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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rebel Music Author Hisham Aidi on the Relationship Between Hip-Hop and Islam

Posted By on Thu, Apr 17, 2014 at 1:17 PM

Hisham Aidi speaks on Saturday at the Fifth Annual Conference on Islamophobia
  • Hisham Aidi speaks on Saturday at the Fifth Annual Conference on Islamophobia


A decade or so ago, when Columbia University lecturer Hisham Aidi worked as a journalist covering youth culture in New York's Harlem and the Bronx, he discovered that Muslim kids from around the world were making pilgrimages to what Aidi calls "the Mecca of hip-hop": the Bronx, where the genre was arguably born. They would come in order to meet some of the genre's founders, including Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc; to trace the pathways of the place where hip-hop and Islam first mingled; and to visit the grave of Malcolm X, whose Islam-inspired messages of black empowerment had found a new voice in the music.

Those pilgrimages helped give rise to Aidi's new book, "Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture." His book provides an intense tour of some of Islam's most fertile zones in America, Europe, and the Middle East -- places teeming with music, faith, ideas and, frequently, the tension between popular culture and the messages of conservative Muslim leaders. Aidi is in the Bay Area as a part of UC Berkeley's Fifth Annual Conference on Islamophobia Studies. He's featured on a panel titled "Islamophobia in Australia, Austria, Belgium, and the UK" that runs from 11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. on Saturday, April 19 at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

Although music isn't explicitly mentioned in the Quran, "there is a centuries-old debate of whether music is permissible in Islam," Aidi told me in an email interview earlier this month. Many factions, including literalists, Sufi scholars, and others, have weighed in. But these days, it's the conservative Salafis who are most well-known for opposing music, and even banning it outright. In other countries, such as Iran, pop music in all forms has been outlawed, Aidi says.

Meanwhile, Aidi notes that Muslims in Africa, the Middle East, and America are constantly inventing new ways to fuse Islamic ideas with genres such as jazz, punk, and heavy metal. For most Muslims, the act of making music isn't itself rebellious; the book's title instead is a reference to the album from Bob Marley, one of the patron saints of an Islamic reggae style known as Gnawa. This style is connected with a Moroccan Sufi order that is, in turn, aligned with the descendants of formerly enslaved West Africans. Gnawa aims to heal people who are possessed by the jinn -- by summoning beneficent spirits and saints. Aidi says, in Gnawa, Marley himself is included among those spirits who can heal.

"Rebel Music" also digs into the world of Muslim punk, a genre born from Michael Muhammad Knight's 2003 novel "Taqwacores." In true punk fashion, taqwacore band Kominas went after popular Sufi-rock band Junoon -- which itself had once been banned in Pakistan for "belittling the concept of the ideology of Pakistan" -- after Junoon won favor with heads of state in the Middle East and the West.

The tangled alliances between popular music and Islam are no more apparent than in the world of hip-hop, whose stories are woven throughout "Rebel Music." Aldi writes that hip-hop is the music of choice among many Muslim youth across the world, for its entertainment value , as well as its ability to communicate Islamic ideas. That latter aspect is so powerful, in fact, that the U.S. State Department in 2005 began sending "hip-hop envoys" to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East in an effort to change the perception that Muslims in the U.S. are oppressed. Meanwhile, pop and hip-hop artists in the West have occasionally co-opted Islamic symbolism in their work -- Lil' Kim wearing a burka while saying "Fuck Afghanistan" or 50 Cent's song "Ghetto Qu'ran."

"The relationship between Islam and hip-hop is complex and dynamic," Aidi says. It appeals to Muslim youth, in particular, because of its many Islamic references, which in turn come from its urban-American roots. "Hip-hop disseminates African American Islam the way reggae broadcasted rastafarianism in the 1970s. So rap introduces non-Muslim youth to Islam, and Muslim youth to black history, transforming cultures and identities." To illustrate his point, Aidi has provided SF Weekly with an annotated playlist.

MC Koringa - "Dança Sensual"

This is the funk soundtrack to Brazilian telenovela Salve Jorge, which addresses relations between Brazil and Turkey and caused a mania for Turkish things in Brazil.

Hanine Y Son Cubano - "'Ala Bali of Mohamed Abdelwahab"

A Lebanese-Cuban collaboration; it's an example of the post-9/11 wave of Tropicalism-Orientalism.

Arif Lohar & Meesha Shafi - "Alif Allah Chambey Di Booty"

Qawalli, devotional music meets electric guitars. The song speaks of visiting the shrine of saintData Ganj Baksh.

Gang Starr - "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?"

Early '90s Afrocentrist Muslim rap, which transforms identities and cultures worldwide.

Outlandish - "Callin' U"

Danish-Muslim hip-hop/R&B trio, a song about family life. It's very positive and wholesome. They are pioneers of European Muslim rap & R&B.

Randy Weston - "Blue Moses"

Jazz piano with Gnawa music; Weston is one of the earliest American musicians to take an interest in Gnawa, and helped to bring the music out of the margins and into the mainstream.

Amazigh & Gnawa Diffusion - "Douga Douga"

An example of how the current Gnawa-reggae music movement mixes Sufism with Rastafarian culture, to protest state nationalism in North Africa and Europe

Maurice El Medioni - "Ahlan Wa Sahlan"

A Latin-Andalusian rumba composed 50 years ago, which is now played at weddings, parties and bar mitzvahs everywhere. It's a richly danceable piano tune; Medioni learned to play the rumba from Puerto Rican soldiers who landed in North America in November 1942. He plays nuba with his right hand, and Latin jazz with his left:

Mohamed El Kamel - "Tic Tic Tac"

A French-Algerian vaudeville singer from 1930s.

A French-Algerian vaudeville singer from 1930s.

Salim Halali - "Ma Yiddish Mama"

An Arabic rendition of the Jewish classic (written in 1925 during the flowering of Yiddish theater and music in New York). The original voiced a nostalgia for "Old World" life, as symbolized by the Jewish mother and anxiety over assimilation into American society. Halali's Arabic rendition did something similar, but expressed longing for a different Old World -- for an Arabic-speaking past. He sang of sleepless nights recalling his childhood and tears shed for his mother, "Ma Yiddish mama, qalbik tal alaya."

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