The Redemption “Songs” of Muslim Youth
Rhythm and Poetry
By Hwaa Irfan
Despite the corruption and domination of what is considered “youth” in expression since the 1960s, the one thing that can be considered a true expression of youth is “idealism”. It is this idealism that reminds some of the older folk, what is truly important in life, and it was this idealism that rocked the American nation in the 1960s; to wake up to the reality of what the government was doing in their name in Vietnam for example. Today, the expression of youth has been hijacked by the media with complicit governments in such a subtle way that the subconscious of many youth have fallen “asleep.”
One of the few channels of expression that cannot be taken away is through forms of music, much the subtleties have gone leaving very little to the imagination in the mainstream, but the under-current, the music we do not hear on the air waves, and do not get made into music videos have always carried the voice of protest, and social awareness.
One such musical form has been Rap, which as we know to the disgust of parents become too explicit. However the variety in Rap reflects the diversity of youth creative expression today including that of social protest and self awareness.
Rhythm and Poetry i.e. Rap has gone full circle with its roots in social awareness arriving at a point when that social awareness is needed again. The African-American experience remains little unchanged since the ending of slavery with a small percentage able to chase, and catch hold of that illusive cloth of happiness, which is usually on the terms of the dominant American culture. Disenfranchised, out of the innate need for creative expression, African Americans have a strong influence over the American face of music. From blues –rap, there is not a single genre (including country music), which has escaped the African American influence being all rooted in African American blues, or the face of social protest, or social/self awareness. All genres began life as a creative expression of alienation, no less than Rap.
The legacy of African music in the Diaspora remains at the core of the ability to address current issues, which usually evolve in the throes of the moment. This allows participation of the audience as a means of communal expression. The leader improvises as they sing/chant, allowing for contributions from the audience. With the voice as the main instrument of expression, the beat and melody work together building a momentum. On a heptatonic scale, polyphonic in nature, the syncopated rhythm interplays with an overlapping call and response. The leading voice serving as a symbolic tool of God/the people bends many notes within a note (melisma is the use of many notes in one syllable in Arabic, recognizable within the adhan – call to prayer and recitations of the Qur’an etc.), and conjures variations on the silence within, and the rhythm without to free the heart and mind from psychological enslavement.
It is an African musical form that has transmigrated through the various forms in the Caribbean i.e. reggae, and the work song origins of the blues that culminated in the 70s as jazzoetry – jazz + poetry placing words and sound on feelings, and experiences that for the overwhelmed individual who knows that something is wrong, but cannot define it! Cross languages and cultures, Rap is finding new homes all the time, including in the Middle East. Writes Tearful in the Rap “Little Warriors of Palestine:
“There not on mute, we become the voice for the voiceless,
TV politics digging voids for the noiseless
Redressing the truth for real sense from the present tense
The convenience of lost proof and reverence”
“No proof of bin laden causing this war
It was bush Obama and many more
This isn’t the first unjustifiable war
No honest man is keeping the score.
If you’re an abiding citizen of the law
How can you sit back and watch this non-core”
Though Muslim scholars differ on the role of music, the right to express something “other” cannot be denied as young African Americans create a reality through create means as a form of resistance to oppressions, racism and poverty.
Narrated Aisha: That once Abu Bakr came to her on the day of ‘ Eid -ul-Fitr or ‘ Eid ul Adha while the Prophet was with her and there were two girl singers with her, singing songs of the Ansar about the day of Buath. Abu Bakr said twice. “Musical instrument of Satan!” But the Prophet said, “Leave them Abu Bakr, for every nation has an ‘Id (i.e. festival) and this day is our ‘Eid.” (Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 58, Number 268)
‘A’isha reported: Abu Bakr came to see me and I had two girls with me from among the girls of the Ansar and they were singing what the Ansar recited to one another at the Battle of Bu’ath. They were not, however, singing girls. Upon this Abu Bakr said: What I (the playing of) this wind instrument of Satan in the house of the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) and this too on ‘Id day? Upon this the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Abu Bakr, every people have a festival and it is our festival (so let them play on). (Muslim, Book 004, Number 1938)
For those want to deny the reality that many African American face, it driven home during and in the aftermath of Katrina hurricane, whereby the nation delayed any action during and after the crisis, and whites went on an ethnic cleansing campaign, killing many young African Americans.
In the constant resistance to oppression, the conscious awareness raising side of Rap has crossed countries and cultures, even back to Africa finding a purpose. After all essentially no other instrumentation is needed, other than the human voice to give expression to that which is lived, but not often said. Using the tradition of rhyming slang which can be found across the African Diaspora, it was used by the urban youth to put down the enemy. Facing a challenge in Antigua after living in the West, my response using rhyming slang proved to be my re-entry pass. From the streets to the clubs of America, changes began to occur in the late 70s, and with certain developments some of which sold out to commercialization leaving the purists disenchanted.
As racial tensions ascend in multi-cultural Britain, particularly as a result of the global economic crisis, the adoption of African American style of expression is also increasing amongst the 2nd/3rd generation born British South Asian youth who are perceived not as part of the host community, but in general are alienated – Muslim or not! As Abdul-Rehman Malik of the Raddical Middle Way said to Yale Global:
- “… they’re searching for a cultural and political expression that they can marry to their religious beliefs.
“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.”
Then to add to this there is the racism from amongst Muslim youth as experienced by the British African-Caribbean Muslim sisters Spoken Word group Poetic Pilgrimage as they try to speak their truth coming from a tradition of the Spoken Word in British African-Caribbean communities in Britain. Standing up for what one believes in is no easy feat for the youth today, especially when it is rooted in human rights issues. British-born Palestinian Rap= Hip hop artiste Shadia Mansour faced that reality in a visit to her parents homeland recently, facing harrassment and interrogation from the Israeli intelligence at Ben Gurion Airport. After multiple searches 8 officers ran towards her and held her at gunpoint under suspicion that her microphone contained a bomb! From the sublime to the ridiculous, one supposes that this reaction is the result of the irrattional fear, xenophobia. Despite assuring the officers that the microphone was for performance purposes only she was screamed and shouted at by several officers: “who she worked for, who bought the microphone, what does she sing about,” and “we have found something planted in the microphone.” Mansour was forced to the ground face down, with every part of her body explored by female officers before she was able to leave for the London bound flight. Manour’s treament at the Israel airport surely served to only give her more fodder to Rap about!
On its journey from Africa, the spoken word had the ability to empower the listener, giving them a sense of self worth. One would question if the young Muslim rappers of today have the subtleties, and insight of the past to convey in their message, and if instead, it does not quell the anger. This is the challenge that they must face in order to honor the practices of Islam, and the traditions of Rhythm and Poetry in the context of personal and social awareness! Unlike the past, the audience of today are the youth, and not the community as a whole, which leaves the communities, unaware of the message, as the experience of youth across cultures and countries not being listened to. At a time when secularism via globalization is hooked on the the idea of the fountain of youth, the lessons that can be learned from what the youth have to say remains in the main underground.
Curiel, J. “Muslim Roots of the Blues.” http://articles.sfgate.com/2004-08-15/opinion/17438206_1_slaves-muslim-islam
Leigh, N. Israel: British Artist Detained and Stripped Searched at Ben Gurion Airport. http://imemc.org/article/59394
Mandeville, P. The Rise of Islamic Rap. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/rise-islamic-rap
Tearful. “Little Warriors of Palestine (rap): http://www.islamicpoem.com/?q=node/930