By Courtney Nachlas
How do you explain the world around you? Do you watch the news every morning or do you read about it in a newspaper? Do you hear rumors about what’s happening or do you ignore the other worlds all together? Nusrat Durrani, co-executive producer of MTV’s new series “Rebel Music,” chooses music.
“Rebel Music” is a series coming out this fall that documents a variety of young bands in the face of rebellion from all over the world. We’re not talking rock ‘n’ roll, Woodstock, stick-it-to-the-man rebel- lion though. We’re talking about the bands that rise above the negativity in their respective countries that try to control their freedoms. The series includes features that dive into the heart of the conflict in countries including Egypt, Afghanistan and India, to name a few. The show engages its viewer, because it changes the perception one has on foreign affairs by translating them into the only language everyone speaks: music.
BFM: Why was music your medium to show these countries’ struggles?
Durrani: Music is connective tissue. If you go anywhere in the world, whether it’d be Iran or North Korea or Afghanistan, in this case, or Egypt it’s going to be very hard to find someone who doesn’t like music or has heard music in their lifetimes or doesn’t relate to it. So, it’s great connective tissue and what we found interesting in the countries we choose to focus on in this first season was that all of these countries had a music thread. All had a very vibrant youth culture and in some case repressed or sort of limited, but they all had music in the culture whether it was being suppressed or not. And we felt that that was a great thread. And of course the rebel music series is primarily aimed at western audiences, audiences in the U.S. for example. So, clearly youth audiences here in America love music. Music is a big, big, big part of our culture too. So, we thought that for us to create an empathetic connection between the countries we were featuring, music would be a great starting point.
BFM: MTV’s audience is an interesting choice given that they’re typically carefree and young…
Durrani: Well I mean a youth audience is a very, very important audience to us, obviously. But also I feel like change, this is my personal view of it, change occurs for profound change to occur I think it has to happen in the youthful mind. People don’t have all the information, don’t have all of the sort of ideas fully developed in their minds, when they’re young. And I think it’s important for the youth in the U.S. and elsewhere to be able to understand what their counterparts are going through elsewhere. So that their ideas around the world their ideas about what are the biggest events in our lifetimes are more fully shaped.
BFM: What inspired you to create Rebel Music?
Durrani: I’ve spent my life in many countries. I was born in India and lived in the Middle East for several years and then I’ve been in the U.S. for several years. And I’m driven by music personally and I think that all my life music has been the thread that has connected me to so many cultures. When I was growing up in India, I had a fully formed relationship with American culture because of music. And I was listening to music 10,000 miles away. I was listening to Bob Dylan, Lennon Cohen and James Brown, and you know relating to that al- though I didn’t live here. To me that is very powerful and I felt that in my own humble way that if I could create that in the U.S. with somebody in another culture through music, I thought that would be time well spent.
BFM: Is your hope for the future of Rebel Music to create that connection?
Durrani: Yea, absolutely. I think the hope is, you know there are a few things. My modest, humble hope is that when you watch the story of Soosan Firooz in Afghanistan, who is trying to be a hip-hop singer, we can all relate to that. And you see her struggle at that and you see the life she is leading, which is full of hope and joy actually. She’s just trying to do what she passionately believes in, that I think that people here will have a somewhat different impression of Afghanistan itself. Because, the poetry around Afghanistan, a country like that, currently might be, I’m not generalizing, but it might be that it’s a country with the Taliban or ‘we’ve got troops there and they’re gonna come back next year. We’ve all mis-viewed Afghanistan as a ‘problem place.’ Right? With just bombs and guns going off and people dying and repression. But in the meantime though, there are young people doing what young people do everywhere: trying to listen to music, to hang out, you know, learn how to ride a bicycle. The only difference is they’re trying to pursue relatively simple, normal lives but to do that they have to go against tremendous odds. My hope is that we view Afghanistan a little differently. When we see the stories of young people and what they’re doing. They’re very empowering to me those three characters in the Afghanistan episode.
BFM: Were you afraid to go into these countries and film?
Durrani: Yes and I think in some, I personally did not go to Afghanistan, but our crew did, but I did go to Egypt and I did go to India to shoot and you know I think to have to get the stories, you have to get out of your comfort zone. You cannot just dabble by just staying removed from it. Yeah so there is this element of danger sometimes. I think when we were shooting the Egypt episode during the second revolution; the actual protests were going on. The actual revolution was in progress, we shot it in real time. So, yes I think there were times when we were very uncomfortable with what was going on around us, but I think when you’re in the situation you tend to sort of forget that aspect of it and really focus on the story you’re trying to tell. And you also realize the sense of empathy you have for your characters deepens because, the person your filming, whose story you’re filming, is also go- ing through the same danger you’re fearing. So I think it just brings you closer to the subject matter. I hope that that comes through in the con- tent that we were there along them as they fought for their rights. You don’t see the fear on the faces of the young people that were protesting in Egypt. They’re joyous sometimes. They like what they’re doing.
BFM: Was it a struggle to get people to share their stories with you?
Durrani: Yes, sometimes. It depends; I think each episode is different. Each country is different. Sometimes the real potential threat to life or a potential danger in someone telling you their story, and we take great precaution and great care to not put any of our characters or even our crew in any danger, in any potential risky situation that they’re unaware of. The beautiful thing about this is the courage that a lot of these people that are featured in these episodes. How much courage they share. Soosan Firooz, for example, the great one, she is receiving death threats because she wants to be a rap star. That is completely taboo in Afghanistan. So Sahar Fetrat, who is a young film director, she’s only 19. She is living in an environment where girls are not allowed to ride a bicycle.
When she and her friend are going to buy a bicycle and learn to ride it, they’re actually attacked by little, young men. So there are levels of danger, but I think that our characters are intrepid and courageous, because they’re taking all this stuff on. In Egypt we saw people literally fight the forces that oppose them. They went against all odds to do what they had to do. It’s incredibly inspiring. India is also an interesting story, it is about young women and young men in fact in India that are just rising against the sexual oppression that happens there. This whole epidemic of rape that is currently raging and we’ve seen young woman take to the streets literally and take on young men and take on the society that is oppressing them. Like literally take them on not through letters to the editor or organized protests where 1,000 or 2,000 people march together against the authorities. They’re going to the streets themselves and saying ‘Enough is enough, I’m going to educate you and I’m go- ing to bring you to the place that I’m at that. This cannot go on any-more.’ For us to see that and witness that it is just, as a producer of this thing, it’s incredibly inspiring. The hope for the India episode is to take the blindfold off, how we view that country.
So most of what we hear about India is the rape crisis there. Every day there is a rape. You’ve got minors being raped, you’ve got men being raped, you’ve got women being raped, you hear stories about rape all day long and it’s a lot of negativity and it’s mostly accurate. But the other narrative is, by the way there are a lots of young people, lots of older people, but our story is focused on the younger ones that are also fighting against that, standing up and saying ‘We will not let this continue.’ And what we’re trying to do is present an alternative narrative to the popular stories of the day.
BFM: What is the best part being the producer of a series like this?
Durrani: I think all of it. I think, you know, I think if I could change the perception and I know change is very hard to come by, with so much media being thrown at you every single day. For anything to resonate is a miracle, really. But if I could even change a handful of minds or a few people’s minds… The way the rest of the world lives and what they go through on a daily basis and what they’re doing to lift themselves out of their circumstances I think my job would be done. I think that would be enough.
BFM: Do you have a worst part of your job?
Durrani: No, I don’t really have a worst part. Like any other project, like any other work of art, like any other big endeavor anybody takes on the gratification comes in the end. And it comes throughout the process too, but really in getting the whole thing together. And there are tasks that you like less than others, so you know going through the logistics of production. ‘How are we going to get inside Egypt? First of all.’ It may not be my favorite part of the job, but it has to be done, because if you don’t go to the part you’ll never be there to tell the story. So, I don’t know if there’s a worst part. I just think it takes a whole, big package. And it’s a pretty complex process, but it’s also a very gratifying process.
BFM: How did you pick your characters? How did you find them?
Durrani: I think the characters picked us, actually. For each of these episodes we have had months of pre-production and research. So, be- fore we go to shoot somewhere we actually go to a lot of research we find out what is happening on the ground. We find out who all the players are. We find out a little bit about their stories and what moves them or not. And we go through somewhat of a funnel-shaped process, where we start with a large mass of information and then you funnel down to the few people you choose to go with and live with and tell their stories… A lot of times logistics also play a role in this sort of selection process.
For example, Afghanistan, it’s very hard to actually get to Soosan Firooz, because you just don’t show up on someone’s front door with a production truck one day and start shooting. It’s Afghanistan. You have to go through a very methodical process be- cause of security concerns for them and for their characters and for us. Same thing in Egypt, we knew who we wanted to work with. So in the Egypt episode we wanted to get multiple perspectives and we wanted to get the Muslim brotherhood point of view and there are points of view from the rebel campaign…The people who are protesting to get Morsi removed. So we wanted to make sure that the pro-Morsi and the against Morsi fraction was covered in there so we tell a balanced story and while we were filming there we found enough people who wanted to tell the anti-Morsi story, but it was really, very hard for us to identify and get agreement from characters who were pro-Morsi. So we went through a significant effort, actually it was pretty hard, to get permission …You just don’t show up on the Muslim brotherhood’s front door and say ‘Hey I want to talk to you and we want to tell you a story.’ So it was hard but I’m glad that we could actually get there.
BFM: What was filming the India episode like for you, because that is your home?
Durrani: Yeah that’s true. I think it was very, very painful on some levels. And at the same time very much gratifying for me to go back there and try to make a difference. And I don’t know if I made the difference yet, but to even to attempt to do that was to me, personally gratifying. I’ve not lived in India for many years…But, I do have a connection to it. I go back very frequently. When you go back as a visitor you view the country in a very different light. You’re there just for a few days or for a week or whatever and then you come back and you don’t experience it as deeply. And on the “Rebel Music” production, we went into the ghettos, we went into the slums, we went into the northeastern states that are very, very neglected not only in development…we went into people’s homes and heard their stories and we met the characters and got their stories. India is a very complex society and the issue of sexual oppression is not: ‘there are a lot of rapes occurring, so what do we do about that.’ It has to do with caste, it has to do with religion, it has to do with economic status… It’s not really just about lust or just trying to forcibly have sex with someone, it’s also about power and who has it and who doesn’t and what they do with power.
I almost went through a cross-sectional experience with all of these situations from so many perspectives and it was a re-education for me. It’s such a contradictory culture, on the one hand you worship women there, because a significant part of India has a whole system of goddesses you worship…on the other extreme they treat their women with such disdain and such violence. I mean a section of society treats their women very badly. And so to make sense of it all in a 22-minute episode is very difficult. So we had some very hard choices there, because we met some phenomenal people and heard some very tragic stories… The idea was to present a one-on-one story rather than to take the view very deep into the problem. You cannot do that with 22 minutes.
BFM: Do you have a quote or phrase that you live by?
Durrani: I have many phrases, but I think in this instance I would say: The power of change is within ourselves. We can make profound change with simply changing one small thing in ourselves. It might just be the way we view things. If we start viewing things a little differently, the incremental change that we create in the world could be very profound.