To Russia, with Dub: Want to Fight Racism in Russia? Send in Lily Allen, Some Reggae Bands and an Outspoken Muslim Rapper, Thinks the British Council. but Perhaps This Celebration of Multicultural Britain Says More about the Tensions in Our Own Society, Writes Daniel Trilling
Trilling, Daniel, New Statesman (1996)
It's a sunny evening on the banks of the River Neva in St Petersburg. In the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress, a crowd of Russian teenagers, some of them sporting white jeans and mullet haircuts, are dancing to drum'n'bass. Their enthusiasm is directed at the two-man Glaswegian-Punjabi sound system Tigerstyle, who are wearing a mix of turbans and brightly coloured Adidas tracksuits. One of them is holding a microphone, into which he shouts the refrain: "Bad boys inna Russia/Rude boys inna Russia," while his sidekick bangs out frenetic rhythms on a dhol, a Punjabi drum.
This isn't some wild fantasy involving cultural miscegenation, rave music and Eighties fashion drawn from the depths of my subconscious; the Tigerstyle sound system is real and it's here to play the UK Flavours festival. Organised by the British Council and featuring artists such as the singer Lily Allen, dub producer Mad Professor, reggae band Misty in Roots and the multi-ethnic rap group Fun-da-Mental, who blend elements of traditional Pakistani music with techno, punk and hip-hop, UK Flavours aims to "celebrate the multicultural city". Which city isn't specified, but the intent is clear. Russia has a high level of racist violence. Last month, Damir Zainullin, a 23-year-old ethnic Tatar, was stabbed to death in a racist attack by a St Petersburg gang. A 2006 report by Amnesty International described racist killings in the country as being "out of control". This British Council export is a positive attempt to showcase the influence of immigrant cultures on British pop music and trumpet the strengths of inclusivity.
Despite the fans' enthusiasm, however, the event has largely been ignored by the powers that be. Maybe they had their hands full with diplomatic expulsions and international relations of a different kind. Even with the involvement of a local anti-racism NGO, Russian officials showed little interest, and although Vladimir Putin was actually in town at the same time, he chose to watch a boxing match a few hundred metres down the road, evidently preferring bare-chested pugilism to Lily Allen's onstage banter ("This song's about men with small dicks ... Oi, what's the Russian for small dick?").
But there is something more peculiar, even unsettling, about this event. In the current political climate, in which migrants entering the UK are seen as a potential threat, rather than a benefit, it seems strange to be telling others how to embrace integration. What's more, UK Flavours presents a less harmonious view of British society than you might expect from a government-sponsored project. Last year, Fun-Da-Mental sparked a rash of scare stories in the press about their album All Is War (the Benefits of G-HAD), which supposedly contained lyrics praising suicide bombers. The truth wasn't quite so shocking. The track in question, "Cookbook DIY", was making a comparison between terrorists and scientists who design bombs for their government, without praising either side, but that didn't stop the Labour MP Andrew Dismore from calling for the arrest of Fun-Da-Mental's Muslim frontman, Aki Nawaz.
Toby Brundin, the concert's organiser, says the British Council isn't aiming to preach. "You can't come into a foreign country on a high horse and say, 'You should be doing this or that,'" he says. "The message we're sending out is simply drawing attention to the reality, rather than the rhetoric, of what multiculturalism can mean."
For Nawaz--born in Pakistan, raised in Bradford, organiser of gigs for Rock Against Racism in the late Seventies--appearing at this official celebration of British culture in front of a Russian audience cheerfully waving Union flags makes him uneasy, to say the least. "That Union Jack just gives me fucking nightmares," he says. "All I ever saw it as was a symbol of hatred through the National Front and the BNP. I find those ideas of nationalism and being patriotic to be complete and utter red herrings. …