"We all inhabit this small planet...", JFK, June 10, 1963. ThisSmallPlanet is about life and culture, most often about music but also politics, nature, travel, and history. 'New Music Today' and 'Cool, New Music' feature the latest playlists and links to new music streams and downloads, selected music articles from our favorite sites, and original writing, photos, and videos.
Yusuf/Cat Stevens joined by Jack White for first Nashville show in 40 years
Juli Thanki, email@example.com 7:14 a.m. CDT September 29, 2016
Cat Stevens to tour US for first time in more than 35 years
Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, announces a new album and tour that will take him to the United States for the first time since 1976. Roselle Chen reports. Reuters
Yusuf/Cat Stevens hasn’t played a concert in Nashville in 40 years, which makes Tuesday night’s 30-minute delay after his show’s scheduled 7:30 p.m. start time seem short in comparison.
Known for folk classics like “Wild World," “Peace Train” "The First Cut is the Deepest" and “Father and Son,” Yusuf made up for lost time during Tuesday night’s show at the Ryman Auditorium, playing two hour-long sets. The singer-songwriter is currently on his “A Cat’s Attic” tour, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of his first single, “I Love My Dog.”
Standing in front of a set that was designed to resemble his childhood home, which was located above the restaurant his parents owned in London’s West End, Yusuf shared his musical journey with the adoring audience, beginning with his fascination with the musical "West Side Story" and the Beatles and continuing through his battle with tuberculosis, his religious conversion, and his hiatus from, and subsequent return to, music.
The set (which even included smoke billowing out of the chimney), and the stories Yusuf — an engaging storyteller with a dry sense of humor — told about his life between songs, made the performance feel like half-concert, half-one-man show.
During his performance, Yusuf invited a couple of surprise guests onstage: Jack White joined Yusuf for “Where Do the Children Play” near the end of the first set, and Bonnie Prince Billy contributed vocals for two songs during the encore. In another one of the show’s other unexpected moments, Yusuf cited the animated film “Zootopia” as a source of wisdom. He then recited a block of dialogue — said by the movie’s anthropomorphic rabbit turned rookie cop — that ended with the message “try to make the world a better place...change starts with you” before seguing into “People Get Ready and “Peace Train.”
Yusuf and his two-man backing band returned for a lengthy encore, closing the show with "Morning Has Broken" before flashing a smile and a peace sign to the crowd.
In last night's presidential debate, Hillary Clinton reminded viewers that Trump was sued by the federal government in the 1970's for racial discrimination in his housing developments. Seems racism is a family tradition in the Trump household...
Old Man Trump Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Ryan Harvey
I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project
Beach Haven ain't my home!
No, I just can't pay this rent!
My money's down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain't my home!
I'm calling out my welcome to you and your man both
Welcoming you here to Beach Haven
To love in any way you please and to have some kind of a decent place
To have your kids raised up in.
More than a half-century ago, the folk singer Woody Guthrie signed a lease in an apartment complex in Brooklyn. He soon had bitter words for his landlord: Donald J. Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump.
Mr. Guthrie, in writings uncovered by a scholar working on a book, invoked “Old Man Trump” while suggesting that blacks were unwelcome as tenants in the Trump apartment complex, near Coney Island.
“He thought that Fred Trump was one who stirs up racial hate, and implicitly profits from it,” the scholar, Will Kaufman, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain, said in an interview.
Mr. Kaufman said he came across Mr. Guthrie’s writings about Fred Trump while he was doing research at the Woody Guthrie Center’s archives in Oklahoma. He wrote about his findings last week for The Conversation, a news website.
In December 1950, Mr. Guthrie signed a lease at the Beach Haven apartment complex, Mr. Kaufman wrote in his piece. Soon, Mr. Guthrie was “lamenting the bigotry that pervaded his new, lily-white neighborhood,” he wrote, with words like these:
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project
Mr. Guthrie even reworked his song “I Ain’t Got No Home” into a critique of Fred Trump, according to Mr. Kaufman:
Beach Haven ain’t my home!
I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain!
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
Mr. Guthrie died in 1967, and in the 1970s, the Justice Department sued the Trumps, accusing them of discriminating against blacks. (A settlement was eventually reached; at the time, Trump Management noted the agreement did not constitute an admission of guilt.)
A spokeswoman for Donald Trump declined to comment on Mr. Guthrie’s writings.
“Woody was always championing those who didn’t have a voice, who didn’t have any money, who didn’t have any power,” Mr. Kaufman said. “There’s no doubt that he would have had maximum contempt for Donald Trump, even without the issue of race.”
Recently got into Eric von Schmidt in a big way and very frustrated to find that some of his major works are essentially unavailable!!!
Am dying to hear "Eric Sings von Schmidt" & "Who Knocked The Brains Out Of The Sky?", as well as the folk compilation "Come For To Sing".
I love his albums with Rolf Cahn and Richard Fariña, "The Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt", his song on "The Blues Project", and his book on the Cambridge folk scene "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down".
I just found his albums "2nd Right, 3rd Row" and "Living On The Trail" online, and am getting to know and like them now.
If anyone could send me a digital copy of "Eric Sings von Schmidt", "Who Knocked The Brains Out Of The Sky?", and the folk compilation "Come For To Sing" - I'd be forever appreciative.
Also, if anyone would like to discuss strategies for popularizing Eric's music and advocating for it to be more widely available, please feel free to drop me a line.
UPDATE: I've been listening to the Eric/Richard Fariña album for some time, but just found out yesterday that there are two other songs that were recorded but not released at the time: "Lemonade Lady" (which Richard later recorded with his wife Mimi) and "Old Paint".
Furthermore, there was a CD release of this album that contained a second disc with out-takes from the session. I guess not many people in 2016 are too excited about this, but for me, it's almost like a type of Holy Grail - Eric von Schmidt AND Richard Fariña AND Dylan!?!??! In London, in a record store, in 1963... a drunken evening immortalized by a crummy tape recorder with one mic...
Photo taken in London 1963 around the time of the recording: Richard, Dylan, Eric.
"Well, as I remember it, the people that were playing were von Schmidt, Fariña, Ethan Signer and Bob Dylan... I sang choruses on some of the things -- I definitely sang on 'Glory Glory' -- but I can't make any claims to fame... There was the tape-recorder, sitting on the shop counter, and just one microphone, into which everyone in the room had to sing and play. We were all so primitive that everything was done pretty much in one take... What happened was that Richard and Eric von Schmidt were there first and they recorded a blues... then Signer turned up... and then, about two tunes later, that's when Dylan came in with the bottles of Guinness... but he didn't have an opener... Then Rick von Schmidt handed Dylan an already opened bottle of Guinness, and Dylan took it up to his mouth, took a swig, pulled a face and said, My God what is this? And then he tipped the rest of it on the floor... Doug [Dobell] didn't like his shop floor being messed up... But after that, it seemed to calm down and there was just a lot of playing and drinking. Basically that was it. It was just a one-off that we did and nobody thought it would ever come to anything..."
(From an interview by Brian Wells in the Dylan fanzine,The Telegraph,No. 49, Summer 1994, pp. 8-14.)
A few months ago I got into Eric von Schmidt's music and quickly thought I knew most of the important stuff. Now I realize there is much, much more. I've been focused more on the 60s material, but his 70's stuff is interesting too. "Who Knocked The Brains Out Of The Sky?" is one of the weirdest songs I've ever heard (some lysergic evening?). I have no idea what "Cruel Family" (1977) or "Baby Let Me Lay It On You" (1995) sound like. Is "Baby" a greatest hits collection? Or new versions of songs he had previously recorded and released elsewhere?
Saw a few notes online lamenting the fact that Dave Van Ronk, the New York City equivalent of Cambridge/Boston Eric, received a new appreciation in the wake of the film "Inside Llewyn Davis", while Eric remains largely ignored.
Well, the cool people who used to say "Dylan's ok... but Phil Ochs was the real deal" can now say "Dylan's ok... but Dave Van Ronk was the real deal".... whereas the rilly, rilly cool people know it's all about Eric von Schmidt....
I guess I do prefer my musical heroes to be unknown to the general public (making them cool and underground and hidden); often dead, usually tragic...
I would like more people to get into Eric, but it's ok if they don't. The people that need to find him, do.
I have wracked my head in recent times, wondering how people like Gene Clark and Eric von Schmidt can be ignored or forgotten, while some critic's darlings skate by for years on the slimmest of resumes...
Eric was immortalized on Dylan's first album (as "Ric von Schmidt" who taught him "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" while on a trip to the "green pastures of Harvard University") and then again on Dylan's fifth album "Bringing It All Back Home" (1965), where a copy of Eric's 1963 "Folk Blues" album is casually laying near Dylan and friend.
Eric was a crucial pillar of the Cambridge/Boston/Harvard folk scene and wrote a great book about it. He was also an illustrator who designed many album covers for himself and others.
I think it's fascinating how interconnected Eric was to other musicians - Dylan and The Band covered Eric's classic "Joshua Gone Barbados" on "The Complete Basement Tapes".... and Eric later worked with The Band's Rick Danko and Garth Hudson on his solo albums... He was very close with Richard Fariña, and also with both of Richard's wives/singing partners - Carolyn Hester and Mimi Fariña. There's a great picture in Eric's book of the Cambridge folk scene going en masse to see Paul Butterfield Blues Band (feat Michael Bloomfield).... and years later Paul played harmonica with Eric.
This music archiving/detective work is good clean fun! Always surprises, always something new....
- Cotton Eye Joe - Jackie Washington - The Car Song - Ramblin’ Jack Elliott - Grizzly Bear - Eric von Schmidt - Rock Island Line - Rolf Cahn - The Virgin Mary - Carolyn Hester - John Henry - Eric von Schmidt - Billy Barlow - Jackie Washington - Hush Little Baby - Carolyn Hester - Froggie Went Courting - Rolf Cahn - Night Herding Song - Ramblin’ Jack Elliott - Go Tell Aunt Rhody - Carolyn Hester - The Gray Goose - Eric von Schmidt - How D'ye Do? - Rolf Kahn - Taddle-O-Day - Jackie Washington - Haul On The Bowline - Ramblin’ Jack Elliott - Hambone - Jackie Washington - The Boll Weevil - Rolf Cahn - My Good Old Man - Carolyn Hester & Eric von Schmidt - Candy Man - Ramblin’ Jack Elliott - Old Howard - Eric von Schmidt (There's also a book of the same name, illustrated by Eric.) "Eric Sings von Schmidt" (1964) - Kennedy Blues - Light Rain - Joshua Gone Barbados - Edward Teller - My Love Come Rolling Down - Florida Woman Blues - Kay Is The Month Of May - Cold Gray Dawn - Just To See You Stand That Way - Acne - Rattlesnake Preacher "Who Knocked The Brains Out Of The Sky?" (1969) - Who Knocked The Brains Out Of The Sky? (4:04) - Beanum And Barley (4:55) - Three Miles (0:46) - Living On The Corner (3:46) - Sudden Garden (4:39) - Catch It (3:27) - Bitter City (3:25) - Lucky Mrs. Ticklefeather (4:45) - Hundred Acre Wood (2:56) - Weep For The Wood Man (4:38)
"Cruel Family" (1977)
- You Get Old, You Get Wise
- Ring Around The Moon
- Bunch Of Roses
- Debt I Owe
- It's The Doing
- Make It Last
- Champagne Don't Hurt Me, Baby
- Sudden Garden
- Sweet Margarita
- Briar Patch
- Lonzo & Howard
"Baby Let Me Lay It On You" (1995)
- Baby, Let Me Lay It On You - Lucky Man - Goin' Down To Melbourne - De Kalb Blues - Envy The Thief - My Love Come Rollin' Down - Joshua Gone Barbados - Rule The Road - Fat, Fat, The Water Rat - Can The Serpent Be Housebroken? - Wet Birds Fly At Night - Just To See You Stand That Way - Light Rain - The Letter - Foolish Pleasure - The Captain
Official Standing Rock website UPDATE: Neil Young responds to criticism that the song refers to Native American women as "squaws" after several people informed him online that this term is considered offensive:
"Thanks for bringing the word squaw to my attention. I will change it as soon as I can get back into the studio. I mean no offense. I will replace squaw with 'beautiful'." UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Looks like the video has now (temporarily???) vanished from Neil Young's Facebook page and elsewhere... UPDATE TO THE UPDATE OF THE UPDATE: The video is back now (see above). "Squaw" has been replaced by "beautiful".
Meanwhile, check out this Democracy Now video about the Struggle at Standing Rock or read about it here....
As for "Indian Giver (Share The News)" - Not a bad song. I wish the video would have more footage of the protests and less footage of the headless woman's chest with the PROTECT T-shirt but that's just me. Was just thinking, hey this is the guy that wrote, recorded, and released "Ohio" in 1970, about two and a half weeks after the May 4 Massacre at Kent State University in Ohio, where four young anti-Vietnam war protesters were killed.
There is probably no way for us today to appreciate how powerful it was to hear this song on the radio a few weeks after the tragedy. Of course in the days of the folk revivals of the 1950's and 60's, there were several singers who sang "topical" songs, ripped from the headlines, as it were. Many folkies were purists, only wanting to sing or hear traditional songs, but others saw folk music as the perfect form of "agit-prop" - agitation and propaganda. Bob Dylan mastered the form, producing such classics as "Who Killed Davey Moore?" and "The Death Of Emmett Till", largely based on contemporary news accounts. Those who have come before have shown us how it's done. Let the artists of today take this example and produce great songs on important issues that make people think and encourages them to take action!
As my acting career developed, I was no longer cast as a radical Muslim, except at the airport...
To begin with, auditions taught me to get through airports. In the end, it was the other way around. I’m an actor. Since I was a teenager I have had to play different characters, negotiating the cultural expectations of a Pakistani family, Brit-Asian rudeboy culture, and a scholarship to private school. The fluidity of my own personal identity on any given day was further compounded by the changing labels assigned to Asians in general.
As children in the 1980s, when my brother and I were stopped near our home by a skinhead who decided to put a knife to my brother’s throat, we were black. A decade later, the knife to my throat was held by another “Paki”, a label we wore with swagger in the Brit-Asian youth and gang culture of the 1990s. The next time I found myself as helplessly cornered, it was in a windowless room at Luton airport. My arm was in a painful wrist-lock and my collar pinned to the wall by British intelligence officers. It was “post 9/11”, and I was now labelled a Muslim.
As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another. The jewellery of your struggles is forever on loan, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the crown jewels.You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative.
Part of the reason I became an actor was the promise that I might be able to help stretch these necklaces, and that the teenage version of myself might breathe a little easier as a result.
If the films I re-enacted as a kid could humanise mutants and aliens, maybe there was hope for us. But portrayals of ethnic minorities worked in stages, I realised, so I’d have to strap in for a long ride.
Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype – the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. It tightens the necklace.
Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on “ethnic” terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes. It loosens the necklace.
And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave. In this place, there is no necklace.
I started acting professionally during the post-9/11 boom for stage-one stereotypes, but I avoided them at the behest of my 18-year-old self. Luckily, there was also a tiny speck of stage two stuff taking shape, subverting those same stereotypes,and I managed to get in on the act.
My first film was in this mode, Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantánamo. It told the story of a group of friends from Birmingham who were illegally imprisoned and tortured in the US detainment camp. When it won a prestigious award at the Berlin film festival, we were euphoric. For those who saw it, the inmates went from orange jumpsuits to human beings.
But airport security did not get the memo. Returning to the glamour of Luton Airport after our festival win, ironically named British intelligence officers frogmarched me to an unmarked room where they insulted, threatened, and then attacked me.
“What kinda film you making? Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?” an officer screamed, twisting my arm to the point of snapping.
The question is disturbing not only because it endangers artistic expression, but because it suggests our security services don’t quite grasp the nature of the terror threat we all face. A training presentation outlining Al-Qaida’s penchant for “theatrical” attacks may have been taken a little literally.
It turned out that what those special branch officers did was illegal. I was asked by activist lawyers if I wanted to sue, but instead I wrote an account of the incident and sent it to a few journalists. A story about the illegal detention of the actors from a film about illegal detention turned out to be too good to ignore. I was glad to shed some light on this depressing state of affairs.
I went on to write a song inspired by the incident, titled Post 9/11 Blues. It was full of sage advice, such as: “We’re all suspects so watch your back / I farted and got arrested for a chemical attack.” The song got the attention of Chris Morris, who cast me in Four Lions.
In the end, having my arm nearly torn off by people whose salary I pay led to me exploring loads of stage two work – loosening the necklace. It felt good, but what about stage three, the Promised Land?
It turned out that there was no clear pathway for an actor of colour in the UK to go to stage three – to play “just a bloke”. Producers all said they wanted to work with me, but they had nothing I could feasibly act in. The stories that needed to be told in the multicultural mid-2000s were about the all-white mid-1700s, it seemed. I heard rumours that the Promised Land was not in Britain at all, but in Hollywood.
The reason for this is simple. America uses its stories to export a myth of itself, just like the UK. The reality of Britain is vibrant multiculturalism, but the myth we export is an all-white world of lords and ladies. Conversely, American society is pretty segregated, but the myth it exports is of a racial melting-pot, everyone solving crimes and fighting aliens side by side.
So America was where I headed. But it would not be an easy journey.
You see, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels – never as “just a bloke called Dave”. The post 9/11 Necklace tightens around your neck.
I had so far managed to avoid this in the audition room, but now I faced the same threat at US airports. It didn’t help that The Road to Guantánamo had left my passport stamped with an Axis of Evil world tour – shooting in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran within six months. I spent the flight sweating in defiance of air-conditioning, wondering what would await me.
When I landed, the officer assessing me shared my skin colour. I wondered whether this was a good sign or if he was one of the legendarily patriotic Cuban border officers I had heard about, determined to assess how star-spangled I was with a thumb up the anus.
He looked at my passport, then at me, frowned and drew a big ‘P’ over my immigration card. I immediately thought it stood for Paki.
I was led down a long corridor, without explanation, before turning into a side room that felt instantly familiar.
Apart from a Chinese family and a South American pilot battling the indignity with his spotless uniform, the holding pen was filled with 20 slight variations of my own face, all staring at me – kind of like a Bollywood remake of Being John Malkovich. It was a reminder: you are a type, whose face says things before your mouth opens; you are a signifier before you are a person; you are back at stage one.
The holding pen also had that familiar audition room fear. Everyone is nervous, but the prospect of solidarity is undercut by competition. In this situation, you’re all fighting to graduate out of a reductive purgatory and into some recognition of your unique personhood. In one way or another you are all saying: “I’m not like the rest of them.”
The fresh-faced desk officer was no older than 23. By the time I was called up to audition for him, my spiel to explain the passport stamps was ready. I’d show a letter from the film’s producer, I’d say “award-winning film”, and I’d flash a shiny new DVD. But the kid questioning me seemed more nervous than I was. He had clearly been to the same “Beware Bloodthirsty Actors” seminar as the intelligence officers at Luton.
“Step back from the counter!”
I was bounced up the chain for a proper interrogation by a dangerously fat man and his moustache. I sat and waited, rehearsing my lines. When the interrogation came, it was more of a car crash than my Slumdog Millionaire audition.
“Oh yeah? Afghanistan? What kinda movie were you making there?”
The question shot through me with a shudder. It reminded me of the questions I faced at Luton airport, but also of the question I ask myself all the time.Was I adding to the catalogue of stage one, two, or three? Was it a film my 18-year-old self wanted? Would it make the necklace looser or tighter?
I thought about the right way to answer him. The Road to Guantánamo was a documentary-drama, but maybe saying I was in a documentary about Guantánamo Bay wouldn’t be wise. Drama should do. I said: “Erm, it’s an award-winning drama called The Road to Guantánamo.”
There was a long silence. He raised an eyebrow. I offered up the DVD. It had a photo of me handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit on its cover. I immediately regretted it. Longer silence. Second eyebrow goes up. He leaned in.
“Do you know anyone who wants to do harm to the United States?”
I shook my head and made Hugh Grant noises, venturing a “gosh!” in there somewhere. He absorbed my performance before holding up a book from my luggage. It was Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
“What’s this book?”
I explained, but he wasn’t really listening. He deployed a state-of-the-art intelligence protocol by Googling me, which returned a news clipping about the Luton airport incident. Fuck. My heart sank. This was it. No Hollywood for me. I was never gonna be Brad Pitt. I wasn’t even gonna be Apu from the fucking Simpsons. What was I thinking?
When, after an agonising three hours, I was waved through, I couldn’t believe it. I felt relieved, grateful, lucky – and then suddenly incensed. On the way out past my lookalikes, I gave a loud, “As-salaam aliekum.” No one leapt to return the greeting. Perhaps they lacked the safety net of a convincing “gosh!”
I joined a friend in Manhattan for dinner, apologising for being three hours late, and zoned out while they discussed astrology. Someone at the dinner turned to me.
“You’re such a terrorist,” she said.
I blinked. What the fuck? My face screwed itself into the expression I wish I’d pulled instead of mewling apologetically at the border officers.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
My friend put her arm on mine and squeezed.
“Riz, she asked if you’re a Sagittarius.”
I swallowed. Baffled faces pinned me with concern.
“Right. Sorry. Yeah. Yes I am,” I said.
A similar version of the same thing happened again soon after. And again. And again. And again. I grew belligerent.
One officer asked if I had had any military training. My school had a cadet-force programme that I was swiftly ejected from, but I just answered “yes” without expanding. I was asked if I had travelled to Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan recently.
“All except Iraq, but if it helps I’ve also been to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia,” I smiled.
Childish perhaps, but the situation itself is infantilising. Feigning obliviousness to an officer’s suspicion and refusing to pander to it was my only defence.
But the farce rolled on.
Twice when applying for a US work visa I was subjected to a Section 221G – a lengthy background check against a global database of terrorists – which almost lost me the jobs.
I saw the email correspondence between the state department and my attorney: “Hey Bill, looking at your client Mr Ahmed – pretty British-sounding name, huh? Saw his Post 9/11 Blues song, what’s with the ‘I heart Osama’ routine?”
Fair enough, you might think. Search him. Look at his racial profile and his passport stamps and his dangerously hilarious rap lyrics. But since I had been let into the US and deemed safe just the previous month, another rigmarole this month was obviously fruitless.
In the end, I was always let in, so these airport auditions were technically a success. But they involved the experience of being typecast, and when that happens enough, you internalise the role written for you by others. Now, like an over-eager method actor, I was struggling to break character.
I tried not to ingest all the signs telling me I was a suspect. I tried not to buy into the story world of this “protocol” or its stage-one stereotype of who I was. But when you have always moulded your identity to your environment and had your necklace picked out by others, it’s not easy. I couldn’t see myself as “just a bloke”. I failed at every single audition I went up for.
Rehearsing a scene beds a role into you. But sometimes if you over-rehearse it without unearthing any new meaning in it, you can suddenly forget your lines. You realise that you are on a stage, not in the real world. The scene’s emotional power and your immersion in it disappears.
And so it dawned on me that these searches were a fictional role-play taking place in a bubble, rather than an assessment of my worth. This was the way to see it. And it turns out this is also the way to see auditions. The protocol lost its chokehold on me, and I started getting roles again. One big job secured me a proper US visa, and soon I was getting waved through without the protocol. I began inching towards the Promised Land.
Now, both at auditions and airports, I find myself on the right side of the same velvet rope by which I was once clothes-lined. But this isn’t a success story. I see most of my fellow Malkoviches still arched back, spines bent to snapping as they try to limbo under that rope. These days it’s likely that no one resembles me in the waiting room for an acting audition, and the same is true of everyone being waved through with me at US immigration. In both spaces, my exception proves the rule.
Don’t get me wrong: although my US airport experience is smoother, I still get stopped before boarding a plane at Heathrow every time I fly to the US. But now I find it hilarious rather than bruising. Easy for me to laugh with my work visa and strategically deployed “gosh!”, perhaps. But it’s also easy for me to laugh, because the more I travel, the more ridiculous the procedures become.
Heathrow airport draws its staff from the nearby Asian suburbs of Hounslow and Southall. My “random selection” flying to LA was so reliable that as I started travelling more, I went through a six-month stretch of being searched by the same middle-aged Sikh guy. I instinctively started calling him Uncle, as is the custom for Asian elders. He started calling me “beta”, or son, as he went through my luggage apologetically. It was heart-warming, but veered dangerously close to incest every time he had to frisk my crotch.
“How are you, son?”
“I’m er, ooh, er, good. Uncle.”
As I’ve travelled more, I’ve also done more film work, increasing the chances of being recognised by the young Asian staff at Heathrow. I have had my films quoted back at me by someone rifling through my underpants, and been asked for selfies by someone swabbing me for explosives.
The last kid who searched me, a young Muslim boy with an immaculate line-beard and goatee, was particularly apologetic.
“Sorry bro. If it makes you feel any better, they search me before I fly too.”
We laughed, not because he was joking, but because he was deadly serious. It was the perfect encapsulation of the minority’s shifting and divided self, forced to internalise the limitations imposed on us just to get by, on the wrong side of the velvet rope even when (maybe especially when) you’re on the right side of it. We cracked jokes and bumped fists.
As I left, he called after me with a question. “Bro, what kinda film you doing next?”
I looked at the ID badge hanging from a string around his neck. I told him that I hoped it would be one he liked. •
This essay is extracted from The Good Immigrant, a book of essays about race and immigration in the UK by 21 British black, Asian and minority ethnic writers, edited by Nikesh Shukla and featuring contributions from Bim Adewunmi, Salena Godden, Musa Okwonga, Coco Khan, Himesh Patel and more.