By Nadeem Farooq Paracha (The Dawn Blog)
Modern Pakistani pop culture is a cultural extension of the upper echelons of urban middle-class Pakistan. This remains in spite of the fact that acts such as Sajjad Ali, Nazia and Zoheb, Abrar-ul-Haq, Atif Aslam, and to a certain extent, Junoon and the Vital Signs have often managed to resonate some aesthetic and social relevance within the more populist sections of popular culture in Pakistan.
Modern pop acts in the country have largely appeared from and cater to particular corners of urban classes; these acts would not have been able to continuously make it to mainstream marketing and media platforms on their own and/or without the financial and promotional muscle of pop-friendly multinationals. Nor would they have been able to sprinkle modern electronic aesthetics over the unidimensional, word-heavy and folk-tinged tastes of the majority of Pakistani music fans if not sponsored by the reach of the mainstream media on which the multinationals advertise their brands.
For long, the social relevance of Pakistani pop musicians in the larger context of society and politics has remained a featherweight event, even though bands like Junoon made sincere efforts in this direction, but not always so convincingly.
Both Pakistani pop and rock music has remained an acquired taste among the masses, whose tastes are still deeply linked to conventional film music, folk music and music associated with subcontinent’s ‘mazaar culture,’ that is music that emerged from the peripheries of Sufi saints’ tombs such as the qawali and dhamaal.
Recently, with the country facing an unprecedented spat of political and social problems – from gruesome terrorism, ‘Talibanisation,’ constitutional crises and economic downturns to a struggling democracy still coming to grips with the pitfalls of the country’s fourth dictatorship that came to an end early last year – pop acts have come under increasing pressure to step out of their safe, lyrical comfort zones and state their stance on the more pressing socio-political issues of the hour.
The pressure has mounted also because a majority of Pakistanis – including certain theatre groups, journalists, TV personalities and even the more ‘moderate’ Islamic clerics – have now come out and openly denounced the beliefs and ways of Islamic extremism.
This consensus against religious extremism and the violence it has generated has grown and strengthened two-fold. So the question now is, how come pop musicians – most of whom emerge from liberal and educated middle-class backgrounds – have remained eerily quiet about this issue?
Ironically, so far it has only been a former rock musician, ex-guitarist of Junoon, Salman Ahmed, who has willingly sounded out against the Taliban, while his more musically active peers have said very little through their art. Why?
The most obvious answer has to do with the security factor. It is said that the musicians are afraid that if they address the issue of religious extremism, they will be attacked and harmed by the extremists. But when certain journalists, theatre groups and TV personalities who have spoken out against extremism and the Taliban emerge from the same class as most of their pop counterparts, can that really be the problem?
The truth is, security is not the only reason. The issue also has a lot to do with the economics and ‘politics’ of the Pakistani pop scene.
Late last year, pop star Shahzad Roy suddenly turned political from being a boy-pop purveyor with an excellent song and video, ‘Laga Rey.’ He created a fantastic platform for himself by becoming one of the first local pop acts who was ready to question the ways and attitude of the clergy, the politicians, and the state. However, his next video betrayed the boldness that he had exhibited on ‘Laga Rey.’ The next logical step in the narrative he was trying to build should have been the addressing of the issue of terrorism and religious extremism. But Roy fell for a safe cliché instead: American drone attacks.
Bravery regarding journalism, intellectualitsm and art in Pakistan these days mostly amounts to addressing issues that a majority of Pakistanis are afraid to raise. Thus, there is absolutely nothing so brave or original about registering an artistic protest against the obviously condemnable issue of the drone attacks. Everybody does it, so what’s the big deal?
How does Roy see the drone attacks as more condemnable than the unprecedented number of terrorist attacks, suicide bombings and the destruction of girls’ schools by the Taliban or the proliferation of hate literature, hate speech on TV and extremist mentality in society?
Though early last year a number of local pop acts got together to record a song that pleaded for peace – ‘Yeh Hum Nahin’ – the lyrics were dripping with melted cheese and were highly ambiguous. Worse was the overall message of the song, ‘this is not us’, that seemed to have emerged from another narrative plaguing society regarding terrorism and extremism in Pakistan i.e. all the religious extremism and terrorism being witnessed by Pakistanis is actually the doing of outside forces, whereas we are nothing short of being innocent saints!
Many intellectuals who have decided to break out of the box have pleaded that the time has arrived for Pakistanis to face up to their own history of violence and intrigue (East Pakistan, Z. A. Bhutto’s hanging, the formation of jihadi and sectarian groups, the making of the Taliban in Afghanistan, etc.). They suggest that no serious political and social problem in this Land of the Pure can be satisfyingly solved if we do not stop to always look for ‘foreign hands’ and ‘sinister anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan forces’ for all that goes kaput in this country. In light of this, the song’s title should have been ‘Hum Itney Farishtey Bhi Nahein’ or ‘We are not angels either’.
Unfortunately, and ironically, this just cannot be expected from the Pakistani pop scene. Because no matter how liberal and ‘educated’ the background most pop acts are coming from and catering to, this is also a group whose first real political step was their public support for General Pervez Musharraf.
And this group also includes many TV artistes, fashion models and designers as well. Before Musharraf, they remained largely apolitical and highly suspicious of populist democracy which just doesn’t appeal to their isolated fashion and music aesthetics, and, more so, to their economics. Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif to them will always remain crooks, whereas characters like Mullah Fazlullah will never be spoken about or condemned.
Many pop acts struck gold under Musharraf through advertising, concerts and modeling as Pakistan too tasted the good times of healthy economics that prevailed around the world between 2001 and 2005. They projected their good fortune onto Musharraf, but when the international economic and political downturn swept aside the soft dictator, Pakistan’s show-biz circles went into a shock of sorts – a shock they are still to recover from, even a year after the renewal of populist democracy in the country.
Populist democracy does not cater well to elite arts, especially when this democracy is struggling. So this is actually a bad time, really, for pop acts to make a political statement. Because representing a class that has largely remained apolitical and with only a superficial and flimsy understanding of political history, most pop acts, both in public and in private, have ended up making a mockery of the whole concept of ‘politicised art.’
For example, musicians like Ali Azmat and Zeeshan and Pervez and fashion designers such as Maria B – though liberal and having a big stake in keeping Pakistani society pluralistic and open – have actually ended up publicly applauding convoluted conspiracy theorists. Cranks who mate Iqbal’s Nietzschean construct of the ‘Shaheen’ with the anti-Semite babblings of Henry Ford, and a distorted history of Islam and Pakistan, plus debunked conspiracy theories and assorted historical myths about Zionists and Hindus to come up with instant, fast-food explanations about economics, politics and religion! Who needs books and thinking when a self-centred chatterbox is doing all the thinking for you on the mini-screen.
On the other end of such local political pop disasters are acts such as Ali Noor of Noorie, who, while giving a (still to be published) interview to an American journalist has said that he will never write a song about terrorism because ‘terrorism is not the main issue of the country.’ He added, ‘but poverty is.’
Yes, that truly is stunningly insightful of him, isn’t it.? But if he means that poverty is what is making people blow themselves up in public, well it is only one of the reasons. There are so many other factors involved as well, because if poverty was the sole reason behind terrorism, then perhaps the first Pakistanis to become suicide bombers and religious fanatics would have been the residents of one of Asia’s biggest and most poverty-stricken urban slums: Karachi’s Lyari area. But we have yet to see a Lyarite blow himself up.
The above are at least some of the reasons why I would personally like the local pop acts to remain apolitical, really. Because believe me, one is asking for a miracle for the pop acts to sound coherent, thoughtful and relevant in matters of politics – especially when it concerns terrorism and religious extremism.
They have absolutely no clue.