Hip-Hop and Urban Islam in Europe


muslimGraphicThis is real life, engraved on my pages: families dying from starvation whilst the government’s worried about immigration.
— Blind Alphabetz, ‘Concrete Landz’

Like everyone today, Young British Muslims are carrying around iPods full of the latest tunes. Despite the recent phenomenal popularity of a pop-oriented variant of nasheed devotional music—a key artist would be Sami Yusuf—the acts with the largest followings are neither Muslim nor do they sing about overtly Islamic themes. Rather, the names most frequently cited tended to be American hip-hop and rap artists, with names like Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur featuring prominently. This is hardly surprising since the symbols and styles of African-American urban culture have been widely adopted and assiduously adapted by young South Asian Muslims in the UK. Daily conversation is thoroughly infused with slang that combines elements of South Asian language and American gangsta culture. Many of the social problems, especially in northern England, also parallel the circumstances of black Americans in urban settings, such as unemployment, drugs, gangs, and mistreatment of women. This last issue is particularly problematic. As one inner city schoolteacher put it,

on this issue, the problem is magnified two times—the kids inherit Indo-Pakistani norms about women from their parents and then combine them with rap and hip-hop’s objectification of women as “bitches” and “hoes”.

Black American urban music is seen as a reflection of the same social alienation, racism, and silenced political consciousness experienced by many young South Asian men in British cities.  Seeking to validate the impulse that lies behind the popularity of this music, but to then direct its outward expression in more positive directions, a number of artists have recently begun to experiment with Muslim versions of hip-hop. As one observer of the Muslim music scene puts it, “they’re searching for a cultural expression that they can marry to their religious beliefs.” RebelMuzikBeginning with the group Mecca2Medina in London in 1997, the Muslim Hip-Hop scene has grown with impressive speed even as it has struggled to achieve mainstream recognition in both the Muslim community and the wider hip-hop community. Many Muslim artists cite the presence of passing references to Islam and Muslim identity in mainstream hip-hop, and in their minds they are taking this to its natural extension by bringing the Islam front and center. Indeed, a number of well-known American rap and hip-hop artists, such as Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco, express a Muslim identity, but do not make religion and Islam an explicit focus of their music, so as to avoid incurring the wrath of the music industry.  The latter, however, has released “Muhammad Walks,” a rif on the Kanye West tune “Jesus Walks.” Many Muslim hip-hop artists—most of whom are of African background—also complain about the persistence of racism even within the UK’s Muslim community, expressing the view that their work struggles to transcend ethnic and racial barriers.

While certainly still a genre in its infancy, Muslim hip hop today can claim several dozen artists, at least two dedicated record labels: Remarkable Current in the United States and Dawa Records/Crescent Moon in the UK. Additionally, it has blossomed on websites, e.g. http://www.muslimhiphop.com alongside the many MySpace pages of individual artists and regular venues—such as the monthly Rebel Muzik sessions in West London—, and even a magazine, The Platform. Among the most prominent artists in the UK are Mecca2Medina, Muhammad Yahya, Poetic Pilgrimage—an all-women group of Jamaican background—, Mis Undastood, and Blakstone. A relatively new act on the scene, The Brotherz, style themselves as ‘salafi rappers’ and eschew the use of any kind of musical instruments on their albums. BrotherzCoverOf those bands mentioned, Blakstone is the most extreme in its politics, with lyrics that suggest sympathy with the political vision and aims of radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) even though the band members deny any formal links with the movement. Another controversial artist has been Fun^Da^Mental whose frontman, rapper Aki Nawaz, made headlines in 2006 with the release of their album ‘All Is War (The Benefits of G-Had).’ A keen interest in urban culture carries into the realm of art and design within British Muslim circles. The ‘urban Islamic art’ of graffiti artist Mohammed Ali (http://www.aerosolarabic.com) from Birmingham is one relevant example here, as is the artwork and fashion efforts of Visual Dhikr lead artist Ruh al-Alam. For a sample of contemporary Islamic urban clothing, look no further than Tawheed is Unity.com.

One prominent observer of the British Muslim music scene, Q News contributing editor Abdel-Rahman Malik expects awareness and popularity of Islamic hip-hop to grow: ‘Hip-hop is our way of seeing Islam in situ, in our place—a way of reflecting the anger of the Muslim street by creating discursive spaces for the expression of that anger. But it has to be real, and it has to resonate: your rap is only as good as the depth of its message.’ And does it have the potential to serve as an alternative to more extreme forms of expression? Malik seems to think so, stating simply that ‘the hand that does calligraphy or writes lyrics does not bomb.’

Lyrics excerpt: Blakstone, ‘Dark Dayz’

From Abu Ghraib Fatima cries for men if there remains any.
She’s raped daily by cowards empowered mainly by rulers
with power to act the facts are seen plainly.
She cries ‘they done shamed me they raped and then maimed me’
inside her hope dies she cries ‘please come save me’.
Our blood for oil its our blood for pennies
Bush soils my soil my blood it boils like many.
I recoil and just bounce back to slap up any Rulers
on pay-packs we struggle and toil against these rats who aint loyal
In contracts to deen spoil. No they aint royal their thrones from tinfoil
and God’s is sturdy and when these tyrants die the skies will rain confetti.
We’ll celebrate cause all we’ve known is turmoil & heartbreak
from these snakes embroiled in laws foiled cause man makes so man brakes and spoils. We wake and its open hunting season on everybody
believing even children are beaten left bleeding not breathing.
My people are grieving as these blasphemous demons are weaving their lies
now every nation the worthless and worth-little tries.
Feening they gather round us ravenous feasting & feeding on hearts minds
yearning for reason from treasonous spies. They lie and all for spoils of oil
we die rebelling and deening alive we’ve been boiled but yo we are still going.

Spoken word sample: Poetic Pilgrimage, ‘Ode to those Who Give a Damn’

I carry
The decrepid Legacy, of those wretched casualties,
Who’ve lost the faculty to fathom what it means to be Free.

I carry
The weight like mothers dashing deperately,
Across borders becoming refugees with their blessed seed tied to their back
Under attack from bombs dropped, limbs hacked or devils on horseback

In Inhale.
The scent of mutilated corpses tossed in a mass grave
I am a slave awaiting emancipation day
I’m a believer preparing my soul for Judgement Day
I’m a wife of a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay
Fighting for his Freedom til my dying day
You see, he’s innocent regardless what they try and say
I’m Betty Shabazz with Malcolm dying on my knees
Watching his life force slowly deplete
Knowing soon i’ll be left alone to raise my seeds
Their father martyred for the cause just so we could be free.

The Tears of war widows roll down my cheek
And when another bomb drops that could be me wrapped in a white sheet
I’m an Iranian woman marching for equality
I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees
And it seems they didn’t get the memo
That my soul was born free.

These whispers drift so melancholy and keep these tears streaming
Innocent blood shed keep these tears streaming
My heart is still beating
My art is still seeking a reason for being
The Drums are still beating
And rape is still being, used as weapons of war
Invading whats pure
Those parading in Darfur
And in Iraq we still don’t know what they’re actually fighting for
For sure we need a new beginning
Cause poor Palestinian women
Are harassed at checkpoints
Watching soldiers pop holes in their husbands pressure points
Castrating our brothers beyond their loins
Others lose their joints
Mothers held at gunpoint
By sons turned Rebel Soldiers high off a crack joint

Its like we’re losing the plot and missing the point
Lyricist/Activist is my vision and viewpoint
The ink in my ballpoint
Turns from blue to red
I write with the blood of the shuhada so they can use my breath
To sing Freedom lullabies to those who sleep in warm beds
And their pleas can be heard through me beyond death.

The sunsets
Smoke and mist drift over the Sea of Gallilee
Gaza is burning
But we suffer the Tragedy of Apathy
No time even for sympathy
We flip news channels so casually
Cause we don’t have the faculty for ‘give a damn mentality’
We prefer the fallacy of fantasy to the morning light we call reality

But you’ll see me
Hijaab tied tight
Black glove fist raised high
Chanting the war cry ‘No Justice, No peace’
Till the day I lose life

Evident in the words I recite and the fire in my eyes
And on the day we all rise
I pray those treated like parasites
Will be raised in garments of light
Inshallah those innocent victims of war in
Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Sierre Leone, Palestine and Sudan
Will be raised in Gardens wearing garments of PURE LIGHT.

Peter Mandaville (pmandavi@gmu.edu) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs (http://pia.gmu.edu/) and Co-Director of Mason’s Center for Global Studies (http://cgs.gmu.edu/).



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This entry was posted on Monday, July 6th, 2009 at 12:33 pm and is filed under Art & Culture, Globalization, Identity, Islam, Language & Culture, Music, Religion, Social Justice, Society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


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