Battling the censor
My single is a hit on the net. So why are the mainstream media running scared, asks Rizwan Ahmed
I have ten new voicemails. "Hey Riz. Heard back from MTV. They won't play your video. Sorry. It's too 'politically sensitive'. And something about them being an American company, they can't risk it." Deleted.
Next message. "OK, so that download portal won't host the video. They said 'insensitive content and flippant tone'. None of the commercial stations can play it either. But DJs at Kiss FM and Xfm are all secretly e-mailing it to each other. They say they love it - they just won't risk their jobs over it. DJs Bobby Friction and Nihal have put in a request to the head of music at Radio 1: it's pending. Fingers crossed, keep you posted."
I hang up, tear some hair out, sit down at the computer with some tea. My e-mail inbox is more eclectic: hate mail from Texas and Surrey; messages of support from students in New York, businessmen in Norway and kids in Bradford; a schoolteacher in Windsor wants to show the video to her year ten class; an academic in Germany wants to present it at a conference.
These are some of the responses to "The Post 9/11 Blues" - my debut single - and its video. The song is a satirical take on our distorted world since the 11 September 2001 attacks. It takes the current climate of fear, terror spin and headline consumption to a surreal conclusion: "Shave your beard if you're brown/And you best salute the crown/Or they'll do you like Brazilians and shoot your ass down . . ./We should put the whole of Oldham in its own fuckin' cage/Move Hounslow underground, so nothing could go wrong/Luton's already moving, Bradford's already gone/We're all suspects, so literally be watching your back . . ."
I have no PR company to orchestrate an "internet storm", but I'm proud to say that the song has become something of a cult classic. It has notched up 69,000 page views on MySpace, and the video has been watched 50,000 times online. But even in the age of the internet's supposedly democratic consumer power, getting an online phenomenon to transfer to mainstream radio and TV is tough. It's tough if you're an independent artist, and it's even tougher if your song's title contains a mention of 9/11.
I acted in Michael Winterbottom's film The Road to Guantanamo, and was illegally detained by Special Branch upon my return from the Ber lin Film Festival in February (as Clive Stafford Smith documented in these pages). But that was not the inspiration for "The Post 9/11 Blues"; the song is about something far more general, shared and nebulous than that. It stresses the commonality of our experiences, the way that our public space and private lives, our thinking and culture have all been invaded, since 9/11, by a simplistic and cynically packaged world-view. And it does so in a shamelessly radio-friendly pop package.
The positive response to the song is, I think, evidence of how cynical so many young people of all backgrounds are about political scaremongering. They have seen tanks at Heathrow, the Forest Gate fiasco, and the de Menezes shooting. Support has come from people of all colours, races and creeds - lots of Muslims, but many more white middle-class students. In these times of "us and them", an awful lot of people of different origins seem to be on the same page.
Of course, it is not uncommon for a track that is popular on the internet to be spurned by radio and music television. However, many of the reasons cited in this case have concerned the track's "sensitive" nature. This puzzles me. It seems Ms Eldridge's year ten class is watching stuff that's "too hot for TV". Music programmers stay true to the usual hypocrisy: as a rapper, you can talk guns, bitches, drugs and hos, but not politics.
Radio programmers at the BBC, under the pressure of the internet groundswell, have at last agreed to play it, but only on "Asian music" shows, where the DJs have pushed hard for its inclusion on the playlist. Yet the track features no sitars or tabla, and on the London pirate radio circuit it enjoys colour-blind rotation.
The news media, on the other hand, have responded with a stream of the kind of headlines satirised in the song. I have become not just a rapper, but a "Muslim rapper", and therefore a "voice" for young (angry) British Muslims. Perhaps this shows how lacking a real voice for young (angry) British Muslims is. But it also demonstrates how quick the media and entertainment industries are to pigeonhole anything created by a Muslim, in the category labelled "British-Muslim issues".
I have given interviews, hoping to steer the conversation away from what I think of 7/7 and Abu Qatada, and on to how I've come up against disproportionate censorship, how it seems that as artists we are forced to walk on eggshells. But often I have felt that, as a Muslim, I am seen to be bearing a fringe message of protest, which should be studied, patronisingly, as a social phenomenon. I'd argue that my point of view is not a marginalised "Muslim viewpoint": it is shared by many people across the social spectrum.
Maybe there is a sense that Muslims are best placed to say the kinds of things that I say in this song, being closest to the muck of the post-9/11 world. But then, all the more reason not to fence us off into our own little pigsty. Like it or not, we're all in the shit together.
"The Post 9/11 Blues" is now available for download on iTunes and 3mobile and on limited CD release. Rizwan Ahmed will appear in "Gaddafi: a living myth" at English National Opera, London WC2, from 7 September. For more details log on to: www.eno.org/gaddafi
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