Fatima Al Qadiri is fighting the good fight with brute force

Fatima Al Qadiri’s second full-length album begins with an audio clip of a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) blasting the words: “you are no longer peacefully assembling.”

Initially intended for military application, LRADs are incredibly powerful amplification systems used to communicate sounds across vast distances, increasingly used nowadays as crowd-control devices by inducing inhumane levels of sonic discomfort and even deafness. They’re not an uncommon sight at mass protests in New York City – where the Kuwait-raised Al Qadiri lived for over a decade during her college years and beyond.

It isn’t the first time Al Qadiri has explored the concept of unrest in her music. In 2012, the now 34-year-old artist released Desert Strike, a conceptual EP centred on Al Qadiri’s paradoxical first-hand experiences of both the 1990 Invasion of Kuwait and of a childhood spent playing popular 1992 video game Desert Strike (widely recognised as a thinly veiled mimesis of Operation Desert Storm).

In a different way, Al Qadiri’s debut full-length album was also inherently political: Asiatisch was a “simulated road trip through an imagined China” and an interrogation of the West’s skewed perceptions of Asia, in the form of a musical homage to ephemeral London micro-genre sino-grime. But it’s Al Qadiri’s latest effort, Brute (released on Hyperdub in March), that is perhaps her most politically powerful release to date. A tribute to the act of protest, Brute provides the chilling soundtrack to a very real world in which police brutality repeatedly claims both headlines and human lives.

In the lead-up to Fatima Al Qadiri’s pair of Australian shows – on Friday 10 June at Howler, and in Sydney on Saturday 11 June at Oxford Art Factory – inthemix’s SARA SAVAGE got on the phone to Kuwait’s most exciting electronic export.

Before your Australian tour dates were announced, I used to joke that maybe you weren’t coming to Australia as a form of protest against our own fucked-up government.
No, I don’t judge the people by their government! That’s too cruel. I separate the people from their governments.

So what did bring on your first trip to Australia?
It was actually a last-minute offer. I was supposed to be at Manifesta, this European art biennial in Zurich, on the same dates I’ll be in Australia, and I had to cancel it to come to Australia. But I figured I’m gonna have to come there at some point.

I’m interested to know whether you envision your latest album Brute as being timeless, or whether you think it represents a specific moment in time or a specific place. I know there’s specific contexts involved – Ferguson, Baltimore, and Occupy Wall Street – but there seems to be something kind of ageless or placeless about the album, at least compared to the Desert Strike EP or Asiatisch.
I do think I’m trying to approach it from an atemporal perspective, because I think the protest is a timeless act against authoritarian regimes and strategies. But I think the thing that’s more timely is the militarisation of police – you know, if you think about the function of the National Guard in the States, the militarised crackdown of protest in America has been around since at least the 1960s.

So I think [the album] is marking the technological advances in the militarisation of police not just in the States but in the rest of the world. I’ve been witnessing this crush of protest over decades. I agree that [Brute] exists in an atemporal setting because it’s something that’s going to continue to happen, and that has been happening for a very, very long time. It’s just that the technology changes – the means of crushing dissent changes with time – like the use of the LRAD, which no one could have envisioned 20 years ago.

By contrast, I suppose, was there one event in particular that brought on the creation of Brute?
I definitely think it was the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Trayvon Martin, who’s kind of the beginning of that timeline and of my observance of the relationship between the police and the Black community in the States.

It’s so interesting that you see these protests and they just kind of inhabit these grey areas of your mind, but seeing Trayvon Martin – which by the way, I witnessed on Twitter, it’s not like I saw it personally – seeing that brought everything else I had witnessed into the fore, and I started to see a connection between all of them, even though they had all happened for different reasons.

They all have a common thread: this relentless crushing of dissent through a militarised police force. It’s also the strategy in which the police and the media dehumanise the activities of the people involved.

It’s funny you mention witnessing protests on Twitter, because I think your previous releases can be characterised by their sense of distance from the subjects at hand – like a self-imposed distance that makes you a kind of wordless narrator. I wondered if you see Brute in a similar light?
I think with Brute it’s both. I’ve witnessed and participated in protests over years of living in the States, and I’ve also experienced protests as an observer via the internet. I think the reason I’m so infuriated by the way dissent is crushed is because I’ve witnessed protests in person – they’re not like alien activities that I’ve never had anything to do with.

“I have a very emotional relationship to instrumental music.”

If you’re talking about the Desert Strike EP, where I witnessed and experienced a real thing [the invasion of Kuwait; the Gulf War] but then it’s repackaged in an alien, virtual-reality format [the 1992 video game Desert Strike]… the difference between that and Twitter is that Twitter is a tool of disseminating information, and disseminating dissent. I think the expression of dissent online is a worthwhile activity. There’s obviously degrees to which it can be criticised and pulled apart, but what can’t be?

I use Twitter a lot too, and while I like to think of it as a kind of ‘democratising’ medium, I know that it isn’t, and I know it’s a very specific cross-section of society that has the privilege of using it. But I’m so grateful that it’s there, because on Facebook, by comparison, to-the-minute news – especially about protests and riots – can get buried in the algorithms.
Yeah, I mean I definitely use Twitter like my news update channel. I think it’s extremely valuable for that purpose, and the way hashtags are used with news is really valuable. I don’t have that with any other medium or network.

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For someone with a background in Linguistics, there’s decidedly few words in the music you make, which is interesting I guess because traditionally ‘protest music’ is pretty lyrical. Does your Linguistics background inform your work at all?
I think I’m attracted to the very abstract language of music. I have a very emotional relationship to instrumental music. I don’t think I’m a writer or a lyricist to the extent that I have the confidence to write lyrics. A lot of lyrics are verging on poetry, whereas linguistics is such a dry subject – it’s devoid of poetry! Of course I learned some extremely valuable things from studying Linguistics, but as far as informing a poetic side of me or a lyrical side of me, it has absolutely no bearing, unfortunately.

I suppose in Brute you rely on the various samples used to provide the verbal landscape, which is incredibly powerful.

“When I listen to this record I think of the bleakest possible designs and architecture”

Yes. I think the titles of the records are important too, like with Asiatisch and Brute. The similarities of the records are in their titles: one word that contains a complex array of meanings that I wanted to dissect in the music.

I remember reading awhile ago that you said the world depicted in Asiatisch is a world of Brutalist architecture made of jade. What architectural landscape do you envision within the world of Brute?
It would be too easy to say this record happens in a world of Brutalism! But I think Brute is definitely in the realm of a concrete jungle. It’s a desolate, concretised, treeless, nature-less area. It’s depressingly urban – and I love urban architecture and areas, but when I listen to this record I think of the bleakest possible designs and architecture. And I think you can hear that.

BBE pres. Fatima Al Qadiri tour dates

Friday June 10 – Howler, Melbourne
Saturday June 11 – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney

Sara Savage is a writer, editor and broadcaster based in Melbourne. Find her on Twitter.