Laila and Barney speak out about their new album art.
Over a near 15-year career, Sonic Boom Six have brought joy to countless stages with their endlessly exuberant, politically-charged ska punk.
More than that though, as a woman from a Muslim background singer Laila K has been a shining beacon, challenging stereotypes and setting a truly righteous example.
Now, with the release of new album ‘The F-Bomb’ – whose artwork sees her dressed in a Muslim niqab and in heavy eye makeup – Laila (and guitarist and school friend Barney Boom) are asking important questions about identity, gender, and whether rock music is really as accepting of cultural diversity as it would like to think.
THERE ARE VERY FEW FEMALE VOICES FROM MUSLIM BACKGROUND IN THE ROCK SCENE. DO YOU FEEL LIKE THAT HAS AFFECTED YOUR EXPERIENCE OVER THE LAST 20 YEARS OF BEING IN SONIC BOOM SIX?
LAILA: “Being in the punk scene has been a great experience for me but there are certainly times that when someone who isn’t westernized walks into a room and eyebrows start getting raised. In all the years I’ve been in Sonic Boom Six we’ve probably had, like, two racist incidents and they’ve both been abroad, but I think that’s because I don’t make people feel uncomfortable – I dress alternative, I wear loads of makeup but if someone doesn’t dress, act or sound like me would that make people in the scene feel uncomfortable?”
BARNEY: "There’s definitely a section of punk which is white blokes drinking beer and singing along and believe me, we’ve played in front of those crowds!”
YOU CERTAINLY DO FALL INTO A PRETTY UNREPRESENTED CATEGORY: A WOMAN FROM MINORITY BACKGROUND…
LAILA: “It’s been white middle class lads in the rock scene for a long time now. Things are being done to change that but you still get your club nights where you see girls in bikinis dancing, basically, for men. I get in arguments with girls sometimes where they argue with me, ‘It’s empowering, it’s feminist that I can take my clothes off’ but to me those people are forgetting what empowerment is. In my mind, empowerment is about standing up for a group of people who haven’t got a voice and wanting to change things for the community, not just one person.
"I could say, ‘I’m empowered because I can afford to buy £500 Marc Jacobs boots when before women weren’t allowed to work’. That’s not empowerment. Empowerment is making people aware that 90% of films made are based around male characters, it’s about making people aware that women are being raped on buses in India and aren’t allowed educations. That’s what it’s about.”
BARNEY: “It’s like when you post a picture of how few woman there are on festival bills and people say, ‘No one is stopping women from picking up instruments’ but they totally misses the point of how culture and society works. The smallest doors shutting on people make big impacts, and lots of men simply don’t see that. If I walk into a show and there are a hundred white male faces there of course I’m going to feel more comfortable and that makes a big difference.”
YOU TALK ABOUT IMAGE AND PEOPLE ACCEPTING YOU BECAUSE YOU DRESS A CERTAIN WAY. CAN YOU ELBORATE ON THAT…?
LAILA: “Six months ago I was sat with some friends and one of them said to me, ‘Oh, I’m just going to the Paki shop.’ I was like ‘The what shop?!’ and their response was, ‘Oh, I don’t mean you, you’re alright, you’re one of us.’ My response to that is, ‘Do you mean my mum then? She’s a practicing Muslim.’ My family are Pakistani and my dad had an arranged marriage with my mum. The thing is, when I was younger I was embarrassed by that but as I’ve got older I’m come to embrace it. I learned that it’s OK to be a part of this culture regardless of your race and colour.”
BARNEY: “People saying to Laila, ‘Oh, not you’ is because they know Laila. But for a racist they just want to see someone from a different part of the world to them. She’s not trying to hide from that, she’s saying, ‘I’m going to dress like this, there’s a cultural connection for me’. It’s a powerful thing – an important thing.”
HAVE YOU HAD ANY BACKLASH FROM THE ALBUM COVER?
LAILA: “Someone on the internet said, ‘Why have you chosen this imagery?’ and my point was, ‘Why not?’ If a woman in a niqab is shocking to you then that’s your problem. It shouldn’t be a shocking image. At all."
BARNEY: “If you open the packaging of the album you see Laila without the niqab. Then the next layer after that is her without make up. It’s about thinking about layers of identity - both as someone from a different cultural background and as a woman.”
LAILA: “To me, the cover isn’t just an album cover. I hope people will look at it and see, ‘Oh, just because she’s wearing that, that doesn’t make her any less of a human. It’s Laila from Sonic Boom Six and if she chooses to express her heritage then that doesn’t make any difference to how I should see her or accept her’. Society and the media has made that imagery shocking, but we want to make people think about why they might be shocked by that picture. Because when you think about it, there is no reason to be shocked. Next time you see someone in a niqab, remember that they’re a real person not the bogey man the media has taught you to believe they are.”
DO YOU THINK ROCK HAS A PROBLEM IN GENERAL WITH XENOPHOBIA AND ACCEPTING PEOPLE FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS?
LAILA: “I don’t think there’s a vocal problem. But I do think that ‘I don’t mean you’ attitude exists and is a problem. I’m normally welcomed in the punk scene but I think that’s because most people don’t realize I’m Pakistani. But would they welcome me if I was appeared as I do on that cover? I think, sadly, the answer is probably ‘no’.”
BARNEY: “I think there, is, yeah, but like Laila says it’s not a conscious thing. It’s a cultural thing about it’s about the inertia of people just accepting the groups they hang around it and that being OK. I’d also say that a lot of people like to talk the talk but when they’re actually confronted with a band like ours with an Asian singer they don’t want to accept us. It’s amazing really because rock is meant to be very open – but musical scenes often talk about ideas of equality while being as conservative as the rest of the world. I love punk rock, it’s made me who I am. But it’s not above scrutiny.”
FINALLY, WHAT DOES YOUR MUM THINK ABOUT THE ALBUM COVER, LAILA?!
LAILA: “My mum actually helped me put it all together! She was really proud. She is a practicing Muslim and she never thought in a million years she’d see me like that.”
'The F-Bomb' is out on May 27 via Cherry Red Records.