Ceasefire magazine: Interview | Aamer Rahman: “I never make up stories, all my stories are true”
Aamer Rahman is a comedian who doesn’t mince his words. Watching him perform his widely acclaimed “Truth Hurts” show in London, I’m struck by the ease with which he tackles the thorniest of topics and his willingness to tread where angels daren’t. In one skit, he imitates his friends’ disparaging tone as they mock him for questioning whether Bin Laden wasn’t merely a green screen creation – “I believed the Tiger in Life of Pi was real for two hours” he quips. In another he jokes that one follower on twitter accused him of wanting to kill all white people, so he calls for a mass uprising against whites – straight white males though, he clarifies mischievously.
Rahman’s comedy is influenced by both his personal experiences of racism – growing up as a member of a minority in Australia – and his clear identification with a movement that believes historic global injustices continue to translate into systemic inequities and outright racism.
In one illustration of his own experience of racism in Australia – a frequent focus of his ire – Rahman describes having unwittingly attended a massive heavy metal concert in Melbourne in his youth, accompanied by a cousin who was visiting from Bangladesh, only to discover in a half-comical, half-horrifying twist that it was in fact a heavy metal Nazi rally. Is the ‘mosh pit head-banging with Nazis’ story actually true? I put to him slightly incredulously. “Absolutely – I never make up stories, all my stories are true – I always think it’s very obvious when I watch comedians when they’ve made up a wacky story, so I write based on experience.”
As a comedian for whom issues of racism are so central to his sketches, I ask him about the widely touted notion that the UK is now a “post-racial” society, a point often illustrated by figures such as athlete Mo Farah, who became the “pride of Britain” when he represented the UK in the Olympics. “It’s not accurate,” he tells me, “it is identical to all the rhetoric which surrounded Obama’s election – it is inconceivable that a racist nation would elect a black leader – putting out these exceptional examples of people of colour to say institutional racism has been eradicated when, if you look at the stats in America on black unemployment, black incarceration, black murder at the hands of the police, US foreign policy, none of these things have changed under the Obama administration. And, similarly, in the UK, I’m sure if you look at those stats, none of those things have changed because of Mo Farah – not to take anything away from him – but it is obviously, once again, symbolic misunderstandings of racism versus the systemic realities of racism.”
I put to him recent comments by the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, who was quoted as saying that “Campaigners like me seriously believed that if we could prevent people expressing prejudiced ideas then eventually they would stop thinking them. But now I’m convinced we were utterly wrong.” As a comedian who regularly mocks the ease with which racism is overlooked, I ask him what he makes of the idea that people should be free to use racial stereotypes. “So basically, it is the irrational emotions of the victims of racism, who take this too hard and then oppress the racists, which creates more racism – that’s his logic,” he begins in his trade-mark style, “that if we toughened up, let people say what they felt like, they wouldn’t feel so alienated and become racists. That’s kind of what he’s saying, that you, the victim of racism is responsible.”
We discuss Phillips’s recent Channel 4 interview with Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), particularly Phillips’s statement that he “got on well” with Farage, despite the latter using the conspiratorial slur of “fifth column” when referring to British Muslims in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Given Farage’s political rise, with his party currently polling at between 10% and 15%, what does Rahman make of the idea that UKIP is actually addressing very real concerns? “That is something I have seen around the world. Kind of like a corporatizing of that old National Front racism – it’s the National Front in a suit basically. In Australia, the major parties have done it – people shouldn’t be afraid to be called racist because they have concerns about asylum seekers – that kind of thing – giving people the green light to be racist – legitimising it – the main thing about these kind of fringe far right parties is that they are a convenient stooge for the major parties to then come out and do some superficial condemnation, to basically pretend like they too are not racist – and haven’t been racist for decades.”
I suggest to him that although a lot of people object to UKIP, many are sympathetic to this idea that Muslims pose a unique challenge to European societies, that somehow Muslims are a “unique integration challenge”: “It is convenient to think that, because sub-consciously it justifies foreign policy, it justifies your attitude towards people of colour in general, it justifies your attitude towards asylum seekers, creating this ‘Clash of Civilizations’ rhetoric. It justifies all of those things – you can easily condemn Farage for his choice of words, but you can easily push this line in the mainstream and what’s the difference? You have a fall guy, who puts his foot in his mouth and says a little bit too much and then you’ve got the more professional version which is actually able to push through policies based on the same, exactly the same hysteria.”
And this is part of what makes Aamer Rahman such an iconic comedian – his strident critiques expressed through his flippant style of humour tap into the frustrations of audiences globally. “Wherever I go in the world,” he tells me, “the audience is the same – it’s just the size which changes”. And it is without doubt that ability to articulate the frustrations of a global counter-cultural movement which lies at the heart of his success.
Dressed in an army print jacket and cap, there’s a sense with Rahman that his gigs are about much more than just the laughs – there’s a sense of mission about the man. “What’s the dream?”, I ask him, as we part ways, “I don’t know”, he tells me with a sheepish grin, “I was going to quit and then I put up that Reverse Racism clip up and that’s how I got these tours. The majority of stuff I have tried to make happen hasn’t worked out and the other stuff has happened by accident, so now I’m much more like ‘whatever happens is gonna happen.’” And with that typically philosophical approach, he heads off to kick off his two-month tour of the US.
Aamer Rahman is starting a two-month tour of the US. For details visit aamerrahman.tumblr.com.
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