An Eastern Spring: Memoir Of A Second Generation Immigrant. The Final Part.
, May 6th, 2011 10:01
Neil Kulkarni brings his brilliant series to a close by dismantling the racism of pop music
A thousand apologies. It’s too late, too early for that. It’s the right time for this. Voice of the century. Changes everyday.
Everyday I reject and disown whatever I said yesterday. Everyday I realise that turning yourself inward too much, endlessly asking “who you are” (am I black am I white am I gay am I straight am I a feminist... the excuses for inertia this endless navel-gazing gives you) might just be a crutch, that perhaps it’s more important to realise who you are is best proven by what you do, your part in the struggle and everything else. My England was not your England, although we shared its streets, a laugh, a smoke, a drink; you’ve been my best friend. But right now, stretched out under the same orange skies as you, watching night get its brightness and contrast pumped back into dawn’s undimming by a remote god’s remote control, we both must see that this is our England now - to be fought for, to be defended against itself. It’s an England holding a torch for a Britannic imperial past built on exploitation, slavery, colonialism, indenture and immigration. It’s an England perhaps only just waking up to how ideas rather than economics are what makes racism real these days, how racist idea and racist act are so difficult to delineate in this intermediary state we’re in between flesh’n’bone and fibre-optic. What we’re seeing in 2011 repeatedly from press and politicians is an attempt to slap on, impose from above a sense of British values on the nation, almost entirely cosmetic, and yet fanning embers that glow with shame and fear and division and street-level nastiness. In 2011 my Marathi-song reveries are imbued with a yearning, a desire for escape I might’ve thought would’ve lifted by the time I was 40. Didn’t work out that way. Need to hide now more than ever. Easier to dance alone than pretend you belong. Both are bad habits.
The new Islamophobia is the theoretical & rhetorical arm of racism in 2011, the rationale that justifies what’s currently seething on our streets, and we can’t allow the battle against those ideas to undermine or over-intellectualise that concrete daily struggle. Any immigrant - second gen or otherwise - has to realise that, increasingly, Britishness isn’t held together by anything coherent, but more stitched up by fear of an enemy within, whether that fear is found in the sophistry of the liberal middle-classes or the redtop tactics of the tabloids and the EDL. Britain, like so much of old Europe, lusts for the brands and ravishments of globalisation but can’t stomach seeing the new-folk it brings: politically, racism is still useful to every party as a way of explaining hardship, promising redemption through toughness. Of course, Pakis - Marathi, Punjabi, Sikh, or Gujurati - are as guilty as anyone else in accepting the current racialization of religion, perpetuating it in the temple and the gurdwara and the street. We’re not talking about easily search-lit fascists anymore: the classless suffusion of Islamophobia from the graffiti on the walls to Hindu Sikh pamphleteering to the prime-ministers speeches shows how the politics of fear is currently winning the hearts and minds of all classes in this country, whether it’s bourgeois fear of the immolation of a spurious national culture or working-class fear of aliens thieving jobs, homes, shops and their kids futures.
In my lifetime, shit’s not got better, not progressed. There is no moving on. Shit’s got WORSE as institutions find better ways to hide their inveterate prejudice, as individuals turn the mere suggestion that they might have to moderate their language and behaviour into an angry retaliatory rejection of political care that liberates the inner bigot, more free than s/he’s ever been to walk this sceptred isle smearing their racist shit on the ever-growing walls between us. It’s down to us to dismantle and destroy the bullshit being built in the name of Britishness, whether it’s in black and white on a newspaper page or policy draft, or between black and white people on the street, on the march, on the rampage. The more I listen to the music of my parents youth, the less I feel like getting trapped in my past, the more I feel like taking a leaf from their courage and clarity of purpose. In 2011 the politics of identity cannot trap us inside ourselves when there are battles out the front door, when the apparatus of the state is becoming so informed by whom the fuck THEY think WE are. The word shouted at me 10 years ago was bomber, and until last week, Osama was quite a common one too. To the English idiot, any Asian could be a Muslim, every Muslim is a fundamentalist, and anyone wearing a headscarf or a beard a malefactor within the gates.
It’s not art’s duty to combat that idiocy. But great Asian art does so all the time. Crucially, Indian music at its best reminds me that I had music before I had words or categories for it: at its best, it suggests to me that it’s time I shut the fuck up about music and spend a few years just listening. Care less about having the final word than exploring those moments for which there aren’t words, let those folk who mistake music for the accumulation of taste have their lists and lineages and things You Must Hear Before You Die. Get busy finding out what and HOW I must hear before I can start living again.
Before we surrender to brand-Britannia, everyone in the fortress should be wary of how our new god 'the market' tries to erase history, peddles false pasts, confines what can be said. Post 9-11, white English pop should feel fucking ashamed of itself that it’s allowed this creeping fear and loathing to become mainstream with nary a whisper against, no counter-statement bar an endlessly bleated insistence that race doesn’t matter, that the ‘universality’ of songs about fucking relationships and romance is enough of a response. I learned to write about music in a 30 floor building filled with magazine-offices, one of about 4 to 5 people who were black/Asian and weren’t pushing a tea-trolley about. I don’t think those ratios have changed much since. The pop industry is racist because pop is founded in a racist country, the US - rock & roll was the process whereby the stink of slavery got forgot by some, driven home harder to others, sometimes seemingly/magically absconded but never really left, unspoken now but still the template of the entertainment power-structure we all suckle from. Rock & roll’s initial pleasure lay precisely in its essentially failed cultural tourism, white rednecks hampered in their attempts to play black music, vacillating between self-realisation and denial.
And in that failure, that furnace of history... such joy and greatness, sure, but don't forget the hierarchy, don't forget the segregation, the assumed superiority, the backdrop, the racial COLLISION at the heart of rock & roll's birth pangs, and the unmannered, brutal way that collision unpicked itself, the enduring way western pop is still pretending that hostilities are at a cessation. The gap-year pastiche playfulness with the bloody roots of pop now being enacted by the middle-class currently dominating UK music (artists, industry & press) serves to render all history equally neutered, recast in a world where ‘only the song’ or ‘only the passion’ matters. Fuck that. In the beginning of pop was that n-word I can’t say (a word I still find offensive, especially when jokingly quoted by non-African Americans) and we’re all here as a result. 60 years on since the Empire, since the birth of pop, the current instant-availability of all music forces some questions on all of us. And sometimes the answers can come from the most unlikely sources.
We’re slowly coming to terms with the fact that music’s history is longer than that of the recording industry, that we’re all back in a world where musicians travel, throw their cap down, hope for the best. The Marathi music I’ve been listening to and loving my whole life came to my ears via the magic of recording - was only accessible to this distant whelp through the technology bought to my parents’ homeland (India) by the putsch of MY homeland (Britain). But what this music proves is that there’s something older than empires - something inherent and intrinsic to the way music is made and used in the East - that might just be the only way forward for western musicians, the only way out of these ruins. Further, with the old music of the West we have to remember what internal patterns of conquest and exploitation were going on within our borders - we're fucking chumps if we just sup up the endless gold of pop’s past without tasting the brackish backdrop, smell the charnel-house smoke, realising who was gaining and who losing in this evil deal. Now the entire history of recorded-sound is a click away, we need to be more careful than ever to notice who and what is getting played when the needle drops or the laser lingers or the file gets playlisted, what deeper part of history is getting forgot in our agility over its wreckage.
And if that relationship at pop's heart, the conversation and confrontation between black and white IS played out, does pop music even exist anymore on that battleground? Or is it confined and imprisoned, paralysed by it's refusal to see the blinkered mess it's in, the back-story we can never read again because the future-now is all that is foregrounded? Pop is a racial wound unhealed, and I’m in no mood to make light, forget, and pretend it ain’t so. I have no sunny reminiscence to offer up, no self-pity stronger than my self-loathing, no amusing Anglo-Indian juxtapositions that could stretch to a half-hour of comedy, no community I grew from except for a secret society keeping something Vedic alive, something in Sanskrit, dying tongues and mantras only my kind could say or understand, no-one to thank bar my parents, in love, who made me a home, once they’d changed their names for ease of pronunciation, once they’re realised how resistance isn’t a single act but a lifelong act of being.
Caught by the old ghosts, dimly guinea-pigging the future I, like you, am one of the fans that won. We won. We won what exactly? The right to find our listening coasting on round the same withered corners again and again, the east only looked at once it starts thieving from us, once it has the post-colonial confidence to remind us of things we know? The right to explore a strictly filtered pop universe that blinds us to the musical multiverses that we might swim in were we to drop the shoulder, admit ignorance, stop look and listen rather than keep closing our eyes for the old rushes of our pasts, hear instead pasts we can’t access via our own, other ways of being music makers and listeners. Sometimes an admission of defeat can be liberation, can accompany a hope that through naïve and innocent exploration of things like the backroad I've outlined above (and others like Radio Golha), that we might be able to hear rather than process again. And thus find a way to genuinely free music from fear, to let it touch again the natural ease and innocent movement of our day-to-day relationships with each other. The vanishing of the racist music industry from music offers that opportunity, offers us the chance to dig the past present and future in an honest, open way, discover that the only way out of dead-end-now is not to lower our expectations of music but to change them, realise that finding a music that we can live with might be more important that finding something that makes our jaws drop or our pants drop or our friends admire us more. Ditch the hyperbolic response we’re conditioned to expect/expectorate in favour of a more subtle invasion and revolution of our everyday.
I suggest it to you because I love you. Because you’re my friend. Because we’re living proof that it never was about finding out who you are. Just about making sure who you aren’t, who you’re not gonna stand alongside, who you’re going to share your impure bastard-past and fucked-up future with. Sorry to have kept you so long. Let our eyes meet on the nearest star through the silhouetted branches. At the start of a new day of eastern spring. The summer soon come.
Vultus oriens, Ecce Homo Sacer, Rodus Dactlyus Aurora I don’t have long so listen now, before your house wakes and time starts stealing your future again an ancient song for a new dawn. Hear the sun? Hear the noise it makes?
Feel it in your heart.