Ava Laurel, alias Lava La Rue, is the non-binary (she/they) musician, poet and artist whose multi-cultural London sound is the noise of a generation that is finally getting proper air time. They are a cultural commentator who was invited by the Tate Modern, aged only 19 – the same year as their first Boiler Room set – to make a documentary on subcultures. Fast-forward to 2021 and they are a genre-bending musician-artist with an impressive new EP out. We talk culture and politics.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 44. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Their latest EP Butter-fly is full of psychedelic waves, queer love and political resistance. Like the feminist-abolitionist theorist Angela Davis, Ava realises in this album that their Black and working- class socio-economic position gives them a clear view of what needs to change in society. Musically, Ava genre-hops between hip-hop, R’n’B and psychedelia with consistently poetic lyricism and has performed alongside impressive names including Tyler, The Creator and Christine and the Queens. Ava’s stylish rocksteady-silver-tongued-punk-lyricist hybrid music, and accompanying videos, all explain ideas we delve into in this interview. For example, white rich men investing for personal – rather than communal – gain are caricatures that require little to no exaggeration in the Magpie music video. Another testimony to Ava’s political and poetic leaning is their zine Summer of Love 2.0 which, in their own words, “Explores THE Radicalisation of perspective and Free Love Movement, in times of isolation.” Both the zine and EP Butter-fly promote free love and party culture à la 1967 Summer of Love and 1988 Second Coming, but, this time around, with trans, non-binary Afrocentric philosophies in the foreground.

During coronavirus and the necessary protests that happened during lockdown, notably for Black Lives Matter and Trans Pride in London, there was and is a difficult tension between the social nature of some gatherings to the tangible necessity of mass mobilisation. In the grey-toned, bleak context of the UK’s biased racialized policing system and rollbacks in trans medical freedom, there is meaningful necessity for these movements. Is Ava a militant artist? I want to believe their poise certainly speaks for itself here.
Your musical inspiration draws on spending childhood with your Jamaican grandparents in London, listening to pirate radio with your mum, who met your dad at a rave, and also a period of honing your own sound whilst you were in care in your teens. Can you tell me about any specific events, like parties or festivals, which were the most formative for you musically?
Yeah, when I was 16, me and my friends, who I now run my own collective NINE8 with, used to throw our own house parties and events in very DIY spaces – and that was the moment I felt like I was a part of a community, or a subculture, where people accepted me for who I am. When you’re in a situation like that, that is when you really start to thrive as a creative.
What was it like, attending your first warehouse party with your dad aged only 13?
(Laughs) I have some funny photos from that actually. I put some photos of that on my TikTok only the other day. It was cool. I had always grown up around that culture, so it didn’t feel weird. Even though it was my dad’s party friends who I was with, they were all like uncles and aunties to me. So, looking back at it I see that it was a slightly less conventional way to have a childhood – but it still feels normal to me.
Previously, you’ve noticed aesthetics of your Jamaican heritage, like Rasta, being used as rebellion by people who aren’t part of that community. Can you explain more your perspective on cultural borrowing versus cultural appropriation?
It really comes down to how much you’ve grown up around that culture. So many non-Jamaican MCs rap or put on a Jamaican accent at club nights or raves, and we would laugh when these proper old white geezers hop on the mike using a Jamaican accent – mate, you are definitely from the countryside. But, you can never really tell how involved people are. It’s one of those ones where I don’t judge, but it does become harmful when people who come from more privileged positions can more easily capitalise on that culture whilst the actual people who come from it are over-looked. That happens. In West London, a really famous Caribbean cultural hub will close down, and reopen owned by a rich white property owner, who won’t let the locals back into their old venue. It’s stuff like that where it’s a real shame, because you begin to kill off a lot of the culture that made the place so beautiful in the first place. It’s important to moderate that.
I agree. There is intense financial inequality in Ladbroke Grove. Do you feel like your political advocacy for working class people, which we see on Instagram, for example, and also in some of your songs, helps you reconcile that contradiction of perceived cultural fusion alongside economic division?
I never really think too much when I’m talking about it. I’m just seeing this happen in real life and then reflecting my feelings and observations on a platform to people who may not be from here. There are a lot of misconceptions about West London because there are a lot of nice areas with multi-million-pound houses. Then, on the other side of the road, there’s Grenfell Tower [the social housing which tragically burned down killing 72 people]. There are constant battles that can be overlooked since it’s covered up by the local affluence. Right now, I know so many people are fighting to keep this landmark building, Trellick Tower, and its important graffiti wall that means so much to the local community. A big issue here was the fact that more money was spent on the exterior of Grenfell Tower, making it look nice because it was a saw thumb to the rich locals, than actually caring about the insides and the needs of the inside people. So, that’s what happens when you have ultra-rich back to back with ultra-poor.
You’re a bit of a self-confessed ‘nerd’. How did your education inf luence who you are today?
It’s funny you say that because I was up at 5 am last night watching a seminar by Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, who’s just become a resident artist at NYU (New York University London). He nailed it when he said that one of the constant things to be thriving as a musician or multi-faceted creative is to never stop being a fan. It’s important because it gives you motivation to study and learn – for more than just personal gain. Naturally, that passion then contributes to everything that you do. So, when people ask me about my writing process or how I end up talking about profound things, my answer is that I am just constantly researching or getting inspired and that naturally translates into my creativity. So, nobody should be afraid to be nerdy. It will always benefit you.
I read your recent release, Butter-fly, is your idea of “What queer music can be; setting the agenda for queer music in the 2020s.” Is the agenda to diversify the genres that are camp or queer, departing from the stereotypical pop that we’ve always been associated with?
Somewhat. It wouldn’t be fair for me to say that that doesn’t exist already, because there are so many queer artists making a huge range of music, not making specifically pop. However, pop is the medium that gets invested in more when it comes to queer narratives. My EP isn’t a reflection on the lack of alternative queer people making music. But, I think it will help create and take up space outside of the stereotypical queer pop niche that should already be there. On the top 40, why are all the love songs hetero narratives? It’s weird because that doesn’t represent how many people actually fit into that narrative.
I feel like it’s a process of making it seen because there are queer musicians who exist and there are a lot of love songs that people just don’t know are queer.
Exactly. Out of their own safety, a lot of queer songwriters had to be extremely ambiguous about the pronouns that they use. Like one that we all know, Elton John’s Your Song. They would be sure not to use any pronouns because they knew that all the press would be about the fact that they’re gay. It’s a catch-22 because you want to represent but also at the same time you want people to appreciate the music, regardless of whether it is queer or not. It will only take a good level of representation for it to get to that stage.
That’s a good answer. I’m going to ask you another question about queer music, but I do not mean to be overly determining your work – there are loads of other questions. The track Goofy Hearts centres on love that “Ain’t in the book”. I feel like realising traditional codes of identity and sexuality don’t fit sometimes make for an awkward goofy feeling – like wearing shoes that are too small. Do you think this era of increased queer visibility and education might be on the way to create comfort for those in lesbian and queer relationships?
I think that’s a well-written question. Today, there’s a genuinely new awareness, and words that I didn’t necessarily have growing up, like the term ‘non- binary’ wasn’t in circulation when I was in school, when I was going through puberty. It’s a move in the right direction. It’s very easy to be in our own echo chamber and to follow people like you. But, outside of that, there are a lot of people who think really backwardly – and it’s a huge demographic. I think there is still a long way to go and that it will only really change when queer people have more visibility and are in positions of power to make decisions, with respect for who they are. That’s happening, but it needs to diversify; and when it does, what we are educating the youth on will change, because that dictates what trickles down to education and public opinion.
Developing on that, we don’t want to overlook the increased dissemination of right-wing views in Europe, quite well exemplified by the current Polish government’s retraction of not only women’s abortion rights but also their treatment of LGBTQ+ people as ‘enemies of the state’. What do you see as the biggest threat to queer people and femmes currently?
Things like that, really. One of the most frustrating things is the conservative government on pride month – Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, might post something on Twitter, and then, at the same time, revoke important things for queer lives. One of the biggest problems right now is performative activism and performative queer allyship from the government. In Ghana, they are locking up queer people, it’s happening in Poland and it’s happening in Turkey. Even in Jamaica, where I’m from. It’s a problem having governments that will put the pride flag on their Twitter during pride month, whilst they have the power to apply pressure on other governments that are killing gay people, but they won’t do that. Because, right now, people think posting an infographic saying “support your gay friends” is enough. We need to be turning our heads to the people who are being put in prison and dying for who they love.
I agree. There is also still a lot to fight for in the UK – as we’ve seen recent rollbacks in access to medical needs for trans youth and people, and a review on non-binary toilet access. I wondered whether you, personally, have felt the impact of these human rights inequalities in access to these spaces and facilities?
I mean, the thing is, the rights were never really there to begin with. So, many of these changes were just public stunts. They might say they’re taking it away, but it was never an intention for these rights to be fully formed and functioning anyway. Often, these supposed changes were made to pacify the more liberal left-leaning public opinion. Now politicians act as if they’re allies in the media, but in policy they are doing something completely different. We need to protest, we need to protect ourselves. We will hear things through the media that will pacify those feelings of rage that should still be there.
So, I’ve been thinking about what we’re missing from live music; and I drew a comparison with Plato’s ideal for theatre as “A place to transform the passive audience of a spectator into its opposite: the active body of a community”. I wonder if you also saw live gigs, where people move together, as a space for forming active political communities, who are willing to protest. It’s a physical space for exchange, rather than a digital space, so, live has a more intense connection.
100%, I’ve seen it happen so much. An example is how NINE8 began. We were a bunch of friends going to live gigs in real spaces at events. The members who I didn’t meet through school, we met at parties. It was at a time when social media was less present, like 2016. I had Flickr, Tumblr and Twitter, but it was nowhere near as intense as now. You’d go to a party not because you knew who everyone was but because you knew that there would be other people there into the same music as you and you’d be able to chat to them in the smoking area for hours – compare ideals for life, debate, and end up forming strong bonds and going to rallies. Those in-real- life interactions are important.
You directly reference Angela Davis in the EP Letra and the album Stitches. I thought an important parallel between your works is thinking about intersectionality, the nuanced oppression experienced based on various different factors including, but not exclusively, gender, race and class. How did Angela Davis inspire you?
In every way possible! What I miss and appreciate is that, when Angela Davis was most famous, to be considered a feminist icon you had to be an intellectual, well-read, an actual scholar. Now, online, there are Top 10 Feminist Icons You Should Be Following articles, and it’s someone who will post an infographic in millennial pink with a white font on top and an illustration – regurgitating something. It’s annoying because before, you’d be leader, have a movement and regular meet-ups. I was inspired by how Angela Davis dedicated her life, her knowledge and her body. Also, she is a powerful Black icon who was nerdy. If anyone challenged her she would make them seem like an idiot. Discovering that as a young person, coming to terms with what feminism means to you, for me it was ‘it’. This is my kind of feminism.
I couldn’t agree more. So, what was it like for you, joining the Black Lives Matter protest specifically in London? Because it was a symbolic moment, but do you think it will catalyse lasting change here in the UK? I know that Angela Davis was questioned by BBC News on it and she was quite sceptical, but I don’t know how you feel.
Angela Davis is someone who has really been there, with people putting their lives on the line, and at physical risk from the KKK and lynching, because they’d been on TV protesting for their rights. That sort of protest is very different to how some people felt guilt- tripped to go to the BLM protests to stay ‘woke’. Those are not the right intentions for actually going to a protest. You go because you genuinely care and you want to see change. I think people are still laughing online that BLM is not a trend, specifically in the UK. All some people have done is put a BLM link in their bio on Instagram, and have not spoken about it since. So, you can understand why it was treated with scepticism. However, it did bring up certain conversations on the news that I’ve never seen asked in regards to Black people’s lives, and that alone progresses the conversation. Did it create massive changes? I think that certain pressures were added, and a lot of people who would have never thought about it now did. People need to not give up and think, we spoke about it last summer, we can move on with our lives now. It’s about continuing the conversation and having real-life action.
Some would argue that the Brexit vote was undertaken on a racist nationalist agenda, along with misinformation. What do you think?
None of the facts added up, it was so stupid. A lot of people were shocked and didn’t expect Brexit to happen. But the Brexit vote came in. People didn’t realise how much backlash there is just from racist people seeing a diversity of people thrive. When Sadiq Khan became mayor of London, people were angry and the vote reflected that. Sadiq Khan doesn’t represent what the Britain Brexit-voters believe in – little did they know the whole of Britain was built on colonisation anyway. Nothing they have, from the curry they have on a Friday night to the Japanese TV they watch their Coronation Street on, is actually British – and that’s what makes us British and that’s great.
A lot of fashion brands have been getting interested in the aesthetics of protest and inclusivity. Do you think normalising previously fringe militant bodies in fashion and image might have a wider social impact? Maybe create a new normal?
I think it can be a double-edged sword. In the seventies and eighties, the clothes worn by protestors would find their way onto the catwalk. It’s one thing to recognise and encourage trends, but it’s another thing to be making so much money off it – and for people to wear these trends but never do any activism. So, I’m not against it as long as the messaging is right. But, generally, kids aren’t just wearing the year 2021 protestor aesthetic without doing that shit. In the original Summer of Love movement, hippies and people who believed in free love and joined anti-war protests would see the middle-class kids who would just dress like them as ‘posers’. As long as we don’t have that, then I think we’ll be good.
Something that concerns me is the dilution of movements like the Black Lives Matter. Although it is exciting to see Kamala Harris next to Joe Biden in the White House, as the first Black woman Vice President, some are sceptical. Tribune magazine published that both of them “declared support for increased police funding” which completely contradicts BLM abolitionist agendas. What do you think?
There was a good conversation I had with someone about Priti Patel (UK Conservative Home Secretary). We realised, when you are a minority put into a position of power – and people think it’s good since there’s more diversity – they have actually been put there because they are willing to make more extreme decisions, where someone else would get a lot more backlash. A great example of that is Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister, who was one of the cruellest conservative leaders. When you don’t fit into the status quo you have to prove yourself more than anyone else. So, generally, conservative women need to prove that they are the hardest and sternest to be accepted. You might think there is progression with this type of representation, but that person has to follow the ruling groups’ rules and guidelines. Which shows that the whole system is fundamentally flawed and there needs to be a whole rethink.
Well said. The Summer of Love 2.0 zine you released during lockdown is a great example of community action because the zine not only showcases queer POC love poetry, but also raises money for the charity For Our Sibs. Summer of Love 2.0 also opens with a rallying manifesto on a post-lockdown Free Love Movement. Do you have plans to organise some free parties with NINE8 collective? (Both laugh.) That’s the question that’s important. Where’s the party?
(Playfully) Are we going to have a cheeky rave then? You’re asking, where’s my invite? Yeah, so much of NINE8 and our ideals are around free party culture and rave. Those kinds of movements have really inspired us. We definitely want to throw a rave at the right time and when we know we can facilitate it properly and that it is also safe, because first of all you don’t want to be putting anyone at risk, and even if someone didn’t care about that, it would get shut down very quickly. When the time is right, we want to do that.
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