'They accuse you of being divisive': an interview with Aamer Rahman

Aamer Rahman’s comedy addresses racism, Islamophobia, the war on terror and social justice from a perspective that is undeniably black, in the political sense of the word.  Reni Eddo-Lodge speaks to Rahman about how speaking out about racism is still misconstrued.

Reni Eddo-Lodge
16 June 2014

Some people say Aamer Rahman divides opinion. One half of now defunct Australian comedy duo Fear of a Brown Planet, his stand up on reverse racism went viral in late 2013, catapulting him into a global spotlight. But his comedy has been around for a lot longer than that. Fear of a Brown Planet formed in 2008, performing sell out shows across Australia before taking their stand up to the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2011.

Sadly the duo parted in 2013, but Aamer continued his comedy alone. His work is black in all meanings of the word- poking fun at heavy topics like racism, Islamophobia, and the war on terror, from an undeniably black perspective. Black, here, refers to blackness in the political sense- describing people from Africa, Asia, Latin America and those descended from the original inhabitants of Australia, North America, and the islands of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.

Now in his on his fourth visit to London in four years, Aamer sat down with me to talk politics, power, and navigating the white left.

REL: There's a few different ways to express political opinion. Why comedy? 

AR: Totally by accident. My friend Nazeem Hussain, who I used to do Fear of a Brown Planet with, entered an open mic competition as a joke. All of our friends went along, I signed up the next week. Then it just kind of snowballed. I think it was just the timing. It was post 9/11. Anti-immigrant rhetoric in Australia was just horrific. The Islamophobic attitudes towards asylum seekers were off the scale. The things we were saying were just connecting with young Muslims and young black and brown people. No one was saying that stuff in the mainstream. We were in the right place at the right time.

I always find that poking fun at structures of white supremacy is a survival mechanism. It's like a release, isn’t it?

Absolutely.  I often get billed as controversial, or very edgy, or whatever. But I grew up on a lot of comedy about race from the US. Black comedy, like Chris Rock and Richard Pryor. That's what me and my friends grew up on. It was ok to laugh at white people. It wasn't something dangerous. When I started comedy I thought about what was going to make my friends laugh. I wasn't thinking 'white people are going to be upset with me'. I'm not counting on a white audience to come to my show anyway. It's not just a survival mechanism; it’s a totally normal thing about growing up as an outsider.

Do you find it frustrating to be described as controversial all the time?

I don't find it frustrating, because it's not a pejorative thing to me. But I really do feel like if I'm described as controversial, that's how white people describe me to other white people. I don't have black and brown people coming to my show going 'gosh, I was just so pushed out of my comfort zone'.

I think we have to reconcile with the fact that the public sphere is white. The accolades you get will be from white people of influence.

Yeah. People always concentrate on the performance, but for me, audience is 50% of the whole formula. I've always performed and written for black and brown people. I make sure that my audience is the people I'm speaking to. The way I market my shows,  the way I interact with people online,  it's about developing an audience I'm really interested in interacting with I still want to be part of a movement.

What are the similarities politically between Australia and the UK? People say that the far right rhetoric is contained to Europe, but I don't think it is.

Not at all. In Australia it's totally popular. In the late 90s what would be considered the far right emerged. They died because the right co-opted all of their rhetoric. That's basically become normalised now. The rhetoric toward the Muslim community, towards new immigrants, towards asylum seekers, that’s been stock standard between the two major parties for the last 10 years.

The same thing is happening here.  UKIP has become legitimate because our two main parties, instead of challenging the anti-immigrant rhetoric, they sort of do it lighter. UKIP light.

Diet racism.

Exactly!  So you've got Labour MPs, who are supposed to be the party of the left, going 'we need to talk about this unspoken question of immigration.' But every day on the news, its immigrants are coming to take your job.

We've got the same things.  We've got the nominally right wing party A, and the supposedly left wing, traditionally attached to the trade union movement party B, also called Labour. But they've completely collaborated over the last 10 years. If one has slightly more divisive rhetoric, all party B needs to do is not challenge that. Then it becomes the status quo. Then they can get away with saying 'we never said that'. But they never challenged it.  So they're part of creating the same atmosphere. Both the major parties in Australia have shifted radically to the right. There is no centre. And the centre left is a fringe party, like the Greens.

And we're often arguing amongst ourselves.

Yes.  It's depressing everywhere, and all we have is twitter.

Have you heard about the Trojan horse school news story?  What are your thoughts? It's reaching fever pitch.

This is fresh off the back of the pizza express halal meat story too. It's just the same text book. It's either oppressed women who are being told how to dress, because it's ok for the white majority to tell women how to dress, but it's not ok for women to dress according to their own religious standards. Or its British, slash Australian, slash American values - read - Western liberal values. Or it's the secret threat of halal meat. We have that one in Australia, it comes around every four months. ‘Did you know that Safeway is secretly selling you halal meat?’  Because, if you eat it, you’ll suddenly join the Taliban. These are just perpetual anxieties.

It's never really about the issue. It's about something much deeper than that. I just wish that the people pushing this, who are often journalists and producers, because that's how it becomes a media narrative, would just come out and say 'we hate black and brown people. Just be straight with us!

Exactly. We see these things in a domestic context, but of course they're not exclusively domestic. This is happening in the context of a global war on terror. It's part of an imperialist campaign. How do you shore up support for an on-going invasion of places across the world, which has become background noise to us in the west, even though it's still happening? You do it by focusing on minorities domestically. By painting them as the enemy.

Your reverse racism video that went viral- do you think there was a dichotomy in reaction, between people who just agreed with you, and people who felt enlightened?

I never get that response from my comedy. People are never like, ‘oh I used to think one way, and now I think differently’. I just think racism is too heavily ingrained. A YouTube video won’t change people’s minds. So I think anyone responding to it positively did so because they already agreed with it, whether they found it funny or not. A lot of the response I got from people was ‘this really articulated how I felt, and I can’t be bothered arguing with people anymore, so I just send them this clip’. The point of that clip is not to educate.

When you speak about race in the public sphere, people expect you to educate them. It’s often the people who don’t have the experiences of racism.

What I’m saying is more affirmation than education. People think that comedians are presenting these amazing new ideas. But people laugh the hardest when a comedian tells them something they already know. I think entertainment really has to be put in perspective. People can really overplay the value of it…. I feel like it’s an indictment of the left and progressive politics in general, when you expect a comedian to articulate your political position.

I recently spoke about race at a socialist festival. The response I got from the audience wasn’t good. I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about!

They accused you of being divisive, of doing identity politics, yeah.

Those sorts of attitudes are endemic on the white left. Do you think this a problem across the global white left? How do we overcome it?

Well, you don’t erase your whiteness just because you’re left wing. It doesn’t evaporate just because you decide you want to act in solidarity with black and brown people. On the one hand you get people who think that the left is ‘post-race’. On the other hand you get the white saviours of the left, who are so into saving the black and brown people of the left that the end up taking up more space. That’s why the left struggles to connect with the communities it wants to be in solidarity with. It structurally suffers the same problems as everyone else. It either consciously or unconsciously denies participation or limits participation and a voice to people who are on the margins…. It’s a sad, sad time.

I heard in a documentary about you that someone complained to the human rights court and said that you were racist against white people. Is that true?

I didn't even know about it until the documentary came out!  The festival never told us that it happened. So obviously it was someone with a lot of time on their hands, who’s probably been trolling me on Twitter since. I'm sure they didn't just go away after making their complaint. Most of that stuff comes out in the form of internet trolling.

In the UK there's been a very wide media discussion about internet trolling. Can you tell me a bit about the abuse that you get online?

The stuff that I can is pretty easy to shake off. It's angry white people saying 'you're a racist'. I don't need to respond.  There's rarely the threat of violence the way there is for women.  Not to say that there hasn't been- I've gotten death threats. But as a man, it’s just not the same terrain.  The question of rape threats doesn't even arise. Because I don't engage with them, they leave me alone very quickly.

I find, when you're speaking publicly about race and racism, you get an outpouring of support and love globally, from people who feel the same.  Can you tell me a bit about the love, and the solidarity and the community?

I’m just glad the Internet exists! Australia particularly is such a small place. The popular mentality is so regressive. The solitary I get is from all around the world. It just wouldn't have been possible without social media, YouTube and stuff like that. At the same time it's kind of depressing to know that the same kind of stuff exists everywhere. 

Everyone's going through it!

Yeah.  The key to being able to get the opportunities I've had is being able to connect with people, particularly in the US, the UK, and Canada. People can really relate to what I'm saying.

There seems to be a sort of diaspora- using the term loosely- black experience narrative that is just surging in popularity at the moment.

Social media has a lot to do with it.  Because it just cannot be regulated. So on the one hand it can't be regulated in terms of abuse and unmitigated hostility. But at the same time, [there are] thinkers like Trudy who are just huge online,  that no mainstream outlet would touch with a ten foot pole.  It's unregulated.  But they've got these massive audiences, and they've created their own platform.

It's very interesting, because we seem to be circumventing power. Do you think that there's been a popularising of what I would loosely term 'the black experience' online?

I wouldn't say there's been a popularising, but there's an avenue for it to be expressed.  It was already global.

But there seems to be an appetite now? 

For the discussion. The language has become popular; discussing it has become popular, popular in the sense that it's not unusual now. It's not unusual for people to talk about it all the time, or for people to only talk about that, constantly. It doesn't get boring; it’s still an engaging discussion. I think the mainstream, the old media outlets have no idea how to contain it, how to challenge it. They also have no idea how to capitalise on it. It's making its own roads. It's very hard to co-opt. It also doesn't rely on money. It's just people sitting in their bedrooms saying whatever they want. There's actually no way to pull the plug on it. You see a lot of what happened to you- accusations of bullying, attempts to silence.

Yeah, there are efforts to try and delegitimise, but it just keeps growing. 

They can't.  They just can't stop it. There will always be support for people saying these things. Whether that will translate into jobs, or paid voices, is a totally different story. But you can't shut people up.

Aamer Rahman is performing at London’s Soho Theatre until Saturday 21st June. 

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