The world’s first AI-generated protest!

By John Clay

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“Change usually requires someone from a rarefied place of privilege to have a moment of clarity and make a concession. And it also usually requires someone to do lots of thankless work, at great personal risk.” – Nishant Joshi, aka KILL, THE ICON! 

Nishant is a father, activist, doctor and musician keen on shining a light on the fallacies of various industries. The Guardian recently highlighted his Twitter thread titled ‘The Truth about The Last Dinner Party’, where he examines racism in the alternative guitar-music scene. 

Read the full thread on Twitter.

Nishant: All bands I’ve spoken to have been gracious and encouraging. But there’s still not a great understanding of what activism truly is – I get the impression that many people in our sphere happily posted a black square on Instagram but only did so on a purely performative basis. How many black artists did you ask to support you on tour after you posted that black square? There are a lot of artists who want to give the impression of doing good without actually committing to the labour of doing so. They don’t understand the concept of passing the mic. For them, punk is a trend and not a lifestyle commitment. You should be lifting up marginalised bands, who are woefully underrepresented on stage.

Do you think the state of play will change, and would you ever consider committing these thoughts on passing the mic to a record?

Nishant: We have recorded a song called ‘Average White Band’ about the entire ecosystem surrounding this. It aims at what we perceive to be performative allyship from our contemporaries. We need to hold musicians to a much higher standard than we do, particularly regarding messaging and lyrics. Some bands are still posing with cigarettes for their Instagram photos in 2023. That’s desperate, 2004 scenester stuff. If you’re a poseur, and you’re doing this as a popularity contest, I have no time for you. Will it change? Once more PoC artists are given an opportunity, it will happen.

Isn’t there a danger in supposing the audience can’t see the poseurs and their cosplay approach? Surely, audiences are also posing if the artists they follow offer a lacklustre ideology in their ethos.

Nishant: I think it’s a lot easier to say the right things and look the part these days. Performative activism is much easier through social media. So I’m sure audiences genuinely believe what they’re sold through sheer marketing weight. If you have a voice, you have a responsibility. Once you assume a certain level of power, and you’re still not speaking out against injustice? Are you still not passing the mic? You’re probably more established than you’d like to admit.

Can you outline what you have in mind going forward with your form of activism? Can it serve as a model for other groups in the future?

Nishant: Sleaford Mods had Nova Twins as support. Idles had Big Joanie as support. Neither of those means that a problem has gone away. A single act is easy – creating an environment where you’re actively contributing to the sustainable development of marginalised bands is what we should aspire to. For every Big Joanie, how many all-white bands get a slot? I’d hope that our brand of activism spreads. It is activism in its purest form – to make it every fibre of your being and not just do it for social clout.

Your recent tweet thread picked up by The Guardian walks the fine line of analysing the ecosystem without making the bands the target. How often do people misconstrue your cause for myopic anger?

Nishant: There’s a lot of background noise regarding sensitive topics on social media. So, many people speak defensively as if they pre-emptively want to avoid Twitter outrage. The art of honest, truth-seeking discussion has vanished in the last ten years. So I encourage honest, heart-to-heart, unfiltered conversations with anyone keen to discuss and explore matters. For authentic learning to happen, we need to do it off the record in a safe space and be decent and forgiving. The nature of language associated with these topics is ever-evolving, so anyone pretending to be all-seeing, all-knowing is disingenuous. We’re all working shit out. 

Decolonise Fest and Weirdo’s pop-up events are hugely important. Their beauty lies in connecting and empowering a community of PoC artists. We deserve to reach a bigger audience. Our messaging is necessary, and for music to be progressive, it must actively listen to PoC artists.

Do you think that now you’re on their radar, there will be an interest in putting aside the playacting and seeking actual collective change, or do you think such types won’t alter their actions unless further revelation on your part is instigated?

Nishant: I’ve just seen that a fellow punk band has mentioned “power structures” in a press release. They’ve also announced a tour. All of their support slots have gone to all-white bands. I was checking out a guitar music festival lineup recently. Fifteen or so bands, and in the fifty-plus musicians on the lineup, not a single PoC artist. I did apply for that festival, for what it’s worth. I didn’t get a reply.

Nova Twins put out a playlist with ninety-plus bands with PoC members, so it’s not like the old arguments tally up in the logic stakes. The structural problem stems from a lack of awareness of what constitutes gatekeeping. Do you think such knee-jerk reactions to a systemic issue must reach a far more apparent high-water mark before general awareness shifts?

Nishant: Every movement must reach a critical mass before being taken seriously. It needs momentum and persistence. It usually requires someone from a rarefied place of privilege to have a moment of clarity and make a concession. And it usually requires someone to do lots of thankless work at significant personal risk.

What couplet from your recent single, ‘Deathwish’, would you like audiences to remember once the song ends?

Nishant: “They used to shout, now they whisper.” I want people to understand that the nature of racism changes and evolves. The language becomes more flowery, and the suits become more fancy. The faces change. The message stays the same.

Tell us more about ‘Deathwish’, video, the world’s first-ever AI protest. 

Nishant: I wanted to explore AI, and I’ve been playing around with MidJourney an awful lot. I’m mindful that we must be creative with protest because of the recent laws enacted in the UK. So I explored something that would express how I felt about the suppression of protest whilst also matching up with my music. I’m pleased we were able to create something truly original – in effect, it’s the world’s first-ever AI protest.

The EP nods toward EDM, punk and an aggressive bass guitar-driven energy. If you describe your band as a vehicle for activism, then it makes sense that you’d widen your appeal this way.

Nishant: Initially, I hated the idea of the band being anything more than just drums and bass guitar. But my producer Ian Flynn suggested beefing up our first couple of songs with synths and some cool effects, which worked well. So my understanding of our potential changed, and from a very narrow vision, we’re now evolving into something much more dynamic and genre-fluid. 

Doesn’t a band’s identity stem from the subculture they work within? Perhaps the fact that the group has just arrived should take the pressure off fitting a certain mould?

Nishant: There’s always a burning desire to conform, mainly when the music industry has ensured that every band is in a never-ending popularity contest. Instead of trying to create the best music all the time, bands are forced into being part musician, part influencer in ways previous generations haven’t been asked to. So fewer bands are openly non-conformist and doing their own thing because this shuts many doors in an industry with fixed ideas of what it wants to see and hear. 

You tweeted recently that KILL, THE ICON! does not exist to play music but is an extension of activism. When did you realise that?

Nishant: I think it’s been the case since the start, but it has crystallised over the last few months. I founded the band in the summer of 2020 because I had seen the underbelly of the legal machine that helps the government maintain a status quo. There were stories about daily deaths, NHS staff, and Captain Tom in the news. There was no sporting bulletin to take your mind off things at the end of the hour. So we could leverage that and shine a light on important stories. Change is possible through a legal route, but the odds are stacked against ordinary citizens. So it became evident that we require a pincer strategy through conventional and cultural routes. 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of your brand of activism in the current climate in the UK, and are you forming alliances with like-minded bands to further your form of protest?

Nishant: The disadvantage is that you exist in a state of fear and uncertainty. Peaceful protest used to be protected by the law, and now much of it is up for debate and interpretation by the police. So, any protest – see: Led By Donkeys, Republic, Steve Bray, Just Stop Oil – runs the risk of arrest.

The advantage? There is no apparent one apart from knowing that this is entirely an extension of my desire to improve society for my patients and my daughters. I know I’m doing it for the right reasons, and if I get to do it to a sick soundtrack while other people throw milkshakes at fascists, then that’s just honey mustard on the footlong of life.

Would you ever tackle something as tricky as the politics of Suella Braverman and deem her ethnicity relevant to such an investigation? There’s a risk in making the public figure the story rather than the ecosystem that created them, yes?

Nishant: ‘Danny Is A Hate Preacher’ explores how some politicians become despicable and make life miserable for everyone around them. I’m sure Braverman and Patel were absolute delights in the nursery. There must have come a point where they went down a rabbit hole of confirmation bias. Historically, white supremacy has always been happy enough to integrate PoC into its scaffolding – so long as they’re useful idiots who will do their bidding. Proximity to whiteness is proximity to power, though I don’t expect Priti Patel to suddenly admit that she’s a Tory MP because she feels uncomfortable in her skin. Kemi Badenoch is arguably the most egregious recent example. She’s a Tory MP who led a report into the denial of systemic racism in the UK – the report was panned, and I actually read the whole 80 pages. It was a word salad. We are truly led by donkeys.

Take us through your mindset when writing ‘Protect The Brand’. Do you think concessions must be made when forging relationships within the industry? 

Nishant: ‘Protect The Brand’ was written in response to my work experiences over the last few years. I’ve broken my back, worked overtime, and gone the extra mile. As workers, we mostly treat our bosses far better than our bosses will ever treat us. It’s because we hope that one day, all this effort will be worth it. It rarely is. 

PoC bands are damned either way, John. They tell me that we’re not visible enough, that we don’t have enough Spotify followers and that NME hasn’t picked us up yet. So I could hardly be fussed about upsetting Rolling Stone’s editors if they won’t reply to my emails. 

Bernie Sanders preaches hope and suggests that left-leaning activists must not create a fetish of hopelessness. People unaware of your game-changing activism in the medical world might see the video for ‘Deathwish’ or hear the lyrics to ‘Heavy Heart’ and accuse you of profiting from nihilism, as has often been the case with other outspoken musicians. Do you think there is any point in trying to convince naysayers, or do you want to spend your energy on emboldening the choir?

Nishant: Nobody’s accused me of profiting from anything. I sold my second-hand car last year to afford the EP release. The odd fiver we get through Bandcamp funds our rehearsals, costing fourteen pounds per hour. And any fees we get from promoters go straight to paying my two bandmates – this was my idea, so I bear full responsibility for ensuring that Ian and Florin are paid what they deserve.

Binary interpretations will always proliferate social media, so engaging with the good faith folks and ignoring those coming along to ruin your day is important. One thing I’ve learnt as a doctor is that it’s socially and politically uncool to keep changing your mind, but fixed ideas are for fools. Bright minds accept that every decision and opinion has a degree of uncertainty attached to it.