Droppin’ Knowledge: On His LP Border Patrol, Singer-Songwriter Farees Turns Trauma Into Art, With Humor, Grace and Righteous Anger



When Farees, the singer-song writer, released his stirring debut solo album in 2015, Mississippi to Sahara, (under the name Faris), he did what many artists do; he planned a tour to support the album. The tour would traverse the United States, with stops at summer festivals and storied music venues, including the Public Theater in Manhattan, and Seattle’s The Crocodile.

In the summer of 2016, the multi-instrumentalist, who is 38 and lives in Rome, boarded a plane and flew to Chicago, the site of the tour’s first stop. When he arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, United States authorities arrested him. They detained him for three days, subjected him to endless interrogations and then, finally, deported him. Twelve hours later, when he landed back in Rome, authorities there detained him again, a fact that Farees attributes to coordination between the two countries. The tour was scuttled, opportunities were lost and Farees was devastated emotionally.

Like many artists confronted with trauma, Farees used these experiences to create his art, and as an inspiration for his second solo release, the blistering Border Patrol. In geo-political terms, Border Patrol is an acerbic reflection on the state of the world in 2021. In personal terms, the album processes the emotional distress induced by the artist’s detention and how he came to terms with what happened and the ensuing psychological turmoil.

Border Patrol considers much more than just Farees’s personal journey. It also ruminates on the boundaries, borders, lines and limitations we place on ourselves, and are placed on us by the contours of nationalism, racism and, ultimately, our individual and collective histories. It is also about how we separate ourselves based on false narratives about identity, and the walls we build around those identities and tribal associations to protect us from “the other.”

As a child, Farees led an itinerant life. His mother passed away when he was eleven. His father became a single parent and Farees spent his school years traveling with his father, whose work took him around the world, particularly South America. Farees was the perpetual new kid in school, with all ups and downs that that entails. “I was very popular with fifty percent, and then the other fifty percent used to hate me, ” he says. “I would always be the different guy. The new guy. I was either too dark or too light. I was always like the outcast in some way.”

Books and records were his solace, and his father’s vinyl collection was an early influence. At age ten, he began writing songs and poetry. The first album he remembers being obsessed with was Uprising, by Bob Marley and the Wailers, when he was four years old.

“I loved the vibe of that album,” Farees says. “I used to love the cover of it, too. In those days you could stare at [album] covers for hours.”

Farees also listened to the Malian music his mother liked to play, and because his father accumulated vinyl records from all over the world, Farees developed a sophisticated taste in music and a love for the wax versions of albums by his favorite artists.

In his teens, Farees taught himself to play bass, percussion, drums and guitar. In his twenties, he traveled to Africa, to explore his mother’s roots and traditions in the Northern Sahara region of the continent. There he jammed with Tuareg bands, learning and absorbing the lessons offered by the nomadic musicians, world famous for their guitar skills. Tuareg music is sometimes referred to in the West collectively as “Desert Blues,” but Farees dislikes and rejects that term; it’s too imprecise and limiting. He later played with two notable Tuareg bands, Terakaft and Tinariwen, where he moved from supporting player to the front of the stage, as a lead guitarist and vocalist.

Farees originally picked up the guitar after a friend introduced him to Jimi Hendrix, and you can hear Hendrix’s influence in his playing. Farees makes his guitar squawk and scream and cry, the instrument an extension of his body, his heart and his brain. His guitar can present itself as light and happy, or fierce, awash with anger and pain. He can shred or finger pick the notes, and his playing can be delicate, or at times, throttle you with its power. On Border Patrol, Farees raps, sings and speaks over his playing, in a lightly accented English, sometimes bemused, sometimes angry, but always perplexed about how and why we treat fellow human beings in the ways that we do.

Border Patrol is a unique album, blending genres and styles into a cohesive whole. The writing is direct and pointed, but often displays flashes of humor, its tone can be satirical, its point of view sometimes Kafkaesque. On “I’m Privileged,” Farees rails against the “bullshitism” of labels like “immigrant” or “mongrel.” In “Independence #D,” he comments on colonialism, terrorism, The Black Panther Party and Algeria, and references the late Peter Tosh. “Take The Barricades Down” notes that “we studied freedom from the slaveholders’ book” and questions the meaning of that very word. “Weird Statistics” may be the album’s most direct discussion of its creator’s detention, and in the song Farees catalogues observations about his imprisonment: “white cells, white floors, white lights, white neon lights,” yet, somehow, “no Caucasians.” “Empire Man (Slight Return)” nods to Hendrix and “Y’all Don’t Know What’s Going On,” performed with Calexico, turns Marvin Gaye’s song on its head, as Farees half sings, half speaks “you don’t know what it’s like to be exploited and depressed,” and “you miss your previous life but this one seems to be better.”

As a mixed race person in a world that strives to divide people based on the construct of race, Farees is an ideal observer of the human condition; he straddles many worlds and many allegiances, one foot in Africa, one foot in the West; he is comfortable among the dispossessed, yet he lives in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. He has felt the pain of being dehumanized by the police. He has been targeted as a criminal because of his appearance, but he can also pass for white.

Border Patrol is a stunner, from start to finish, a harrowing and comical ride, with influences from Bob Marley, to Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets, blues, jazz, hip hop and even punk rock.

Farees and I recently spoke, via video, about Border Patrol, the state of the world and his detention in the United States, although he made it clear that he would not dwell on this, or discuss it in detail; Border Patrol stands as his public statement on that moment in his life. During our conversation, Farees sat in front of a wall lined with hanging guitars and a picture of the album Axis: Bold as Love by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, his customary watch cap atop his head.

This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.

I’m always interested to hear what music artists are listening to at the moment. If someone asked you to make a musical playlist, who would you include on that playlist?

I would say Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway. Jimi Hendrix is of course always there and stuff from the 1960s and 1970s. And music from Africa.

African music is quite diverse. Is there a particular type of music from Africa which resonates with you? A particular artist?

I started playing with the biggest Tuareg bands and those are my roots. As far as my career and my soundscape, my mental soundscape, I would say Tuareg music, Malian music, music from that area.

How did you become involved with Tuareg bands, like Terakaft and Tinariwen?

By accident, really. We met after shows and then I was playing. They couldn’t believe this mixed race guy could play like this, like I was living forever in the Sahara. So they asked me to play with them, rhythm guitar in the beginning and then, because I’m a songwriter, I moved up slowly, then made my first [solo] record, Mississippi to Sahara.

You have kind of a pre and post part of your life, before and after your detention in the United States. Was there a change in the way you follow political issues? Do you pay more attention to politics now?

Not really. I was always paying attention to politics. I don’t agree with the definition of politics as something that happens in “the capital.” As an artist, as a person, you’re always giving messages, you’re always communicating a philosophy, even if a band says ‘we just want to have fun.’ That’s a philosophy, that’s politics, because you are saying to people that it’s good to just have fun, without giving a shit about other people’s problems. So you always have a message underneath what you do and what you say. For me the human gesture is politics. Before the detention, I had bad experiences with the police. So I was already aware. But, to be handcuffed and treated like a criminal, it changes you. Once you’re out of detention, you’re a different person. I know what it is to be deprived of your freedom and I want to share that view with the world.

On your web site, you posted something you call your manifesto. In that manifesto you write: If you’re a Trump supporter or wear a MAGA hat, GFOH. (GFOH stands for get the fuck outta here.) You list other things for which anyone visiting your site should GFOH. Is a dialogue possible between people who hold different political views? Or, are you saying a conversation is not possible right now? Or, not possible at all?

Dialogue is possible. But in certain times, you have to pick a side. You have the same kind of movements like Donald Trump all over the world. It’s a global problem, not a French problem or an Italian problem or an American problem. The same discrimination happens everywhere. In America, it may be more evident, and more violent because of the gun thing. But the philosophy behind it, the racism behind it, it’s the same in France. I don’t hate anybody. I hope that’s clear. For people listening to my record, I’m not hating. It’s just that there are moments in history where you have to pick a side. So I feel like it’s not the time [for dialogue]. Now is the time to pick a side and then afterwards we’ll have a dialogue. Privately, I feel like I can speak to a Trump supporter, but publicly, as an artist I feel like we have to pick sides and we have to make clear choices. In the music industry, there is a lot of fake protest. I wanted to be very clear about my views and my direction.

You write that racism is a global problem. In a way, doesn’t the United States drive the problem?

I don’t think so. I think it’s more ancient than that. It’s probably European, comes from Colonialism. [For example], in Africa, we have to study German philosophers. If I’m an African, I should study my own philosophy. Schools around the globe are really still colonial in a way. There’s a lot of a “colonial mentality” and “petty fetishism” for [Western ideas]. If you insist that it’s an American problem or a French problem, I don’t feel we’ll get past it. I think we have to think globally, if you really want to address the problem.

Are you comfortable talking about your arrest and detention in the United States?

Yeah, I’m comfortable. I don’t focus on those, you know, gossipy trash. I’m really clear about this. Usually I don’t want to play the role of “victim.” What’s interesting to me is the reaction. How do we react? I’m comfortable because I’m done with it. Especially when I write a song about something, usually, I’m done with the trauma. I won’t indulge too much. I was really just treated like a criminal. It’s more or less the same to me around the globe. If you’re treated like a criminal, you’re deprived of your dignity and your inner self.

It was the summer of 2016, your first tour of the U.S. Donald Trump wasn’t president.

Yeah, exactly. That tells a lot.

You seem to have a theme in your music, no borders, no barriers, no boundaries. You were arrested at what is essentially a border, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Yeah. I got arrested at the airport. I was supposed to play a festival there. My American tour was cancelled. I lost opportunities, money and everything because of this. I was interrogated for seven hours, which felt like forever, about the Quran, religious stuff, like I was some kind of terrorist. Then they decided to deport me. I was on the flight going back to Europe, crying, crying for the lost gigs, for the opportunity to play the Public Theater in New York, and The Crocodile in Seattle, legendary places.

How long did they detain you?

Three days total. Maybe two and a half. Twelve hours back to Europe and detained back in Europe, too. Yeah.

What a system.

It’s the Babylon System as Bob Marley used to call it. Trump may have made it worse, but at least we talk more about it. So that’s a good thing. But for me and other people of color, racism has always been there.

In the U.S., it was stamped in from the beginning.

Yeah. But being mixed race, Black, Berber, German, Italian, I don’t like people who want to segregate things, or want a separate thing, a separate humanity. It’s, if you’re coming from Black, coming from white, for me, we’re all brothers. I’m sure you’ve heard that on the record. I feel like I’m in the middle of all communities. And my duty is to make things clear, that we move things forward until we get to a point where we all respect each other. And we all love each other.

You ask people who visit your site to join in “kinship” with you. Why did you pick this word?

Well, it’s really just that we are all families, families apart. Differentiating people based on appearances or colors or religions is really a fiction. We’ve got the same emotions, we all do the same things in India or Brazil or Africa. We’re all human. Kinship means people are related and we are all related to each other. I want to push people to talk about things. Maybe someone will play my record and then they start arguing, ‘he’s right,’ ‘no, he’s wrong.’ I want people to debate all this stuff.

You make clear on Border Patrol and on your web site that you’re an independent musician and you do things your own way. You don’t want your music or your message filtered or diluted. How important is that to you?

I’ve had all kinds of experiences, as everyone probably has in the music industry. I’ve had big producers, Grammy-winning producers trying to manipulate me into doing things that weren’t me. I feel if I wasn’t independent, it wouldn’t be worth it to create music, play music and give my perspective. So it’s very important for me.

Have you had experiences like that with record labels in the United States or people in the industry in the United States?

Yeah. Even just “border patrol.” It wasn’t accepted to title a song “Border Patrol.” In the industry, there’s this thing, you have to please everybody. [The music] is a product and you have to sell the product to all different kinds of people. You have to hide the metaphor. But in the end, if you hide one thing behind another, it becomes useless. It becomes antiseptic.

Why did you call your latest album Border Patrol?

I feel Border Patrol represents a lot of things, internally and psychologically, within our own mindsets. It is also our perception of the world. People don’t like to talk about it because they think it’s normal They think “ah, that’s how everything should be.” I want to attract people’s attention over this very concept. We all have this conditioning inside ourselves, culturally, and we’re patrolling the borders of this conditioning inside.

The music on the album blends together many influences, many genres. You mention slam poetry as an influence. Were there particular artists you listened to? Did you listen to The Last Poets? Gil Scott Heron?

Gil is a huge influence on me since I was a kid. Spoken word. Slam poetry. I mean you’ll find all these things in traditional African music. So, yes, we play a lot with the rhythms of Africa. I also feel that Black culture is important. It’s the roots, it’s where everything comes from.

You use the n-word on the album. The opening track is called “Sand N*****!” Has anyone said to you, “don’t use that word?”

No, nobody ever said that to me. I don’t use the word a lot. I know in the United States it’s a controversy. I also know a lot of minorities use it. I’m considered like a light skinned Black person. But I’m sure it will happen. I mean sooner or later it will happen. But I agree with the fact that white people should be careful, really careful. I use it sometimes because I have Black ancestry but I can pass for white. So I expect someone to say “wait a minute. What did you say?” Because identity is complicated. I’m aware of my privileges., having a very fair appearance, fair skin. So I don’t claim that I’m Black but I can talk about Black issues. I tried to use my privilege to help others. People in Europe, they’ve used the n-word against me. I don’t know what Black men experience because I didn’t grow up looking Black. I’m really careful, but I’m outspoken at the same time.”

In “Sand N*****!,” you sing “shot in the back for no reason,” “take the barricades down,” and “you ain’t got no freedom.” In fact, in all of your songs, freedom is an important concept. What does “freedom” mean to you?

That’s a tough question. I try to answer those questions in my songs.

Yes.

I feel like we use the word without understanding what it really means. Now everybody says “revolution.” “Freedom, freedom, revolution, revolution, freedom.” It’s tough to define. It’s not only external. It’s having possibilities, having choices. You should be given opportunities to express yourself and to grow as a person, to pursue happiness. It’s also internal.

We need to free ourselves inside and outside. Internal and external freedom.

I think the internal one is more important.

Why?

Because the external one becomes useless if you ain’t got the internal one.

You have a song on the album “I’m Privileged,” in which you address your privilege of looking white, of passing as white. On that song, you play this screeching, wailing guitar. It reminded me of Hendrix’s version of the “The Star Spangled Banner.” Was that song an inspiration for “I’m Privileged?”

Thanks. You’re making a huge compliment. I never thought about “The Star Spangled Banner” when I did “I’m Privileged.”

I’ve been listening to the album a lot. It’s powerful and deep. One day recently, I sat in a quiet room and listened to the whole album straight through, without any distractions. It really hit me emotionally. It’s so topical, and it addresses so many truths about humanity in 2021. But I want to ask you about the last song. The last song is an instrumental, a beautiful, meditative coda to the record, called “Pegu.” Tell me about that.

I wanted to end the record with love and with something positive. We recorded the song outside in Sardinia and when we were done recording these kids came by. They were hanging around us and I just put the recorder on and that’s why those kids playing ended up on the song. I wanted something simple, simple love for the universe. And for all living creatures, really.

Why is the song called “Pegu?”

Pegu was my beloved dog. That melody is my love for my dog. But it’s also this ancient kind of love, which is the same love we should have for each other, and for nature, for animals, for everything. Loving something because it’s alive and free. You see, the power of music is endless.

A great way to end our conversation. Farees, thank you.

Thank you. You’ve given me a lot of good things about what I’m doing.

Independent musicians need our support now more than ever. If you like what you hear and read, support Farees. You can learn more about Farees and his music on his web site. Purchase Farees merchandise or Border Patrol here.

Download Farees’ recent mixtape here.

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