To be yourself is all that you can do

An ex-pat rock band formed in Kabul markets itself as “Afghanistan rock band”.

Kabul – It’s been almost three years since I wrote about Afghan rock stars.

Talking to the young Afghans who had devoted their time to reviving or creating (depending on your definition) Rock music in Afghanistan, what struck me the most was that almost all of them had discovered the genre in Asia.

Most people would assume that Afghans like me — born in Kabul but raised in the West — would be the ones to “import” the likes of System of a Down and Pink Floyd to Afghanistan. 

They would be wrong. 

The young Afghans I spoke to, some of whom have become among my closest friends, discovered Rock music in Islamabad, Tashkent and yes, even Kabul. 

Even Ariana Delawari, an Afghan-American singer-songwriter, returned to Afghanistan, to study with three ostads – masters – of traditional Afghan music and record her debut album, Lion of Panjshir.

That knowledge was what made it easy to brush off the dismissals that came with being the “journalist who wrote about rock stars”.

In writing about the likes of Kabul Dreams, the District Uknown and the White Page, I wanted to show the continuum of Afghan lyricism and poetry. 

Rumi and Rabia Balkhi inspired the likes of Ahmad Zahir and Farhad Darya who Afghans the world over — myself and in the boys in the Rock bands included — would grow up hearing in their childhood homes.

Eventually, we ventured out, though. Whereas The Blueprint and The College Dropout led me to a love of Hip Hop, the Afghan rockers were screaming out the lyrics to The Battle for Los Angeles and The Big Come Up.

For us, diversifying our tastes throughout our high school and college years was a natural progression. Just as the sampling of classical Persian-language poetry was for the icons of Afghan music we grew up with.

But now, as Kabul Dreams is preparing to take the SXSW stage – the annual music, film, and interactive event – held in Austin, Texas, the Afghan rock scene’s strides are under threat by another harsh reality of contemporary Afghanistan — foreign appropriation.

Last month, White City, a band composed of one-time Kabul-based Western expatriates sent out a press release announcing that the “Afghanistan band White City” was releasing their debut album. The Australian, Brit and Swede who are described as having “a combined 20 years of living in Afghanistan and traveling all around Central Asia”, are also said to be kicking off
their first USA tour”.

A tour, which coincidentally will also see them perform at South by Southwest.

A subsequent media report featured the headline “Kabul-based rock band.”

Though the members of White City have lived in Kabul and helped launch the Sound Central music festival — which has featured bands from Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Pakistan — in the Afghan capital, their recent marketing campaign has left many in the Afghan rock scene angered.

“We worked our asses off and put our lives in danger in the early years – 2008 to 2010 – to get to this level. But here are these expats who got together playing only for Kharejis – foreigners – in restaurants that only foreigners were allowed in. Now they call themselves an ‘Afghan Rock band’ that plays ‘Afghan Rock music’,” the lead singer of one of the bands said.

Appropriation is of course nothing new in conflict zones. 

It is even older in Rock music. MC Lyte put it best: “Elvis made a bundle while we remained poor.”

But there is something truly disconcerting about a Western trio using the name of Afghanistan to stand out among the thousands of other bands from their respective nations.

By contrast, there are fewer than a handful of homegrown Afghan Rock bands. 

And they aren’t just playing in the city’s high-priced eateries.

In fact, the last concert Morcha, an Herat-formed Rock band whose lyrics are highly politically charged, played was for dozens of drug addicts languishing in the winter cold just outside Herat city.

Outside their small but loyal fan bases, the Afghan Rock bands gain little domestic favour or cache from their heritage.

A month after Morcha’s debut album was released in 2007, local officials were said to have banned it from the Western province’s radio waves. The band has since been unable to release a follow-up due to a lack of social and economic support.

For the Afghan Rock bands, what fame they’ve attained has been an uphill battle. They didn’t have the luxury of a built-in captive audience with few other options for entertainment.

Every billboard they got, every music video they shot and every outdoor concert they staged was the result of hours of negotiation, years of building a scene from the ground up and even threats.

And yet, just as one of them is about to get one of the biggest breaks of their careers, a Western group that was formed in Kabul is now claiming Afghanistan in their promotional material.

As Kanye West said: “…And a white man get paid off of all of that.”

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