Andrzej Tichý writes on music and migrant experience

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Translated from the Swedish by Nichola Smalley.

~

Come on people now / smile on your brother / everybody get together / try to love one another, right now

It was probably early spring, 1992. I was hanging out by the skate ramp by school with a few friends. We were smoking, chatting, doing a bit of graffiti, setting light to stuff. We weren’t skating.

A friend turned up. He’d been to the shopping centre and bought a pirated tape from the Polish guys who sold their things outside, spread out on blankets on the floor.

Listen to this, he said. It’s totally awesome.

He handed me his Walkman; I took out the tape and read the label. Nirvana, it said. I put it back again – Side B – rewound it all the way, and pressed play.

Imagine you’re thirteen. You’ve come to realise that, in the eyes of the world, you’re nothing but a poor immigrant, which means your world is poor too. You’ve felt alone for a long time, but you’ve started to realise that many people share that feeling. You’re angry, but, to be honest, you’re not exactly sure what about. Life hurts, and it’s confusing – you know that, but you also know it can feel good too, even if the rush hasn’t really come into the picture yet. You don’t get it, but that’s normal. That’s natural.  

The material want. The sublimating violence of society’s class structures. The racism and xenophobia around you. The substance abuse around you. The physical and mental illness. It all seems so ingrained.

Gotta find a way, find a way, when I’m there / Gotta find a way, a better way, I’d better wait

Two or three minutes of distilled pain – two, three, four words that hit the target and show you that something else exists, that something else is possible. A smile, the warmth of joy within you.

The raw, violent music that came flowing out of the headphones spoke to me directly. There were a bunch of us who’d been getting into music, together. Hard rock, metal, commercial hip hop, old punk. But this felt urgent in a different way. It broke all boundaries. It was so acute. It was happening now and it was important. In some people’s eyes, it was nothing but youthful nihilism. Base and destructive. Actually, it was the opposite. 

Music offered a context, an opportunity to do something, to make use of all your experiences – even the negative and destructive ones. To break the isolation and approach the world.

A wonderfully concise depiction of this process can be found in Duke Ellington and Don George’s I Ain’t Got Nothing but the Blues, which contains these lines:

Ain’t got the change of a nickel

Ain’t got no bounce in my shoes

Ain’t go no fancy to tickle

I ain’t got nothing but the blues

Ain’t got no coffee that’s perking

Ain’t got no winnings to lose

Ain’t got a dream that is working

I ain’t got nothing but the blues

[…]

Ain’t got no rest in my slumbers

Ain’t got no feelings to bruise

Ain’t got no telephone numbers

I ain’t got nothing but the blues

Song – the act of singing itself – turns nothing into something. And under the right conditions, that something opens doors to a whole world of human creativity. It’s a slow process, and it wasn’t always obvious, but eventually we discovered that Nirvana’s post-punk on Territorial Pissings was just a node in an enormous, far-reaching network of musical, literary and artistic expression. If you followed the threads, you quickly became overwhelmed. The 90s US alternative rock scene was rooted in punk, which in turn was tied to Situationism, which led to Dada, which led to Symbolism, which, in its critique of Naturalism, expressed an ancient philosophical and aesthetic problem: How should we portray the world around us? And what do we do with these portrayals?

A few years later, another friend played me Mobb Deep and Wu Tang Clan, and yet another world opened up. Hip hop wasn’t just a voice from below (in a way few other art forms could claim to be); it was also a lesson in creative quotation, paraphrasing and sampling. Granting the powerless a fleeting power of agency, you could perhaps say. Just like the Blues, it sprang from, and was specifically bound to, the US and black people’s lives and struggles there. But it was so powerful, multifaceted and complex, that it also functioned as inspiration for the poor and disenfranchised more or less throughout the world, including the immigrants and the underclass of Sweden’s post-war housing estates. So there was a place in the world for those who had ‘nothing’. Apparently, the world was rich, and the hunger that existed around you said more about the social structures you lived within than it did about you.    

The kids who spit bars about Glocks and cocaine in pretty much every city in the world can sometimes appear destructive, problematic and uninformed. But those kids are also achieving something important. To disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, as they say. This music is also a part of that far-reaching network that offers up knowledge and agency, a potential door to something great: a welcoming fire of possibility for many people in an ever colder, harder – ever more impossible – world.


Andrzej Tichý was born in Prague to a Polish mother and a Czech father. He has lived in Sweden since 1981. The author of five novels, two short story collections and a wide range of non-fiction and criticism, Tichý is widely recognised as one of the most important novelists of his generation. Wretchedness (Eländet) was shortlisted for the 2016 August Prize and won the 2018 Eyvind Johnson Prize.

A translator and lover of Swedish and Norwegian literature, Nichola Smalley is also publicist at And Other Stories and an escaped academic – in 2014 she finished her PhD exploring the use of contemporary urban vernaculars in Swedish and UK rap and literature at UCL. Her translations range from Jogo Bonito by Henrik Brandão Jönsson (Yellow Jersey Press), a Swedish book about Brazilian football, to the latest novel by Norwegian superstar Jostein Gaarder, An Unreliable Man (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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