Feb 27 6:30 PM

‘We want to be global citizens’: Pakistani rapper Adil Omar on YouTube ban

From left: Ali Gul Pir (behind man in bow tie), Adil Omar (in plaid), and Talal Qureshi on set.
Still from InCahoots Films

Imagine hearing about the latest viral video sensation on YouTube and not being able to watch it. YouTube has been banned in Pakistan since Sept. 17, 2012, when the government decided to block the video-sharing website because of the “Innocence of Muslims” video — the same video that led to an uproar in the Islamic world and sparked anti-American protests in countries like Egypt and Libya. The government of Pakistan considered the video blasphemous and asked YouTube to remove it from its website, but the Google-owned company refused. On Wednesday, a U.S. appeals court ordered Google to take down the “Innocence of Muslims” video based on a lawsuit filed by actress Cindy Lee Garcia. Google has said that it will fight the ruling. It remains to be seen whether this will affect the YouTube ban in Pakistan.

A team of artists has taken a grassroots approach to challenging the ban. Adil Omar, Ali Gul Pir, and Talal Qureshi just released this song [Ed. note: This clip contains profane language] in which they take on the government of Pakistan and protest the ban of the video-sharing website in the country. Directed by Aisha Linnea Akhtar and Shahbaz Shigri of InCahoots Films as part of the #KholoBC initiative ("Kholo" means "open" in Urdu), the song is a mixture of Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, and English (the second verse of the song is in English, starting at 1:36). In a Consider This Q & A, Islamabad-based Adil Omar talks about about the YouTube ban and the new song.

Portrait of Adil Omar.
Aisha Linnea Akhtar

Q. As a musician who probably uses YouTube quite a bit, what did it feel like to be cut off from it?

A. As far as the music industry goes, Pakistan has no concept of fans buying albums off iTunes (as online banking is still a relatively new concept here), no concept of songwriting and publishing royalties, [and] very few live gigs as well, so it's almost impossible for a recording artist to earn an actual living in Pakistan unless they're tied to a corporation. YouTube gave many of us a global platform — to get fans from all around the world, to get ad revenue, to get shows overseas and to have an opportunity to actually make a modest living off our music. When YouTube was banned, that was all practically taken away.

Q. How did the song come about?

A. The song and video — from recording to shooting to completion to release — was a 10-day process. It was very organic, very quick, on pretty much no budget, and we all just had fun doing it. We had no idea it would become this big. Ali Gul Pir and I both launched our careers on YouTube so when I met with a Pakistan For All (the organization we did this with) co-founder and he suggested that I do a song for their #KholoBC campaign, Ali instantly came to mind and I sent him a message. It all happened very organically.

[YouTube is] a lifeline in the modern world of information and technology and to take it away altogether is ridiculous and damaging.

Adil Omar

Q. How has the reception to the song been so far?

A. Pretty insane. It's safe to say that most people in Pakistan who use the Internet do want YouTube back now. We want to be global citizens, not confined within our walls and cut off from the rest of the world. YouTube is a beautiful tool for showcasing talent, learning, entertainment, business, making money, and countless other things. It's a lifeline in the modern world of information and technology and to take it away altogether is ridiculous and damaging. Of course, there has been some opposition and criticism, mostly due to the language — the ban-chor pun in the hook [which sounds similar to a common Urdu curse word] — but that's also because we're a conservative society and at times have ridiculous double standards when it comes to our art. 

Q. Has anyone from the government contacted you or replied to the song in any form?

A. Not yet. I'm sure they've heard about it though.

A still from #KholoBC YouTube video.
InCahoots Films

Q. The video is part of a youth initiative called “Pakistan for All.” Can you tell us more about it?

A. Pakistan For All is an organization based in Karachi, co-founded by friends of ours, and they launched the #KholoBC campaign back in 2013 with a “Hugs For YouTube” video in which their YouTube mascot (also used in the music video) was walking around Karachi and getting hugs from people who wanted YouTube back. I met with my friend and co-founder Ziad Zafar in London a few weeks ago and the topic of doing a song for the campaign came up very casually. I don't normally do music for a cause, or create music with a purpose, but this felt natural, fitting, and it was something I wanted to be a part of and create. 

Q. At the start of the song your fellow rapper Ali Gul Pir comes up to you and producer Talal Qureshi and says “Let’s go and get YouTube unbanned.” Realistically speaking, how much do you think the music video and the reception it got will affect the government’s decision with regards to the YouTube ban?

A. I have no idea. Let's see how the next few weeks play out. 

Q. During the song you talk about how the government enforces censorship but ignores the bigger threats. What exactly are you referring to?

A. Everything. Literally everything and anything. These people clearly have bigger fish to fry, yet they're busy blocking adult websites, YouTube, and trying to filter certain words on text messages. It's ridiculous.

[The Pakistani government has] bigger fish to fry, yet they're busy blocking adult websites, YouTube, and trying to filter certain words on text messages.

Adil Omar

Q. In your verse, you mention how you have to access YouTube using proxies. So there is a way to access YouTube in Pakistan. Why is getting the actual website unblocked so important?

A. Getting the actual website unblocked is important because even though people can access YouTube via proxies (which the government also started cracking down on, by the way), it's what keeping YouTube blocked represents. It's state censorship and bad parenting. It's revoking your basic human right to information and access. It's them telling you [that] you don't deserve to be a global citizen. 

Q. There are reports that YouTube might offer a localized version of the website just for Pakistan in the future. Would that be enough in your opinion?

A. It's better than not having YouTube at all but they should hurry the f--- up. It's been over a year and a half already.

Q. If Google removes the “Innocence of Muslims” video from YouTube because of the court ruling, do you think it would be enough to get YouTube unbanned in Pakistan or do you think the video has just been used as an excuse to shut the video sharing website down?

A. A series of government-related videos surfaced around the same time and [the government] made it pretty obvious that that was their actual reason for shutting the entire website down. If that one clip was actually the reason, they would have had that individual URL blocked and left YouTube open the same way it's open in countless other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Adil Omar's interview was conducted by email. It has been condensed and edited. You can follow Omar on Twitter: @Adil_Omar.

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