Volume 4: Number 1, May 1 2000
Move: On Asian Dub Foundation
by John Hutnyk
‘We Ain’t Ethnic, Exotic
Asian Dub Foundation, “Jericho” (Facts and Fictions, 1995)
Sometimes the convoluted histories of ‘culture’ confound all too easy assumptions about cultural products and may surprise critics—especially where practitioners appear more informed and astute, or wryly ironic, than the commentators would credit.
It is of course necessary to be cautious in discussing culture industry product as some sort of indicator, with special tactical and strategic importance, of revolutionary and world-transforming activity. At the same time, it is important to take seriously what a group like Asian Dub Foundation are trying to do, and not to fall immediately into purity police-sanctioned gut-response rejections. ADF ‘like their politics’ (Huq, Footloose Magazine, March 1998) and ‘theirs is a no compromise in your face agitation. They offer the revolution on twelve inch plastic, on CD, and on cassettes’ (anonymous reviewer, Soundbox, November 1997 ). When the New Musical Express managed to reassure us of initial fears that ‘Asian Dub Foundation were another “global techno” disaster waiting to happen’, the exoticising curio focus of such a paper was plain to see, even as the success of the band challenged the ‘received wisdom’ that ‘no-one would be interested in an Asian dub group preaching political change’ (NME, May 9, 1998). The give-away word here which condemns the NME is ‘preaching’, a label often allocated to hard to categorise—that is to say, politically difficult—rap. Q Magazine writer, Gillespie, found the album Rafi’s Revenge even more threatening, saying that ADF liked ‘to gleefully bludgeon home messages (“Assassin”, “Hypocrite”, “Free Satpal Ram”) with full-pelt breakbeats, shouty vocals, guitar/sample viscerality and some warped injection of Indian folksounds that would send their dads into apoplexy’ (Q Magazine, May 1998). Already the well-rehearsed stereotypes of Asians in Britain stuck in the second-generation caught-between-two-cultures routine explanation clashes loudly with the content of ADF’s work.
ADF in many ways fit the profile of any successful contemporary international music act. The band is fronted by Deedar (vocals) who raps in ways indebted to a politics learnt from an older generation. Much of their shared lyric writing draws on diverse experience and several years in other bands (ADF came out of the sound system milieu that included Jah-bhangra, in which Master D had an early role and from which State of Bengal and Fun^Da^Mental also emerged). Other members confirm that this history is an important aspect of coherence for the band’s project: Chandrasonic (guitars), Dr Das (bass), Pandit G (decks), and Sun-J (technology and keyboards) complete the line-up. Perhaps a little more unusual, but not without precedent in Britain, has been ADF’s enthusiastic support for various ‘causes’. Their first gig was at a benefit for Quaddas Ali at the Hackney Empire in 1994 (Fighting Talk, April 1998).[i] After an EP, Conscious, on the Aki Nawaz-initiated Nation label, the first album in 1995, Facts and Fictions, achieved moderate success (see Sharma 1996). The next year they recorded the soundtrack for an anti-racist CD-Rom produced by the Institute of Race Relations (who publish the journal Race and Class).[ii] In 1997 they released the album R.A.F.I in France. The extent of ADF’s international appeal reaches into special publications in Germany (Trax No 6 1998), several websites in France and even one in Japan,[iii] invitations to work in New Zealand, Canada, great appeal in the USA, radio shows in Australia (2SER), and a fan base that grows exponentially and attracts good publicity not only for the band but also for the music project in which they honed their skills, East London’s Community Music.[iv] Here is where they differ considerably from most music industry outfits. Like Fun^Da^Mental or The Levellers, ADF are connected to a range of social projects and campaign groups in a way that goes beyond the odd vox pop appearance in support of the occasional good cause. The band’s musical style was formed in the context of the music workshop located in Farringdon, and as is often emphasized, in the East End of London: ADF’s involvement with Community Music is more than as a contribution to an ‘outreach’ programme, but is explicitly linked to education, consolidation and politicisation work among youth of the East End. This work began with a programme in music making and media, MIDI techniques in a live situation, performance skills and mixing.
Community projects infuse many other aspects of ADF’s work in a context that would understand anti-racism in Britain in continuity with the struggle against imperialism world-wide. It is for this reason that their music celebrates such figures as Udham Singh for his revenge against the assassin of Amritsar,[v] and the Naxalite revolutionaries, as they remind us that their ‘memories are long’ (“Naxalite”). That tracks like “Naxalite” are played across Europe to audiences not necessarily addressed by all the content of these commemorations is possibly irrelevant in a context where ADF’s music industry success channels funding in turn back into the community music project (‘Your pockets will be empty but you won’t know why ... its a long term plan, teaching is the framework’—“Hypocrite”, 1997).[vi]
What sort of community project? These might be the dimensions of an understanding of ADF’s politics of space: First of all we would need to address the racial conflict endemic to the ‘streets’ of East London, and by extension other overlooked sites of state racism in Britain and beyond. Here it is important to acknowledge the ways another track on the album, “Free Satpal Ram”, has raised the profile of the campaign to seek justice for a man imprisoned for defending himself from racist attack by white thugs.[vii] The success of ADF in bringing the Free Satpal Ram Campaign to wider attention is evidenced in feature articles such as one in the magazine Dazed and Confused (May 1998). ADF have also contributed to campaigns around the 1994 Criminal Justice Act (Hutnyk 1996), against Operation Eagle Eye (a police crackdown on ‘muggers’), and numerous other UK campaigns. But it is important to not reduce ADF to an insular British context, as the forms of political mobilisation they advocate are also linked to the subcontinent at the same time that they bear upon community organisation and education in the UK.
Their call for a revolutionary political unity—for example in the tracks “Black White” (1998) or in “Rebel Warrior” (1995)—is made in the face of ongoing racialised violence and inequality evident in everyday experience in their neighbourhood and across the UK, and the whole of Fortress Europe. What is important here is that ADF persevere with their use of music as an organising tool despite the protocols of the music industry, culturalist commentators and the State force arrayed against them and like-minded activists. They perform for a cultural politics that does not drown us all in a bland world music masala culture, but which respects and acts with unity in difference in pursuit of justice, social transformation, and an end to tyranny.
John teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths College, London.
Banerjea, Koushik and Barn, Jatinder, 1996. ‘Versioning Terror: Jallianwala Bagh and the Jungle.’ In Sharma, Hutnyk, and Sharma, eds., Dis-Orienting Rhythms.
Hutnyk, John, 1996. ‘Repetitive Beatings or Criminal Justice.’ In Sharma, Hutnyk, and Sharma, eds., Dis-Orienting Rhythms.
Hutnyk, John, 1997. ‘Adorno at Womad: South Asian Crossover Music and the Limits of Hybridity-talk.’ In Werbner and Modood, eds., Debating Cultural Hybridity, Zed Books, London.
Kalra, Virinder, Hutnyk, John and Sharma, Sanjay, 1996. ‘Re-Sounding (Anti)Racism or Concordant Politics: Revolutionary Antecedents.’ In Sharma, Hutnyk, and Sharma, eds., Dis-Orienting Rhythms.
Kalra, Virinder and Hutnyk, John, 1998. ‘Brimful of Agitation, Authenticity and Appropriation: Madonna’s “Asian Kool”,’ Postcolonial Studies 3.
Kaur, Raminder, 1999. ‘Skinned Alive,’ In Kaur, Raminder and Hutnyk, John, eds., Travel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics, Zed Books, London.
Sharma, Sanjay, 1996. ‘Noisy Asians or Asian Noise?’ In Sharma, Hutnyk, and Sharma, eds., Dis-Orienting Rhythms.
Sharma, Sanjay, Hutnyk, John and Sharma, Ashwani, eds., 1996. Dis-Orienting Rhythms: the Politics of the New Asian Dance Music, Zed Books, London.
[i] Fighting Talk is the magazine of Anti-Fascist Action, UK National Office Tel: 0976 406 870. Quaddas Ali: yet another black man in Britain brutally attacked by a gang of racist thugs—mentioned in the Hustlers HC lyric “Vigilante.” See Dis-Orienting Rhythms (Sharma et al, 1996).
[ii] Race and Class is available from the Institute of Race Relations, Owen Eyles, 92 High St, Berkhamsted, Herts, HP4 2BL, UK.
[iv] Get in touch with Community Music via the web: http://www.communitymusic.org/.
[v] Udham Singh is celebrated for taking out the then repatriated Brigadier General Dyer, who had officiated over the mass slaughter of Jallianwala Bagh (see Banerjea and Barn 1996, Kaur 1999). ADF’s lyric: ‘A bullet to his head won’t bring back the dead, but it will lift the spirit of my people’ (“Assassin,” 1998).
[vi] No doubt “Naxalite” has a different and more complicated reading (hearing) when delivered via cable and satellite music television stations to India. A discussion of dance music and satellite infotainment systems in Asia is the subject of a work in progress to be called: “Semi-Feudal Cyber-Colonialisms: Digital Dancing and Technology/Techno in Asia” in a book to be called Adorno at Womad (Hutnyk forthcoming, Pluto Press).
[vii] Presently Satpal Ram is in his eleventh year of imprisonment in the racist UK prison system. At a Birmingham restaurant in November 1986 Satpal was attacked by six whites, one of whom glassed him in the face. This attacker was injured as Satpal defended himself and this man later died after refusing medical treatment. In British Law, self-defence is no offence, but Satpal was imprisoned for murder. An appeal was heard, but rejected, in November 1995. The Free Satpal campaign address is: Free Satpal Campaign, c/o Handsworth Law Centre, 101 Villa Rd, Birmingham, B19 1NH England.
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