Nitin Sawhney is joining the Rachid Taha Band, Brian Eno, Imogen Heap and former Clash guitarist Mick Jones this Sunday for a mammoth Stop the War fundraising gig at the Astoria in Charing Cross Road, London. He spoke to Yuri Prasad about music, racism and the war.
What motivated you to join the bill of the Stop the War benefit gig?
I’m playing the gig because I can’t handle the lies and deceit they used to promote the war on Iraq and I want to do anything I can to stand against that.
There was a very strong attempt to stop people talking about the war during the G8 summit and Live8 concerts, which annoyed me greatly.
Some of the most important things that needed to be said were coming from the Stop the War Coalition—like why is our tax money being spent on bombs rather than on education, health, and foreign aid?
I also think it’s wrong to use nationality as a basis to be cruel to other human beings. Patriotism constantly plays upon people’s insecurities and fears to justify very inhumane behaviour.
You can see examples of this in the way our government talks about immigration, or the way it treats asylum seekers, or the indifference of governments to the plight of people suffering from starvation in other countries.
All of this is coupled with a growing police state that works tirelessly to remove our civil liberties.
I’m stunned by what we are allowing to happen in this country, particularly since 9/11.
Tony Blair’s anti-terror laws are intended to imitate George Bush’s Patriot Act, which allows people to be detained without trial.
What Bush and Blair are trying to do is use the “war on terror” as a means of domestic and international control.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking — two of the most powerful nations in the world, Britain and the US, have appointed themselves as the world police and have more bombs than everyone else.
Anyone who fights against them is a “terrorist”!
For me, the Stop the War Coalition is about turning all of this on its head.
Does your opposition to the war in Iraq find a place in your music?
It finds its way into my work as an expression of what I feel, an expression of my emotions.
But I don’t want to end up like another self-righteous politician telling people what to think.
On my last album, Prophesy, I recorded a track called Ripping Out Tears which attacks what is going on in America and features a radical US rapper called Pinky Tuscadero.
I have worked with other critical artists like Terry Callier, but often the music that I make has no obvious political message.
It is more a process of catharsis — which is what I think art should be about.
Sometimes the music I make is calm because it is about the healing process — that is why I called my new album Philtre — and can be a form of escapism.
Do you think that British Asian artists are pigeonholed by the industry?
Some years ago the media labelled artists from an Asian background like myself, Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation, Fun-Da-Mental, State of Bengal, Badmarsh and Shri and some others as the “sound of the Asian underground”.
My concern was that certain journalists were reducing genuine cultural change to a fad, and thereby undermining the importance of that change.
Of course when the fad passes the artists get dropped from their record companies and promising artists who were looking to change the perception of Asians in Britain no longer have an outlet.
Year upon year Asian artists were getting nominated for top music industry awards — then 9/11 happened and everything went silent.
Let’s see what the future brings.
In the last year there has been a sustained attack by the press and politicians on the idea of multiculturalism. How do feel about what is being said?
A lot of people talk about integration but integration should be about welcoming and learning from other cultures.
What David Blunkett and Trevor Phillips want is more about assimilation — it is an attempt to absorb and homogenise.
The very people who should be educating us about the benefits of a multicultural and diverse society are betraying us all.
There is no real recognition of the contribution made by immigrants to the development of this country.
What could be more insulting than tests for “Englishness”? There are many people who have been born and raised in Britain who would find these tests difficult and confusing.
The pressure for segregation is coming from politicians and the media. How are we supposed to eradicate institutionalised racism when war and fear of the other are being promoted by this government?
I don’t feel that pressure for a form of cultural apartheid is coming from ordinary people. I live near Tooting High Street in south London. If you take a walk there you will see the true breadth and diversity of Britain’s multicultural umbrella.
Nitin Sawhney is writing the score for Oscar-winning director Mira Nair’s forthcoming feature The Namesake. His new album, Philtre, is available now. Go to www.nitinsawhney.com for more. For tickets (£20) for this Sunday’s gig phone 0870 060 377.