Volume 4: Number 1, May 1 2000
Fan Mail: A Dossier
As part of this issue’s focus on culture and cultural politics in South
Asia and its diaspora, we solicited our readers to submit brief personal
reflections on cultural figures and works that matter to them. The following
pieces came in response to that invitation. We have called this special
section (only slightly flippantly) “Fan Mail,” because we are conscious
of the variety of ways in which culture and politics intersect in our
experience. Our critical, intellectual, and political responses to art
and culture tend to co-exist and intermingle with emotional, passionate,
or enthusiastic responses. In each of these pieces our contributors
write both as critics and activists and
as fans, telling us why works that matter are also works they love.
Or, in some cases, works that they love to hate!
Salaams to the Asian Dub Foundation for helping me get to sleep at night after I indulge myself in their riotous rhythms. And for giving me palpitations in the middle of the night as I think of Satpal Ram, who lies on a cold bed in an English prison on a life sentence. I first heard of Satpal from ADF’s single “Free Satpal Ram,” which now has pride of place in ADF's fine album, Rafi’s Revenge (1998). The song is beautiful, but it gives me nightmares: “beautiful nightmares,” as Salim Washington says of John Coltrane's music.
In 1986, while Satpal ate at a Birmingham restaurant, six white people attacked him. In the vicious melee, Satpal fought back with a small knife and was able to wound one of his assailants. The man, who refused medical attention, later died. Satpal was arrested and sentenced to life in prison by an all white jury. His situation prompts the fury of ADF’s words:
Convicted of murder but what was never mentioned
Self-defense was his only intention
ADF once again taking the stand
Witness the jailing of an innocent man
Kicking up a fuss ’cause it could happen to us
Time to join in the fight back
Because enough is enough!
Brother Satpal spends his jail time writing about the penal system, racism and poverty, like Mumia and Angela Davis. “In essence,” Satpal wrote in 1998, “as the gap between the rich and the poor becomes more visible, politicians on both sides of the political divide have been guilty of socially engineering the criminalization of working class communities throughout the land.” For those who want to join Brother Satpal and Sister Angela in the struggle against prisons, contact (in the US) Critical Resistance at 510-841-6317 or email@example.com and (in the UK) Satpal Ram, E94164, HMP Belmarsh, Western Way, Thamesmead, London SE28.
Meanwhile, my ears bleed from the sheer dynamism of Rage Against the Machine, Manu Chao of Mano Negra (whose Clandestino, 1998, should be a classic on the Left) and ADF. I’m vulgar enough to like them because they are partisans for social justice. But that is not all. Something in the sound makes me feel enthused and filled with the beautiful nightmare of protest: shall we sing your songs as we take to the streets, comrades?
For more on ADF and Satpal Ram, see other articles in this issue.