Images: Melissa Cowan
There are two Fatima Al Qadiris.
In her best-known incarnation, the Kuwait-raised, Berlin-based producer is a creator of dark, contemplative, and deeply political tracks.
Reviews have labelled her latest release Brute as alternately disconcerting, restrained, apocalyptic, menacing, grimy, and icy. Al Qadiri herself has described the album as protest music—a “public display of despair.”
So nobody was really expecting the Al Qadiri who showed up at Howler for her first ever Australian show.
After impressive sets from CORIN and Air Max ’97, Al Qadiri emerged for a performance, perhaps best described by the guy behind me: an hour of “straight fire remixes” of her tracks, which stand in protest of everything from the militarisation of police in the US to the broader corruption of Western democracy.
Completely at ease, this Al Qadiri fronted up with a massive smile on her face—coaxing the crossed-arms crowd—a lot of music bros who’d expected to spend the night nodding appreciatively—into an all-out dance party. The Senegal-born producer is clearly not an artist wedded to concept over experience. Pressed her to push her set way over time, Al Qadiri just laughed and dropped YG’s “My N*gga.”
So there are two Fatima Al Qadiris but these two selves are not discrete, because—in many ways—her live set is the perfect mirror to Brute. Catharsis from an album that builds tension without really offering any release. And rage and joy have both always been central to protest movements, people bound together by their love of something as much as they are by hate.
Protesters in South Africa during Apartheid used a dance called toyi-toyi to intimidate police. In the late 80s, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered for spontaneous mass singings, which would come to be known as the Singing Revolution—a nonviolent push for independence from the Soviet Union.
Al Qadiri herself has said Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” is her reference point for protest music—a song that delicately balances sadness and hope. Producers from Baltimore have processed the city’s massive protests over the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody by sampling demonstrations and reworking them into club tracks..
Of course, the oppression Al Qadiri is commenting on with Brute—police violence against protesters with pepper spray, tear gas, and sonic weapons—seems a world away from a relatively privileged, largely white crowd assembled in a band room in Brunswick.
But with a little context, you realised the themes of Brute are more universal than most of us would care to admit. Two years ago, the Victorian government gave police sweeping powers to break up public gatherings, similar laws just passed in New South Wales that could see people protesting mining thrown in jail for up to seven years. Right now the United Nations is pleading with Western Australia’s government not to clamp down on people’s right to assemble.
Speaking about Brute, Al Qadiri has said that at its centre, the record is about “freedom of assembly, and how freedom of assembly has always been a very thinly veiled illusion.” With her Australian debut, Al Qadiri showed that this freedom isn’t cooly conceptual—it’s something worth celebrating as much as it’s worth fighting for.
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