His platform shoes evoke John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, while his latex bodysuit fuses sci-fi with a nostalgic hint of the King. It’s all part of the way Razi Barakat, German-Palestinian punk rock performer, plays with his audience’s expectations — feeding them a cocktail of Elvis and the Dead Kennedys, Charles Aznavour and the Cramps, all mixed with Dada lyrics set to surreal video visuals. Back when the world was replete with good old revolutionary ideals, Barakat pursued punk and rock’n’roll — a path celebrating individualism and freedom — an alternative reaction to the “clash of civilizations,” but one less intellectualized and far more transgressive, raw.
True to the textbook rocker persona, Barakat is pale, shy and brooding off stage. His reserved body language and sallow visage seems to be channeling Adrian Brody in The Pianist more than anything else. I asked him to define punk music.
“Punk is much more than leather jackets, pink Iroquois and studded belts, as the fashion industry celebrates it. Punk allows you to wear whatever comes to your mind; self-made clothes out of plastic and all kinds of pattern combinations. Punk has been originally the opposition to dictated fashion. The same is true for the music. Even if you don’t play any instrument, you can play punk. That’s one reason why I’ve felt so addicted to it.“
Barakat’s music and attitude evade “Orient meets Occident clichés,” although his personal approach is rooted in an upbringing situated somewhere between Germany and Palestine. As a child, Barakat was all over the place, visiting communist summer camps in the Soviet Union and PLO training weeks in Beirut, attending high school in the former German Democratic Republic and even visiting his parents in the bourgeois, antiseptic city of Geneva. Somehow, Barakat managed to be caught in the midst of seminal moments in the histories of both Germany and Palestine. Simply serendipity — or just bad luck? The 1967 Six Day War found him in Jerusalem as a child, while Black September in 1971 saw him in an old Fiat, driving with his family from Amman to Beirut; in Shatila in 1982, he was at a summer camp playing chess when the Israel invasion started, and in 1989, he just happened to be in West Berlin when the wall came down.
“I think I have something of a Forest Gump attitude because I always tend to be at historical events without being aware of their drama. For sure, it was also interesting to see all those images and stories and to have the chance to look behind the curtain. But going through all these experiences, I stayed very autarkic in a rather weird way. I suppose I’m more a silent observer.”
Trash and hardcore clearly offered Barakat a way out, giving him a chance to express the provocative contradictions he sees in the world. He defines himself as a “child of the Seventies,” and questions prevailing norms surrounding “morality” and “justness.” The latter is a theme running throughout his work, one that confronts his audience with parallels rarely drawn these days.
“The People vs. Larry Flint is a film mixing images of Vietnam and pornography to question perversity per se. What is obscene? People making love or people getting butchered and massacred? It might seem to be a simplistic conclusion but there was definitely a connection between the ideas behind Liberation movements and sexual liberation. As I see it, those two phenomena are mutually dependent — and that’s why they are both a part of my work.”
Following a number of digital projects in New York and curating art shows on sexuality and liberation in Europe, Barakat came back to Berlin to initiate “Boy from Brazil,“ inspired by the title of a 1978 anti-Nazi film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Barakat’s work has a definite edge to it, while the new project seems to have the explicit aim of disturbing his audience. The “Boy from Brazil” project may be less physically demanding, but it still attacks people’s collective indifference. His latest album, Pointless Shoes, is accompanied by a show that pays a homage to the last century, very hermeneutic, packed with a multitude of musical layers. Nevertheless, the immediate impression of raucous, electronic exhibitionism is misleading. Underneath, the pieces are finely tuned and carefully staged, packed with cultural references and veiled criticism.
“It’s a bit like my own musical history over the last twenty-five years — a kind of getting clear. I was trying to re-live my life through the music, like a personal jukebox. My aim was to bring the last half of the century — surrealism, rock and roll, punk rock, and even disco — back to this new millennium, and give them a cultural validity. I am looking for cultural elements you can recombine and repeat and put them out of context. It is a game of transferring real things into unreal ones, and vice versa.”
It is also a clear statement against standard music industry practices, which Barakat vehemently opposes. “Betrayed and sold-out souls — the speculation in the industry means lots of good musicians never get a chance.” The fact that he recycles ideas has nothing to do with keeping up the status quo. "Not long ago, I played at a punk congress. I was the only one who didn’t play guitar, but also the only one with a punk attitude. Most of the others were just revivalists or people missing the good old days — which were great and I miss them myself — but you should never loose contact to what’s contemporary. So I do it by making fun of people who try to keep genres separated, and just stick to what they know.”
The new show seems more like performance art than a punk concert. Within are three elements which only work in combination: music, video clips and Barakat himself. The music is “canned,” leaving Barakat free to exploit a range of dramatic poses against the video projection. But his short statements and eulogies of praise between the songs are interrupted by peals of recorded laughter. Meanwhile, the repeated film sequences from the early sixties or eighties blend with the brash electronic punk to create a new, bizarre mix.
Berlin Mitte, the “Zentral” club, two days after the US elections. Between acts, the red curtain falls from various sides across the video projection, accompanied by artificial laughter. In its new punk version, “Amerika,” originally a 1970s summer hit by David Essex, gets a new, honest interpretation. Socks with US flag pattern hop to the beats and blondes in swimsuits stretch lasciviously. For a brief moment, reality seems almost bearable. The idea for “Amerika” comes from video artist Safy Sniper, who works together with Barakat. For one and a half years, Safy has independently selected and edited all the video material. Safy is an Israeli, a point the press loves to fixate on. The artists have known each other for 15 years, and clearly respect each other’s work, having worked together on numerous projects. For Barakat, that’s not a conflict. He’s not about to hide his political views, either from the mike or from his project partner. His relationships to Israel, the US and the Arab states are linked to his upbringing, though he contends with the tendency to frame his views as absolutes.
“My work is clearly a political act and politics is the motor of my expression,” he says. “But I really suffer from a misperception when people focus only on my past. Whatever I say, it is taken out of context and makes me look like an idiot, exploiting my past and my family for my own ends. It makes me really angry. Of course it’s part of my life and had its impact on my personality, and in that way, on my music. But people tend to interpret facts to confirm the picture they already have in their head. It is more than annoying when you read an article about yourself where they just focus on some sexy guerrilla past, and even compare your father to Osama Bin Laden.”
And it’s not only journalists who at times miss the gist of Barakat’s music. Indeed there is much more to him than a mere child of the ’70s — though the first impression he makes so easily fuels an image of the “wild years.” “I wish articles would be more informative — analyzing what I do, from the visual concept to the musical one. I love to be understood, despite the fact that my message is not always clear. But I try to show my perspective on the world, how multifaceted it is — and celebrate the existence of hybrids.”
A fond plea for tolerance through punk rock. Who knew?