Photo Credit: Baron Walton
Aamer Rahman’s ¨Reverse Racism¨ clip had gone viral. It was really tight and I looked for other material. He’s a person of colour and his delivery and politics sound exactly like conversations I have with friends and family. We wanted to support. After finding the ¨Workshop for Whitey¨ clip, that did it. Aamer was like a homie…in Australia…who I never met…or knew how to contact…Uh…
Instead, I devoured clips from Fear of a Brown Planet, the stand-up duo he was part of with Nazeem Hussain, and his new solo show, The Truth Hurts. The few days of stalking worked out because we Skyped back in February and again in April to shoot the shit about comedy, hip-hop, the legendary 5 ptz, politics, and more hip-hop.
JCA: What’s happening with the million things you’ve been working on?
AR: Working on my UK tour, so doing publicity for that. Been trying to organize some other shows outside of London. There’s that, then working on this US visa stuff, trying to pitch a show here, trying to figure out what job I’m going to do when I come back from tour, dealing with bullshit. And organizing my DVD filming. I’m gonna film my first special; I’m trying to crowdfund it. I got a friend who’s going to film it for me. It just doesn’t make sense to go through a company because you have to pay them back before you see a cent. I’d rather just do it, even if I don’t make any money off it. I don’t want to pay [a company] thousands and thousands to do it.
We should have an artist network where artists can reach out to artists, and anyone who’s got money at the time can just be, like, ¨Here.¨ That’s another Kickstarter campaign right there.
JCA: My friends and I saw the ¨Reverse Racism¨clip and wondered how we never heard of you before.
AR: So, talking about the ¨Reverse Racism¨clip, I was going to quit comedy this year. I felt like I was going around in circles. I was getting tired, so I recorded my last show. I thought if I’m going to quit, I may as well put this stuff out online so people get to see it. That was the first clip I put out; I had no idea it was going to go bonkers. I put it on FB and I tweeted it. I tweeted it to a few people who I know are hooked up with BuzzFeed, stuff like that, but even then it didn’t make it straight away. I don’t really know who or how it kicked off, but eventually it made it to Huffington Post, ColorLines. Anywhere and everywhere. Everyone was asking, ¨Who is this guy?¨
JCA: As a kid, did you lock yourself up in your room doing standup routines like Eddie Murphy’s Raw?
AR: No! I was the biggest nerd! Dude, I’m still the biggest nerd. (Shows me one of his figures.) This is what I do in my free time. I was just comic books, spaceships, Transformers, robots. That was my life. Super, super geek. I grew up on comedy like everyone else, listening to Chris Rock and watching Chappelle Show. I loved it but it never entered my brain that I would do this.
JCA: Was your family supportive when you decided to do comedy?
AR: Uh…nah. (Laughs) I mean, migrants who left everything behind in their home country to come and put their kids through better schools to get a better education to get them better job prospects? And I’m, ¨Hey! I like telling jokes!¨ It’s not that they weren’t supportive but migrant parents are always in that state of anxiety and I’m, like, ¨Who needs a backup plan?! What could go wrong with this?¨
JCA: Fear Of A Brown Planet recently did their final show—
AR: We did. It was emotional.
JCA: Any reflections about your time in the duo? Was it just time to go?
AR: Yeah. Nazeem has his own TV show that’s gone into its second season. We both were being pulled into different directions, artistically and timewise, and I think our individual comedy was becoming stronger than Fear of a Brown Planet. I think people were more interested in seeing us separately than a show that was half me and half him. We were just developing our own audiences. It’s still the most significant thing I’ve done comedy wise. It came at the right time and captured a certain type of sentiment. I think it was something that was really original and meant something to a lot of people, so I’m always proud of it.
JCA: Best and worst show and why?
AR: My worst show was definitely one of my first ones, an activist fundraiser or something. I literally had been onstage three or four times. I got on and I was already sick of my old material— my five minutes of material that I had done four times. I thought I would write all these new jokes. I told my first and then 100 percent blanked out. I stood onstage for minutes not remembering my jokes. The crowd thought I was doing it on purpose, laughing and laughing. The harder I tried to remember, I couldn’t. Eventually I just made some stuff up and that’s only because, literally, my brain stopped working. To this day friends say, ¨Remember that fundraiser and [you] pretended not to remember your jokes?¨Dude, my soul was bleeding to death. I have never ever tried to wing it since then. I am so anti-winging it. The whole point of comedy is to make it look like you’re winging it. People forget you’re retelling a script you’ve done many, many times before.
[Best was] Brixton. We went to Edinburgh [Festival]— 3,000 other acts and no one knows who you are. It takes the entire month to get momentum. A friend of ours organized a show for us in Brixton with two days notice and people came from all over. And it was London; people got it straight away. It was so cool.
Hey, you know 5Pointz? Won’t they just keep painting it? Whatever they make, people should just keep painting them, but I’m sure it’ll be well protected.
JCA: Yeah, they do. I grew up by it. While in litigation, owners painted it white overnight.
AR: Painted it white? Exactly! What a great metaphor.
JCA: You got the Chappelle opening [in February]! How was it?
AR: Supporting Chappelle was good. The crowd was good. He tours with a DJ and the DJ is really serious from the beginning about respecting the comics, don’t shout out, don’t heckle. And it was a small venue, about 3,000 people in an auditorium.
I met [Dave] briefly and he was super nice. That’s the most famous person I’ve been near and the way his fame makes other people behave around him was ridiculous. You have a greenroom full of food and it’s a great place to take selfies. It’s a magnet for douchebags and evil.
JCA: The cult of celebrity.
AR: For me, supporting Chappelle was the peak of my career. Then being in the same room as him put it in perspective where the peak of my career is in terms of the industry.
JCA: Do you feel like that’s happening with you?
AR: Yeah, that’ll never happen because of what I do. It’s just not cool to hang around me unless you’re actually interested in what I’m saying. I don’t have that crossover stuff. When I write, I’m imagining the people that I organize with. That’s who I want to be laughing. I want a small show with a hundred people who I’ve known for the last ten years rather than a thousand people that don’t even know what I’m saying. I think that’s why when personal shit happens it’s so much worse.
JCA: Louis CK said in an interview that he still works on his routine while on tour. What’s your process?
AR: If I have a show ready and am touring I don’t mess with it too much. I tweak it, but if I’m doing a show that people are paying to come to, I don’t take risks. I don’t throw an extra bit in…because I’m not Louis CK… (laughs) but you know what I mean. I’m not going to throw in what could be a flat two or three minutes in the show. Even writing wise, it just happens. I don’t spend time once a week or once a day writing. Sometimes I don’t have ideas for weeks and sometimes in two days I’ll write a bunch of stuff because ideas are coming.
JCA: On your Wikipedia page—
AR: I’m so scared of what you might say. I tried to make my own; I just wanted a very simple Wikipedia page. It got rejected. Rejected. Not enough sources. Random people made a page and it’s got all these mistakes in it. I’d edit it, and it would just get edited back, so I give up. Please tell me what it says.
JCA: It said that you lived between Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Australia?
AR: Correct! Ok, that’s a true fact. Unlike the members of my family.
JCA: How did moving around influence how you move in the world, especially in Australia?
AR: Well, I was born in Saudi Arabia. I moved to Australia for the first time when I was six, moved back to the Middle East, then back to Australia when I was about thirteen. Both times were a complete shock. I was going from a Muslim environment and very diverse, multicultural schools to Australia, which is just a complete other universe. I think the trauma of settling into Australia twice affected me, the difference in being in a place where your culture, your religion, and everything was cool to being in a place where it’s automatically alien.
JCA: Do you consider yourself Australian?
AR: Nooo, and I think that feeling is even heavier here. In America, you would have a lot of first generations that would say they’re American. In Australia, Australian is interchangeable with white. The only time I would refer to myself as Australian is if I’m visiting another country and they ask where I’m coming from. You’ve been reminded enough times that you’re not from here so we don’t claim it at all. Besides that, politically I feel because it’s a colonial society it’s not something I’ll ever claim.
JCA: Do you feel like Australia has progressed, regressed? In what is now called a ¨post-racial¨ United States, the election of Obama has made certain things worse in a lot of ways.
AR: The thing I always say about Australia is we don’t even have the token progression. In the States, in the UK you hear about not having enough representation in politics, in television, not enough people of colour reading the news. Australia asks what you’re talking about. I think it is so heavily whitewashed because of our history: Australia had a white only immigration policy until the ‘70s.
When [conversations] happen, it’ll be four white people on a panel going, ¨Hm. Is Australia still racist? I’m not sure.¨ The colonial mentality is so deep across everything. After indigenous people got genocided, this country didn’t have to deal with Brown people until forty years ago. There’s still people who have the first Black or Brown family moving into their neighborhood. It’s literally like going back in time. It’s the worst, regressive, technologically advanced society on Earth.
JCA: How are your workshops for whitey going?
AR: Dude, that’s so old! The thing about this [¨Reverse Racism¨] video is that all of these people are looking at my first comedy now. It’s so embarrassing. I can’t take it down, I don’t want to leave it up…It’s had this domino effect on my other videos.
JCA: But it’s so good. That was the last clip that I posted.
AR: ¨Workshops For Whitey¨? Isn’t it very Australian?
JCA: No, it’s the same everywhere. I posted it and friends said it was funny shit.
AR: That’s awesome! Ok, maybe I will do that when I get there.
JCA: I watched the ABC Australian Story on you guys—
AR: That documentary is so fake! That’s Australia’s leading documentary program, right? It was a big deal we got on it. I didn’t realize it’s just like reality TV. They call me in, do makeup and everything. They do the full interview and then say [they] need [me] to come back. I sat there and the director read lines. ¨Can you say that line with more emphasis?¨ It’s totally scripted. I was totally pissed off by the end of it.
JCA: I was wondering how you guys felt about it. Did Nazeem feel the same?
AR: I think Nazeem was less pissed off, but Nazeem is generally less pissed off than me. I was pissed off about that and because we were Muslim guys. She was really fixated on [that]. How do we interact with women? What are our groupies like? It was exhausting. It’s not important. And the only footage of my sister was when they did this thing about groupies! I was so angry.
JCA: I brought the special up because they talked about how there were things you were not going to joke about. Is there anything off limits in your comedy?
AR: [In politics], no, I don’t think so. You will rarely, if ever, hear jokes about sex. That’s cultural and also, for a guy, as soon as male comics go into sex territory there’s always the probability, not the possibility, they’re going to say something wack. I don’t want people to come into my show and feel uncomfortable. Unless they’re racist which, in that case, I don’t mind. I just don’t need to do dick jokes or relationship humour or stuff like that. Culturally, it’s a thing and also politically, I don’t need to go there.
JCA: You mentioned in the special wanting to do comedy full-time. Are you?
AR: I might do festivals and then do a few months of work, then do some performing, squeeze in tours here and there. Australia is so small and the comedy I do is so niche here, it can’t be sustained full-time here. Unless I change my comedy.
JCA: If you had been planning to leave comedy, did you have your backup?
AR: HAHAHA. NO! I never came up with a backup plan!
JCA: That shows you’re on the right path.
AR: Heh. Hopefully…
JCA: How do you deal with hecklers?
AR: I don’t get hecklers. I’ve worked so hard to make sure random people don’t come to my show. Everything that I say and do publicly is political and tied to my work; people who don’t like it are just not interested. I never try to tweet generic stuff so that generic people will follow. I want a certain type of person to be at my show. Early, early on in Fear of a Brown Planet we, honestly, even then, didn’t get hecklers. We had people leaving and asking for their money back, but because it was all Brown people in the show, white people just didn’t have the guts to say anything.
JCA: Do you feel the comedy scene has improved?
AR: It’s pretty bland. I wouldn’t say it’s overly racist because I think comedy in Australia has a slight alternative tip. But it’s still super white, super male. All the ethnic comedy is…ethnic comedy. There’s a very small critical comedy scene. They’re really cool, but it’s small. BUT! I had one of the greatest hip-hop groupie moments of my life, and I’ve had many. Dave Chappelle turned up at a block party I was at that my friend was DJing. She starts playing ¨Microphone Fiend¨by Rakim. In the middle of it he turned around and started rapping to me. I started rapping back, and we had a moment. Two comedians rapping ¨Microphone Fiend¨ to each other! He didn’t know who I was [at that time]. I turned to my manager and my wife and I was, like, ¨No one filmed that?!¨
JCA: So…let’s talk about hip-hop.
JCA: Tell me when you fell in love with hip-hop and what you’re listening to now.
AR: I always listened to it. I listened to radio hip-hop growing up. I randomly bought Public Enemy’s [It Takes a] Nation of Millions [To Hold Us Back] when I was about seventeen? That’s when I started looking for hip-hop as opposed to liking whatever was on the radio. That was the tipping point in terms of all kinds of stuff that ended up influencing me. I feel like that movement aspect [in hip-hop] is kinda gone. You had eras of that stuff. Now you have to really dig to find that stuff. Like Jasiri X? Dude, I love this guy! Everything he touches is amazing….Jasiri X follows me on Twitter, and he retweeted that video of mine… Everyone else, I just stalk them.
I have been playing Bambu’s mixtape back to front! I think after early 2000, with Dead Prez, Black Starr, The Roots were kind of at their peak, that whole post-Native Tongues kind of thing sort of happened, there was a dip. I haven’t heard anything like this guy. And the beats! It’s 200 percent West Coast. When you listen to the real heavy political stuff, a lot of times you have to not expect anything from the beats. But the production! It’s like an album for me, not even a mixtape. It’s so good.
JCA: What’s the hip-hop scene like in Australia?
AR: (shakes head) It is so bad. Anyone who’s different is on the outer. It’s totally a reflection of Australian mentality. Even attending hip-hop shows of someone I like from overseas is depressing. The crowd is so…Imagine hip-hop was gentrified not even by hipsters but by rednecks. It’s so wack. I went to see Dead Prez and people were saying racist shit to my friends in the crowd. At a Dead Prez show.
JCA: Last or recent book that you loved?
AR: The last book I loved was [Sohail Daulatzai’s] Black Star/Crescent Moon. That was everything I had thought my entire life put into an amazing book. It’s hip-hop, what they tried to turn Martin [Luther King Jr.] into, what they tried to turn Malcolm [X] into, why hip-hop appeals to the Third World so much through Malcolm’s legacy.
JCA: Top hip-hop and top comic shows?
AR: I’d say Chris Rock. Margaret Cho, Hannibal Burress, Kamau Bell, and Hari Kondabolu, who worked with Kamau on his TV show. I haven’t seen a full show but he’s a friend of mine and I love their work.
Ok, [hip-hop] I’ll do it chronologically. Public Enemy 2003 because I got on stage. I told you I got so many hip-hop groupie moments. I’m not even embarrassed. That’s one of the top shows. Pharoah Monch and Jean Grae together was great. Dead Prez everytime I’ve seen them. I saw The Roots and Jurassic 5 together once; that was amazing. Who else? Those must be the top ones. I’ve only seen Mos Def once, but I had to see him support DJ Shadow. I don’t know how that happened.
JCA: If The Truth Hurts had an accompanying soundtrack, what would be on it?
AR: Rage [Against the Machine] would definitely be on the soundtrack. Rage was so formative for me. Rage and Public Enemy as an example of what art can be, how it can be angry but still be entertaining. They weren’t boring; it was amazing music. So Rage would be on it. Everyone I mentioned in this interview would be on it. There’s [also] this one album of Angela Davis on the prison industrial complex. I can listen to those tracks like music—that’s another amazing groupie moment of mine! Definitely some Chariman Omali, like Wolves off the first Dead Prez. Mikeflo put out a mixtape called Fly, Fresh, and Responsible. He’s got these mixes of Huey Newton and Malcolm set to music. They’re just tiny bits but they’re amazing, so I’d put some of those in.
JCA: What is love?
AR: What is love?! DUDE! Can you give me a context?
JCA: Nope. It’s whatever you take it to be in this moment.
AR: I’m gonna get back to you before I say something super corny…Shit! Okay, I have been thinking about this but …This is so awkward. And difficult. Love is…
JCA: Speak from your heart, Aamer.
AR: Love is community! Seriously, that’s what makes me happiest in the world. Community and performing to community. That’s it.
JCA: That was a beautiful answer. And it only took you two months to think about it.
AR: See, you’re such an educator! You got that out of me because I would have avoided that for the rest of…forever.
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- Jennifer Cendaña Armas