Back in the 1980s, Bradford born Aki Nawaz was known as the mysterious drummer in a gothic punk band called Southern Death Cult, crafting the kind of music that would make you want to crimp your hair, sigh regularly, draw stripes beneath your eyes, and wear one sequin glove. But when the group disbanded in 1983—and lead singer Ian Astbury moved on to form The Cult—the life of Aki Nawaz switched lanes.
There began a story that would take him from stylistic Yorkshire post-punk into the much harder realms of radical and political hip-hop, where he would find himself involved in sieges in Gaza, meeting with jihadists, attempting visits to Osama Bin Laden, vilified as a glorifier of terrorism on UK television, and now, into releasing his seventh album as the cult multi-ethnic hip-hop outfit Fun Da Mental.
"Yeah, I'm not a good Muslim, but I'm definitely not a bad one," says Nawaz, as we meet for lunch.
After the end of Southern Death Cult in the mid-80s, Nawaz moved to London and set up Nation Records, a label to house multicultural music with a focus on a youth audience, and consequently formed the rap group Fun-Da-Mental. They were dubbed "the Asian Public Enemy" by the British press, and forged a sound from a mixture of Pakistani, South African, and Siberian influences to make politically charged tracks that blended rap, punk, fusion and bhangra, targeted at a youth audience. Throughout the 90s, he became an early champion of fusion acts like Transglobal Underground and Asian Dub Foundation.
But it wasn't until his fifth album as Fun-Da-Mental, 2006's All is War (the Benefits of Jihad)—and when he turned his lyrical focus to things like suicide bombers, Western immorality and Osama Bin Laden—that Nawaz found himself moving into a bit more of a limelight.
"After 9/11, I observed how it went from people resolving issues to people going back to tribalism," he tells me. "It was like the West versus everybody else. In that whole landscape of madness, to me, everyone on all sides was a terrorist. I didn't look at a man in a suit and say he's less of a terrorist than someone wearing Arabic clothes in Afghanistan. Who are we if whatever we say is fascism and whatever you do is covered up in the terms of democracy."
The record was angry, provocative and aimed to tackle issues of racism, inequality, and hypocrisy, through the prism of radical Islam. Lyrics can often get artists into trouble, but few can say that contentious bars have led to politicians and the press accusing them of endorsing terrorism (unless, you're Tyler the Creator in the time of Theresa May).
One particular track, "Cookbook DIY" (below), gave specific instructions on how to make and deploy a homemade bomb. But it was less a how-to guide and more a stab at capturing the complicity of modern warfare. The video featured three characters, who each rapped a verse of the song: the first was a nationalist from neo-Nazi group Combat 18, the second a PhD student who had "learnt techniques from Pakistan and Iran," and the third a Western scientist engineering bombs inside some sort of White House laboratory.
"The song is about three people with different personalities, on three different levels of the class system," explains Nawaz, "It's as simple as that. The Muslims didn't invent bombing; the West invented it. The third verse answers everything: we are all terrorists. We contribute to the military through our taxes. I'm as much a part of it as you are. I'm admitting it and you're denying it, but you're killing more people than the people that you claim are killing you."
When The Guardian followed up the album's release with an article titled "G-Had and Suicide Bombers: The Rapper Who Likens Bin Laden to Che Guevara", the shit really hit the fan. They spoke with Nawaz about his music, pulled extracts from his most controversial lyrics, and mentioned the two executives from Nawaz's parent label Beggars Banquet who had threatened to resign over the release of his album. Within hours of it being published, Nawaz's phone started to ring, and it barely stopped ringing for four days.
The Labour MP Andrew Dismore had swiftly called for Nawaz to be prosecuted for glorifying terrorism, while the two label bosses at Beggars Banquet went through with their resignations. By pure coincidence, this all coincided with the anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, and Nawaz quickly became the hook for news articles and TV links about the sustained influence of extremism.
"On the Sunday morning of the week the Guardian article about All is War came out, I got a phone call from a good friend at the BBC, who told me to get a lawyer," he says. "I asked why and was told that there was a risk I would be getting arrested that afternoon. He said that Labour MP Roy Hattersley had been on the Heaven and Earth Programme and said I should be arrested."
Nawaz was dubbed "suicide bomb rap" by The Sun, and it escalated to a point where it was no longer safe for him to be seen out in public. His day to day life quickly became a prime example of the hasty hysteria that can surround topics such as extremism.
Nawaz has always denied that his music condones terrorism, instead saying that it promotes discussion and debate. He maintains the belief that many of the critics did not interpret All Is War correctly. "To me, the sheer audacity for the West to even talk about terrorism was a denial of their own history," he says. "The West can't get away with this. Even a few years ago, they were bombing places, doing this and that outside the Muslim sphere of stories. That was what All Is War was about."
"At one point, my heart dropped out of my arse because things got really dangerous," he says, reflecting back on that period. "One day, I was out and someone said, 'Oh, that's that fucking Paki, who's talking about bombs!' I couldn't travel on the London Underground for six months. Some people still give me stick now for it. There was no mechanism of support for people thrown into these situations. A couple of people helped me and I'm grateful, but a lot of mates put helmets on and fucked off into the trenches. They were scared. Where were those voices that usually stick up for innocent people who ran outside the regular box? None of the music industry cared. It was okay for The Clash, it was okay for The Pistols. It was even okay for Public Enemy. It was okay for all of those bands to say fuck you. Not me."
Much of Nawaz's inspiration for his songs comes from his time spent travelling, engaging in activism, and making documentaries abroad. Some of his stories from his time in the Balkans, Pakistan and Afghanistan have transferred into his music. During his time travelling, he met with extremists and jihadists. He even went to meet Osama Bin Laden in 1998. "We went right up to the border and we were going to interview him for an album called 'Erotic Terrorism'," he tells me. "There were a couple of people I knew in Pakistan who were socialist communists and they knew how we would get into Kabul and meet Osama Bin Laden."
But it didn't quite work out. When Nawaz and his band, along with some fixers, arrived at the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, they were not able to meet Bin Laden because the Americans had just bombed Kabul and the borders were closed. Why did Nawaz want to meet him in the first place? "We wanted to meet him to get his narrative of how he'd originally worked with the Americans to overthrow the Russians," Nawaz explains. In the news at the time, Robin Cook, the UK foreign secretary from 1997 to 2001, had alleged that the CIA had provided arms to the Arab Mujahideen, including Bin Laden.
Maybe Nawaz is unperturbed by his ordeal with the British press, or maybe it spurs him on, but since those early days of Fun-Da-Mental he has continued to throw himself into the issues he fights for. In 2008, he was on a boat of activists that were some of the first to successfully break the siege in Gaza that August. "We spent four weeks on sea getting chased by intelligence agencies and being scared we were going to be bombed by Mossad," he tells me, "The last time it was done, Mossad bombed the whole expedition."
According to Nawaz, his new record, A Philosophy Of Nothing, has travelled deeper into his experiences of persecution, particularly in the years since All Is War, including his experiences in the Balkans, Pakistan and Gaza. A track titled "Man Gotta Do What A Man Gotta Do" mocks the idea of tabloid journalists trying to put a spin on stories and omitting certain parts of interviews to change the context. But all of them come from Nawaz's real life events, and his experience with Western media and its depiction of terrorism.
Does Nawaz feel like his band has been successful in delivering the right message to listeners? "We don't have the privilege of success measuring," he says. "If we were a 'white' indie alternative band, I think the information and narratives we speak about would be entertained far more broadly." Nawaz says that this is due to a psyche of a society that's been so contaminated by prejudice, that it only hears opinions from a dominant position.
But he doesn't bemoan his position. In his mind, the new album crosses a lot of barriers that All Is War hid behind. Nevertheless, he's still happy to be challenged on his older work. "To a certain degree, we can measure the response to Fun-Da-Mental from the people within our communities, and all I can say is that whether we meet a dishwasher or an elder, they encourage us to speak in the manner we do about issues. That is success for us."
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