Anohni raises her hands from within a hooded cloak, holding them high like a priestess while she sings as a conduit for the mistreated, the oppressed, and the hopeless. A large screen hovers in the air above her, each song accompanied by a powerful closeup of that mistreated character in question. These faces light up the Edinburgh Playhouse as they mouth the lyrics. On either side of the screen are Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, who orchestrate the sharp, buzzing keys and booming synthetic beats that make up ‘Hopelessness’. Somehow, these musicians manage to make the UK’s largest theatre an intensely intimate space in which to deliver their unflinching protest songs.
The set begins with the twenty-minute black and white shot of Naomi Campbell. She dances in slow motion as an anxious rumbling bleeds from the speakers. The film is strikingly minimal, and undoubtedly meant to make the audience uncomfortable in both its length and lack of given meaning, but at twenty minutes, it borders on self-indulgent. In a concert that seems so utterly pitch perfect in the delivery of its messages, it’s bizarre that it begins with such a meandering moment. Even a particularly pretentious arts student like myself started thinking that if you’ve only got 40 minutes of album but have 90 minutes of show to fill, maybe some leftover footage of Naomi Campbell would be passable bit of filler in the minds of a performer.
When the first song begins, some of the power of this introduction becomes apparent. A woman appears on screen with bleeding eyes and zombie-like makeup, lip syncing to the haunting vocals of ‘Hopelessness’, the title track and mission statement. Following immediately is ‘4 Degrees’, intense and direct in its condemning of humanity’s passive reaction to climate change, written as a satirically positive pop song that’s relentless in its energy and subversive in both its clattering sound and sarcastic delivery. The film on stage is of a woman who speaks “it’s only four degrees” with no faith in her words, her eyes saddening with every repetition of the chorus. It’s powerful and despondent with complete purpose.
There’s no onstage chat and no interval – the set continues on with ‘Watch Me’ without giving the audience a chance to breathe. Anohni speaks of the government as a ‘daddy’ figure who watches her no matter what she does – the coupling of infantile language with mentions of pornography, terrorism and child molesting are completely chilling in the live setting, when the audience can’t hide away from the message. Her voice is aching and soulful throughout the set, twisting the melody with explorative new runs and searching improvisations. This gorgeous, dramatic vocal is balanced well by the propulsive beatwork of her bandmates.
The set brings a batch of new songs that are just as effective as the album material. ‘Indian Girls’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘Ricochet’ all pair direct lyricism, gritty instrumentals, aggressive vocals and gorgeous cinematography, showing that this collaborative project has legs far beyond its initial offering. The former is the most harrowing in its portrayal of injustice. “You burned Indian girls at the stake / Drove the stick from anus to mouth / And raped girls in bleeding lines”. ‘Don’t Shy Away!’ reads the subheading of the show. Anohni has no signs of doing so.
‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore?’ is one of the few songs delivered from a personal perspective, disarming in its intimacy, a nuanced look at the formation of rage and hate. This is a performance that marries politics, passion and primal rage in a rare way.
Some moments don’t quite land. The dissonant drone of ‘Obama’ makes for an interesting change of pace, but the cries of ‘What about those war crimes?’ at the conclusion feel just a bit too on the nose. The lack of frills or poetics can make many instants here invigorating in their bluntness, but the stilted delivery on this particular track comes off as hammy more than anything else.
At the end of the set, the face of Naomi Campbell returns, tear stained with a cracked smile. Now, the full weight of the opening film hits; there’s a feeling that we’ve come full circle, back to the first moment and the standout song. The shrill keys and airy atmosphere linger, building tension before Anohni begins delivering a warped version of a love song. Her character begs to be chosen – not by a lover, but a drone bomb. Now that her family has died, it’s the only thing she can hope for. “Blow my head off/ Explode my crystal guts/ Lay my purple on the ground… Choose my blood” she chants, the lyrics stark and beautiful.
The show finishes with a humble, unedited speech from Ngalangka Nola Taylor, an indigenous Australian woman who asks what many before her have asked: “Will things get better? Can We get better? Not just for some, but for all of us?”. After tackling corruption, oppression and violence of many shades, the performance reaches an elegant end. Anohniand her collaborators have crafted a show that is unafraid to be brash in its form of protest, and when the message hits, it feels as if there is hope.