Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Pleasures of Pop & The Expedience of Politics: Hanif Kureishi's The Black Album (1995)

Within our commodity-driven culture lies a substantially creative battleground between art and product, substance and trivia, liberation and oppression. In Hanif Kureishi's marvellous 1995 novel The Black Album, that ambiguous struggle between the pleasures of pop and the expedience of politics gets played out with a sly devil-may-care humour. The backdrop of the story (aptly named after Prince's famous and controversial bootlegged album which he recorded in 1987 and eventually released in 1994) takes place in London during the tense and horrendous period of the fatwah issued by the Ayatollah in Iran against Salmon Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses

Shahid Hasan is a young Pakastani student at a community college and an aspiring writer who falls in with a faction of conservative Muslims, led by a zealous poet, Riaz, who is given to delivering sermons with titles like "Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve." His true attraction, though, is for Deedee Osgood, a free-spirited and hedonistic ex-Marxist college lecturer, who appeals to his passion for the artistic, spiritual, and sexual freedom that pop culture offers him. (They both dig Prince.) The dramatic conflict at the heart of The Black Album is how Shahid becomes torn between the "appetite for the compelling exhilaration" that he feels with Deedee, and the more ordered and tidy existence put forth by Riaz which he sees as an alternative to the racist abuse continually suffered by Pakistanis under the British ruling class. 

Anyone familiar with Kureishi's screenplays for London Kills Me (which he also directed in 1991) and Stephen Frears' sumptuously enjoyable My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), plus the disappointingly didactic Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), or his début 1990 novel, Buddha of Suburbia, will recognize the swirling, sometimes even darkly comic themes in The Black Album. Essentially, Kureishi is drawn to the effects of colonialism within England itself – what it does to the lives of immigrants, in particular, the ones who wish to assimilate without losing their identity. Although Kureishi is clearly on the side of Shahid and Deedee, he doesn't patronize the world of Riaz and his theocratic buddies either. By presenting a panoramic quest for political justice, one that doesn't create an us-versus-them scenario, he's able to get inside the rigid ideologies of these zealots so that we can see what attracts them to radical Islam.

author Hanif Kureishi

True to Kureishi's temperament, The Black Album has a number of fascinating characters. They include Shahid's brother, Chili (a whole different kind of hedonist than Shahid), who's a womanising spendthrift with a predilection for hard drugs. (His apetite for chemical refreshment is about as strong as his desire for Armani suits.) But Kureishi never settles for simple characterizations. For instance, when you least expect it, Chili rises to the heroic occasion. Shahid's sister-in-law, Zulma, an arch-feminist, turns out to also be a wealthy and spoiled débutante with sharp teeth that love to bite. Then there's Chad, a Muslim, who battles Shahid on the merits of art and pop by bringing out that rage of the underclass in order to dismiss what he sees as Shahid's bourgeois life. "You can't impress me," he tells Shahid. "What about the dispossessed? Eh? Go out in the street now and ask people what they read lately. The Sun; maybe, or the Daily Express." Another major character is Deedee's husband, Dr. Andrew Brownlow, a communist who, during the Sixties, fought for civil liberties. But, by 1989, his inflexible and reactionary leftist political stance lines him up more comfortably with all the fanatics set to burn Salman Rushdie's book. Kureishi continually keeps our head spinning by never giving us comfort in our set values.

All the way through The Black Album the story is perfumed with the ghosts of the Sixties – not just because the music of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and The Beatles fill the background, but because Deedee and Shahid are the bastard children of that tumultuous time. They both celebrate a political and cultural ethos that values the imagination over totalitarian dogma. They also seek a link between the transient sustenance of pop culture and the more lasting and dynamic changes brought forth by honest social activism. Their key frustration, though, is that the spirit of utopianism, where one could embrace Sly Stone as passionately as one could Ravi Shankar, is gone by 1989. (Shahid actually admires Prince because "he's half-black, and half-white, half-man. half-woman, half-size, feminine but macho...and extends the history of black American music.") 

The Black Album still has an optimistic and quixotic thrust, however, one that embodies a new kind of radical consciousness. Kureishi is clearly trying to keep some of that utopian spirit alive. He's saying that claiming one's passion for great pop can be just as essential as being committed to social change. In that respect, The Black Album not only makes a terrific and appetizing summer read, but it provides a very sumptuous meal, too.  

  – Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.                

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