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Oldies But Goldies: In The Wake Of My Zayn Malik Post, Here is Something I Wrote In 1988


Race and Gender: Thisism, Thatism

IN 1981 I interviewed the Cure for CREEM. That was three years after they’d released their paean to Albert Camus’s superb existentialist novel, The Stranger. The song was called ‘Killing An Arab’, and it was about the climax of the novel, wherein the protagonist murders a Moroccan for no discernable reason. I’m Arabic. And if I’d believed there was any racist overtones in the song, I’d have certainly taken the Cure to task for it.

In 1986 the Cure released Standing On The Beach, a two-album overview of their career and their first sizable hit Stateside. It went gold. The first track on the LP was ‘Killing An Arab’, and the album’s success brought the song to the attention of Faris Bouhafa, the spokesperson of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination committee. He wrote a letter to the Cure’s American label, Elektra, and Elektra placated him with assurances, which, since he apparently had little choice, Mr. Bouhafa accepted.

Later that year a DJ on a New Jersey radio station introduced the song by saying, “This is about killing an Ay-rab.” While the DJ was certainly accurate, his insulting pronunciation of “Arab” and the manner in which the song’s substance was boiled down to an action some Americans would be happy to perform, alarmed Mr. Bouhafa. He contacted the Cure, met with their manager for three hours, and reached an amicable solution. A sticker would be placed on Standing On The Beach stating that there were no racist overtones whatsoever in the song; a letter would be sent to radio stations asking them not to play the song; and the Cure — songwriter Robert Smith was aghast at the misinterpretation — would play a benefit for Lebanese and Palestinian orphans.

From Elvis Costello’s “London is full of Arabs,” to rock journalist Julie Burchill’s “very smart people tend to hate Arabs,” the rock world has had at Arabs from time to time, almost subconsciously. But Arabs aren’t the only, and not even the biggest, objects of rock racism. In ’76, mindless punks wore swastikas at English concerts (swastikas adorned the label of Vicious’s pathetic Sid Sings). Siouxsie Sioux used to sing “too many Jews for my liking.” By the time punk had passed, an English offspring called “Oi” aligned themselves with the fascist party, the National Front. The NF advocated Pakistani bashing and sending the West Indians back to where they came from. An Oi concert in London became a race riot. The Skinheads, from the early ’70s, also went in for “Paki” bashing.

In the States, white rock fans’ war on disco music (“disco sucks”) managed to be anti-homosexual and anti-black simultaneously. Since the days Pat Boone put on blackface for R&B greats, blacks in rock have been insidiously discriminated against. And despite the crossover appeal of Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys, the white rock “rap is just rhyming” is the same old song.

Sometimes the racism is simply thoughtlessness. No one would call Bruce Springsteen a racist, but what was “He’s all gone, they’re still here” doing in ‘Born In The U.S.A.’? Sorry Boss, but statistics show a couple of Vietcong died as well. Worse is the arrogance and ignorance of rock musicians like Rod Stewart and Linda Ronstadt playing in Sun City. Apartheid is anti-rock ‘n’ roll, you fatheads. And worse still (by many accounts), the album of ’86 — Graceland was a disgrace and should’ve been boycotted. Despite Paul Simon giving South African musicians the opportunity to be heard in the West (without royalties), he ignored a United Nations boycott and the wishes of the African National Congress. As Stuart Cosgrove noted in the New Musical Express, the ANC is fighting for its country. All they ask us to do is not consort with the enemy.

But compared to the sexism in rock, racism is the tip of the iceberg. Egotistical rock stars abuse underage groupies, then sing about how their woman done them wrong. The portrayal of women in rock — all imaginable aspects, and some of which I’ve been guilty of — is consistently misogynistic and vicious. Truly great feminist rock bands (the Bloods, the Au Pairs, the Raincoats [all disbanded]) are ignored while talentless wretches like Samantha Fox and Bananarama roll in the money.

it makes me wonder how far off the mark the PMRC really are. All they want is a rating system. It would be preposterous to claim (for instance) that slash movies (with their explicit murdering of teenaged girls by men) have a right to any audience they want. Children shouldn’t be allowed to see it. That’s not censorship, that’s common sense. The same rules apply to popular music. Why shouldn’t there be warning stickers on albums? The only reason I don’t support the PMRC is my fear of the repercussions: blacklisting, record companies forcing artists to bring in albums with a PG-rating, right-wing ministers using the rating to further their attack on rock, secret clauses in rock per formers’ contracts.

Oddly enough, the sticker on Standing On The Beach might’ve been the first step in a wide-reaching persecution of rock music. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s overreaction to a harmless song might snowball into a full frontal attack. What the ADC have proven is how easy ratings are. Less oddly, both the PMRC and the ADC are reactions to very real fears. The ADC became far more sensitive after their West Coast representative, Alex Odeh, was assassinated in Los Angeles in March of 1986. Subsequently, there have been death threats and firebombs at the ADC’s offices in Washington.

Rock music has always reflected teenage culture. As per usual, society is treating the effect, not the cause. Putting stickers on albums is such a pathetic response to those causes as to be laughable. Ask Alex Odeh how much he enjoys ‘Killing An Arab’. There is no cure for the harm done to him.


© Iman Lababedi, 1988

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