Artist: Asian Dub Foundation
Title: Free Satpal Ram
Description: single; album track, Rafi’s Revenge
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998
Kicking up a fuss because it could happen to us …
Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs. I would go further than the immortal Edwyn Collins in A Girl Like You and say that there are not enough protest singers, either. In Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, he dissected 33 such songs. But the problem with a protest song is that sometimes the protest is more admirable than the song, or vice versa. I have to be in a very forgiving mood to listen to Give Peace A Chance, but its message speaks to me. Likewise The War Song. Conversely, I love Another Brick In The Wall, but I’m note sure protesting against boarding schools is quite as vital as, say, railing against the tactics of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. And so it goes.
Free Satpal Ram is for me the very definition of a classic protest song. Its message is crystal clear and the song is robust, catchy and energising. It’s impossible to hear it and ignore its plea. (Whereas, for instance, David Cameron was able to listen to Eton Rifles and miss the point, or ignore it, entirely.) Whether or not Free Nelson Mandela – a comparably effective union of medium and message – led directly to the freeing of Nelson Mandela is immaterial, and an irrelevant test of the song. You cannot always measure and gauge the crackling of social synapses. But Free Satpal Ram was ingrained into the campaign of the same name, and, it being a local issue with national, geopolitical or even existential implications, there’s an argument that ADF actually freed Satpal Ram.
Asian Dub Foundation were the band of the moment in the late 90s, perhaps by dint of the very fact that they weren’t really as easily pigeonholed as “a band”. They were, and remain, more of an amorphous collective, their own arts council, an umbrella beneath which creativity and activism can coexist. But in 1998, with the release of their unassailably coherent second album, when even the NME had become re-politicised in the wake of Tony Blair’s first and second betrayals, the hour was theirs. Their ethnicity itself was political, with institutionalised racism a big-box issue and lessons that ought to have been learned in the riot-torn 80s proved anything but. Indeed, although Satpal Ram is by definition a single-issue song, the lyrics contextualise with the élan of a score-draw.
Crown prosecution, totting up the score
Kings Cross two
Guildford four, Winston Silcott, how many more?
One more. Satpal Ram was arrested in 1986 after an altercation in a Birmingham restaurant during which a group of white men abused the staff over the choice of music playing. Ram was attacked with a broken glass by one of the men, whom he stabbed in self-defence with a knife. Ram was convicted of murder and went to prison, despite what was later identified as misinformation from his QC about the self-defence defence, as it were, and the lack of an interpreter in court to translate for Bengali witnesses. But enough of my dry interpretation of the facts.
Out on the town
Thought they had something to prove
Self defence, only offence
Had to protect himself from all the murdering fools
It’s rap, by definition, but this song is firmly in the English folk ballad tradition. It tells a story, it delivers the news.
Cutting remarks on account of his race
A plate to his chest and a glass to his face
An Asian fights back, can’t afford to be meek
With your back against the wall you can’t turn the other cheek
It helps if you sympathise with the plight of the defendant, of course, but listening to this recording – and I can only imagine the visceral, inclusive power of hearing it performed live – might just turn your head. If anger is an energy, it powers this three-minute-44-seconds of righteous fire. It begins, quietly, with what sounds to my untrained ears like an Eastern, Bhangra-style stringed instrument, looped presumably by turntablist Pandit G, although it’s arguably anathema to single out individuals from an autonomous collective. (All songs on the Mercury-nominated Rafi’s Revenge – the title a reference, by the way, to a Bollywood playback singer – are credited to Dr Das, Pandit G, Deeder Zaman, Sanjay Tailor and Steve “Chandrasonic” Savale.) When the thudding, metallic beat kicks in, nirvana is instantly sealed.
There’s a less subtle, even more hobnailed remix by Russell Simmons on disc two of ADF collection Time Freeze, but it seems only fair to induct the original, whose mix is credited to Brendan Lynch and Primal Scream. The protest in the lyric (“Self defence is no offence!”) would be stirring and true enough with an acoustic, strummed backing, but beefed up with industrial beats, scratching, dub effects and hardcore electric guitar, the meeting of mind and matter is literally impossible to walk away from. The break at two-minutes-eleven where the sound drops out, rebuilds from a rumbling threat through the aforequoted rap, then an echobox frenzy, before hitting full throttle again. The arrangement is masterful and subtle. No blunt instrument, this.
Taking in not just racism, miscarriage of justice, police brutality and direct action (thank heavens all those issues have been solved, right kids?), Free Satpal Ram also finds time to have a pop at the Freemasons and the CPS. Better fix up your brain, indeed.
Satpal Ram was released from prison in June 2002 after a European Court of Human Rights ruling.