Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. Islam and music sometimes have an uneasy relationship. Some Muslims believe that playing musical instruments and singing should be forbidden, but others, including Muslim youth in many parts of the world, happily embrace all sorts of music, and that includes hip-hop, jazz and reggae. Hisham Aidi is the author of "Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture." He says he started his research more than a decade ago, exploring the music scene in the Bronx and Harlem.
Hisham Aidi: Kids were coming in from France and Brazil and Argentina and various parts of the world. Some Muslim, some not Muslim. And they’d come up to the Bronx, to Katonah Park to meet with some of the hip-hop pioneers, to take the mambo to hip-hop tour, to visit Malcom X’s grave, and many of them were making, one of them told me, we’re making our pilgrimage to the Mecca of hip-hop. I became interested in the role that the Bronx and hip-hop and African-American Islam, and Black American culture plays in youth culture around the world, and also, particularly, among Muslim youth.
Werman: One trend you've been spotting in this music is a kind of almost nostalgia for the radical Sikh of the 60s and 70s â€“ You know, Black Power, the Nation of Islam, the fight against colonialism. I’d like our listeners to hear a French rapper that you discuss, a guy named Medine, so we can see just what you mean.
[Music â€“ Medine: Du Panjshir a Harlem]
Werman: Wow. Medine sounds like he’s about to explode, Hisham. I mean, this song of his, Du Panjshir a Harlem, or â€œFrom Panjshir to Harlemâ€ is this like, long and angry track that draws parallels between Malcom X and Ahmad Shah Massoud, the militant leader in Afghanistan. How does he make this case?
Aidi: It’s a very creative track, actually, and speaking of people who come up to upper Manhattan in the Bronx â€“ I mean, if you look at the video and his other videos, some of them are filmed actually in upper Manhattan , Harlem and the Bronx. Medine is a very interesting artist. There’s little religious identity in his writing. What he is, is an admirer of the Black Panthers and Black Power. And what he does in that track ,is he imagines the conversation between Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance and Malcom X on the eve of their death. Here, he’s talking about two figures who are products of Western policy, of the history of imperialism, and he tries to connect the history of the Black [Freedom??] Movement and Resistance in the West in the new world, to what’s going on in the developing world. And it’s this kind of Black internationalism meets Islam that’s interesting and that’s resonant among Muslim youth today. You know, but the French cultural elite and the French state, to a certain degree, have tried to marginalize him and promote his rival: A fellow by the name Abdul Malik.
Werman: So that’s interesting, because Medine doesn’t get much airplay, which is a contrast with this guy that you call probably the most celebrated French hip-hop artist of the last decade, Abd al Malik.
Aidi: Abdul Malik, that’s right. Abdul Malik’s trajectory is very interesting. I mean, it reveals a particular kind of relationship â€“ Sort of the kind of intermingling that takes place between Islam and hip-hop, so Abdul Malik starts off as a street hustler, rapping with a group called the New African Poets. He had a lot of street cred when he was rapping with the African Poets, and then eventually he leaves all of that. He leaves the gangster rap, the radical hip-hop, and the Islamist identity, and becomes a Sufi spoken-word artist.
Werman: Alright, so let me stop you right there, because I’d like us to listen to this beautiful track of his called â€œGibraltarâ€, and then come back and we’ll talk a bit more about Abd al Malik.
[music - Abd al Malik â€“ Gibraltar]
Werman: So Abd al Malik, this is rap, but it’s not as kind of tough as Medine, and it sounds like he’s actually studied poetry and verse. And he’s embraced by the French government.
Aidi: Absolutely. As a graduate of the Sorbonne, he studied philosophy. He says â€œWe French rappers are the children of public enemy [Endereda?], you know, and that’s his line. And he’s very articulate, very smart, and the track that you played, he’s talking about his relationship â€“ Sort of how he goes down to North Africa and how he’s sort of developed an attachment for some of the Sufi traditions in North Africa. And what, I think the French establishmentâ€”I mean, he’s received every kind of award, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, and one reason is because he’s not threatening. He doesn't see any contradiction between Islam and the Republic’s values, between libertÃ©, Ã©galitÃ©, fraternitÃ©, and he sees Islam’s spirituality as compatible with them. He also speaks an ethic of hard work, a sort of pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And, you know, it’s often juxtaposed to the protest that you hear in Medine’s lyrics, Medine’s videos. If you look at Medine’s videos, the imagery is, it’s Afghanistan, it’s Guantanamo, it’s the Patriot Act, it’s water boarding. And you know, I like both artists, but I think it’s a problem when the state steps in to back one kind of hip-hop against another. The French state is particularly the interventionist. In 1994, the French government passed a law restricting the amount of American rap that could be played on French air waves, on French radio stations. So the conversation about hip-hop in France is actually a stand-in for a much larger debate about what kind of Islam do you want in the public sphere.
Werman: How does this play out among the musicians themselves in France? Is there a rivalry between say, the Medine camp and the Abd al Malik camp? The hardcore Muslims versus the Sufis?
Aidi: There certainly is. There is some trash talking and so on. You know, what’s interesting, and I speak about this, is that this effort â€“ The Bush administration, the Blair government, and governments really across North Africa, you know, from Senegal all the way to Pakistan â€“ This effort to use Sufism for de-radicalization and counter-extremism and sort of to gang-press Sufi poetry into a policy of counter-extremism would trigger a counter-culture. And I talk about all the Taqwacores. And these are sort of punk rockers who were disgusted by the ultra-conservative Muslim attitude against music, as well as government efforts to exploit this music for counter-terrorism or whatever it may be. And so you get these groups, such as the Kominas, right?
Werman: Born right here in Boston, Massachusetts.
Aidi: Right, yeah. Punk rock, agnostic, anarchist kids from Boston, raised between Boston and Lahore, who would take on the establishment, right, sort of theseâ€”You know, they would perform in London, they would perform in Pakistan, they’d come back to Boston, they’d get thrown out of the Islamic Society of North America annual convention. Some of these young kids who are trying to append, or you know, sort of just jangle everybody’s nerves.
Werman: Fascinating stuff. Hisham Aidi is the author of "Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture." We’re going to link to your full playlist for our interview today at PRI.org. And thanks so much for speaking with us, Hisham. Great to meet you.
Aidi: Thank you. Thank you.
Werman: You can also go to PRI.org to check out those videos of the dueling French Muslim rappers we talked about. We close with a track from the Kominas called â€œ9000 Milesâ€. The album is called â€œWild Nights at Guantanamo Bayâ€. From Nan & Bill Harris studios at WGBH in Boston, I’m Marco Werman. We’re back tomorrow.