For Canadian-Iraqi musician Jafar Sandouk, the world lacks empathy.
Set to be released on Oct. 27 on all streaming platforms, Howlin’ Circus’ latest album, Creature, explores identity and discrimination while using music as a medium to challenge the patterns of prejudice that persist in society. The album is written and produced by Sandouk.
While Sandouk is now based in Toronto, he originally grew up in London, England. As an Iraqi man he struggled to fit into British society while holding onto his cultural roots. Music allowed Sandouk to face the dichotomy of trying to fit in at school by being “British,” while returning home from school and being immersed in Iraqi culture.
“There wasn’t a TV show or book that was speaking to Bags’ [people whose culture is rooted in Baghdad, Iraq] specific experience,” Sandouk said in an interview with The Journal. “I always felt like I had to just go and create them all, I had to go express myself.”
The album was produced when the pandemic hit. As a newcomer to Canada, Sandouk felt alone and isolated while living in Toronto, unable to see family back in London. He wrote the album to connect himself to his family and roots.
“I didn’t have people or anyone else that knew my culture. It became kind of natural when I was writing […] I wanted to incorporate sounds that reminded me of home, so Arabic sounds and things connected with that,” Sandouk said.
“I would just try little things, I would play Arabic scales, whether it be on the keys, or the guitar, occasionally the oud, which is a string Arabic instrument similar to a guitar. It felt like a fun challenge with every song,” he said. “I don’t want to just repeat something.”
The title Creature is a metaphor for the feeling of rejection he experienced as an Iraqi man being discriminated against. The name of the album was inspired by Sandouk’s love for Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein.
“When you’re already marked out as a creature you don’t really have much chance at being loved by a lot of people.”
His words reinforced the idea that the prejudice and Islamophobia present in society isn’t a reflection of a person’s character, but rather the issue of learned discrimination.
“What I was trying to come to terms with was [that] the creature can be something that you can embrace in yourself […] and accept that you don’t have to be perfect,” Sandouk said.
“If you grow up as someone who’s racialized or discriminated against in some way, you often don’t get many chances to be imperfect. You do one tiny thing and it gets blown up, probably, much larger than for people with a lot of privilege.”
Undeniable evidence, proof, facts, or research have never been enough to make him feel okay, he said. Instead, music allowed him to fully express his experiences and inability to be imperfect without discrimination.
Sandouk used “Dresden,” the first track on the upcoming album, as an example of how racist and discriminative narratives have impacted his life.
“‘Dresden’ is about the gaslighting you’ll often encounter with racism. That maybe it’s your fault. Maybe your people are just a piece of shit, maybe all of that is true. You know you get a lot of people in your life pretending they don’t hate you but the minute you do something slightly imperfect they’re already judging you,” Sandouk said.
Racist narratives are everywhere, and Sandouk noted Donald Trump as an example. Sandouk said these narratives are believed by powerful voices and as a result, create a world that lacks empathy.
“I was seeing a massive decline in empathy in the UK where I always [found] people, at least on the whole, quite empathic.”
Sandouk’s music aims to find the root cause of racist patterns and narratives at the individual level. He hopes his music allows listeners to reflect and to challenge the parts playing into discriminatory narratives and patterns.
“A lot of my thinking writing this album was, ‘how can we be radically unlike these evil powerful states, how can we be unlike these selfishly entitled men,’” Sandouk said.
Sandouk believes music is at the heart of understanding and empathizing with others. He said in listening to a song, there is something primal in hearing the sounds that allow you to connect better with the music than you would be able to through a news story.
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