Loyle Carner On His Trip To Georgetown, Guyana
Growing up in Croydon, Loyle Carner had a fractured relationship with his Guyanese roots. Raised by his mother and stepdad, he had minimal contact with his estranged father who was of Guyanese descent.
When Carner came across the works of Afro-Guyanese poet John Agard a year ago, he found solace in the poem Half-Caste – a piece that inspired him to dive deep into his own identity, leading him to create his forthcoming third album Hugo. The LP's second single Georgetown was produced by hip-hop legend Madlib. In the intimate video, directed by Machine Operated, landscapes are paired with the track’s themes of isolation, generational hope and resistance.
We sit down with Carner to talk about his journey to Georgetown, its link to his identity and working with John Agard.
Guyana has a difficult history with Britain. Growing up in Croydon, did you feel a strong connection to your Guyanese roots? How would you describe your connection to Guyana?
My connection to Guyana was non-existent until I was about 16, 17. My dad, who’s from Guyana, speaks really fast like me and he used to say Guyana like Ghana, so I thought I was African for ages. We never really spoke and when I did that’s what I got from him. So I guess my relationship with Guyana now is that it’s a place where I can finally be myself, and begin to understand and fall into the culture like I’m a part of something.
What was your experience like with the culture and local community there?
It was cool. In some ways it annoyingly reminded me that I am British as well. I thought when I was first there I’d be able to just slip in and no one would notice, but there were a lot of times that people called me out for not being from there. I thought that was cool in a way because it is so weird you can go to a place hoping to be completely attached there. There were some comforts from home, and it was nice to be reminded that I have two homes. I did everything out there. I played football barefoot, surrounded by a swamp and everytime the ball ended up in there someone would have to swim in there to get it. The food was so simple, the same as the stuff I make at home but just something different. I can’t explain it. Everything seemed a little bit more stripped back. There was nothing tense with anything and that allows you to enjoy things for what they are.
Are there any people you met within the local community who stood out to you?
Last time I went, I met a guitarist called Herbie. He’d been inspired by Jimi Hendrix and probably would’ve been famous if he lived anywhere other than Guyana. But, this time, when we were out there we met a little family who host people for a living and make a bit of extra money on this river called the Mahaica river, and we swam there. There were those little crocodiles, anacondas and. apparently, piranhas all in this lake, but the guy with us was saying everybody swims in there so you should swim in it and we did. The water was stained with tea leaves, because there’s tea leaves above the Mahaica river so it looks like tea, and you could drink it. The people who owned that house there blew my mind 'cause they swam in that everyday. We kept our distance from the anacondas though!
How would you describe Georgetown in three words?
Unspoilt, generous and vibrant.
Why did you choose to shoot the video in Georgetown and was there a deeper meaning there for you?
I just had never seen it. I spent a lot of lockdown reconnecting with my pops, and then trying to understand Guyana, reading books and trying to find it in the media and in videos, movies. etc. There wasn’t much, I know that Gordon Ramsey went there and that was the only thing I could find. So I felt a duty as someone who was able and who had the budget to document it and to shine a light on it. I’m heavily into Alex Webb, the photographer, who was a big reference for the video. [I wanted] to let the beauty of the place shine, not for it to be too complicated so that kids can find it and understand where they’re from, if they’re from where I am.
We’ve seen a lot of our community recently return to their heritage through travel. Do you have any words of advice for anyone thinking about making this trip soon?
Go with an open mind but don’t feel disheartened if you don’t completely assimilate or connect straight away. Be open to the fact that you’re also British if you’re from here too, and that will have an impact on how you’re seen and how you move. It will take time to catch up with the culture. I've got Nigerian friends – not mixed-race but fully Black friends – who have been to Nigeria who have been called white boy just because they might’ve asked for bottled water or don’t eat with their hands. But I think it’s essential to go, to be open-minded and to not take, but to give when you’re there. It’s easy to go to a place like that and say, "Let me get this," and bring that home, but what can you offer? Whether it’s physical or financial support – whatever way you want to support – you've definitely got to give something when you go there because they usually got less than we have, but have more happiness for some reason.
Why did you choose to work with John Agard and what was the experience like for you?
Apparently he was taught in schools but he was never taught in my school. I had seen a poem of him speaking in the Half-Caste poem and it was mad to see someone who looked like me and actually being talked about as mixed race, the same as me. A lot of people, when you’re mixed race in the public eye, are quick to say that you’re this or you’re that, or you’re neither or whatever. It was nice to have someone who was reflecting my experience, and I feel a lot of kids who didn’t get a chance to see that poem would benefit from it if it came through a medium like me. But also, personally, I just wanted to spend time with a Guyanese poet; he’s married to another poet called Grace Nichols and they’re pioneers of Guyanese poetry. I only came across his poetry last year; I was looking and obviously hadn’t been looking hard enough, but he popped up out of the blue. Shit with my dad was quite tumultuous and I was trying to reject anything that was him when I was younger. If someone had said to me, "Oh this guy’s Guyanese," I would’ve been like, "Well, fuck that guy." So it took me to grow up and to be open to receiving.
How has the poem Half-Caste helped you to understand your own identity?
One, to be able to speak about it. A lot of my homies on both sides – Black friends and white friends – got it easy on both sides. Everyone’s like you’re half this, you’re half that, so really it was nice to feel like one whole instead of two halves and to be able to put that out. I got a lot of homies that feel like two halves, or fractured pieces, and I think that poem was the start of what put me back together as one thing.
Did visiting your ancestral roots offer a new perspective on who you are and has that influenced your creative output?
Yeah, for sure. I try in every album, or at least I will try because this is only my third one, but I try to switch it up. For this one it was nice for this whole process to be focused on identity and where I fit. There was so much going on over these last couple of years and felt like there was an uprising in the city, so it felt like a safe time to do it – and an urgent time to do it. Guyana allowed me to feel more than it just being a metropolis; to see people happy with nothing. It’s a big thing to think that your happiness comes from things, like you don’t have a lot of things and you're happy. It makes me look at all the things I’ve got and they’re stupid, like why do I have these fancy headphones, I don’t need that.
Do you have any travel stories from your time in Georgetown?
There were loads of things that went wrong, like us almost getting attacked by the anacondas was long. But there were more beautiful things that happened. We were an hour or two from Georgetown, and we pulled up to this little church. Some of the town was super DIY, there was no running water or anything and all these kids came out. There were like 30 of them and they walked really neatly into this church group and we were able to shoot there a bit and sit in for it. I was moved because I’m not religious myself, but I was struck by how much community, faith and acceptance there was in such a small place. These people have nothing to my eye of what I would want to have to feel peace and serenity.
Stupid things happened as well though. We pulled up to this strip right by the sea and they have parties on the street out there where all these cars pull up with loads of different sound systems in the back. There was a big white van which had bare speakers and we tapped in like, "Yo, can we get on the aux." We ran the tune a couple of times, spun a couple of other tunes and people started coming over. It was chaos! It was jokes 'cause we were across the road from someone who was playing something else as well, so we were battling – not seriously, like a Red Bull SoundClash kind of way, it was peaceful. It was nice 'cause we were given pieces of our culture; they’re getting gassed to listen to drill and trap and they’re showing us what’s out there. It was a meeting of two worlds and it was sick.
What’s the best thing you ate there?
Probably just curry goat, I love curry goat I feel like it’s a naughty thing to eat because it’s red meat. But out there it was crazy, it's sick. They cook it with the bones 'cause that’s where the flavour is but then this place we were at, called Shanta's, you can get it where they take all the bones out and then they strip the meat. The bones are long, like I don’t mind if I got them, but it felt like a Michelin star experience which I'd never experienced with curry goat before.
Are there any lessons or rituals from Georgetown that you’ll take with you?
Don’t get ice when you get water out there! That’s what I'd take. It fucks with your belly. We’re spoilt here in the Western world so there were definitely parasites eating my guts after I drank water. We all went out for food and everyone came back to the hotel and got a beer, but I don’t drink so I was like, "Haha fuck you guys, I’m a healthy guy," so I started eating the ice but instead the ice started eating me. So definitely no ice!