Mani Mostofi, human rights advocate, and vocalist of Racetraitor and The Kill Pill, provides the first interview I’ve done in this interactive format. I appreciate him for pushing me to expand my skills as an interviewer. The back and forth style really creates a different feel as compared to the other Drug Free Dad interviews. Due to the process, and the intelligence of the interviewee, this is probably the most challenging and most rewarding interview I’ve ever done.
Name: Mani Mostofi
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Number and Ages of Children: One daughter, 16 months
Profession: Human Rights Advocate
NED: Hi Mani. Thanks for your patience. Finding that time between work and bath/bed time for the boys has been pretty tricky… Your Scobonixxx interview was so in-depth and had such a good chemistry that I’ve honestly been nervous to follow it up. I’d like to cover some different ground- fatherhood, faith, but also touch on some of the people in punk and hardcore, and the political themes that run through your music.
You mention Los Crudos as one of your influences. To me, Martin Sorrendeguy is one of the unsung geniuses of punk art and music. XLimpWristX was one of my all-time favorite collaborations. Did you two get to know each other in the Chicago scene?
MANI: Martin and the Los Crudos guys were some of the first people I meet when I started going to shows. This was 1992 or 93. They became friends and I probably have seen Los Crudos more times than any other band besides Burn It Down (who I tour managed). For me their spoken word between songs and political commentary was what made punk hardcore scene different and special. I love many bands that don’t do that or sing about those things but I will always feel that the politically radical bands like Crudos are pure punk. Because otherwise what the fuck are you rebelling against?
Martin both with Crudos and Limp Wrist really embodies that ethic.
Not every band can be a Crudos and maybe not everyone should. Like one of my favorite shows ever was Crudos and the hilarious pop punk band Weston. So I like diversity, but in the end the punk/hardcore community without Crudos and more bands trying to challenge power, to me at least, is empty.
MANI: I think this my feelings are full of lots of cliches. But in the little over a year since my daughter is born I fell more inspired by we sense of joy and innocence. She’s not corrupted or bitter or beat down by life. You don’t see hatred or ego in her. And being around that energy makes you feel optimistic in a way. At the same time when you look at the state of things you can’t help but ask yourself was it ethical to bring a person into this world. It’s at the level of: will she have clean water to drink? There is certainly a rise in urgency, whether it is climate change or endless war or the economic time bomb we live under.
I mean look my baby is a Muslim in America and I say this is almost -so sarcasm intended- we are little more a Trump presidency and another 9/11 away from internment camps. So as a father it all feels more intense.
So being a new father has given both the energy and optimism and the sense of urgency and heightened anger that it takes to do a band like Racetraitor. We’re not a normal hardcore punk band. Either you feel it and it is honest, or what is the point?
Being a father makes this feel more honest and you feel more a responsibility to express your dissatisfaction. When I was tracking vocals for our new EP and the song By The Time I get To Pennsylvania in the studio I found my mind drifting off and thinking about my daughter. It was one of the more emotional musical experiences I have had and I think you can hear that when you listen to the track. I never would have expected that at my age.
NED: It’s been a while since I read a response that stabbed me in the heart and made me tear up. I feel so many of those cliche feelings about being a father, too. My fears have to do with violence directed toward my sons. In 2006, my father, his staff, and his students were a day away from being murdered at the high school he had just started at as principal. There were a few students with neo-Nazi tendencies who had plotted to bring explosives and other weapons to school. Since then, gun violence has weighed heavy on me. Now that my oldest is in 4K, I have regular recurring worst-case scenarios running through my mind. Sometimes I feel stuck in my terror. What helps you move through the fear that I’m guessing all loving parents seem to feel?
MANI: Shit. Yes I am not sure how people can be ok with the new normal of these mass shootings. It’s baffling and as a parent even more baffling. It is natural to be paralyzed by these thoughts. I guess, I deal with the dread with the rational and irrational. The rational way being that I think about the probabilities of these sorts of freak things happening being so so low and that helps. And the irrational way is to just to pray. They both are soothing in their own way.
NED: You allude to raising your daughter as a Muslim. My wife and I weren’t content with our traditional Midwest Catholic and Lutheran upbringings, so we are pickers and choosers- from having Sufi and Christian prayers at our secular wedding, to baptizing our boys at a liberal church, to practicing Reiki, to attending Quaker meetings, as well as some other oddball practices. How does faith play a role in your family life and music?
MANI: I was raised in a very secular nuclear family, but we were from a Muslim background. Spirituality came more to play in my life in my 20s. Just trying to explore the meaning of life and all that. What that meant to me and means today changes day by day. Mostly it is a reflection on the vastness of the universe and the beauty of life. All that cheesy stuff. I would never say it was overtly present part of my life or my identity in the way music or activism have been, but spirituality it was something that felt like a private dialogue and something that gave me a sense of grounding. My wife was raised in an overtly Muslim family- they come from a Sufi tradition actually. I think in our family (my wife, daughter, and I) being Muslim is a spiritual expression, but also communal and political. We are not about doctrinairism really or too invested in institutionalization, but it is something be bring into our family life and part of our family identity.
In my music it is hard to say where spirituality fits in beyond the idea of creating music with soul. I love music that feels like it is drawing from something other-worldly and deeply internal at the same time. Iranian sufi music or 108 or Sepultura’s Roots, even more simple stuff like Leadbelly all feel like that to me. It is not about religious belief but a sense of honesty and truth seeking.
Racetraitor became known for being a spiritual band but I think it’s slightly misunderstood. Spiritual concepts and metaphors was in our lyrics for sure but in a very personal way. In the way we described humanity, struggle, and hope. And we spoke about those ideas some, mostly in the LP essay. But we never pushed a faith based belief or even suggested people to believe. Fuck we had no idea what we believed.
We totally always felt organized religions and institutions were mostly repressive and dangerous, responsible for massive evils. The thing we pressed kids to think about was pretty narrow. It was when punk rock atheists (especially white ones) that make blanket condemnations of ‘believers’ and ‘belief’, whether based on their experience at church or fair observations about religion, they tend to overlook that for lots of people and for many social movements, spirituality and belief drive their fights for justice. I know very few people like that who have blind faith. Rather, it is an active faith full of questioning and doubt.
Brent our bass player spent a lot of time in Latin America working with nuns that were liberation theologist. These were Catholics risking their lives fighting alongside the poor and ethnic minorities in the face of death squads and assassination campaigns. That had a big impact on Brent and his thoughts about knee-jerk anti-religion views. And he brought that to the band.
In my years of activism with the anti-war movement, immigrant rights, and economic justice, you find a lot of faith-based activists. Today, 17 years later, I think all of us in the band have gone through these thought experiments and journeys on a personal level and have come out of it in different places, which is healthy. Religion is very likely a fairy-tale, but if someone’s fairy-tale gives them a sense of strength and community to rise to the challenges of tyranny, exploitation, and injustice, why would you spend your time telling that person they were a fool.
NED: So much wisdom to unpack in that statement… My wife and I basically said the same thing as your last point after attending The Book of Mormon musical last night. We loved the irreverence, but we also think that there is value to stories people pass on, even if they are based in mythology. The American Civil Rights movement in the 60’s would have looked completely different without the organizing power of black southern churches and their spiritual commitment to social justice. I’m hoping for a modern progressive religious answer to some of the hatred that still persists in our society… But, back to the music and spirituality connection- as a teen I was intrigued by the hardline movement. It seemed to be espousing a lot of the things I believed (save for its views on human sexuality) and it also invited a spiritual component into the music- especially Islam with Sean Muttaqi‘s influence. I made a conscious choice never to join the hardline movement, but I know that Racetraitor was pretty huge in those circles. Did you identify with the passion and tenets of that movement, or with how its original proponents have evolved?
MANI: Racetraitor was never a hardline band. Most of us weren’t that into it actually for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was the view of some hardline chapters on homosexuality and pro-life. But also the weird fetishizing of the animal rights struggle just felt like white males wanting to be the voice of the voiceless. Mind you we were all vegan and I’m still vegan. But we were big in those circles and I think for a few reasons. Obviously, Uprising put us out and Sean started hardline. By the time we meet Sean he had been out of hardline for a while. It was odd at first because I thought of hardline as something kinda far from what we were about, but to my surprise Sean was the first label guy that fully understood Racetraitor. He understood the approach and he 100% shared our race politics, which almost no one at that time was into. He was as annoyed by the self-satisfaction of hardcore kids. He understood the band name and that made us feel like he was a good choice. He actually left hardline exactly because he thought it was too white and weird by like 1993. For him hardline was a thread of anarchism, but that got lost fast, and I think he knows he’s partly to blame for that.
But the other thing I have to say, after just having hated on hardline (hahaha), was that many of the kids that were in it were into hardline for all the right reasons. They were looking for a way to make the world better and were open to radical new approaches. So when Racetraitor came along and offered some new ideas, hardline kids were more open than a lot of the kids in punk and hardcore to those ideas, and maybe for some the band opened their world view a bit. I really appreciated that about the hardline kids back then. I mean by 1997/98 hardline was all but dead and most of them weren’t really into all that “homosexuailty is unnatural” bullshit. History has painted hardline into a bigger thing than it was.
But it was like in late 98/99 that Eric joined the band. He was 17 or so and he got into hardline. It was sort of a source of tension in the band, and maybe an indirect factor in our break up. Eric was one of those kids looking for something and he was pretty committed to animal rights and the environment so hardline was attractive to him. Again he was 17, by then hardline was dead, and he was pat of this post-hardline environmental activism network.
The only thing that bums me out is when people that know a tiny bit of that history, think racetraitor was hardline or ever anything but a queer-positive band. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
We are all also pro-choice.
[Sidebar: NED: Trying to remember if I met Eric at David Agranoff‘s house in 99- we were setting up something called Education for a Sustainable Future- it didn’t really last very long.*
MANI: LOL. Eric was into it for sure. No I don’t think it lasted 10 mins really.
But it was a nice try.
NED: Haha- it was fun camping in the yard anyway.
MANI: We used to joke that hardline was mostly an excuse for kids to go camping.
*Interviewer’s note: While ESF as an organization didn’t last long, many of the people involved with ESF went into various roles of fighting for environmental protection and animal welfare, leading several different campaigns around the country. More on that another time… End Sidebar.]
NED: Ok. Diving back in… One of the things that makes Racetraitor special is that you guys focus so much on the deeper issues of racism and colonization. A lot of great hardcore music takes on class issues, but often just skims the surface of race. Would you consider Racetraitor to be a class-conscious band as well?
MANI: Very much so, class politics was often part of a message but Racetraitor was/is what today’s professor class calls “intersectional.” A dork term that makes me roll my eyes every time I hear. But it means we view race and class as things that can compound the negative effects on top of each other. So you can be black and a capitalist but still face racial injustice or be white and poor and be exploited. When you put poverty and color together or you add gender, or whatever else, you get a multiplier effect of bad. Why are black trans women targeted for all sorts of random violence? Class is linked to race in key ways in the US we can’t forget.
As a band, we also globalized our discussion of class. So we talked about corporate exploitation of the third world. Meaning there are different levels of being working class, with different levels of power, depending on geography. At the same time globalization is designed in part to undermine the democratic power of the working class in the developed countries. Shit’s complex. (LOL) And we didn’t always deliver that message clearly or compassionately so you ran into white working class punk kids that were offended by the band.
But labor exploitation and class is at the core of the things the band talks about as a band. And the struggle for economic justice is something we believe in, radical unionism and all that. But we just stress the pitfalls of movements like Sanders’ campaign. When you stress colorblind class solidarity you inevitably empower the white people in that coalition and the black and brown people will just cut out and vote for Clinton- at least the older ones. [Laugh]
Challenging labor exploitation come up in my professional life a bunch. Like, I wrote a report on human rights abuses against migrant laborers in Bahrain. When I was working on the report, I was reminded of George Orwell’s the Road to Wigan Pier on coalminers in 1930s UK. Just real insane treatment of workers.
Also Billy Elliot is my favorite movie, can’t wait to watch it with my daughter. That’s all about class politics, also gender and sexuality. And I also like dancing to T Rex.
NED: There is a lot of death imagery in your lyrics. There’s also quite a lot of poetic phrasing- not quite straightforward and easy. Are these elements intentional, or is that just how the songs come out for you?
MANI: Wow. Thanks. I have never been asked this question but I think about it all the time. The, as you call it, “poetic phrasing” and non-straightforwardness is both intentional and just what comes out.
I always regretted not being able to write these amazing straight to the point but also stylistically amazing political lyric like Propagandhi or Rage Against the Machine. Those are the gold standards I would argue.
I wrote in the way I could best describe the ideas I was grappling with. I mean some of the ideas were relatively complex. It wasn’t just fuck shit up. So metaphor is a way to get more ideas in there and at the same time express uncertainty.
The hope and fear concept runs through all our songs, even today. The emotions of politics, you might say. And it was easier for me express that through metaphor. Brent wrote lyrics also and he did it the same way.
That’s where some of the violence and death imagery come into play. Like in the song Path to Ministry there is a line that says “in the end your savagery has left you with nothing and you are the one that is left out to die.” That is about the emptiness of colonialism and white power. It about being alone on a cultural or humanist level. It’s the death of the soul, and that kind of death is something the oppressor is subconsciously afraid of.
Also there is the simple fact that some of the death imagery just fits the style of the music. We are playing punky death metal so we were influenced by lyrical tropes of those genres. Dan likes to joke we’re a death metal band that realized black power is scarier to most people than Satanism. So we wrote about colonialism and the war on drugs using lyrical styles you might find with Cannibal Corpse. And that wasn’t unique to us. Earth Crisis and all their progeny did the same thing, using metal lyrics to describe vivisection and all that.
NED: Having a son named Jonah, I feel like I should really understand the allusion in the lyrics to Broken Dust. But, I’m a little slow on the uptake. Can you explain the song meaning behind that one?
MANI: Broken Dust is one of my favorite RT songs musically and lyrically. The words were a collaboration. Brent wrote the first few lines, I wrote the middle section including the Jonah line and Brent wrote the ending. Oddly, we have never discussed the lyrics with each other. I just think we were in sync, but it would be interesting to ask him what he thinks the song is about. For me it is about becoming the new man or new woman. Becoming a revolutionary spirit through trials, destroying ego, seeking something greater than yourself. It is certainly very Sufi influenced.
The Jonah reference is about the trial of being swallowed by the whale or great fish, whatever the translation, and being reborn with more focused, strength and clarity. Like it is only through the struggle that we become reborn anew and stronger. It also hits on the “belly of the beast” phraseology, which people like Che Guevara, who I am not always a fan of, or other leftists used and use to reference the United States. So I was also alluding to the idea of being forged by trials of American history or forged by the empire. And at the same time, Che’s Motorcycle Diaries is a really good example of a story about rebirth.
NED: Your drummer is famous for being in another band and for being a champion CrossFit dude. Since he’s so busy, and the public would love more than the one Oct 22 show, wouldn’t the logical solution be a world tour featuring Fall Out Boy, Sect, Killtheslavemaster, and Racetraitor?
MANI: Hurley Fest 2017! I’ll ask Peter. He’s Andy’s team leader over at Fall Out Boy INC. LOL. Also the CrossFit schedule is not something to trifle with. When we were recording Andy would leave the studio, all antsy, go work out and come back cool as a cucumber.
As for Killtheslavemaster, you would need to get Karl to leave his house, which is about the hardest thing in the world to do. We asked Karl to play with Racetraitor on the 22nd, or be part of the band and what we are doing in any way he wanted. But he’s not even coming to the show from what I understand. Karl is one of a kind and totally anti-social and social at the same time. He’s got no patience for a lot of stuff. That is why KTSM lasted a week. That is why he was in Creation is Crucifixion for ten minutes. That’s why he quit and rejoined and quit and rejoined Racetraitor a dozen times. We all love him. We came up with him and you just gotta let people be who they are. If Killtheslavemaster ever plays it will be because he got the urge three days before it and then you won’t see Karl for a year after that.
Racetraitor and Sect- that might be something that could happen. Would be cool. Who knows?
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Mani Mostofi interview. And, if you’re in cycling/driving/teleporting distance of Chicago, go check out the amazing lineup for the Racetraitor reunion (Earthmover is opening!)
Photo Credits: Aasim Syed, Asra Syed, Justin Corbett, Mahassan Ballouli, and others
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