There is nothing Fatima Al Qadiri can do to stop the ideological rift currently rippling through the contemporary United States. She watches most of the chaos from the outside, from other countries, refracted by the constant churn of social media. The composer and producer, 34, has just moved to Berlin, an ocean away from St. Louis and Baltimore and Chicago, where protesters clash with police and Donald Trump supporters punch activists in the face. Still, she’s watching.
Al Qadiri was born in Senegal and grew up in Kuwait, where she watched the world end and then begin again as a child. Iraq invaded her home at the beginning of the ’90s, but her parents, instead of fleeing the country, stayed behind and resisted. Her mother distributed forbidden newsletters by pretending to be pregnant and hiding them under her clothes; her father was arrested and held at a concentration camp for a month.
With her 2012 Desert Strike EP, Al Qadiri wrestled with the uncanniness of playing a video game about the Iraqi invasion just a few years after she lived through it — a global trauma, sanitized and repackaged and sold back to its survivors. Her new album, Brute, a 37-minute collection of menacing electronics interwoven with samples of protests, is less geographically specific. It’s concerned with the politics and hypocrisies of the West, the illusion of free speech, of democracy — what Al Qadiri calls a “mirage.” “The crux of this record is about freedom of assembly, and how freedom of assembly has always been a very thinly veiled illusion,” she says over Skype from her new home. "Nothing is different today than it was in 1950 than it was in 1930, as far as protest is concerned. It has always been shut down, and that's the main thing that I'm trying to get across."
A few days after Al Qadiri and I speak, protesters in Chicago will gather at the UIC Pavilion in such great numbers that Trump’s campaign staff will cancel a major rally. It feels like a victory, a rare instance where demonstrators achieve a goal with little violence: A vector of white supremacy goes home without making a speech. Still, it’s hard not to share Al Qadiri’s concern. Black communities rose up in Ferguson, and it is still legal for the police to kill them.
"I've seen it so many times,” Al Qadiri says. She recalls an early experience as an undergrad at George Washington University circa 1999: "I had never been to the States before I started college. While I was still a freshman, I saw the IMF World Bank protests. [The police] were using water cannons and tear gas and pepper spray. What's the difference between that and some other authoritarian government using the same tools and locking people up?"
On Twitter, Al Qadiri calls Brute a “public display of despair.” Though it has no lyrics – the only words on the album are taken from YouTube-sourced recordings of Ferguson and Occupy Wall Street protests and discussions of police brutality – Brute emanates sadness. It’s mournful, full of the pathos that comes with watching a grainy livestream of people suffering whom you cannot physically help. Gunshots ring out in place of drumbeats; sirens blare and glass breaks, and you are trapped outside the violence, helpless.
If moments like Ferguson felt like a breakthrough, Al Qadiri suggests, it’s only because wireless technology allows us to witness moments of unrest with fewer filters and at greater speed: "There is nothing new. The only thing that's new is citizen reporting," she says. "Before, we had to depend on mass media for our news, and now, because of social media, we are able to see direct coverage on the ground from regular people, unfiltered by the news.
"Before, there was a frame or a mold to present or not present these events. Now, for the first time ever, there's a body count of reported police homicides in the U.S. Police never even had an internal reporting mechanism for this. An outside organization is doing this, and that's only because of the Internet."
Al Qadiri doesn’t make protest music the way, say, Kendrick Lamar makes protest music: There is nothing in her songs to chant, no catharsis in her compositions. Her approach is more abstract, suggesting the feeling of consuming protest from thousands of miles away through a computer. Bass notes on Brute’s opening track, “Endzone,” strike like police boots, while audio from a protest forcibly shut down by a sound cannon leaks between the notes. “Breach” marches like a military demonstration, slick and menacing.
Brute doesn’t relieve anxiety — it stokes it. It asks: Where does your anxiety originate? What can be done with it? How can you resist rigidly enforced systems that proliferate so much violence?
"You're not outside of any of these power structures,” says Al Qadiri. "If you have an Apple laptop, you're part of it. You might not see forms of slavery directly in front of your face, but the products that we're consuming are being made under those conditions. Globalization is a sociopolitical economic system functioning across the world. It's not just McDonald's being in Hong Kong. It's so much more elaborate and complex and devious. It's an organism and it's a mutant and its tentacles are wrapped so tightly around everything, and everyone is choking underneath it."
As someone who’s lived outside the United States, Al Qadiri understands state violence as an interconnected and global force. It thrives, she says, on a powerful propaganda network enabled by anemic education. "So many governments around the world are defunding education at an alarming rate,” she says. "The U.K. is one of them. The U.S. has long been one of them — just completely sucking every public resource out of education and putting it into the military. So you have that, and then you have PR. Western democracies are so insanely savvy and smart, and employ the most advanced forms of public relations to spin every dissenting event to their advantage. Words are like war. They have a war of words against dissenters. It's extremely powerful to witness."
Now that U.S. election season is in high gear, it’s easier to see those words at work. The morning after Trump's aborted Chicago rally, he tweeted about the “thugs” who “shut down” his constitutional rights. That word — “thug” — carries racial violence with it. Police use it to excuse their brutality; white American civilians use it to support the police. Al Qadiri named Brute in opposition to “thug,” as a way of challenging the PR campaign that urges us to see police as victims and not state-armed aggressors.
"If you're able to move someone's perception or have your perception moved, it's an extremely powerful thing,” she says. "The power of creation is the power to hold up a mirror to the oppression that we're living under. The times that we live in contain so many distractions. Just trying to earn a living in this system is so time-consuming and so labor-intensive. It's becoming harder and harder with the income gap getting wider and wider – there is more pressure to be distracted and to not be beholden to serious, scary shit, like power and oppression. And oppression is concealed in a very savvy way."
Brute doesn’t offer answers, but it does allow space to affirm that fear and hopelessness are valid reactions to the world’s sociopolitical climate. "The record is very depressing. I don't have the answers. It's literally just how I feel,” Al Qadiri says. "I just feel like we're all up against this fucking wall. There's really optimistic people out there, and I value their optimism. I want to bask in their optimism. I really respect it. Human beings are very resilient, and I think that's why we've been able to overcome and very slowly gain our rights. But it's a really, painfully slow process."