In the middle of my interview with Fatima Al Qadiri, which I'm conducting over Skype on a park bench, a low-flying police helicopter flies over my head, cutting off our conversation. The intrusion almost feels like a divine intervention, the roaring thwacks of its blades a chilling reminder that the themes we're discussing—neoliberal fascism and the increasing militarization of America's law enforcement—aren't just abstract concepts, but our living reality. Qadiri picks up on the significance of this moment immediately. "It's very appropriate," she says with a low chuckle.
Brute, out on Hyperdub in early March, is Qadiri's second full-length. With its sampled recordings of political rallies and a ubiquitous feeling of despair conjured by icy, grime-influenced synths, apocalyptic bass growls and minor chord progressions, it's perhaps her most hard-hitting release to date. The album is a tribute to political protest—a fundamental freedom that Qadiri believes is under threat—with track names like "10-34" (police code for a riot), "Curfew," and "Blows." It even begins with an audio clip of riot police using a sonic weapon called a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD)—which blasts warnings across further distances and at higher volumes than normal loudspeakers— to announce: you are no longer peacefully assembling.
The Senegal-born, Kuwait-raised DJ, producer, and conceptual artist is no stranger to politically oriented work; she's part of two collectives that celebrate cultural diversity and regional sounds—the supergroup Future Brown with J-Cush and Nguzunguzu, as well as GCC, a crew of Arab artists from the Gulf region. But though the issues that Brute takes on are universally applicable, this time around, Qadiri's eye is trained on her adopted home of America, using the recent protests in Ferguson, Baltimore, and beyond as source material for her powerful commentary on the fraught state of power and politics today.
THUMP: I had a dream last night that we were hanging out under this beautiful cherry blossom tree. You had to leave, and I started weeping. Then suddenly you turned into a white man.
Fatima Al Qadiri: [Laughs] That would be an awesome superpower to have in the music industry. It's probably never going to happen, but I wanted to make a record using an American male persona called Frank Quandary. It's a name I think I would have as an American white guy.
Many of my favorite producers actually work under female names, like SOPHIE, Patricia, and Suzanne Kraft. I feel like they're doing it to distance themselves from the white male stereotype. To "queer" themselves and be like, "I'm not like the system, I'm different."
For sure. Wanting to appear non-hegemonic—it's a pretty basic punk move, you know?
Speaking of hegemony, your album Brute is a pretty powerful commentary on authoritarianism in America and the increasingly militarized police state. How did the idea come about?
It's been a long time coming, but it's been exacerbated. I actually started writing it while I had this knee injury last year, and I was stuck in my room in Kuwait for a month because I couldn't walk. I was basically on Twitter the whole time, stuck in a horrific news cycle. I had already been so moved by what was happening in the States, with the events of Ferguson, Baltimore, etc. So I started to write really angry and despairing music, and just decided this is the subject that I want [the album] to be about. I also saw it as a challenge. Protest music is a real genre, and there have been a lot of seminal protest records. I just feel like this is a subject that's moving a lot of people right now.
It's interesting that you wrote the album in Kuwait, observing America on TV and through Twitter. It seems like there's a distance—or at least some kind of mediation between what's happening and your reflection on it.
I know what it looks like. I've seen police brutality first-hand, and I've been harassed by the police. It's also a really universal subject. The subject I'm trying to address is that protest in the West is diminishing as a right. Freedom of assembly is the last recourse in a [corrupted] democracy where you can't do anything anymore, and voting doesn't help. The other day, I was talking to a Spanish journalist, and found out there was an anti-protest law passed in Madrid a year ago. So instead, [the activists] played a hologram of the protest.
It's mind-boggling. You can't make this shit up. People that live in the West don't think they live in authoritarian regimes, but I'm seeing it more and more with the militarized police, etc. It looks like authoritarianism to me—and I know what it looks like.
From what I understand, you also sampled a lot of police protests.
There are three main vocal samples on the record. They're all YouTube videos. One of them is a live recording of Ferguson, which is the first track "Endzone." Then there's "Blows," which has an MSNBC news anchor talking about Occupy Wall Street. And the third one is an interview with an ex-LAPD sergeant, Cheryl Dorsey, about the police and power. I didn't want to overwhelm the record with samples. I wanted the bare minimum just to illustrate the context, to set the tone.
The subject I'm trying to address is that protest in the West is diminishing as a right.
You also have sounds of police scanners and sirens in there.
Oh yeah. Effects are a whole bunch of samples, obviously. I'm not recording gunshots in my bedroom; I don't have access to a police scanner.
I went to Baltimore recently to make a short documentary about protest music. I met these producers who were watching the protests on web streams, and would take little chunks of sounds and make these really awesome Baltimore club tracks.
That's amazing. Like I said, protest music is a genre. My understanding of it is Marvin Gaye "What's Goin On?" But I'm not a lyricist. I make largely instrumental music, and it's definitely challenging because obviously the more verbal information you have, the more concrete the mood or the message. I already felt like the artwork on the cover and the titles of the tracks were so literal. The three vocal samples are pretty literal. So I just wanted to step back and have some areas that are open to interpretation.
Speaking of the cover art, what is your relationship to the artist Josh Kline? Was there a moment when you saw his work "Po Po," and were like, "I'm going to use this"?
I met Josh in 2003, so we've known each other for a while. He's a good friend and an amazing artist. I don't know if you saw the show at the New Museum. Basically, there was a video with Obama, several Teletubby sculptures, and the music playing in the room was a version of the "Star Spangled" track that I did. When I saw the exhibition, I was working on the record and was like, this is a very iconic image, I want to use it. But I have to say, if you see the original image and what [art director] Babak Radboy did to it, [the album cover] is a thousand times creepier than the original.
So Babak made it even more fucked up, basically?
There are hairs on the face of the Teletubby, broken veins, and chapped lips. He Frankensteined it. He gave it life. He took something that was an object, and made it into a living, breathing monster.
Did you come up with the tracks or the album concept first?
I basically wrote half the record, then "concretized" the concept and wrote the other half. "Blood Moon" is probably the earliest track on the record, then "Aftermath, "Fragmentation," and "Reach." The first half contained these dual themes of despair and rage. The angrier tracks came after. "10-34" and "Oubliette" came at the end.
I love "Oubliette." I just looked up that word this morning—it's a type of underground prison with a hole at the top, right?
It comes from the French word "oublier," which means "to forget." I'm drawn to the idea that a prison is a place where you forget time and space. It's like living in a black hole, or worse. I feel like prisoners are forgotten—by the general population, by the state. So I like the idea of this word that contains forgetfulness and imprisonment at the same time.
Does Brute provide any sort of look towards how we can get out of our current political hellhole? Or is it a cynical album?
No, it's not a cynical album. I don't do anything cynical. I feel like the best that you can do as an artist is not let people forget—just have works that are reminders. I'm a huge fan of history, and I feel like a lot of my records deal with [historical themes]. Desert Strike dealt with a historical, very specific moment. Asiatisch dealt with a larger history of China and the projection of ideas and stereotypes onto China.
Before Brute, I attended my first large-scale protest in the States in 1999, as a freshman in college. It was the IMF World Bank protest. I have never seen more cops in my entire life. There were cops on horses, on bicycles, on bikes, in cars, and helicopters. I had a very rude awakening; the illusions of American democracy were destroyed almost immediately.
When you say "an illusion of democracy," what you mean is that the rights that are promised by a democracy are not actually extended to us, right?
Basically, yeah. You have to realize that this curbing of protest is not a new thing. We have been spoon-fed this PR idea of American or Western democracy. And the more that people explicitly talk about it being a fantasy, the better it will be for the population. It's about being aware of historical precedents, and not being duped by PR people telling you this is a real democracy, and that you have rights.
I went to an Underground Resistance talk at PS1 a while back and asked "Mad" Mike Banks why UR hasn't come up with a response to all the Black Lives Matter protests going on now. He was like, "We don't need to comment on the present because we're building solutions for the future." It was a futurist perspective.
Each artist has his own way of dealing—or not dealing—with the present. I feel like I rarely want to capture something in the present, but as I told you, it isn't about the present; it's about the past, present, and future. This is something that I first encountered in 1999 in America, and also in 2003, when I was in New York City during the protests against the invasion of Iraq. It was un-fucking-believable how the NYPD responded; I will never forget it. We were in Times Square, and there was a line of riot cops walking in unison, stomping their boots, and grunting towards us. It felt like we were in a sci-fi movie.
One thing that people take for granted is this notion of freedom of assembly, which I have never taken for granted because I come from a country where freedom of assembly is not granted. It was so important to have the first words uttered in the record: "You are no longer peacefully assembled." Like this cop is insisting that the assembly is not peaceful. It could be the most peaceful assembly on fucking planet Earth, but he's insisting that it's not.
I don't do anything cynical. I feel like the best that you can do as an artist is not let people forget.
How important is peaceful protest? Is the destruction of property and violent protest unconditionally a bad thing?
There's a very grey area between peaceful and violent protest. Property has something to do with it, because ultimately, it's about income inequality. Property is the ultimate commodity in capitalism, and the destruction of property is kind of like a ritualistic act against capitalism. I'm definitely not sad when corporate property is destroyed [laughs]. I don't give a fuck when the CVS is destroyed.
When I went to the CVS in Baltimore, it was still boarded up and covered in graffiti. It's almost become like a monument.
That's actually what I was thinking about when I said CVS. But it's only a matter of time before a boarded-up property turns into a gleaming, shiny, building.
Which I guess goes back to your earlier point about how important it is to remember and to remind people.
Exactly. Baltimore, Philly, Ferguson, and more cities across America have been deprived of opportunity, rights, income, you name it. So I feel like that's where this notion of peaceful versus violent protest is called into question, especially when you have militarized police force. You're up against humvees, armored personnel—you couldn't even hope to "defeat" this force anyway. So I think that the destruction of property is more [symbolic]. It's literally like burning your bra.
Why did you pick Hyperdub to release this album?
Because I feel like they have given me as an artist more freedom than anyone else has. So I always go with the most free [option]. I'm a control freak when it comes to my music, and the idea of anyone messing with it just drives me crazy.
The militant, grime-influenced sounds and political overtones on Brute remind me of [Hyperdub boss] Kode9's last album and his writings on sonic warfare.
We have a lot of interests in common, for sure. He's written about the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) before, so it's not unusual for you to think that. But I basically gave Kode9 the record when it was 99% finished.
Now that this album is out, what are you doing next?
Ugh, I have like four records that I want to finish. But the next record is extremely gay. I feel like records move between the light and the dark. The next one is very light. I mean it still has an undercurrent of darkness, but it's extremely gay. But it's "gulf-gay," not "white-gay."
I love it. Well, thanks so much for your time. I'm glad you didn't turn into a white man at the end.
Ahh, that's so crazy [laughs]. Maybe one day I will.
Brute is out on Hyperdub on March 4, 2016
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor at THUMP. Follow her on Twitter.