Interview: Aamer Rahman -‘This is 15 Years of The War On Terror, Post-911 Security Rhetoric & Islamophobia.’

We caught up with comedian Aamer Rahman, to talk about Trump, Brexit, Hanson, Hip Hop and how being a new Dad has affected his outlook. 

Have you always wanted to work in comedy/be a comedian?

No not at all. I l always loved comedy but it never occurred to me to do it as a career or try it. That happened quite late. I started comedy when I was around 25, which I think is a lot later than other comedians.

My friend Nazeem who I used to do ‘Fear of a Brown Planet‘ with, he entered an amateur stand up competition, like an open mic competition. Melbourne has a big comedy festival – the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – and every year they run an open mic competition. He entered it and I kind of entered the next week. It never really occurred to me before then although I was a huge comedy fan.

You grew up moving between the Middle East and Australia. Do you think these experiences politicised you?

Living in the Middle East made it very easy to visit Bangladesh, so I had a lot of exposure to Bangladesh, and I think the contrast of living in Australia to living in the Middle East and Bangladesh was a real shock to me. Every time we moved back to Australia I was dealing with a completely different situation in terms of my ethnicity or my culture. And yeah I think that has had a lasting effect, that’s still my experience really, living as a brown person in Australia, it hasn’t really changed.

Do you consider yourself Australian?

No, I don’t really.

You’ve previously described your comedy as ‘not for white people’, how important is it for you to write work for black and brown people and does this make things harder as a career? 

Good question. I think people misunderstand it when I say it’s not for white people – like I’ve got security turning white people away at the door. What I mean is when I have an audience in mind, that that’s not who I’m thinking of. I’m thinking of my friends and my family, my community and what makes them laugh first and of course a lot of white people do enjoy that. All artists have had all kinds of audiences but it’s more about my writing process and who I’m trying to speak to.

And has it made my career more difficult? 100%. It absolutely has, just because we see it all the time, black and brown people don’t get taken seriously as audiences. That’s why media and entertainment is so whitewashed because the people doing the programming and the people commissioning shows, either consciously or unconsciously are preoccupied with appealing to a white audience and their taste so yeah it’s always harder if you’re coming from a perspective where you don’t want to cater to the dominant audience, it’s always going to be harder.

I feel like we can’t get away from asking about the US election. Do you have any predictions? And what do you think about where the US is right now? 

I wouldn’t have any idea how to predict it but even if Trump loses, as much I’m sure people will celebrate him losing, I think he’s just opened a huge Pandora’s box of racism. He’s said things publicly that were unthinkable I would say even twelve months ago. Not just about race, about women, I mean name it, he’s just torn open this hole in what’s acceptable to say publicly and even if he doesn’t win the presidency that’s not going to go away. He’s emboldened all these people to come out and express those kinds of sentiments. It’s very similar to Brexit – hate crimes increase, people feel more comfortable and less timid about expressing openly racist and hostile ideas. And even if he loses, I’m not a huge fan of Hillary Clinton. I think in this moment because the alternative is so terrible and so terrifying people are coming up with all kinds of justifications as to why she’s a good candidate. I do understand if people vote for her simply to avoid getting Trump but I think it’s also gone a little bit far on glossing over all the things that she should be held accountable for.

Yeah I saw a comedian tweet that the choice is between a racist, sexist, immoral man and a woman who used the wrong email, but it’s not that simple…

Exactly it really isn’t. But I feel like people think that the things Hillary Clinton’s done pale in comparison to Trump, but she’s actually been in office. She’s actually done things at the highest levels of US government already, as Secretary of State. But yeah, I think it’s gotten very confused.

You mentioned Brexit, how did that play out, how did that look to someone from the outside?

Australia hasn’t been any different, with the far right, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Pauline Hanson – far right anti-migrant, anti-immigrant platform. 20 years ago she was complaining about East Asians swamping Australia, now it’s Muslims. And it’s just been this cascading domino effect, this ongoing thing with Trump, then Brexit, then the Australian Federal Election and the far right who are now calling the shots even though they’re a minority. The ruling coalition is bowing to their will because they’re terrified of losing more votes to people further right than them. But I think this is the trajectory we’ve been on for a long time. A lot of people are looking at it as this overnight explosion of racism, but this is 15 years of the War on Terror  and post-911 security rhetoric and Islamophobia, there’s going to come a point where the mainstream version of that narrative is not enough. If you keep hyping people up eventually, the population itself will become more extreme and demand people saying more extreme versions of the same thing.

It’s like a runaway train, the mainstream parties in all these places have been trading on that rhetoric for so long, and now they’re watching it basically, it’s completely beyond their control now, because people further right and people with less interest in facts and statistics are now just riding that train to wherever, who knows.

I read your recent Vice article and saw similarities with what’s happening here, where we had the Labour party feeding into anti-immigrant rhetoric during the 2015 election and around the rise of UKIP. But I was going to ask whether you think this is a sentiment that exists rather than a recent phenomenon, because before Trump in the US for example, it was just more coded language. 

It’s just a really rapid escalation of the same thing. You can’t give Trump and Hanson or even UKIP all the credit for it. They’ve ridden the wave but they didn’t have the resources and the platform to make these sentiments mainstream. They were not the ones whipping up this kind of thing for the last 15 years, they’ve just come in at the tail end of the whole thing. I think it’s a result of those sentiments always being there and nothing effective done to challenge it.

What’s been the role of the Australian media in this? You say there’s been no challenge, and I imagine the debate can be quite narrow so is it not being challenged in media either? 

It’s been very narrow. When both the parties agree basically completely agree on a policy like asylum seeker policy and both parties have this golden handshake where neither of them will back down from mandatory detention or automatic criminalisation of asylum seekers, then even a progressive media would have a tough time because it’s difficult for them to push either party in any direction when they have this iron clad agreement.

But at the same time Australia doesn’t have a very progressive media, they have this kind of dutifully reported whatever the official sources from the immigration department said or whichever relevant minister has said on any given day, and I guess the media is also populist, they also need to sell units. They know that whether it’s a hard right tabloid position or a very concerned hand-wringing left position on meeting the controlled borders points it’s still speaking to that same sentiment.

We had a recent event on Race and The Media and Roxley Foley came to speak who is over in the UK but is from an Aboriginal tribe – he was saying media do not report on their rates of incarceration and criminalisation, and they are treated as a burden for living the way they are…

Absolutely, when it comes to Aboriginal affairs in Australia the media is 100% complicit in perpetuating the most horrific stereotypes of indigenous people, which means that when it comes to really regressive horrific policy, the public just swallows it. The government is able to sell really horrific… basically legalised apartheid, by saying it’s for the good of these people because essentially they can’t help themselves. Yeah, they’re 100% complicit.

Roxley’s father’s a legendary activist and academic over here.

I wanted to ask you about the psyche of what’s taking place. For example, over here, before the EU Referendum there was a poll that showed there was crossover in Brits thinking that they should be allowed to go anywhere in Europe but that Europeans should not be allowed the same rights to come here. With Trump supporters, there was a woman who voted twice BECAUSE she says the election is rigged, and there’s a belief that Trump voters are being suppressed AS the party pursues suppression of low-income and minority voters. What do you think about how these ideas are allowed to exist in tandem? 

…As in like basically there’s just such a deep level of delusion with people over this stuff. I didn’t get into it too much in that Vice piece but I was saying that there’s a real rush to explain away all this stuff – Trump, Brexit, Hanson – as some white working class backlash. Again they kind of have to take this cultural element out of it, that people have been struggling and they have been disenfranchised by the system and therefore they’re easily susceptible to this kind of rhetoric and they’re not really racist, it’s actually just an expression of their material conditions, and I just don’t buy that.

There’s obviously going to be a high correlation between people who are more marginalised who are more attracted to this stuff. But it’s not a complete answer. It’s too easy an explanation. And definitely the research in the US has shown that it’s absolutely not the case that all of Trump’s base is poor or uneducated. Same with the Brexit data and also I think with the Australian data as well. Yeah it skews in one direction but basically the ideas of cultural superiority have gone deep, they’ve gone very, very deep into the national psyche in these places.

I saw the last time you were in the UK you did an event with Akala, and have spoken about Hip Hop before, how much of an influence has Hip Hop been for you?

Huge, huge! I think that it was a huge influence on me politically, and that just automatically went into my comedy. I was politically engaged for a while before I became a comedian, but as an artform it was really politicising to listen to when growing up. There are very few mediums that are explaining the world that doesn’t make sense to you. If you’re growing up in a racist society and everyone’s telling you that’s it’s not really racist, there’s very few things you can listen to or read that will actually tell you there is such a thing, and it is happening, and it is real, and it’s okay to be angry about it.

I think subconsciously it also taught me that politics can be accessible. That you can entertain people and still say something good, that is meaningful to you and meaningful to them, and might be quite serious at it’s core but can still be entertaining.

Is that something that you’ve then taken forward in your art, to be able to entertain and yet say something quite serious?

Well, I think it has it’s limits as well. When you do something political, then people hold it to a very high standard sometimes and flood your inbox with ‘why don’t you talk about this’ and ‘why don’t you talk about that’ – like at the end it’s still comedy. It’s a very crude, very primitive artform, it’s not the basis for building social movements.

What’s your favourite joke that you’ve written? And not written? 

I have a joke about the Walking Dead, it’s really silly and not very political, and it’s really immature as well I guess.  It’s not super political but it is one of my favourite jokes, because it’s one of the least serious jokes I have.

My favourite joke that I haven’t written yet…. I am not sure if anyone has noticed but I haven’t done stand up in a while, because I’m a new Dad and things are not funny to me anymore. The things I would normally joke about now keep me up at night, so I’m waiting and hoping that that will wear off and can go back to being able to joke about stuff.

Do you have any upcoming plans to come to the UK?

I am actually coming to the UK in December as part of a charity tour, there’s a charity called Human Appeal that’s doing a nationwide tour that I am going to be part of. So it’s not my own show, it’s me and a line up of other Muslim comedians.

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