Photo Credit: Zoran Stanić
[The following is an English translation of an interview with Abdelraheem Kheirawi, lead vocalist of the revolutionary reggae band FC Apatride UTD. The interview was conducted by Gordan Stošević for Il Grido Del Popol. Their most recent album, Third Worldism, celebrates and pushes forward the anti-imperialist struggle – from the Black Panthers to the Naxalites – by putting revolutionary politics to revolutionary music.
Gordan Stošević: The fifth studio album by FC Apatride UTD, titled Third Worldism, was recently released. Tell us more.
Abdelraheem Kheirawi: Great album. In contrast to the previous one, it is very simple, with a lyrical focus on the effects of unequal exchange in politics and culture.
GS: In addition to a Marxist interpretation of the revolutionary struggle on the periphery of capitalism, what else contributes to creative output of the band?
AK: A class character which combined, of course, with political and ideological training prevents the artist from flirting with the market.
GS: How much was the band influenced by famous roots reggae artists from Jamaica and UK?
AK: Various musicians of all genres left their mark on FC.
GS: How important is anti-colonial folklore in the music of Malian and Sahrawi musicians supporting the pro-independence movements of Western Sahara and Azawad?
AK: I would add to one of the previous answers, given that here the initial impulse is the national oppression that these peoples are submitted to. All of those musicians have been active participants in the national liberation struggle for decades, to which they dedicate their entire artistic work. They have only achieved international fame during the last ten years, mostly due to the law of supply and demand in the West. The gap between the standard of living in the core imperialist nations and the periphery has boosted travel to Third World countries, and nothing triggers the Orientalist fantasy of Westerners like an intact “primitive” culture, whose “simplicity” and “naivety” they admire as long as it is controlled and, subsequently, integrated into the system of global “progress.” Thus, the first contact with Sahel blues in world of music was experienced as something analogous to the “discovery” of Americas. Even the conscious anti-colonial lyrics did not stand in the way of this, since the languages in use are understandable only to local nations of the Sahel, so the record companies took a safe bet – an “exotic” music, in addition to what they perceive as “mumbo jumbo” singing and desert robes.
Yet, of course, apart from the showbiz machine, these musicians themselves also felt the benefits of such a development. This is quite understandable since, just as the small country on the periphery of capitalism seeks to transform itself within the global economy, so do individuals from lower classes daily pursue the same transformation within the national framework – through education, trade, sports, culture, crime, etc. – so as to improve our class position and social status. Now is the time to bring in what I have previously called political and ideological training. So, either the role of the entertainer is accepted, and the brothers and sisters continue to act as exhibits in the human zoo, or the newly acquired status is used for an even greater and more significant contribution to the anti-colonial struggle. I’ll give an example of Ibrahim al-Habib, leader of the band Tinariwen, who despite financial success refused to leave his native Tesalite (even during the recent fierce fighting), so French producers were forced to drag expensive equipment into the desert in order to record their albums. Al-Habib also uses his influence to mobilize the Tuareg youth in the struggle for national liberation, helps improve local infrastructure, etc. What a recipe for immortality, huh?
GS: Can we today speak of the manifestation of a social revolt through music, as during the times of John Lennon, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Sixto Rodriguez, Joan Baez, Victor Jara, Fela Kuti…?
AK: Of course we can. But don’t forget that the other side is involved in this as well, and today it enjoys all the benefits for the reproduction of their cultural hegemony. It creates trends, and it directs, promotes and advocates them. See how Stalin, as long ago as 1946, explained:
“… attempts are being made against socialist realism in art and literature. It is impossible to do so openly. In these so-called abstract painting there is no real face of those people, whom people would have liked to imitate in the fight for their peoples’ happiness, for communism and for the path on which they want progress. This portrayal is substituted by the abstract mysticism clouding the issue of socialist class struggle against capitalism. During the war how many people came to the statue of Minin and Pozharsky in Red Square to instill in us the feelings of victory? To what can a bust of twisted iron representing ‘innovation’ as an art inspire us? To what can an abstract painting inspire?”
“This is the reason why modern American financial magnates are propagating modernism, paying for this type of work huge royalties which the great masters of realism may not ever see.”
“There is an underlying idea of class struggle in the so-called western popular music, in the so-called formalist tendencies. This music, if one can call it such, is created from the sect of ‘shakers’ – dance that induces people to ecstasy, trance and makes them into wild animals ready for any wild action. This type of music is created with the help of psychiatrists so as to influence the brain and psychology of the people. This is one type of musical narcotics under whose influence a person cannot think of fresh ideas and are turned into a herd. It is useless to invite such people for revolution, for building communism. As you see music can also fight.”
GS: Krleža says in his essays that art has turned into an apologist for lucrative goods that flood modern civilization, which has nothing to do with freedom of creation. It seems to be that the horrors of postmodernism are the cultural logic of later capitalism have taken its toll. Can FC Apatride UTD resist this trend?
AK: Yes, of course. Let me explain. If, for example, you are part of an activist, radical-left organization in the Balkans, which numbers up to twenty members (which seems to be the standard), and you act in the post-socialist epoch and its conditions of capitalist hegemony in all fields, it is inevitable that you will encounter obstacles that may seem insurmountable – personnel, finances, media, etc. The feeling of stagnation is a source of frustration and, I notice, it is addressed in two different ways. The first is the attempt reach the mainstream arena at any price: by forming coalitions with liberal parties and operating through their infrastructure. In order not to discredit any form of struggle in advance, since there is no fixed and universal recipe, the observations I carry out are based on the historical practice. Accordingly, this “leech” method hasn’t yielded any significant results, at the least as of now. Moreover, it has turned out to be incapable of its own goal, of transferring radical politics into the mainstream arena – instead leading to incorporation, and even more counterproductive, leading to a loss of credibility among potential sympathizers. The second is digging in at the margins, where agility and creativity are superseded by an excessive critique of virtually anything and moralisation of politics. Don’t get me wrong: to paraphrase Bell Hooks, the margin is not just a space of deprivation, but also a space of radical possibilities, and provides us with much that is good and useful. However, revolutionary politics implies work with the masses and an ascent to mass support, without which there can be no progress.
Now let’s transfer all of that to the field of art and provide a concrete answer to your question. The “engaged” artist (in our case a musician) steps into the battle with the idea of social criticism, toward inspiring and stirring a social change and, finally, participating in the revolutionary process. Under the aforementioned conditions, he encounters obstacles that may seem insurmountable – the lack of money for recording an album, for filming a video, necessary rehearsals, purchasing equipment… no publisher, no media space and, accordingly, little or no audience. They get addressed in two different ways. The first is an attempt to reach the mainstream arena at any price – by reducing the number of associates and switching to digital music (which is also a financial calculation), by jumping on the bandwagon, deradicalizing the content, and adopting many other cosmetic changes. Interestingly, if some of those get a glimpse of glory, they never fail to mention their class origin – you must have heard the phrase “I’m from the street” many times, which in a way turns them into apologists of the system, by maintaining that the commercial success is a matter of talent and hard work. The second is digging in at the margins, expressing rage at the social class structure and the inability to accomplish anything.
Now, I managed to record my first album after two and half years of manual labour in construction, while at the same time supporting my family. For each of the following albums I pissed a bit more blood. I entered the world of music as an adult, with a formed personality and sufficient knowledge of the modern epoch, market mechanisms and possible consequences – to simplify, nobody forced me to it. It can be said, of course, that a true artist really has no choice, but acts out of necessity, out of the need to live one’s art on the level of every cell in one’s body. The only choice that (to some extent) we lay right to is choosing which class ideologies our art advances. So I’m glad you called on Krleža’s essay that adds to my previous quotation from Stalin, which, out of context, can mislead one that I perceive art as a mere subjective reflection of reality, while it is the expression of that reality. The engaged artist does not grumble bitterly at the circumstances they confront, but is inspired by them, and by no means suffers from the need of trading the touch of cold scaffolding for parties and summer vacations. So, after a 15 year career, I have amassed 5 albums, a film soundtrack, a number of gigs and a series of concrete activist actions. I can’t see how one could be dissatisfied with these results. But unlike 15 years ago, I have the ability to influence a circle of people, to provide an alternative analysis that does not coincide with the conventions and stupidity of our time. Instead, it can mobilize the people, for example, in a concrete action to sort out someone’s electricity debt – as was done recently. Perhaps we do not live in a time of great revolutions, but what is quite possible – as Samir Amin used to formulate – are revolutionary advances. That is why that previously mentioned choice – whether to sell out or die – presented to the artist and the activist both, is actually a fake choice, precisely because of the lack of necessity. The necessity which is reflected in the quotation by one of Montenegro’s great anti-colonial leaders: “Let the struggle be constant…”
Now I owe you an example concerning a more important matter – the field of political activism – and what an example do I have for you! With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, in the early 1990s, many revolutionary organizations in the Middle East, as well as around the Third World, lost a powerful political ally and their only source of financial support. This led to them being presented with a similar choice, as we have already discussed, which here we’ll describe as: liberalization or disintegration. The example of that third principle of “constant struggle” was provided by the Turkish revolutionaries from DHKP-C, who by adapting to the newly born conditions only boosted their agility, creativity and self-sustainability. Acting in districts where necessity is not called into question, the struggle against gentrification, crime and narcotics was launched by their national committees… soon they came up with people’s lawyers, people’s architects and engineers, people’s militias … actions of solidarity with nations under the imperialist aggression followed. Such islands among the unprivileged have the effect of a Faraday’s cage, where all lightning and thunder get channeled through surface, while the core, that is, the revolutionary advances and further mobilizations, are protected and advancing.
These achievements are also important because of the relevance of social criticism because, although criticism from the margins can be meaningful and accurate, it’s only relevant to the extent of the support that the author of the critique has among the masses. I often recall a debate on the left regarding Yugoslavia, and a simple but very persuasive argument from one of my comrades, that put a stop to the discussion: “Go on, you make a better one.” After all, if it wasn’t for those tiny artistic achievements on my part, you wouldn’t have requested an interview, nor would you be interested in what I have to say about most of these issues.
GS: It is evident today that the legalist left is on a death bed. Should the approach of political and revolutionary struggle finally be changed, or simply stick to Marx’s position that the history of human society is in fact a history of class struggle?
AK: No, it is not on a death bed and shouldn’t be. The term “legalist left” in this era of globalized development means nothing. The Venezuelan government is a “legalist left,” correct? South Africa’s EFF and India’s KP as well – and we’re talking about the progressive forces that are on the rise. One of the main problems of the First Worldist approach is that the world economy is not viewed as a unique system, whose different parts only perform different functions. It is still not clear to them that social democracy in the metropole is not the same as the social-democracy in the colony. And this isn’t the only false division on the left. There is also the one between the so-called authoritarian and libertarian lines. However, the key division on the left is the one between materialistic and idealistic approaches. Simplified and reduced to contemporary politics, we will say that the most important division is between the anti-imperialist and pro-imperialist left. (These include the so-called non-legalist organizations that give tacit support to imperialist devastation when they consider that “backward” nations pose a greater danger due to reactionary social and cultural practices or, for example, those who, during the conflict between the colonizer and the colonized, keep repeating the mantra that “only the working classes of both nations can blah blah blah…”). Are the anti-immigrant demands of the Yellow Vests the same as the anti-colonial program of the EFF? Is Sanders the same as Maduro? Are the two of them not reflecting the global political antagonisms between the centre and the periphery?
Here we have to touch upon an interesting phenomenon in the United States. For the first time in the history of this so-called country, a critique of imperialism echoes from the mainstream stage. The protagonists of this critique (though in a diluted form) are three women: Tulsi Gabbard, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The first (who announced the candidacy for the president) went furthest with her criticism, supporting the Syrian government, condemning the diplomatic aggression against Venezuela, and remarking that North Korea has no reason to trust the US and naively believe that it won’t be targeted if it disarms. The second one is currently suffering racist attacks by the American public, due to openly criticizing the Israeli settler-colony and the influence of the Israeli lobby on US policy. The third one, for the time being, gives the most balanced and cautiously raised concerns about US foreign policy.
Now, let’s look at what kind of attitude the Left adopts towards them. There are two main lines on the First Worldist Left: the liberal-left and the dogmatic hardliners. The first line ignores Tulsi Gabbard, despite the fact that her criticism of US interventionism is the fiercest of the three, for the simple reason that she is not declaring herself to be a leftist. Obviously, it would be too difficult to explain her anti-imperialist motives. They ignore Ilhan Omar, because it’s clear she’s too black, and her so-called reactionary cultural practice pokes people in the eyes. Yet, they embrace Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, because, since there is no white woman who openly declares herself to be a leftist, give us then her least painful Westernized alternative, which will serve as proof that “real” and “democratic” revolutions will happen in the West, not in some Oriental despotism. The second line also ignores Tulsi Gabbard (poor woman, she interests no one), timidly criticizes Ilhan Omar, since she gave in on Venezuela (except that they’re now on a break, so as not to attack her at the same time as the right-wingers), and openly criticizes Ocasio-Cortez, because “only workers can blah blah blah…” and the “Green New Deal” because “only under socialism ecology can blah blah blah…”
Coming out of the vortex of this comedy, we will notice that what these figures have in common is their class origin (in a colonial context, race equals class – which is, in good part is transmitted to a neo-colonial situation), that is, the ethnicity of the colonized nations. This is the key antagonism in the settler colonies that has been unjustly overlooked by historical Marxism. In short, these lines see things in the following way: Europeans conquered America, killed 50 million Natives and brought in 20 million enslaved blacks, and oh, that’s terrible, but not so much, since they also brought progress. So it goes that we cannot base our politics on getting rid of the colonizers because that would be a genocide, so stop with that identity politics right now, and let Black and white workers (nobody mentions the Indigenous peoples) get together and take over the means of production. And so, as fairy tales were spoken, workers and peasants in the colonial camp enjoyed their privileges in relation to colonized (freedom, higher employment, better wages, easier access to education), often taking part in their lynching and persecution. Not to mention the benefits from the world division of labor and imperialist super-profits. Black nationalism and Indigenous activism were radicalized in the 1970s, but it turned out that, contrary to armed conflicts on the world periphery, those in the centre lacked the ability to reach similar achievements and the defeat followed. Then we had a period of relative calm in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by a gradual recovery in the 2000s, when the grassroots movements launched the activists we’re discussing here into mainstream politics. Thus, we may say, they each represent their own communities at a higher level and in accordance with these interests build their current policy. And, as Malcolm X expressed, it is not hard to notice at a higher level that what is happening in Vietnam affects the events in Harlem.
Can these figures go farther and make a major impact on American politics? My personal opinion is that they cannot, at the least not yet, due to many limitations – ideological, educational, technical, etc., so I expect a gradual semi-incorporation and passivization to a certain extent. After all, as we see, outside the African American community, no significant support has been recorded for Ilhan Omar during this “anti-Semite” soap opera. However, I think that one cannot but notice the significance of these debates and the emergence of new narratives in the American mainstream, in its political and media lives.
The conditions for progressive politics and its achievements vary from country to country and we must make the most of them.
GS: After the restoration of capitalism and post-transitional group-think, we are witnessing the massive implementation of the policy of historical revisionism and state relativism in these regions. Should we finally stand up and say enough is enough?
AK: We do just that. We never miss the opportunity to bring it up. Many left-wing organizations and individuals in Serbia contribute to disclosing this process for what it really is. Previously, you mentioned a number of politically engaged artists from the past, but it is important to understand that they lived and worked in a different epoch, when ideologies clashed on the meadows and stadiums, not in small clubs and cafes. Today, we are acting in an epoch when it is necessary to explain simple math – and then wrestle for space with the bourgeois media in order to promote it. Simple math says that historical revisionism is being carried out to justify the current politics – if it was alright for those who are rehabilitated to collaborate with the Nazis, so it must be alright to collaborate with NATO today. And if nationalization is a crime, then privatization is terminal. And you get that from the authorities, the opposition, the media and schools, musicians and actors and experts and commercial and alternative artists. In Serbia, there are indeed left-wingers who are leading a “constant struggle” within several organizations, and I think that the advances they are achieving, no matter what some might say, are significant.
GS: What is actually happening these days in Serbia while a protest march “1 of 5 Million” is taking place?
AK: The middle-class feels the need to show dissatisfaction with their loss of privileges and fall on the social scale, which is actually the fear of proletarianization. The coloration should not be surprising or confusing, because both the left and the right openly put their class interest above ideology and promote class unity. If you’re asking should we join them, my answer is no – because of the presence of fascists, who are officially among the organizers of the protest, and because of the inability to influence the demands of demonstrators, which do not represent the interests of our class. Some far-left groups actually made that attempt and were booted out swiftly. To be more picturesque, imagine FC Apatride UTD in an attempt to take over a right-wing pop concert, and refresh their repertoire with songs about the Viet Cong or the New People’s Army in the Philippines. If we wouldn’t get booted – and I’m sure we wouldn’t despite the effort – pretty soon only the waiter would remain in the audience.
Anyways, very important things are happening at a higher level. If you’re watching. Putin recently came for a state visit, and the agreements signed between the two delegations are still not available to the public. I won’t speculate, but it is possible that during the next two years, we might face a very important period of geopolitical competition between the Great Powers, which will open up more cracks for further revolutionary advances.
GS: And for the end, what are your future plans for you and your band?
AK: As the personal is the political, my plans and the plans of the band are reduced to the same – to survive and continue our creative work. I love this life excessively, yet I’d die for a jot, to defend my principles. I don’t know why I’m bringing this up. Maybe because I’m always looking for a happy ending. And what could be happier and more beautiful than the “constant struggle.”