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“You can’t make this shit up!” Fatima Al Qadiri exclaims, in the midst of re-telling a string of fateful anecdotes from her childhood. Caught up in a reminiscent whirlwind, the Kuwait-raised, Brooklyn-based producer is telling me about the time that her father was taken as a prisoner of war by Iraqi military, as she was obliviously playing Castlevania at a neighbour’s house four doors down the street. “Had I been in the house, I would have seen him being dragged out of the house by Iraqi soldiers, and I would have been scarred for life by that. But instead, I was saved, by playing Castlevania, because I enjoyed the soundtrack so much.” She’s right – you really couldn’t make this shit up.
This is a crucial point of the producer and conceptual artist’s latest project, though: the ‘Desert Strike’ EP, out now on Fade To Mind, is based on a video game of the same name, which is in turn based on the invasion of Kuwait that Fatima witnessed as a nine-year-old. It has its roots in the very travesty of someone else trying to “make up” the shit that happens in war, re-imagining the trauma with a glossy shoot-’em-up sheen. Fatima played the Desert Strike game herself a year after the aerial bombings she was subject to, and she says, “playing that game really screwed with me, it really messed me up in the head, because I was just like ‘how does this exist in a format that I can play?’ I couldn’t even describe how disturbing the feeling was.” By re-packaging her memories, the game snatched away her autonomy as a victim, and its ugly soundtrack and brash graphics have stained Fatima’s memory of the whole experience.
Fatima Al Qadiri – Desert Strike
“I would say I was lucky, because by coincidence, by fate, through destiny, I survived, and I could have been killed so many times.” Destiny, fate, coincidence; these are all words that weigh heavily on Fatima’s vocabulary when she begins to talk about this part of her life. With these markers of powerlessness, she really emphasises the formative impact the situation had on her, as a small child completely at the mercy of the universe. Talking about watching the aerial bombing from her house, Fatima’s smallness really rings through each word, her 22-year-old memories cushioning the experience in a tiny, childish frame of references and a sense of feeling too little to take in this much. “I felt like I was at a Star Wars movie,” she tells me. “Here I was on my roof, seeing flashing green lasers in the sky! It’s not every day you can see that, whereas some people don’t ever see that in their lifetime, this real scene of technological warfare happening in the sky. …I didn’t want to go into the basement – because that was the safest place to be – because I was scared of my basement. I thought that demons lived in the basement – so I preferred to be watching anti-aircraft fire whizzing in the sky!”
“I started making music immediately after the liberation of Kuwait…I needed to express myself, and that’s what came out.” – Fatima Al Qadiri
In the midst of the overwhelming bombardment, the references Fatima reached out for to rationalise her experience were the same ones known by children across the world, marking her out as a child of globalisation, and showing the “giant spheres of influence” that Kuwait is host to. Fatima recalls watching Chinese and Japanese cartoons in the 80s and 90s, as well as seeing The Young Ones at 11 years old. She’s of the generation in which you can build your own identity out of a kit filled with internationally recognised cultural influences, and not only that, but an artist who, from a young age, took control of the expression of her identity into her own hands.“I started making music immediately after the liberation of Kuwait, that’s the first melody I ever made, at age nine, so the war and the occupation affected me so much that that’s when I started making music,” she tells me. “I needed to express myself, and that’s what came out.”
To take hold of her own life by constructing melodies was a powerful move for the nine-year-old Fatima – brandishing a Casio she bought with the money her family gave her for Eid – to make, and to do the same with her tainted memories of warfare by exploring them as an adult is even more so. “Children can block out disgusting adult realities and invent their own worlds; and that’s really what this record is about, it’s about mine and my sister’s reality that we created,” she explains. “We made war games against each other all the time, to try to somehow be included in the adult reality, or participate in the adult reality, because we weren’t part of it, we weren’t active participants.” Desert Strike as a game gave the children the sickening power of being able to see their situation from another, jarring perspective, and so ‘Desert Strike’ as an EP tries to make that active participation something that is actually positive and empowering, rather than a sinister role reversal or trivialisation of a tragedy. “It is a re-claiming, it is a trying to make Desert Strike something innocent,” Fatima tells me. “I feel like it’s really cruel and disgusting when video games are made out of real war. It’s just a disturbing thing, and anybody who’s survived any war conflict and played a video game about it afterwards can tell you how disturbing that is. It’s making something really profound and deep and disturbing into something trivial and fake.”
“Children can block out disgusting adult realities and invent their own worlds; and that’s really what this record is about, it’s about mine and my sister’s reality that we created.” – Fatima Al Qadiri
Reclamation of control is something that rings throughout Fatima’s entire body of work as a recurring theme; as she puts it, “all my music comes from some kind of preoccupation with style, or trying to re-define a style to make something new out of it.” Her previous EPs have all been based around the inversion of a familiar experience, taking the listener’s stylistic expectations and completely going against them. ‘WARN U’, released under the name Ayshay on Tri Angle in 2011, was inspired by the a capella worship songs of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and crafted entirely from her own voice, and the follow-up ‘Genre-Specific Xperience’, recorded under her own name, was an exploration of what she calls the “commodification of music”, attempting to get to the core of what it is that makes a “genre”, and subverting the listener’s expectations based on those hidden rules. Hip Hop Spa, the stand out track from that EP, has an almost spiritual lightness, while the cornerstones of the hip hop world – bootys and dollar bills – are made flimsy and soft in the accompanying video. Each EP, then, comes with an external framework of conceptualisation, a guidebook for how to read it. “I”m a very literal person,” Fatima asserts. “I don’t like giving naked ideas to the world….Anybody can put their impression on my music, but my scenario is my own. I want that scenario to be in the music.”
Fatima Al Qadiri – Hip Hop Spa
That’s why, in the process of writing ‘Desert Strike’, which consists entirely of improvised music (apart from the omnipresent samples of guns and explosions), Fatima was determined not to let her EP sound like the soundtrack of the game that inspired it. The project was both entirely based on that experience, and entirely departed from it, just as Hip Hop Spa takes off from hip hop in its own skewed direction. If anything, she was running away from the game’s depiction of the invasion, and composing her own, describing the original as “one of the ugliest video game soundtracks I’ve ever come across.” As she went about creating what she calls her own “soundtrack” to the experience (“every track I make is a soundtrack for something, that’s my personal process”), she deliberately opted for a softer palette of sounds than the original. “I never liked that game, I hated it, because it was this shrill, high-pitched, really unsettling sound,” she says. “It was the most disturbing soundtrack. No melodies, no harmonies, nothing. It was actually the realest soundtrack I’ve ever heard on any war video game. It really encapsulated the terror of the desert.” ‘Desert Strike’ the EP is all about taking those honest elements of the re-creation of experience and building on them for the listener, bringing a wide-eyed childishness to the barrage of war noise – in the sombre, stampeding onslaught of the EP opener Ghost Raid, Fatima says she wanted the listener to “feel like they were being bombarded”, and with its swelling, brassy notes, anxious vocal snippets and crashing swarms of synth, it works.
Fatima Al Qadiri – Ghost Raid
The “childlike war vibes” that dominate the EP, with its clicking guns enmeshed in landscapes of hot, convulsing synths, are a direct result of the influence of grime. “ A couple of internet trolls have told me that I don’t make grime,” Fatima says witheringly, “and I never said that I did make grime, I just said that I was influenced by grime, inspired by grime.” What she takes from the likes of Danny Weed, Ruff Sqwad and Macabre Unit (a list of artists recommended to her by J-Cush of Lit City Trax, who she describes as her “sound library”) is a rough-around-the-edges aesthetic that naively, almost playfully, runs rings around the themes of conflict and aggression. “The prevalence of video game FX in grime sounds innocent in isolation,” she tells me, “but it’s encased in warring beats and bass. I don’t think anyone has really encapsulated that sensation, or that feeling in contemporary life in a more accurate way than those tunes from the early 2000s.” Acting as a cultural miner, Fatima uses a sound palette from a genre that has its roots and its context in an entirely different part of the world to hers, even to depict something so intensely personal to her, because it just sounds right. Sifting through globalised snippets that float into her periphery and matching them to her mood and her story, she prioritises sound in her quest to form the intricate and surprising whole that is her own identity.
“I am an Arab woman making this music, so don’t confuse me with an American dude.” – Fatima Al Qadiri
It’s easy to see why Fatima feels the need to state and shape her identity so prominently, and so personally, in her art, when she reveals that she is consistently, even now, mistaken for an American man sheerly because of her role as an electronic musician. In what she describes as the “brothel” that is the music industry, Fatima asserts that “it’s a catalogue of objectification if you’re female, you have to objectify yourself to get anywhere.” Rather than reduce herself to a conformist package, then, she’s retained her selfhood, and part of that strength comes from reverting to using her “bog-standard, fucking passport name” rather than Ayshay, in order to assert her true identity. “I am an Arab woman making this music,” she says, “so don’t confuse me with an American dude.”
But confusing Fatima Al Qadiri with any other artist seems impossible. Whether she’s evoking landscapes that you’ve never visited, or building unfamiliar sounds out of your favourite hip hop tropes, Fatima’s work is so deeply personal that it feels inextricable from the artist herself. Her style and her subjects vary outlandishly from project to project, but one thing remains true – her story is hers to tell.