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Powerful and cinematic, Superheroes by Skint & Demoralised achieves an epic scope within its economical 2 minutes and 42 seconds by setting a spoken word story about a young boy’s innocent wisdom to a rousingly dramatic score. And as it builds to its heart-splittingly moving climax, it is made all the more poignant by the knowledge that it really happened.

The track by duo Matt Abbott and David J Gledhill was inspired by a trip to the Calais Jungle, the refugee camp on the busy border between France and the United Kingdom where, between 2015 and 2016, thousands of displaced people from conflict zones around the world, from Iraq to Sudan, Afghanistan to Eritrea, spent weeks or months hoping to find a way, legally or otherwise, to start a new life in Britain. 

Poet, activist and front-man Matt Abbott was attending an event called With Banners Held High when he watched a presentation about the Calais Jungle.

“I turned to someone and I said: ‘I’ve really got to go there. I’ve got to help’,” he remembers. “And within a week I was in a car driving into the Jungle with some activists from this group.”

“It was completely the opposite of everything that I was expecting it to be. And I was in shock. And they took me around various bits and there’s a kids’ café where a lot of the kids go to learn English or just to have someone to talk to, because 78% of the kids there are living there alone. There is a boxing ring, a gym, theater, classrooms, shops - and then they took me to Marco’s school. And as it happens this kid was there and they were doing the ‘superheroes’ thing and it just completely floored me. I just could not believe what I was seeing and what I was hearing.”

Signed to Universal when Matt was just a teenager, Skint & Demoralised recorded three albums before the duo drifted into separate creative directions in 2013. But, says Matt, both he and David felt there was “unfinished business”. And out of the blue, in October last year, David sent Matt a text asking if he fancied working together again. The result is their fourth album, We Are Humans.

“When I wrote the lyrics to the first album I was 17 and 18 years old,” says Matt. “So it was about teenage relationships. I was always frustrated with myself that Skint & Demoralised was never a political act. I would do political poems in between the songs at gigs, but none of the songs were even remotely political. So, now that we’ve had the chance to do this album, I think something like three-quarters of the songs on there are political.”

Matt Abbott (right) with fellow Skint & Demoralised founder, producer David J Gledhill [Photo: Kerry Harrison]

Matt Abbott (right) with fellow Skint & Demoralised founder, producer David J Gledhill
[Photo: Kerry Harrison]

“It was totally unexpected, but it feels so right that I can’t believe we weren’t already doing it,” he says of the band’s resurrection. “It’s not like we’re going to just do this one album and go: ‘Oh yeah, that was fun, let’s leave it then’. We’re definitely going to do another album.”

The lyrical themes of We Are Human are drawn largely from Abbot’s poetry collection Two Little Ducks, published last year, around which he wrote an hour-long spoken word theater show. And he is emphatic that the best way to communicate political ideas is through storytelling, by putting a human face on ideology.

“There is one song on the album, the #RefugeesWelcome song [from which the album gets its title], that’s a bit hectoring - virtue-signalling, making statements, which isn’t necessarily the best way to do it,” Matt admits. “I think by telling stories and channeling the human side of politics, that’s always going to be the way to get across. Plenty of people abuse me on Twitter because they think that all refugees are scum and we shouldn’t let them in and we should just let them die in the Channel, or whatever. I don’t think any of them could hear that story about that young lad and not be moved in some way.”

“As much as I have written and written and written and written about the Calais Jungle,” Matt concludes, “I think the Superheroes lyric and that story does more than anything else I’ve written because it’s so simple and it’s such a human thing and it’s just so heartbreaking. And it’s 100% true. And I just thought: if that doesn’t get the message through then nothing will.”

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About the curator: Jon Ewing

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.