Riots, Race, Records: DJ HVAD vs. Denmark
With far right extremism sweeping Europe, DJ HVAD reminds us how powerful music can be.
DJ HVAD's "Handwork Pandit" video, directed by Casper Øbro
Denmark may like to flaunt its reputation as the "happiest country on Earth," though some parts of its recent history might contradict that standing. Since the 90s, the country has been in the midst of a rather fascinating crisis of identity.
Catalyzed by the emergence of the anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti (or Danish People's Party)in the late 90s, the country has become divided by an emerging conservative sentiment and a bourgeoning resistance to the idea of Denmark's multicultural future. This week, the Danish People's Party topped the elections for the European parliament, as anti-immigrant parties from the far right encountered similar wins in both France and England.
This tumultous political landscape explains how the music of Hari Shankar Kishore (aka DJ HVAD, which is Danish for "what") first struck a chord in 2007. The child of a Danish mother and a Punjabi father, Hari had just released his bombastic single "Klap Perker"—klap roughly translating to "bass drop," and perker representing a willful appropriation of the pejorative epithet for South Asians, "Paki."
"Klap Perker," recorded under his Kid Kishore moniker, is a stark, hardcore drum track, with a layer of in-your-face spoken loops that heavily incorporate slang from his youth in Albertslund, a largely minority suburb of Copenhagen. He recorded it, in part, as a response to Denmark's increasingly conservative administration, and when the country's social unrest boiled over in the second half of the 2000s, the timing was right for it to become the anthem of an anti-authoritarian movement.
In 2006, the city council of Copenhagen attempted to privatise a community space, a center for left wing organizing called Ungdomshuset. After nearly a decade of conflict regarding the building's ownership, administration, and upkeep, its occupants refused to be evicted, rallying support from across Denmark and sparking the first in a series of small scale riots. Hari suggests that while many people "couldn't relate to [immigrants] getting thrown out of the country, the riots rendered the broader context closer to home." The result was a lot of raging protest parties, and "Klap Perker" got played at many of them.
In an ironic twist, however, his intentions—to empower and uplift "ghetto kids" who used the same slang as he did—began to get twisted for other agendas. "Klap can also mean 'shut up,'" he recounts. "One newspaper ran a front-page article with a picture of 'Klap Perker' spray-painted on [Syrian-Danish politician] Naser Khader's house." All of this reflects the chaos that Copenhagen was mired in, and Hari soon found himself providing the soundtrack for riots where protesters looted supermarkets and trashed McDonalds outlets.
Before long, he was on Danish TV explaining himself in music videos and interviews alike, distributing unfiltered opinions in costume, toying not only with the mainstream media, but also the music industry. At one gig set up by a friend in a more upscale club, "the management asked me to stop, as my set—bhangra and breakcore mashups—would 'bring in foreigners.'"
Angered but inspired, Hari decided to conduct a social experiment, temporarily changing his MySpace name to "Trentemøller," the name of the Grammy award-nominated Danish (and white) techno DJ/producer. He soon "started getting offers from places I wouldn't even be allowed in usually." When he arrived at gigs ready deploy his brand of breakcore histrionics, the promoters and audiences who expected lilywhite, laid-back electronica were not amused.
"At one show I got busted," he says. "I told the police, 'Yeah, I am Trentemøller.' I was booked as him, so I am him. I mean, that club heard my music on MySpace, so they knew the music I made, right?"
HVAD is no stranger to bold statements: He performs in a police uniform, and his LPs are often adorned with swastikas, an ancient symbol with a long history in both South Asian religious imagery and in the collective European memory. He revels in its semiotic complexity: "Sometimes things provoke, and sometimes they are 'ugly.' But that ugliness is beauty, as it's always premised on a diversity of reference points."
These days, the music that emerges out of all this is distributed via his own dubplate service, which he uses to cut records for himself and friends, while continuing to "make music that has not been made before," as he puts it. "I don't want to suggest how my next tune might come out," he continues, "but it should still feel like HVAD." In between recording a double LP release slated for this summer, his performances have evolved to include "gongs, taxi doors, and other resonating metal." In a live setting, Hari's performance takes on the look of an orchestra-conducting exercise, which is difficult to explain here, but makes utter sense when experienced.
The above video for "Handwork Pandit"—an adaption of his track "HVAD DEN ORIGINALE TRAN"—opens to find Hari sitting casually in his studio, plastic comb in hand. It builds into a hallucinogenic palimpsest of limbs playing one instrument over the next, and at the same time directing the machinations of his frenetic percussion arrangements.
Directed by Casper Øbro, who dreamt up the concept while rapt in one of HVAD's performances, it's a remarkable companion to the music. As Casper recalls, "I didn't gave too many instructions; I just defined the general framework, concept, and I wanted it to appear as one take." Hari was initially skeptical, but after three separate takes—one each for his hands, the violin, and the gong—they arrived at this. What results is a poignant exploration of where the personal and political converge.