Interview originally published in HEROINE 8.
In April 2017, one photograph transformed Saffiyah Khan into an enduring image of defiance. Smiling down, totally composed, at an aggressive member of the far-right English Defence League, the native Birmingham activist and artist presented a potent and powerful message against those seeking to divide.
The image soon went viral and Khan found herself represented as a Gen Z poster girl for solidarity, community and courage. Now, with this newfound responsibility, the nineteen year-old aims to utilise her voice and maximise its scope.
On that defining day last year, Khan wore a Black Flag patch across her back. As a lifelong fan of the hardcore punk band, who better to be in conversation with than the group’s uncompromising frontman Henry Rollins.
Saffiyah Khan: I went to go see your show two years ago at Birmingham Town Hall. I actually wore the Black Flag Police Story t-shirt and you started a conversation with me like, “You wouldn’t believe how much trouble we got into for making that design.” But then it was chaos so I only saw you for a second [laughs], so yeah we’ve actually met.
Henry Rollins: Oh wow, was this after the show by the bus or something?
SK: This was behind the Town Hall just after the show, it was an excellent show as well.
HR: Well thank you. You obviously know the design of the shirt and it’s fairly provocative. It wasn’t my idea, it was Raymond Pettibon’s drawing and commentary and it was either Greg or Chuck, of Black Flag, who made it into a shirt. We were actually in New York City playing at Webster Hall once and the cops came in and took all of our t-shirts with that design. Everyone in the band was terrified of the cops but we wanted the t-shirts back because we needed to sell them, so we sent our sound-man into the police station. He walks in and asks for them back, which was quite a risky thing to do in New York around 1984, but he did, and he said there was a cop actually wearing one of the shirts stretched over his uniform and he asked if he could keep it. Dave was like, “Sure, but can I have the rest of them back?” And they were just in a pile and the cop said, “Go ahead.” Yeah, I never felt all that easy about that shirt, with the sentiment and the language, I just thought someone was going to push back at us, which I guess, in a way, we were kind of looking for. The thing is that, in those days, when people were angry they’d take it out on the singer, so whatever the band would do, it was always on me – in so far as someone getting hit.
SK: Yeah, that’s tricky. But you didn’t run into anything?
HR: Well, in those days I got swung at a lot of times, but I never started anything. Here’s what I think is an interesting angle of what you went through with that picture. Before the internet you very well could have been passing through this scene with these EDL idiots and seen Ms Zafar being hassled and stepped in to do the right thing – because they’re not local, you’re local – and you’re standing up, and that’s obviously what a decent person would do. And maybe later that evening you would have told a few friends about this maniac who you neutralised with your smile and that would have been it. No one would have followed up, there would have been no press and maybe five times in the rest of your long life you would have repeated that story. But with the internet and the way people are so immediately interconnected, It made this image last. And this is ten months ago? So it’s not even a year and from looking at what you’re doing now, your life has changed a lot. So my question is, where were you at with your life in April 2017, the day before you met this guy?
SK: So, in April 2017 I was preparing for my last college exams, I was finishing school. The plan had become a bit blurry after January last year, a lot had happened to me personally and I just kind of gave up on school and I realised that I couldn’t stand the structure of the educational system in the UK and that it wasn’t going to be something that I was able to sit through for another three or four years. It was mid-way through preparation for my exams that I realised this and that was kind of a tricky one.
HR: And so that month you were at some kind of crossroads in your life and you were going to have to make other plans, where were you seeing yourself?
SK: It could have been absolutely anything [laughs], I had nothing planned out. I kind of just work on the opportunities I’m given to the point where if there aren’t anymore opportunities being handed to me I’ll graft a bit and I’ll choose something different or get back to something I’d been doing a couple of months or years ago until the opportunities start again.
HR: It seems to me that you now have incredible options and, if you so choose to, you could have a real lasting impact on this century and in culture, and I wonder what thought you’ve given to that in the last few months?
SK: Well politics is always something I’ve been into since I was fourteen or fifteen and I think it’s going to be something I’m going to be into for a long time. I’ve always been working with local political and social groups – it’s something that I have no specific direction for, but I’ll always be part of it and I would like to see it become something that I can really focus on at some point in my life as well.
HR: Do you see yourself running for any sort of office, or is that something that would be confining?
SK: I think it could be confining, but I think if you look at what Jeremy Corbyn is doing now, he’s kind of taking all the things that are confining about running for Prime Minister, using them to his advantage, and gaining popularity from it because people are tired of seeing manufactured politicians.
HR: How do you divide your time between yourself and your mates and what you feel might be a responsibility to your city and your country going forward? Do you feel any responsibility to that at all?
SK: I feel a huge responsibility but it’s been continuous, the only way it’s grown is that I feel I have to make sure I’m eloquent and I pinpoint exactly what I want to say when I do interviews that will be seen by people for a long time. Unintentionally I’ve become a spokesperson for my generation, or people who do anti-racist work, or people from Birmingham, and that’s why my responsibility has increased. I’ve been into politics since I was young and I remember pretty much giving up on my first set of student exams because we had this massive campaign about a library in Birmingham and I just put everything into it in the days between my exams, I couldn’t have given less of a shit about them.
HR: Right, because it seems to me like on that day in April 2017, what you did was just what you would have done had it been 2016 or 2015. It wasn’t like all of a sudden you must do this thing, that kind of sense of activism has been with you for quite a long time?
SK: I’d definitely say so.
HR: Earlier I watched footage of you and Saira Zafar [Khan stepped in to defend Saira as she was being confronted by EDL members when the photo was taken] and she seems fantastic, just so articulate and obviously a very gentle person. I’m so happy that you were there for her because it can’t have been good to have been surrounded by men shouting in her face and the cops seemed to have been fairly inactive, thankfully you were there for her and you stepped right in, it was quite fearless. I don’t think law enforcement would have allowed anything physical to happen, but those kind of situations can engender post-traumatic stress, it doesn’t take much to make someone feel awful, you know, one taunt in the schoolyard and all of a sudden that guy’s going to become a punk rock singer, I can tell you all about that.
“I feel a huge responsibility but it’s been continuous, the only way it’s grown is that I feel I have to make sure I’m eloquent and I pinpoint exactly what I want to say”
SK: Sure. It’s been difficult trying to find what direction I want to go in, there are a lot of things I feel I could apply myself to. It’s the young thing, figuring out what I want to do. I think I need to move quite quickly and I need to channel my voice into something specific and I’m working on that. I’ve tried to make an effort with talking to as many people who I feel have either decided their own direction and their place in that movement that you’re talking about of activism and change, or people of a similar age to me who are equally active and driven in different aspects. So I’m trying to surround myself with people and opinions, I recently did an interview with Nadia from Pussy Riot, who’s amazing. These conversations are kind of shaping what I’m going to be doing.
HR: I met Nadia and Mascha a couple of years ago and I was fascinated by them, what they went through, how brave they are, and the poise they had in the courtroom. They were just utterly fearless, and in Putin’s Russia, which really is a place to be scared. But they kicked his ass, he couldn’t handle them, he couldn’t even say Pussy Riot out loud. There’s that great documentary on them and you see his discomfort and you’re like, “Wow, check you out! KGB guy gets his ass handed to him by some people in a punk rock band.” It just shows you the power of that. I remember first hearing the Ramones and The Clash, they changed my life. I never knew music could have that power, and within a year my mind had changed on everything, from how I saw myself to how I saw any established structure of authority, and I’m happy to say I’ve never recovered. It was the most transformative intellectual change in my life, where I went “Ok well now I have a purpose… I’ve been staring at my shield all these years and now it has an insignia on it and bravely into battle I go.”
SK: How young are we talking?
HR: Oh you know, sixteen or seventeen. I went to an all-boys school where I was basically told to shut up and sit down a lot and when you get told that enough times you start sitting down and shutting up – you become quite passive.
“Old people need to continuously get their asses kicked and their game checked, that’s the only way things get better.”
SK: I actually went to an all-girls grammar school and I feel like that was the same, it was only until I was leaving that school that I realised the same as you, you know, all that “Shut up and sit down.” I’d lost a lot of my fire being there and being repeatedly told the same things.
HR: I never thought of pushing back because the punishment wasn’t worth it and I totally caved in. Then in eleventh grade I got hit with punk rock and suddenly I was like, “Oh well, here we go, this is going to be turbulent.” And it was, I got in all kinds of fantastic trouble and it was so liberating to realise that what is put upon you can be thrown up.
SK: It’s the moment that you realise that there’s not much actually holding you back apart from your fear of what could be holding you. I’m sure you’ve been asked many times about Calvin Klein [Henry was one of the faces of Calvin Klein’s FW16 campaign], the only thing I wanted to ask you about it is, especially when you were younger, you always used to say that when you’re taking up these jobs that aren’t in music it’s like, “I’m starving, can you pay me?” That’s my favourite quote from you and it’s strange now that you’ve built up such a name for yourself and financially you could probably get away with not doing the Calvin Klein ads, but you still decide to do it, is that due to the same mindset that you always had when you were younger?
HR: It’s a good question and I’m happy to answer it in full. Besides the fact that I’ve always liked Calvin Klein clothes, the main reason I did the ad, and I will be nothing but honest with you, they came at me offering a lot of money and I said, “OK… double it,” and they came back like, “OK, we’ll give you one and a half times what you asked for.” I took it and asked what the pitch was, they said they wanted to interview me in their clothes for a global provocateur campaign and basically put me on bus stops and on the side of buildings. I got to keep some nice underwear and some t-shirts and within a few months I’m getting amazing hate mail.
HR: I love it, “Oh I hate that you’re on the side of a building on Broadway in New York,” and my reply is, “Is it lit well?”
HR: You know most people will tell you they want their grave kept clean, I’ll tell you I want my grave with good lighting. I have said yes and no to corporate stuff like this, some of it I can’t do just because it doesn’t hit my gut right, but the Calvin Klein thing, to be on the side of a building wearing a t-shirt and getting paid a huge amount of money? I went at it with zero hesitation, and if someone says, “What’re you doing on the side of a bus? I don’t like you any more,” all I can say is, it’s a bus, some people get on and some people get off. To be honest, no I don’t need the money now, but I don’t mind it as a stocking stuffer in my wonderful and turbulent America. But I did it mainly for the provocation it would engender and those angry letters, and for someone to send me that picture they took on their cell phone like, “Dude! Was this done with your permission?” Oh hell yes it was! To me it was a way to use Calvin Klein as a tool to provoke.
SK: That’s what it sounds like! How does Calvin Klein feel about that?
HR: I told them that when we got together, I told them this is going to be great because I’ll love the hate mail I’ll get and they just thought it was hilarious. But I quite agree with the campaign as it was about changing ideas, changing the world, and boldly stating your case and standing up. They used me and a bunch of pretty people, but they said, “We brought you in because you’re the not-young, not-pretty person…
SK: You’re the one they can put next to Bella Hadid on the posters to even it out [laughs].
HR: Well, exactly. So it all worked out very well and I have no idea if those things are still up or not, but if they ever wanted to re-up and take more pictures and pay me more I’d probably say yes so fast I’d sprain my face.
SK: [laughs] I remember when the campaign came out, the amount of people that were saying, “I used to be such a hardcore Black Flag fan, and such a hardcore Henry Rollins fan, and I’ve been there since day one but I saw this and he’s completely sold out!” They manage to somehow distance it from the other kinds of film work and things you do, which I don’t think is too different, I mean, as you just said to me and you said to Calvin Klein, you’re doing it for a laugh and for money.
HR: What I think is relevant is to know where I come from, I am a guy from the minimum wage working world of the late 1970s, I’m not a specialist in anything, I’m just a wild person who doesn’t really fit into the straight world all that well. I am what I am: a crass opportunist with a seemingly low threshold for boredom. I like to do stuff I’ve not done before, so if someone’s like, “Hey, can you act?” I’m like, “Hey, can you pay?” And a week later you’re on a film set doing scenes with Al Pacino.
SK: Yeah that’s what I’m saying, that punk rock opportunist vibe is still as relevant as it always was. So as you’re getting older, you’re getting bolder and bolder, am I gonna see things more provoking than the Calvin Klein ad?
HR: Well, if they hire me again. You have to be bolder and bolder. Where I come from we have a lot of racism and a lot of homophobia and a lot of misogyny and I’ve been standing up and pushing against that. You know, punk rock informed me that I should be doing that, but the older I get the more I see that I do have a voice and people do listen to me. And the older I am the more discipline I have, basically I just get much better at sitting on my ass, so I can work on writing something for many more hours than when I was your age and I was bouncing off the walls. I can concentrate more now and be more of an asset, so I’m trying to take advantage of that and pass my time in a meaningful way, and also have some fun too, obviously. And provocation is part of that, but I’m just telling the truth. You know, I get told, “Get out of my country you faggot lover,” I get told that a few times a year by email, in most cases they are poorly spelled, but I take it because obviously that guy will never be convinced of any other way, but knowing that I made his head explode that day, I enjoy that.
SK: You enjoy knowing that you made him angry?
HR: Yeah! To make that guy mad? That made my day. Pissed off some idiot, it’s wonderful. I like rousing that rabble, I think that’s how things change. You have to shake things to change things, the couch just moved across the room… I’m awake now, what the hell is going on? Have I been asleep all these years? No! But you’re in the mix now, so let’s go. At least being an American in 2018, you should see what passes for Presidential conduct with this Trump guy. I mean, he’s a real piece of work and now America is the laughing stock of the world and this guy has nuclear capability. It’s a time where if you have a mouth you need to open it and don’t worry about shutting it anytime soon, and I enjoy being part of it.
SK: Because you put such a stress on provoking people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved or send you hate mail, do you think that Trump is the right way that American politics should have gone?
HR: Well, I think it was inevitable. I think a fake-populist like Trump, a failed business man with a bad reality TV show, there was going to be someone like him who was bound to win one of these elections round about now. I just think it was fairly inescapable. There’s a lot of angry people in my country, and they should be angry, it’s just that a lot of their anger, in my opinion, is misguided. They’re mad at two men who want to get married, but that’s really not a target of anyone’s anger that makes any sense to me. So a guy like Trump, he was coming. Watch Hillary Clinton speak, she doesn’t connect with people, she would have been a fine President, but she doesn’t connect with people. But with Trump, I watched every speech I could stand, and I was like, “Yep, he knows how to connect.” I don’t agree with a single thing he says, but he gets laughs and he’s all chummy with people, and that’s a viral thing. He is the most revolutionary President of my time, not for any good reasons, maybe we’ll see some push-back in November 2018 when we have our mid-term elections, I can only hope. I’m going to vote, that’s all I can do – one guy, one vote.
SK: So do you expect a push-back now? Because if it doesn’t happen now that America has the most utterly insane and clumsy President, than when? To be honest, I don’t think he’s the best speaker I’ve ever seen, especially when you compare him to someone like Obama, I think he’s very clumsy and people identify with him because of that and they are willing to let him defend them because they see him as one of their own, because he isn’t a polished person. Are you familiar with Jeremy Corbyn? Because I think he’s taken a completely different approach, especially in the UK political climate, he is an extraordinary figure and has an extraordinary story, especially with inter-party politics, but yet he pushes for the uncle vibe, he wears his shirts without ties, and he pulls pints at Glastonbury, he gets on stage, what do you think about that?
HR: I’m somewhat aware of him, I won’t try and oversell that because the last few months of American politics has kept me quite captivated, but I don’t mind a politician who can let their hair down and be a human being, so they can introduce a band at Glastonbury, like Obama had Jay-Z and Beyoncé at the White House, which made Republicans’ heads explode all across America. I thought it was fantastic. I think that’s fine, I don’t mind it when a politician seeks to humanise themselves and says things like, “I worry about these issues as well,” I think that’s very effective. What I need in a politician is an elevated intellect and an incredible dedication to the task of the insanely boring job of being a politician, I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. I travel all over the world and the world is different depending on who the American President is. During those eight years of Obama, cab drivers all over the world would ask me where I’m from and when I told them they’d be like, “OBAMA!” Cab drivers love Obama. But now we have this guy, now I have this idiot talking for me, calling countries shitholes. It sucks. It affects every American and that is why young people need to stand up, flip the script, and kick all these old peoples’ asses. Old people need to continuously get their asses kicked and their game checked, that’s the only way things get better. I hate to keep sounding like some old grandfather, but the future? It’s you, you by demographic, but also you, Saff, as a person. I can’t wait to see what you do going forward. No pressure whatsoever [laughs], and if you choose not to take any of that on, I completely understand, but I think this century is yours, and I’m excited for you.
Follow Saffiyah Khan on Instagram.