John Clay was granted an in-depth interview on the backlash Primitive Ignorant faced over their artistic use of a religious symbol.
John Clay: O.K, tough question, do you ever perceive the subject matter of race in your material to be a burden?
Primitive Ignorant: I feel really angry that racism still exists and that we still have to fight for basic human rights. It’s an exhausting and devastating subject because of the debate around seemingly simple issues and how much it affects the victims’ lives. I feel an unrelenting responsibility to share my own stories around my relationship with my own culture and talk about things that maybe there is a lot of shame around, such as addiction and self-harm and the struggle to integrate within western culture. The South Asian story in Britain is rarely conveyed in art, music or film and South Asians are heavily underrepresented in these worlds. I prefer to reveal intimate experiences of my own life, hoping it might encourage others to do the same. My new EP strives to envision a contrary state where society is more blissful. London feels like a really dark place at the moment. It feels like we need the possibility of good news.
John Clay: What aspects of South Asian life are yet to be explored by Primitive Ignorant? Is the project able to explore them all?
Primitive Ignorant: I’m only really sharing my own experience, so someone else might have more to say about certain aspects of the struggle than me. I think the relationship any immigrant has with Britain and British Culture is so complex and goes way beyond the scope of this band. It will be interesting to see how integration changes over the coming ten years. This is why Brexit is such a disaster for this country. It’s not just the economics. It’s the message it appears to convey to all immigrants and people of colour. It’s so exclusive and backwards thinking. Will South Asians be more represented in film and TV? We shall see. But in the meantime, I think it’s really important to keep working towards dispelling the stereotypes around South Asians. British culture itself is totally screwed. It was happening before the pandemic. The loss of venues, the way artists are treated, reality TV and a vulgar mainstream permeates every corner and feebly props up this flagging island.
John Clay: You’ve faced backlash from fellow Sikhs on your artistic expression. Care to expand on that situation and its personal legacy?
Primitive Ignorant: I think there was a misunderstanding around the imagery I’ve used in my logo. I regret the confusion and apologise to anyone I may have caused offence to. That was not my intention at all. I was pretty sad because I felt really proud to have realigned myself with my culture. So, to be misunderstood by the very people I thought I had reconnected with after being estranged for so long was pretty upsetting. However, I do take responsibility for my part and understand why there was confusion. Again, I apologise to anyone I may have caused offence to. The music in this band has always been a means for me to help comprehend my identity in British society, so to be abused for your art is quite unsettling.
John Clay: It’s a complicated subject, right? Can you detail the aspect of your expression that causes offence and how that offence manifested?
Primitive Ignorant: It’s really complicated and delicate, and I really don’t want to cause any offence to anyone within the Sikh community. It’s taken years to clean up the mess of my previous life, so I certainly don’t wanna cause more harm. There was a feeling that I had taken the Khanda and directly turned it upside down as a mark of disrespect. Still, I was actually using only aspects of the original imagery to proudly incorporate my culture in the music. I received death threats online, but it’s all finished now.
John Clay: Do you think this speaks of a deeper issue in incorporating religious symbols being sacred (and for some devotees) labelled as off-limits in art?
Primitive Ignorant: I don’t consider it an issue in a negative way. Art is open to interpretation, and that’s a beautiful thing. My motive was pure and one of incorporation, power and pride and not one of disrespect. I’m really not trying to breed negativity. I think the motivation behind any piece of art is so important and often ignored, particularly in the modern world of social media. People are entitled to their opinions too, of course. It’s essential for me to say that this is not a religious band in any way but more a musical voyage that strives to comprehend human identity through reference to modern-day and historical-cultural conflict, both personal and global. The aim is for peace and harmony, even though many of the lyrics discuss painful and ugly events. The only way I’ve managed to grow as a person is by facing the truth, no matter how dark that is.
John Clay: Perhaps the idea of the interpretation of a religious symbol is in itself an offence to some followers. How does an artist defend their contextualisation of a symbol to those who may not appreciate commentary of what they deem sacred?
Primitive Ignorant: I don’t think art is something that needs to necessarily be defended, but in this case, I did feel the need to explain that I was not trying to disrespect anyone but wanted to incorporate my heritage in the artwork. The Primitive Ignorant logo is inspired by, rather than directly lifted from the symbol. The image is as much influenced by The Black Panthers and Public Enemy as anything else, so it’s a montage of different cultural references. I wanted to get as far away from my rock’n’roll roots as possible. I need to keep evolving as an artist and confronting new ideas. I’m in the middle of recording the second album, and I’m looking forward to revealing a new twist.
John Clay: The action of turning a religious symbol upside down is viewed as defamation, right? Tell us of your decision to go in that direction and how it directly relates to the artists you’ve mentioned.
Primitive Ignorant: It wasn’t a direct flipping, just incorporation of the ideas and power. So I never once thought, I know, I’d like to turn a symbol upside down and cause controversy. I liked the idea of the logo looking like a political party symbol and have always been fascinated by The Black Panthers, their voice, their power, what they stood for and their iconography. This band is about ridding oneself of shame and exuding pride in your identity, no matter where you come from and trying to create a positive world of harmonious living. I’m proud of who I am and where I come from, but it wasn’t always that way. It was a struggle growing up as a Sikh in Britain during a dark Tory Government and racism worse than it is now. Still, I’ve come through that struggle, and the message in the music is one of perseverance through adversity and empowerment.
John Clay: Maybe the broader awareness of what it means to turn the crucifix upside down is what contributed to the backlash? The simple act of looking at the project as a whole rather than a knee jerk reaction to one aspect seems to have contributed to a blinkered response. Were you prepared for how your commendable stance would be interpreted?
Primitive Ignorant: Not at all because the idea of disrespect never entered my head. Maybe that’s really naive, and again I apologise. I was sincerely acting in good faith and wanted to represent South Asian culture within British alternative music as it’s so poorly represented. I have also had positive comments back from people within the Sikh community about my use of it, so it’s not all been bad!
John Clay: Perhaps you may want to revisit the experience through a poem or maybe a new song? Have you given that much thought?
Primitive Ignorant: The newer music I’ve been working on has not been as overtly political but more politics wrapped in fantasy, psychedelia and the non-human dimension. It still references politics and global issues, of course, but it’s way more abstract.
John Clay: Oh, intriguing! Care to grant us an exclusive insight into the lyrics?
Primitive Ignorant: Ah, we’ll have to wait and see on that one, ha! Still recording but hoping to have the first tracks out over the summer…
John Clay: Fairplay. Thank you so much for this little chat on the finer elements of artistic licence and religion. Care to mention three bands you’re following at the moment? Underground acts only, as that’s what Public Pressure is all about.
Primitive Ignorant: Thank you, John! Always good to talk to you, man. I’m following Julia Sophie, Scud FM and The Famous Painters…
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Cover photo by Naeem Bawany