Hate Punk & Kirtan: Musical Overtones In The Wisconsin Sikh Temple Killings

By Amrit Singh / August 8, 2012

This past Sunday, a gunman arrived at the gurdwara in the Milwaukee, WI suburb of Oak Creek, armed with a 9mm semiautomatic and murderous intent. In all, nine Sikh congregants and one non-Sikh police officer took bullets — and these six Sikhs died — before the perpetrator shot and killed himself in the parking lot. This is news everywhere, because it’s a heinous act committed by a man who committed his life to hatred: Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old discharged US military soldier with a 9/11 tattoo who called himself a member of “Hammerskin Nation.”

And this is news on Stereogum because in the years after his military discharge in 1998, Page took his neo-Nazi viewpoint to the white power music scene, playing and singing in some of the “best known racist bands in the country,” according to Southern Poverty Law Center senior fellow Mark Potok. Bands with names like Definite Hate and End Apathy and Blue Eyed Devils. “The music that comes from these bands is incredibly violent and it talks about murdering Jews, black people, gay people and a whole host of other enemies,” said Potok, whose SPLC has had Page on a hatewatch-list since 2000. “It is music that could not be sold over the counter around the country.” Here is an interview Page gave about his bands, which he says are influenced by “80’s punk, metal, and oi.” Here are the album covers for Definite Hate and End Apathy, one of which features a drawing of a white arm punching a black man’s face.

Some are calling Page’s music “hardcore,” but as Slate points out, it’s important to remember hardcore’s roots are free of such hate — from scene progenitors Bad Brains and Black Flag to explicitly anti-neo-Nazi firebrands Dead Kennedys (e.g. please see “Nazi Punks Fuck Off“) — and that any such tag to Page’s bands is a perversion of the term. Better to call it hatecore. Or to call it vile.

It is three days after the shooting, and I haven’t thought about much else since. Maybe the incident is more localized in my gut because I am a Sikh American. Or maybe because I spent two summers clerking for a law firm in Milwaukee, for that time making the Oak Creek gurdwara the one closest to home. Or maybe it’s because this is Wisconsin’s fifth gun-related mass killing in seven years, and that is an unconscionable stat. Still, I didn’t know if posting about this on Stereogum made sense, or what a post here would even be about, until I realized something that hadn’t been touched upon elsewhere.

What happened on Sunday was not only a hate crime, but one with deeply illustrative, and bitterly ironic, aesthetic dimension.

The Sikh holy book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is essentially a book of songs. It is a compilation of teachings by a series of ten Gurus. These Gurus were mystic songwriters. Each of their prayers (or banis) comes with a prescribed raga (a collection of notes, not unlike a mode, but with set melodic implications) and taal (a time signature but with a more complicated, cyclical component than Western bar measures). Services at a gurdwara are almost entirely comprised of kirtan, or devotional singing of shabads (verses from the SGGS) set to harmonium and tabla. Aspirants chant and meditate. While Sikhs explicitly believe that all religions are equally valid belief systems with a common goal and a common destination — making it one of the most inclusive religions imaginable — Sikhs’ specific practice is predicated upon the power of vibration and song: By singing these songs, alone or in the saad sangat (the congregation at a gurdwara), it is believed that one can commune with the vibratory essence underlying all noumena; that by meditating on these songs, you can shift your frequency, still your mind, transcend yourself, attain enlightenment. And in this state, one can live a good life, full of love and commitment to hard work, truth, service, prosperity, and greater peace.

After knowing that, how fatally ironic does it seem that this killing was committed by a hate-rock stalwart? That a man so committed to his putrid cause as to become a prominent figure in his music scene turned up at what was essentially a spiritual concert, to murder aspirants who used music to achieve a diametrically opposed end? Essentially, a lead singer from one genre came to murder the fans of another. From hate punk to kirtan. And by turning up to the gurdwara as early as he did, before things really got underway, Page killed the most devout members of the congregation: those preparing for the day’s services and those preparing the langar, the food that is offered freely to anyone, no matter cast or creed, who comes to a gurdwara in need of a meal. Even Page could have had langar, if he chose to feed his hunger over his hatred.

We don’t yet know Page’s specific motivations for pulling the trigger on Sunday — there is no manifesto, no explicit quote left behind — though the circumstantial evidence creates some strong inferences, and paints the portrait of a man whose vision was blinded by a fog of enmity. This is a man who had a 9/11 tattoo, so prominent that the shooting’s survivors made sure to mention it. Consequently, there’s been lots of discussion about the consistency with which Sikhs are confused with Muslims, and about the people who equate Muslims with terrorism. This is, of course, a sad state of affairs: Sikhism and Islam are different, equally great world religions, and terrorists that use dogma to justify their actions pervert their roots just as hate punks do to hardcore. But the explanation for this confusion often comes down to headdress and hair: orthodox Sikhs have unshorn hair, and males wear their manes up in turbans as an outward symbol of their faith in God. And the turban is a polarizing article — it immediately makes one “other.” It becomes a “lightning rod,” as Sikh activist Amardeep Singh wrote yesterday in NYT India, for bigots and merchants of fear.

This is not new, of course.

As a young man in the ’80s, my father, then a bearded and turbaned Sikh making his way slowly up the American corporate ladder, regularly found himself seated at long desks in board rooms surrounded by colleagues who “jokingly” called him a terrorist. As a child growing up in Queens and Long Island, I wore my unshorn hair up in a ball (called a jura) and was teased relentlessly, until the day I came home in tears. It was the first I’d complained, but the only time my mother needed to hear: she rushed me to the barber, and before the day was done, my brother and I had mullets. My father weathered the complaints from family in India over this, but ultimately he took the moment to lop off his locks, too. This was a move our family made toward assimilating, and being a more seamless stitch in the fabric of American society. But it didn’t end, because it is not that easy. Yesterday morning my brother and I talked about having “Terrorist!” yelled at us in the wake of 9/11. Turbans may be a lightning rod, but you can’t treat fear and hatred with a haircut. And a system that allows hatred to be so easily (and semiautomatically) weaponized is a system in disrepair.

This tragedy has become an unfortunate, but essential, teaching moment for who Sikhs really are, and what Sikhism really is. (If you really want to know, read Guru Arjan Dev’s great bani Sukhmani Sahib, which is literally the “Psalm Of Peace.” If only Page did.)

Here on Stereogum, let the lesson be one of aesthetics and music, of being discerning in what we listen to and what we prostelyze. The power of music on both sides of this equation, from hate punk to kirtan, is a reminder of the power of art, and that we are as responsible for the art we make as the art we champion as a community. It’s a reminder that we are doing something valuable by collecting here every day, like a family, to pore over and discuss and analyze and celebrate and criticize music, and the culture surrounding it. Because music is, fundamentally, transformative.

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Despite being a racist skinhead and on SPLC’s hatewatch list, Wade Michael Page was not on any FBI watch lists. He legally purchased his 9mm semiautomatic handgun on July 28th, picked it up two days later, and emptied one magazine’s worth of ammunition at the Oak Creek gurdwara within the week. This is the fifth gun-related mass killing in Wisconsin in seven years. This is the website of the Coalition To Stop Gun Violence, who have issued a statement.

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Please read these profiles of the murdered victims of Sunday’s shooting.

There is a a candlelight vigil tonight, organized by the Sikh Coalition, to show support for and solidarity with the victims, in NYC’s Union Square. It is from 8PM to 10PM on Union Square North (17th Street).

Here is a moving video interview of the family of slain congregation leader Satwant Singh Kaleka with Anderson Cooper.

Kaleka’s family has founded a support fund for the less fortunate victims of the attacks. You can contribute here: We Are Sikhs. Another fund has been set up here: Indie Go Go. (Thanks to Himanshu for providing these support links, and for caring so much.)

The thread is yours. I am here and happy to talk.

[Photo by Darren Hauck for Getty Images]