The first time I met Fear of a Brown Planet comic duo Aamer Rahman and Nazeem Hussain, it was not at a post-show groupie hangout; it was at the very edge of the performance stage of an overcrowded Espy where we were all moshed in together to watch one of the legends of hip-hop – Public Enemy.
Fear of a Brown Planet’s moniker is a play on the critically acclaimed third album of Public Enemy called ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ released twenty years ago. Like Public Enemy, Melbourne-based Fear of a Brown Planet use art as a means of resisting prejudice and oppression. In an article first published in The Advertiser, and now published on their blog, Nazeem writes:
“Stand-up comedy is one medium which is, fundamentally, an art of protest. Historically, it has been used as a tool by communities and people with ideas that challenge and provoke the status quo with a spirit of counterculture.”
As a queer of colour, I know how difficult it is to talk about racism with white friends, let alone raise it in public. Watching their shows helps heal a raw nerve and reflect my anger and frustration with an Australia that fails its culturally diverse population. And when I look around to see enraptured audiences’ faces, I revel in not being alone in this shared political consciousness. One of my favourite jokes is when Aamer inverses the stereotypes about alcoholism and throws it back on the shoulders of its progenitors:
“The whole time I’ve grown up in Australia I’ve only heard white people complain about other people’s cultures; Muslims beat their wives, Africans are in violent gangs, Aborigines have a drinking problem… that’s my favourite number one complaint from white people… you saw the Cronulla riots.. I’m sure we can all comfortably agree that no one in this country has a scarier drinking problem than white people. That’s why there’s no alcohol allowed in the room. Not for religious reasons. We just don’t trust white people with alcohol anymore. You saw the Cronulla riots on TV – when white people have a party, one minute it’s a party and the next minute it’s the Nazi party. When you and your friends have a BBQ, and within a half hour of that it manages to mutate into a 5000 strong Hitler youth rally, maybe there’s something wrong with your culture… just putting it out there.”
I stole a half hour from Fear of a Brown Planet’s busy schedule earlier this year just after the final show of their sold-out season at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in April. “Why do you always do political comedy, Aamer?”, asked one of his friends, “watching you is like watching the news”. Despite the gibes about being “too political”, Aamer believes that it’s “possible to be angry and funny at the same time”. “For us it’s always gone hand in hand. [This has] always been the type of comedy that we really enjoy. We’ve grown up on a lot of comedians like Chris Rock or Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks. Those artists have always used comedy as a political vehicle not as a gimmick or anything like that”.
Aamer and Nazeem are in a rare breed of comedians who are fiercely proactive when it comes to social justice and community. They are often at rallies and support community gigs that are engaged with social justice. “We have an idea of what the world should be like or what society should be like. You know like racism shouldn’t exist, or racist violence shouldn’t exist,” states Aamer matter-of-factly. “A lot of what we talk about is just a lot of what other communities are talking about. These are issues that aren’t joked about, but I guess to see from our perspective it’s really about phrasing it and unpacking it in a way that is easy to understand,” Nazeem explains.
Both university law graduates, Aamer and Nazeem didn’t aspire to be comedians but somehow found themselves in comedy. According to Nazeem, they met whilst working on a youth project together. In fact, it was working with young people which got their comedy juices flowing. “To engage young people you have to be always interesting and funny, otherwise they switch off,” reflects Nazeem. A significant turning point in their initiation to stand-up was meeting a trio of US based Muslim comics called Allah Made Me Funny, one of the first Muslim stand-up troupe to tour about being Muslim in a non-Muslim society. Nazeem’s response was akin to love at first sight. “I actually memorised all the lines. I memorised word for word the entire show before they came here. I was that obsessed with them,” he gushes. Allah Made Me Funny took the duo under their wings and from there they decided to enter Triple J’s Raw Comedy competition, where both reached the Victorian finals. Aamer trumped the finals and scored the runner-up position Australia-wide. Now with mass critical acclaim, sold-out seasons and awards under their belts (including Melbourne International Comedy Festival Best Newcomer Award 2008), the duo shared the spotlight with Allah Made Me Funny in October 2010.
Interspersed in Fear of a Brown Planet’s nascent life were their feature appearances in a television series called Salam Café – the first and only Muslim TV panel series to be aired on national television in a Western country. Salam Café started off with Melbourne-based community network Channel 31 before moving on to SBS. According to Nazeem, Salam Café’s agenda was an exercise in diplomacy, “we were there to humanise the Muslim community. It allowed people to see us firstly as human beings which …people still don’t seem to be able to appreciate. It’s a completely different show. We didn’t want to push too many buttons. With Fear of a Brown Planet we can be a bit more us.”
Arguably the most radical element of Salam Café was Nazeem’s character called Uncle Sam (aka Uncle Sameer Iqbal Muhammad Salahhudeen) who plays on media-driven fears about Muslims “taking over”. As Uncle Sam, Nazeem tackled issues such as the dispute surrounding the building of a private Islamic school in Camden, in Sydney’s West. Uncle Sam also managed to gain airtime with Andrew Denton on Enough Rope in which he outwits an unusually stymied Denton in banter about Australian identity and racism. Perhaps the most outrageous skit for Uncle Sam was a visit to Frankston, where during the filming of the scene, Nazeem and his camera man, a Lebanese man named Jihad, were surrounded by forty screaming and swearing people who threw bottles whilst attempting to grab the camera and rip Nazeem’s beard. “It got to the point where I had to say, “Listen, everyone, just shut up – we’re here to make fun of Muslims too!” And everyone went “Yeah!!!” And then we ran. Seriously, we would have been killed. It was ridiculous.” For the Salam Café episode of this series (which you can see on Youtube), the more confronting incidences were left on the editing room floor.
Not surprisingly, Aamer and Nazeem’s experiences on Salam Café help fuel their critique about the absence of people of colour on Australian television. “Australian TV is very white,”says Nazeem exasperatedly. “To the point where it’s been criticised overseas. In the UK there was a poll; Home and Away and Neighbours were criticised for being too offensively white,” Aamer recounts. “It’s just ridiculous! In the UK, they understand Australia more than we seem to. How could a suburb be that white? They don’t even have the token brown cleaners!” exclaims Nazeem.
When they are not working on their comedy, Aamer and Nazeem can be found at Footscray Community Arts Centre producing events as part of their three year artists-in-residency contract. The duo were headhunted to produce a joint VicHealth and Footscray Community Arts Centre funded program about discrimination in the western suburbs. One of the events of the program was a series of free hip-hop workshops called Hip-Hop Academy. Young people in the Academy can take on breakdancing, mixing, rapping and grafitti. I swung by a couple of workshops and tried out the breakdancing with B-boy Lamaroc and rhyme-writing with musican and producer Pataphysics. The kids at the Saturday workshops ranged from aged five upwards. It was touching to see so many young people of colour in one space giving everything a go. I remember seeing two 14 year-old Polynesian girls hovering outside the rhyme-writing workshop. When I left, through a little coaxing, Pataphysics had them sitting down penning their first raps about culture and identity.
The other part of Fear of a Brown Planet’s residency included a series of online vox-pops and critical montages of current political events. One of their videos was about the controversy surrounding the black-face skit on Hey, Hey It’s Saturday. Unlike mainstream commentators, Fear of a Brown Planet interviewed people of colour on the street to hear their opinions about the issue.
“Because The Chaser did it [black-face] and because no one said anything, it just went on air and it just wasn’t an issue,” says a disgusted Nazeem. “It was equally as offensive as the Hey, Hey sketch. Just because The Chaser are political and they appeal to white liberals no-one took them up on it,” adds Aamer. “It doesn’t discount the fact that it’s highly offensive just because it’s five privileged white guys doing black-face. And just because the song was political – it was about the ALP and the Liberal party – somehow it gave them a pass; but it was just as offensive. Even when it was an issue on Hey, Hey, the only people that seemed to discuss the issue were panels of white people discussing whether or not this was offensive to other people. Some of them would say ‘yes, it was absolutely offensive’. You just never get to see from black or brown people about the issue,” Aamer says disgruntled.
Fear of a Brown Planet are artists who have cleverly used comedy as a means of education and empowerment. In the same blog that I mentioned earlier, Nazeem sums up the use of comedy as an educative tool:
“When someone laughs at a joke, a connection has been made. That person laughs because they appreciate the point whether or not they accept what was said as valid isn’t important. What matters is, they’ve understood.”
In a country where debates about racism have been watered down or silenced, it’s exciting to see two young brown men fighting for social change in a creative and powerful way.
For more Fear of a Brown Planet info check out http://www.brownplanet.com.au/dates.html or http://www.facebook.com/pages/Fear-of-a-Brown-Planet