How One Musician Is Bridging the Gap Between Muslim Generations
Abdul Wahab—better known by his stage name UK Apache—went from UK jungle raves to giving talks to young Muslims at mosques.
UK Apache, one of the two men behind jungle classic "Original Nuttah," is sitting opposite me, reflecting on his upbringing.
"I was raised by revolutionary people—my mum and grandparents were heavily involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, so I was taught to fight for justice and speak the truth," he says. "My grandfather Cassim was in the ANC and friends with Nelson Mandela, and my grandmother Zubeida was Mandela's first secretary—they're in his biography, Long Walk to Freedom."
It's a bitter January morning and Apache—real name Abdul Wahab—and I are taking refuge in his friend's restaurant, Khani Halal, on Tooting High Street. I'm here to talk to him about his journey from young "nuttah" to finding peace and purpose in Islam. But, for the moment, he's in full flow remembering his formative years as an only child—of Indian-South African (mom) and Iraqi (dad) parentage—raised by his mother in working class Tooting in the 1970s and 1980s.
As a teenager, reggae proved a defining influence.
"It was political music and had a positive message, with this talk of the world being in turmoil, sufferance, revolution, and fighting for justice. Two of my close friends were Jamaican, and we'd bunk off round each other's houses and listen to the legend Bob Marley, Papa Michigan, Brigadier Jerry, Dennis Brown, and Gregory Isaacs," he recalls.
"We'd go youth club on the Doddington Estate in Battersea where there were these sound system dances. I was imitating being a Jamaican—I'd dress like a Jamaican, walk like a Jamaican, talk like a Jamaican, but I wasn't Jamaican; I was a Jafaican," he says, laughing.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Britain's black political struggle saw South Asian and African-Caribbean communities unite against violence on the streets, discrimination in the workplace, and a fight for rights in the face of a hostile state and its institutions. The struggle's soundtrack was reggae: outsider, anti-establishment music that spoke to disenfranchised youth, whether black, brown, or white.
Back then, Tooting was a far cry from the melting pot it is today, when a Chicken Shop and the Honest Burger on Tooting High Street stand out as exotic among the succession of South Asian restaurants. Indeed, for a "skinny little Asian kid" like UK Apache, the threat of a kicking was never far away.
"South London was rough with the National Front around," he says. "When we moved to Tooting we had things thrown at our house and neighbors called us 'Pakis.' White and black skinheads were out Paki-bashing, and sound system dances weren't welcoming to me—you could get bottled or bricked, and there was this chat: 'Who does he think he is? He thinks he's black.' I was just being who I was, and reggae was a way of talking to the people. All I ever wanted was to make music with a positive message and provide for my mum."
By 1990, Apache was making ripples in UK reggae with his debut release No Poll Tax and performing with Lord Gelly's Sound at Notting Hill Carnival. But like thousands of other inner city and suburban Londoners at the time, it wasn't long before he turned his attention to jungle.
"I instantly felt connected to jungle," he says. "It was British, and as much as I loved reggae, it was Jamaican. Jungle is where my name, UK Apache, came from. In reggae people used to call me Apache—as in Apache Indian—but jungle was UK, so I put UK in front of Apache and it fit like a jigsaw. It seemed God-sent."
UK Apache soon came across the work of a teenage Shy FX, in particular the Goodfellas-sampling "Gangsta Kid," and in 1994 they booked some time in a studio in Victoria. "Original Nuttah" was what emerged, and within months it was in the UK Top 40.
Yet, as "Original Nuttah" peaked, UK Apache walked away. Why?
"I felt people were trying to cheat me—I was confused and angry and I had no one to trust. It was too much pressure, so I stepped away," he says. "Major labels wanted an album, but it was a total mess—I'd fallen out with everyone. That was the start of my journey into Islam. Initially I was praying, studying, and performing 'Nuttah,' so I was doing the call to prayer at my masajid [mosque] in Tooting. During the day I was doing 'Allahu-Akbar' and at night singing 'na-ni-ni-whoa'—I lived that life for many years."
UK Apache may have left the music business behind, but he's aware that "Original Nuttah" is as much of an anthem now as it was in 1994. Taking the vocal melody, he's reimagined it as "I Was a Nuttah," a conscious reggae take on the original, with lyrics reflecting his age and faith.
UK Apache performing a sample of "I Was a Nuttah" for VICE
"I wrote 'I Was a Nuttah' because the message of unity, peace, and Islam is bigger than me, or any of the negative 'Original Nuttah' stuff. Its message is universal. For example, it talks about respecting youth—youth clubs have closed down, the cost of studying has gone up, the government want young people to be slaves, and in debt all their lives. It's madness," he says, shaking his head.
It's an especially shaky time for young Muslims in Britain, with political rhetoric and media coverage from certain newspapers making Islam out to be a threat to British values. It's depressingly reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s, when black boys were the boogiemen. Now it's brown boys with beards and brown women in hijabs and niqabs.
"Everyone is wondering why British Muslims are joining ISIS. I believe young Muslims feel alienated and lost, with nothing to hold on to. We all have a part to play—Muslims, non-Muslims, the government, and the media who only talk about Muslims in a negative way and never show us in a positive light. Muslims have the biggest part to play—especially mosques, because many are not run in the correct way, and I've experienced it myself. There are imams who are not qualified, because they are not from Britain and they don't speak a word of English. This is a disaster."
"Imams should be from Britain so they can relate to youth. If young Muslims don't get the correct understanding of Islam from a mosque or imam, they're going on the internet, where they can get wrong information and be groomed to do acts that are not Islamic."
Over the last couple of years, UK Apache's been trying to address the void between elders and youngsters by giving talks at mosques.
"In my time there weren't many gangs, but there was trouble around drugs and fights, and I've experienced these things," he explains. "Islam guides you in a positive, peaceful manner. It depends on how serious you are, but if you look to Islam it will guide you in the right way. So I've been sharing my experiences and relationship with Islam with the youth, and I always talk about unity and bringing people together."
Apache is acutely aware that one of the most effective means of connecting people is music. However, despite recording "I Was a Nuttah," it's far from certain whether or not he'll pursue music—even if it's in a spoken word or nasheed style (without any instruments, bar very basic percussion).
"Music is haram, and I don't want to lie because of my own desire. However, if I make the decision to do it, and live properly and well in other respects, that's on my head," he says. "There always seems to be someone who wants to hear 'I Was a Nuttah,' and it's been taking on a life of its own. Sometimes these things build over the years. It has a good message, so let's see where it goes and takes me—we'll leave it in the hands of the creator."
Follow Rahul Verma on Twitter.