Fatima Al Qadiri: Sounds of the Apocalypse

The Kuwaiti Musician and Artist Discusses Her New Album, Police Brutality, and the “Meryl Streeps of Government” During a Visit to Her Studio

Fatima Al Qadiri is an Internet citizen and a global radical. Her early music videos such as “Hip Hop Spa” and “Corpcore” digitally melted together the aesthetics of luxury hotels, white collar offices, and prisons. Al Qadiri now tours the world playing club music with the group Future Brown, as well as exhibiting art as a co-founder of GCC, a mysterious art collective that satirizes the propaganda and pomp of diplomacy in the Persian Gulf region. Her new album Brute begins with a voice speaking through a megaphone over the ambient sounds of a riot, "You are no longer peacefully assembling. You must leave. Return to your vehicles. Return to your homes. You will be subject to arrest if you fail to comply…" Soon, shrill crowd-control sirens start blaring, then the sound of gunshots and footsteps running away. It seems like a scene from a dystopian sci-fi movie, but it is in fact audio from two years ago, during a protest in Ferguson, Missouri after the unarmed teenager Mike Brown was killed by the police. It compresses state violence and Twitter outrage. It captures a global mood of apocalypse that is becoming ever-more apparent to anyone with WiFi.

Photographer Oliver Helbig visited Al Qadiri at her studio near Alexanderplatz, the center of former East Berlin, where she spoke with Zoma Crum-Tesfa about Black Lives Matter, living through the Gulf War, and composing a political album. 

Zoma Crum-Tesfa: Tell me how your new album came about.

Fatima Al Qadiri: This album actually brings me back to a really painful moment. I had a really bad knee injury, and I had to get out of the Future Brown tour. I couldn't walk for a month and I was just sitting… I mean, have you ever been debilitated for a month?

Yeah, but it was... like, psychic.

Okay. [laughs] This is physical! I couldn't walk for a month, which already had this psychological toll on me, and all I had was the news. I was just sitting in bed reading the same headline over and over again. Of course, in the past two years, I've become aware of the police killings that have been brought to prominence by Twitter, Black Lives Matter, and all the victims of brutality. And I felt this real hopelessness that I wanted to put into a record. It saddened me so much what was happening to all the different communities that were being affected by what I would call police terror.

Totally, it’s organized violence.

Do you know The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore?

No, I don’t.

He’s amazing. He had on Ice Cube and Common, and Ice Cube was talking about snitching. And he was saying how snitching goes both ways. People in a certain community are always blamed for not snitching on this person or that person. But the police also don’t snitch on each other. I thought that was a really interesting analogy that communities face. Like people say, "You don’t want to rise up and report the crime?" Neither do the police! They have a code of silence as well.

It is interesting how much institutional power and tribalism are often limited such similar ways. Like, it just seems everyone hates a whistleblower.

Totally! Because—technically, on paper—whistleblowers are heroes. But no whistleblower ever, in history, has acted without being thought of as a traitor.

Were you in America at this time?

No. I was in Kuwait, because we have free healthcare there. 

“I’ve always been obsessed with history. I would have been a historian if I didn’t make music.”

So you were looking at American media in Kuwait.

Yeah, because my Twitter account is registered in the United States, so it was just giving me the U.S. trends all the time. I was in a very bad state of mind when I wrote this record. I just felt like everything that I had felt over the past two years—also, throughout my entire life—witnessing the power of governments against populations, just came out. This is a fuck the government record, but it’s not just about America. America is just the example. To me, all these terms—capitalism, communism, dictatorship—I feel like they are shades of grey. This record is about power, and right now America is the most powerful country in the world.

The opening track of your record really reminded me of the American military’s shock and awe doctrine during the Iraq war—except it was applied in a formal way on your album.

Which one?

The second Iraq war. What was it called...

…Operation Iraqi Freedom.

SMH, right.

I feel like the record has all these moods, and the opening track is like a horror flick. But the insane thing is that it's a real sample from Ferguson. It's a real thing that happened. And not in Iraq, it happened in the America. Although “Operation Fuck Iraq in the Ass” was also such a crazy time. Looking back, I was the only member of my family who was against the invasion. They all just wanted to remove Saddam. My father was a prisoner of war. So I'm not going to judge him! But I knew that Cheney wanted the oil. I was watching Dave Chappelle's "Black Bush" skit. Have you seen it?

GCC, Figure A: Amalgamated City, from “Speculations on Anonymous Materials.” 2013.

No! I need to brush up on my early 2000s YouTube clips.

It is the best political skit, maybe ever! Just look up "Dave Chappelle black Bush and yellow cake." You have to see it! It just illustrates that the person who is not corrupted by power is a rare fucker. And I’m not saying that I’m Mother Teresa, or whatever. I just feel like there’s a lot of erasure, and the contemporary prison system is all related to police brutality. I highly recommend reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Reading her book, I had to literally put it down every two pages, because I was so overwhelmed and grossed out. It was like watching a horror movie. And I felt these similar moods and compulsions while making this record.

Tell me about the other samples you used on the record.

You have Lawrence O’Donnell. Of course, the Ferguson sample. You have the sample by Sergeant Cheryl Dorsey, who is a former sergeant in the LAPD. She worked there for 20 years. We had a little Skype session in February, and she’s amazing! Like, for a musician to sample something and then talk to the person in that sample? That is rare as fuck. And it was amazing, because she worked for the LAPD for a long time, and then she became an advocate for victims of police brutality and coached them on how to address the police. She wrote this book called Black and Blue, which is her manifesto of being a black woman in the LAPD. Her story is crazy.

Well, the history of the LAPD is the most fucked up thing, that… I just can't.

Agreed.

It's interesting what you said about your father, though. Is it fair to say trauma can both inform and poison? Like, how does the memory of that time inform you?

It was a very serious scar. And I think it was naïve. They believed that the removal of Saddam would do something. And I knew that it was going to open the seventh gate of hell. And look what we got! ISIL would not exist without that war, it would not exist at all. But it's crazy because my father was able to predict the invasion of Kuwait. He knew that Iraq was going to invade Kuwait a year and a half before it even happened. So I was like, "What happened to your foresight? You were so good at predicting this shit!"

“It's about hierarchy, it's about power, but it's also about drag.”

I guess that's why I find these demonstrations about these children and men—who are black, and assaulted and/or murdered by the police—to be so impressive. I can't imagine being their families, just losing your loved one and having the stamina to repeatedly defend our society against this type of systemic injustice.

And at the same time, the response from the police is always so fucking dark. What happened to Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice—it's all so fucked up. These are horrific incidents where black bodies are being snuffed out. And it's okay to do this according to the law! It just moved me how evil these institutions were. Because you have a country that worships African-American culture—worships it—and exports it to the rest of the world.

Since listening to your record, I've begun asking people I know who only listen to rap and hip-hop to show me a picture of a friend who is black on their phone.

[laughs]

And you'd be surprised how many people fail!

Honestly…

In 2016!

I'm not surprised. I've noticed that when I look at who people follow on Twitter. There are big people in the music industry who are not following a single black person. One of the many reasons why I left Kuwait is that it is such a racist society.

Did you leave Kuwait for college?

Yeah, I got a scholarship from the Kuwaiti government, and I moved to the States when I was 17. I had never been there before. I was living in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania—State College in Pennsylvania, which is actually right next to a penitentiary. It was a 99.9% white student body, and I felt totally alien. So I transferred to D.C., then Miami, then New York. My advisor at the Ministry of Education told me that no one had ever transferred so much in the history of scholarships.

Earlier, you mentioned that you were depressed when you wrote this album. But then you in fact released it to the public. And I'm wondering, what was that like? Did you have any sense of how it would be ingested?

You know, all of my records are based in some kind of historical, memory-based narrative. There’s not a single one that doesn’t have it. But I really genuinely think that music is the most arbitrary of the arts. Unlike film—and unlike writing and visual art—I think that music is really personal. So if you want to inject my personhood, I think it will enrich your experience. It makes even more sense to listen to it as part of a body of work, because then you get to understand that there is a thread running through all of these things. I’ve always been obsessed with history. I would have been a historian if I didn’t make music. I’m obsessed with who gets to write history, as well as forgotten histories and erasure. I wanted this record to capture the moment. But this moment—this brutality—is actually something very old. It’s from the beginning of the establishment of America, and it’s from the beginning of the establishment of many nation states. But another thing is that, if you make a political record, people think that you’re positioning yourself as an activist. But activism is a full time job. Am I going to take that title? Hell no! I think of it more as very personal observations that are affecting a group of people that have inspired the whole planet. Including myself! 

You’ll see remnants and ruins, but everybody’s in the mall going to H&M.

It’s interesting how when you make a political record, it immediately turns into something else.

I think there is an aversion to meaning in the music industry. When I look at dance music and love songs, there's really an aversion to meaning. I personally believe that Western music appreciation revolves around abstraction. If you look at postwar music, it's music in an abstract expressionist field. And I think it's insanely macho. I think that narrative traditions and oral histories are traditionally female, but some parts of the music industry reject that, because it's too idea-based. Even with all this "experimentalism"—like, it's not experimental at all!

It also seems a part of the culture, generally. Because to express meaning is a kind of vulnerability.

Yes, and I feel extremely vulnerable.

I read another interview of yours, where somebody asked you about being a woman in the Gulf who creates music. And you said that you just don't address that you're a woman.

I really try to de-feminize my image as much as humanly possible. I really want to step the fuck away from this essentialist femininity of long hair, makeup, and tight clothing. Waxing or threading your eyebrows and doing your makeup every day takes so much time! I have too much to do for all of that. I'd rather put that time in the studio. It's also because I grew up with an extreme status quo of femininity. And when I see an extremely feminine image of a woman in music, I'm saddened by it. You could be this progressive woman in the music industry, but there's this nagging pressure to commodify yourself as a sex object. But I also don't want to take away their joy of being feminine, either. I definitely take a different style and approach, though.

GCC, Figure B: Micro-Council, 2013. Exhibition view. 

GCC, Micro Council, 2013.

GCC, "Royal Mirage," 2014. Exhibition view.

That's how culture and place has informed your individual sense of style, right? I feel like your work with the art collective GCC addresses place and culture in a completely different way.

I think GCC is in a tricky territory, because we cannot be 100% transparent about the purpose of our work. The Gulf Cooperation Council, which the GCC name is based on, is a body of six countries who are supposedly bound to each other politically, militarily, and socially. One of the collective's obsessions is the rituals of regional bureaucracy. It's about hierarchy, it's about power, but it's also about drag. So many people don't understand that diplomacy is a performance. And the greatest diplomats could put actors to shame. They're like the Meryl Streeps of government. And Gulf-based diplomacy is hilarious, girl—the pomp, the grandeur.


This book, The End of America, by Naomi Wolf talks about this—how governments fall all the time into dictatorships. It's just that each one learns from the last on how to rebrand themselves so you can't see it.

Totally! This is exactly what GCC's been exploring recently, this whole thing of rebranding and governments using PR agencies to brand themselves. Like it's not enough to use history classes in school to communicate the rhetoric of the status quo. Around the world, they are hiring PR firms. And this goes back to our situation with savviness, you have to be so savvy to stay on message. 

GCC, Berlin Congratulant, 2013. 

GCC, Congratulants 1–8, 2013.

GCC, Inaugural Summit, Morschach, 2013.

GCC, Protocols for Achievements, 2013.

I wanted to talk about this feeling of apocalypse that pervades your record. You once did this writing where you talked about having survived an apocalypse. And I'm curious about what that type of threat means to you.

It’s interesting because I think of apocalypse as many things—in the very Buddhist sense of rebirth, where you have to lose everything in order to be reborn, and how kind of civilizations are found deep underneath other civilizations. I mean, I saw Kuwait get wiped out. And if you go there now, it’s like nothing happened. You’ll see remnants and ruins, but everybody’s in the mall going to H&M. It wasn't even a fleeting moment. It was seven months. That's how long the occupation was—with no work, no schools, no hospitals. As children, we only had our own imagination to keep us sane. This is when I became obsessed with video games. My younger sister and I played video games constantly. I wanted to escape adult reality and how evil it was. I wanted to control my own destiny, and I was god in a video game. I've been obsessed with the future since that time, and what this country was going to look like when we rebuilt it. Like, my school had trenches dug into the playground. The Iraqi soldiers dug trenches. Like that is going to help you from a stealth bomber! It was like medieval tactics.

So, for you, the Dark Ages have happened.

It's something that is happening around the world. The thing about power is that it's so elementary. I'm not presenting anything new to someone who hasn't been living in a cave. But like I said, this is an audio diary. It's about being a flea who is being flicked. There was this political leader—and I don't want to tell you who it is—who once said that if the population were a hair on his nose, he would pluck it.

Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
Photography: Oliver Helbig
Images courtesy of the artists and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler