up to Ally Pally, and I had on Mumdance and this really mad experimental beat-less track came on and I remember having a beautiful moment with that. I listened to a lot of electronica music at that time actually. Andy Stott. There’s a lot of that influence in that album for sure, and that’s quite new for me.
What makes you cry?
A lot of things. I have rediscovered my ability to cry.
People being loving to each other. People telling me they accept me for who I am. My partner Nina who’s a gift from above, I cry in her company quite a bit, she’s fine with it. Poetry makes me cry. Hip hop lyrics. They are still the absolute thing that I want to do and understand.
There’s this idea of you get or don’t get a certain genre. I think it’s more that the music gets you. Spending time in the company of someone that really gets you: that’s what its like for me with certain artists or certain poetry. It’s feeling understood. Isn’t getting back to that thing of feeling understood, of belonging, of being in love, what we want?
Dizraeli is playing on 17th May at Redon in Bethnal Green. Buy tickets here.
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