Inna Babylon

Pablo Neruda's "The Word," a poetic meditation on exile and migration, where people "married new land and water/to grow their words again," forms a powerful bass line to Vivek Bald's provocative documentary Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music, which captures the rhyme and reason behind the music of second generation diasporadicals whose parents were part of the subcontinental drift of post-partition migrants to Britain in the 1950s.

Deftly moving between social documentary and cultural history, Mutiny doesn't retell the romantic immigrant narrative so often told within Euro-America of colored migrants coming to a land of milk and honey. Instead, Mutiny tells the tales of a generation of defiant migrants who shattered, remixed and dubbed out the white liberal longing for a managed multiculturalism, and of how the trash of life in racist Britain became the treasure for young people who hungered for new ways to remake themselves and the world around them.

In capturing these histories of roots and routes, Bald's film expertly harnesses the energies of a wide array of cultural activists who sought and found a musical haven from the crucible of racial violence that continues to sit at the heart of British society. Through poignant interviews and incredible archival footage, Bald reveals how the economic migrants in the 1950s became the lynchpin for Enoch Powell-style race bashing in post-war Britain. While this had the clear and obvious effect of fanning the flames of anti-immigrant hysteria culminating in the rise of overtly white supremacist groups such as the BNP and the National Front, it also swung the national mood rightward, providing fertile ground for the growth of subtler forms of racist power in the election of arch-conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the imperial nostalgia of 1980s Britain.

In highlighting this historical backdrop, Mutiny doesn't present Asians as passive victims of white dysfunction, but rather as active resisters in a larger struggle for rights and redress. Whether it was the protests and burning down of a pub frequented by racists in Southall in 1981, or the mobilizations of communities against the racist attacks on Quddus Ali, Stephen Lawrence and others, Mutiny reveals the powerful connection between the docility and silence that too often goes hand in hand with hostility and violence. And in focusing on an insurgent youth culture, Bald acutely recognizes the often-ignored truism that art and culture do not simply emerge out of social struggles nor are they separate from them, but instead are intimately connected to struggle itself.

By weaving together an intricate mosaic of personal and public histories, Mutiny tastefully showcases a broad range of South Asian experiences in Britain, and the ways in which these musicians held an abiding belief in their need for shelter from not only the hostile environment of the outside world, but also from the strictures imposed upon them by their respective communities. As Chandrasonic of Asian Dub Foundation says, "I had a sense early on that certain things were not for me" as music allowed me "to be contrary, even against what I was supposed to be." These struggles over identity, and the politics that inform them, become the central axis upon which Mutiny rotates. Just as filmmakers and writers in 1980s Thatcherite Britain such as Hanif Kurieshi, Issac Julien and numerous others were exploring and expanding what it meant to be "Asian," "Black," or even "British," Bald subtly and ingeniously reveals these same tensions. In Mutiny the questions around identity, community and national belonging become not just self-absorbed existential dilemmas, but rather means with which to engage the very real battles around the meanings of history, collective memory and anti-racist resistance.

As Mutiny shows, these struggles around self and community, being and belonging, and power and politics came in many forms. Whether it was the afternoon Bhangra parties, Talvin Singh's Anokha club night, the founding of labels such as Nation Records and Outcaste Records, or the community education work of Asian Dub Foundation (ADFED), the struggle for spaces away from racists where black and brown faces could find community and comfort cannot be underestimated, especially as the empire was striking back with vehemence.

But no less important were the spaces for political theater that the music itself afforded. The influences of dub, reggae, punk and hip-hop on the insurgent sounds of Fun-da-mental, Asian Dub Foundation, Kaliphz, Hustlers HC, the Voodoo Queens, and others reveals the brilliant work of cultural sabotage that was endemic to these artists work. As defiant as their politics was the radical aesthetics that defined their sounds—whether it was dubpunkhop of Asian Dub Foundation whose brilliant and blistering first album Facts and Fictions continues to be relevant, to the Bomb Squad-esque sonic mayhem of Fun-da-mental or to the classic early 90s style East Coast boom bap of Kalpihz and Hustlers HC. And while lazy critics, simpleton record execs and others would exoticize these sounds with labels such as "fusion," "East meets West," "Asian Cool," or even the poco chic of the "hybrid," Mutiny suggests a much more organic possibility—that these artists have defiantly staked a claim to a sound and fury that is neither "Asian" nor "British," this or that, but instead was something that just was.

Though Mutiny closes on a somewhat somber note of the corporate vultures that tried to contain and displace the energies of these musicians and the movements they were a part of, that is nowhere near the end of the story. Despite the powerful interventions made by them, colonial racism and its legacies persist, whether it be the Bradford uprising of 2001 in Northern England, or the rising tides of Islamophobia in the post 9/11 climate. But it also begs a few questions. What does it mean that a South Asian in America is documenting the culture and politics of Asians in Britain? What lessons can we, the grandchildren of midnight, learn from their experiences across the Brown Atlantic at a time when British and American jackals are united like never before to foment war and repression? With Mutiny, we get a glimpse of what the answers might be.

Comments

first of all hi sohail daulatzai. i can say sohail daulatzai is one best writer which i know. i really proud on him because the strory he made is proper reality. best of luck Mr. sohail daulatzai.

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