Call Me Uncontrollable: Deaf Muslim Filmmaker Sabina England

Photo by Jamie Devillez

A Conversation with Deaf Muslim Filmmaker Sabina England about punk attitudes, Deaf identities, and Muslim treatment in post 9-11 America.

Sabina England has quickly become a Do-it-Yourself l'enfant terrible of the art world. As a Deaf Muslim punk rocker turned cultural critic and filmmaker, she has created work based on mime comedies, 8-bit experimental video, and Indian wedding night rituals. Her provocative writing has explored sex taboos and the Islamic culture center planned near Ground Zero, while her protest videos have even criticized punk legend Jello Biafra’s (Dead Kennedys) July concert in Israel. Combining the no-holds-barred attitude of writers like Kathy Acker with zealous cultural deconstruction in the digital era, she is fiery and polemical. I wanted to discuss her punk origins and reflect on Deaf culture in relation to her work and life.

You often mention old lady punk singers, but few newer ones, why?

Did not mean to disparage with old lady, just meant older! Well, that's not entirely true. I like some of the recent ones such as Brody Dalle and Kathleen Hanna, but when I was a kid just getting into punk rock, I read about punk singers like Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, Becki Bondage, and I guess they just stuck through with me in my mind as I got older. Their defiant attitudes and their struggle in a male-dominated field always inspired me

Did you know that Poly came from a mixed ethnic background, or joined the Krishnas?

Yeah, I knew all that. She was half English, half black. When she claimed she saw something weird outside Johnny Rotten's flat, that was when she quit her band and became a Hare Krishna. I thought it was very strange but interesting. I’ve known people who met her before she died, and they all said she's was nice and down to earth

Did that make you aware of the multi-ethnic side of early punk?

At first, when I was a young teenager, I thought it was a very white counter-culture, but as I began meeting punks and reading about punks like Poly Styrene and Andy Blade (half English, half Egyptian who came from a Muslim family), I became aware that it wasn't just for white kids, and I liked that. I didn't feel I belonged anywhere and the last thing I wanted was to feel outcasted in a punk scene full of white punks. But in general, although most punks tend to be white, they're so much friendlier and open-minded than white yuppies are.

I say that because you mentioned that punk is often a white culture made by/for white punks with white trash backgrounds.

It's true. I don't mean they're trashy, but they are seen as “white trash” by yuppies because they all came from broken homes and had family problems.

People may find it ironic that you worked with SOS Records, which many people equate with rather white street punk style.

I never thought it was ironic at all. I've always been attracted to white street punks from a very young age.

Did you feel they represent that white trash side -- belittled by yuppies?

I thought it was great how there was a scene for underprivileged teenagers who felt ugly and outcasted and spat on by society, who were seen as “white trash”, and I felt more like belonging around them that I did with Muslims or South Asians in my local community when I was growing up. I also liked the political and social aspect of their music, which talked about defying authority, anger, and hatred at the world, beer, friendship, sex, and anything else that seemed “edgy” to me at the time. I also liked the style, but for me, it was more about the social aspect of the punk scene. As I get older, I feel like a lot of punks are racist without even realizing it, and I hate that or maybe I'm just getting older and now I'm becoming more aware of it.

Punk tends to attract people by offering a sense of “difference.” What really matters is that you are different than the cultural norms you were raised with.

Exactly. I was a minority teenager within a minority culture. I was a very angry Deaf tomboyish girl growing up, and I believed in feminism and radical politics. Naturally, that didn't go over too well with other Muslims or South Asians. Everyone thought I was weird. I don’t care if people accuse punks of being sheep within a counterculture, what matters is that there's a place for people who don't feel belonged in mainstream society

What has made you more fully aware of the racism, or as I call it, the ambivalence?

After the September 11 hijackings happened.

Did the scene become more hostile?

The punk scene didn't become more hostile after 9-11. I became more aware of my Muslim identity. Muslims were now becoming lumped into one large racial group. Arabs, South Asians, Malays, Turks, Arab Christians, etc, it didn't matter where you were from. If you were from a Muslim country, you were seen as the one and the same. I became very angry and alienated, and I started thinking more about my Indian Muslim background.

Soon, I was starting to exchange ideas with other liberal Muslims about progressive Islam, Islamic feminism, gay rights for Muslims, etc. That stuff doesn't resonate with punks (who tend to be white and come from WASP backgrounds) and they don't get it. Some punks have asked me why I'm so “obsessed” with Islam, but I'm not. Being Muslim is part of who I am. Muslims are a minority group, and I feel even more ostracized now because of being Muslim, but then I got into Taqwacores. I felt more comfortable around Taqx punks. In fact, a lot of punk bands in the scene were very anti-Bush and anti-Guantanamo, anti-Patriot Act, so it gave me a sense of comfort in one way knowing that I could speak out against the US government and not get attacked for it

Did the social aspects of punk appeal to you?

I loved dancing and just hanging out with people in the scene, just having a good time and laughing and not giving a shit in the world. I'd meet other feminists and radical riot grrrls and I always gravitated toward them. I also loved how everyone dressed. It’s so beautiful; it makes life so much more interesting. If everyone would relax and stop being so uptight and stop worrying what others think, I guarantee you that many people would love to get tattoos and piercings, dye their hair, and wear far out clothes. It's fun and there's no stress in it.

But I feel like that after 30 plus years after punk rock was “born,” it has lost some of its very antisocial, political steam. Mike Virus once said on a Myspace forum (for his band, The Virus) that there's too many “frat punks” today who are only interested in drinking beer and listening to punk music about sex and girls. They don't care about politics. Mike Virus said that punk rock was originally a reaction against apathetic, clueless people who didn't have a damn clue about society and who didn't care about anything. Punk rock was supposed to push your buttons and tell society to fuck off.

People say that punk bands concerned more with partying than politics always existed.

Yeah, of course, but there were also very political bands, that were hugely popular in the early days. They didn't lose any fans when they sang about politics. They gained more fans. The spirit of riot grrrls will always live on in punk rock. No matter how many people try to turn punk rock into a corporate machine made over with glittery emo stickers and Hot Topic bimbos, there will always be real punks that will make real punk music and will always reach out to real, angry individuals out there. Punk rock was born. It's here to stay, and it's not gonna go away. As long as there's oppression and injustice in the world, punk rock will always be here, for political and social reasons. Not just for people to sing about politics and bash the government, but also for people to connect and meet each other and not feel alone. I've been told there is a hidden punk scene in Iran, although I think it's more of rock 'n' roll.

Do you feel that punk still offers a sense of liberated spaces?

I definitely feel much more liberated and free in the punk scene around punks. If I talk about the idea of how monogamy isn't realistic for most relationships, people are shocked and give me looks of disgust and call me a “whore”. If I talk about that around punks, they're more likely to be interested and listen and ask questions. Where I live, most punks either tend to be very radical in their politics and share similar beliefs like me, and we've exchanged stories and conversations about our very different backgrounds. And then there are punks who tend to be apathetic, don't care about politics, and don't want to listen. So, I've had my fair share of both groups. Needless to say, I prefer political punks to the apathetic ones.

At gigs, can you feel the vibrations of the music?

Sometimes, not always. Some places I’ve been to aren't padded very well, so I couldn't enjoy the vibrations. I'd just sit down and talk to some of my friends. At other shows, the vibrations were everywhere, and I would be dancing away and slamming with everyone. It's such a great rush. One of my friends, who wasn't a punk, always went to punk shows with me just to body slam with everyone because he had a lot of rage, and it was the only time he could physically unleash his aggression. Afterward, he'd be body bruised all over and sweaty. He'd be like, “That was fucking awesome, I feel so much better now. Let's go home.”

Tell me about your links to Deaf culture.

Deaf culture has become very big now, thanks to the Internet, especially with blogging and sign language videos that reach out to Deaf people all over the world and unite them. When I was a child at various Deaf schools, some of the teachers were horrible, and other teachers were great. I had one teacher in Liverpool who got angry at one Deaf student for bringing Moby Dick to school -- and she sneered at him and said that he wasn't smart enough to read it, so she snatched it from him and told the whole class that we shouldn't bother trying to read something so complicated

So she equated his reading level with his hearing ability, for the most part?

Yeah, teachers like her made us feel like we weren't capable of doing something simple like reading a classic book. That fucked up a lot of kids. She said that because we're Deaf, we couldn’t really grasp a good understanding of books such as Moby Dick. At the same time, at other schools I've had teachers who discouraged us from using sign language and always stressed that we should learn to read lips and speak orally. In one way, I am grateful for that, and in another way I feel resentful about that. I had teachers who really cared about us and wanted to see us succeed as normal human beings in society. So, they always stressed the importance of oral education, good writing and reading skills, and grammar skills.

Did they awaken you to the world of ASL composition -- sign language poetry?

No, they didn’t. That’s the part I’m angry and resentful about.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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