Protest music – it’s just beardy blokes with ‘this machine kills fascists’ scrawled on their acoustic guitars singing about nuclear war, right? Not so much.
Every culture and generation has tended to find its own way to voice its frustrations at the world, whether it be Woody Guthrie’s folk odes, Marvin Gaye asking "What’s Going On", riot grrls chucking tampons about, gangsta rappers politicizing hip hop and all sorts of bed ins, rebel songs, Live Aids and cause celebres for Bono and Billy Bragg to sign up to.
The music of the revolution comes in many forms, yet the ‘yoof-of-today’ have generally been written off as a bunch of slack jawed posers too busy pissing about with selfie sticks to take much notice of the impending apocalypse. Scratch the surface a little though and you’ll find a new wave of feminist punk bands, an increasing number of LGBT artists, Killer Mike hanging out with Bernie Sanders and even Beyonce and her crew dressing up as Black Panthers at the Super Bowl. We live in interesting times.
Electronic composer/producer Fatima Al Qadiri’s new album Brute offers an ambient soundtrack to the current state of affairs. She was tucked up in bed suffering with a knee injury in 2014 while news channels bombarded her with coverage of the rising racial tensions in Ferguson, Baltimore after the shooting of a black teenager. As the protests grew, so too did the police response and militarised tanks, SWAT teams and tear gas turned the situation into a scene from a dystopian sci-fi movie.
Using samples recorded during the unrest to open the album, we hear police ordering protesters to disassemble and the chatter of bystanders, before sonic squeals, deafening sirens and popping explosions send the masses retreating. The authoritarian clampdown is under way and an air of dread and confusion breaks into blind panic and cries of “drawback, drawback”. It could easily be the introduction sequence to a video game.
The aching orchestral pulse of early tracks “Blood Moon” and “Battery” also give you the feel of a gamer directing a bite-sized soldier around a burnt-out industrial wasteland on the hunt for zombie mutants and fallen comrades. The mood is looming and sombre with occasional rays of digital tune, but grows darker and more eerie on “Breach”, and the anger really begins to rage on “Blows” with MSNBC news host Laurence O’Donnell announcing – “This weekend a few trouble makers turned a peaceful protest against Wall Street greed into a violent burst of chaos. The troublemakers carried pepper spray and guns and were wearing badges.”
Growing up in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion, Al Qadiri spent her childhood playing video games and watching cartoons whilst bombs set the streets ablaze and her parents worked for the resistance. She was a bit too young fully appreciate the dangers of the situation, and her memory of the war is somewhat intertwined with the Japanese anime and Sega Megadrive games that she was obsessed with at the time. It gives her a unique take on the issues her adopted home of America is currently facing and the dramatic, hyperbolic way it plays out on the streets and in the media.
The 34-year-old is less a beat maker, more a builder of atmospheric soundscapes, twisting choral harmonies with grime bass lines and doomy dubstep effects. Her conceptual sounds don’t offer blatant, fist pumping anthems for movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, instead they seem to capture the still, quiet tension that echoes around that space between the battle lines and point to the psychological fear on both sides.
It’s an unsettling vision of the breakdown of democracy and the confusion that surrounds the political powers and the increasingly enraged masses. Using an image of a forlorn looking Tellytubby dressed in riot gear as the cover art seems to reflect Al Qadiri’s melancholy outlook for volatile, muddled times. It all feels scary, angry, industrial and downright surreal. Lord knows what will happen if Donald Trump becomes President.