“This weekend, a few troublemakers 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,” said MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell after a particularly violent weekend back in 2011 at Occupy Wall Street. He was referring to the mass unprovoked police brutality witnessed there. Senegal-born, Kuwait-raised artist/composer Fatima Al Qadiri uses a sample of O’Donnell’s voice from that newscast as the opener for “Blows,” a track from her 2016 album, Brute. The album was Al Qadiri’s response to the brutality she had witnessed and how the media had portrayed it.
In April 2000, when Al Qadiri was a freshman in college at George Washington University, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Washington, DC to accuse the World Bank and the IMF of making money off of the world’s poor—particularly in Central and South America, and in several countries in Africa, including Ethiopia and Kenya, where the IMF had instated tough debt repayment systems that left many people in poverty. When Al Qadiri and I meet up at New York's Quad Recording Studios—the same studio where where Tupac Shakur was infamously robbed and shot five times in 1994—she describes how part of her goal with Brute was to create an “antithesis to the word, ‘thug,’” which has been levied against protesters and communities of color by the media.
For years, Al Qadiri and longtime collaborator Khalid Al Gharaballi have explored queer and genderless personas through video and photography, garnering inspiration from their image searches, YouTube videos, and group chats alike. Released in October on Hyperdub, Shaneera is the long-awaited soundtrack to Al Qadiri’s and Al Gharaballi’s visual projects. During our conversation, Al Qadiri tells me about the “evil queen you love to hate” at the heart of her most recent album, how Silicon Valley executives make millions of dollars mining our internet search data, and what you can do about it.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What current events are changing the way you make music?
Brute was about my relationship to democracy and how it was sold to me as a kid in Kuwait. Moving to the States, I saw how much of a hoax it was. In interviews during that time, I was saying how the first large scale protest I saw was the World Bank/IMF protest in my second semester at college at George Washington University. From that moment, I knew that there was rot in democracy. Democracy had been branded. It was a privilege that wasn't being given to all parts of society. Things like the Russian Internet Research Agency and the use of troll farms have poisoned parts of the internet. It's very palpable. You can feel it on Twitter, you can feel it on Facebook. There's a real outpouring of protests but there's also all this manufactured rage by paid trolls.
How does your choice of browser impact you on the internet?
Every time you search for something, your information is tracked. That's years of data and it's being sold to advertisers. It's happening pervasively. This is how several companies are billion dollar entities. It's primarily through data mining. I started using Firefox around 2009 because I wanted a browser that was very overt about privacy and about protecting the rights of its users. Your data is worth something—people are selling it for a lot of money.
Can you talk about Shaneera as an entity and about whether storytelling is important to you?
Shaneera is a persona I have encountered. It's cross cultural. It's not even limited to humans —a cat can be Shaneera. It's like dark and light. The persona is genderless. The entire gender spectrum is Shaneera. Your grandpa can be Shaneera. It's also a passing state, an action, a one-off. Shaneera is a long journey.
How did you make that journey?
Work will be made when it's ready to be made. For instance, Brute didn't come out of nowhere. I have black and white photographs of the IMF/World Bank protests in DC. I'd never seen so many cops in my entire life and I've experienced war and invasion. That was something really shocking to see as a 17 year old in a country [where] I believed in everything that was being sold to me as this democratic ideal. The brutality was extremely shocking. They were using water cannons, pepper spray, what have you. It took me years to make [Brute] because I needed to see [brutality] happening again and again in different contexts and I needed to be old enough to make a statement.
I'm interested in how words shape dialogue and society, how they alter the course of history. Words are weaponized. I explored that weaponization in Brute. Part of my intention was to [create] an antithesis to the word, “thug.” “Thug” and “riot” have been used for decades to de-legitimize and dismiss communities of color. These words become ingrained and nobody questions them.
Hashtag movements are also a testament to the power of words. But do you have any concerns about people protesting online vs. in real life?
I'm concerned about the addictiveness of apps, social media, and of the internet, and about what it's doing to us, how it's affecting our relationships. There's something game-y about social media. The same thing with the proliferation of fake news, bots, and trolls. This is a new form of espionage ultimately.
There's a lot of obfuscation happening on the internet, especially in the way that news and information is relayed. It's an intense moment in history where we have been thrust into a new form of propaganda. I imagine this is what happened at the turn of the century when cinematic propaganda became prevalent in the West. People took it at face value and didn't understand the deep indoctrination behind it. We thought we'd never fall for any new type of propaganda ever again but look what happened!
Systems of capitalism adapt to the ways we live our lives.
It's not adapting. It's finding weaknesses in systems and exploiting them. That's the thing about these Russian troll farms. Their ultimate objective is to undermine democracy and to cause divisiveness, so they win no matter whether they are fake black activists—which blew my mind when I found out about it—or whether they're pretending to be hardcore conservatives.