Hisham Aidi, Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture. New York: Pantheon, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Hisham Aidi (HA): This book grows out of two experiences.
The first: in the early 2000s, I was working as a cultural reporter covering Harlem and the South Bronx, writing about migration, youth culture, and gentrification. Back then, I was also doing some work as a DJ and concert-promoting. Harlem is a cultural cauldron—you have these dizzying flows between West Africa, Western Europe, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. I was witnessing up close the making, remaking, and globalization of black culture. I was struck by the connections between the urban periphery and the international system, how the ghetto and the barrio are linked to the global. And then of course with the post-9/11 crackdown on Muslim communities in the US and Europe—and New York saw a great deal of that—I became interested in how Muslim youth were responding to the range of punitive policies they were facing. What was the cultural and political response to the security politics?
As I detail, a range of movements have emerged in American and European cities (separatist, integrationist, Islamist, secular, etc), but I am particularly struck by the turn towards race activism and black politics. 9/11 was in many ways the Muslim diaspora’s racial baptism. There is a very keen interest among young Muslims today in Fanon, Malcolm X, Aimé Césaire, and other figures of the black struggle. As I write in the introduction, “Muslims, in the last decade, have discovered race as a political tool, and the ghetto as a site of struggle; black internationalism increasingly provides an archive from which young Muslims in Europe and the US can draw on.” In short—in this book, I try to understand America’s relationship to the Muslim world through the prism of black internationalism and music.
The second experience: in late 2005, I was in Brazil working on a piece on the affirmative action debate in that country. I found myself in Salvador, Bahia, in the favela of Liberdade, talking to some Afro-Brazilian converts to Islam—and that got me thinking about just how different the discourse on Islam and the Middle East in South America is from the discourse in North America and Europe. The narratives and policies about Islam and Muslims that we generally find in the US and Western Europe (the security policies, xenophobic movements, etc) are generally absent in South America. I try to present Brazil as a counter-example. What is it about Latin American Orientalism, and domestic/foreign policy in Brazil—and South American writ large—that makes life for Arabs and Muslims there less politically stressful than it is in Western Europe or America?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HA: Rebel Music is not an academic book or theoretical work; it is published by a trade press for a non-academic audience. That said, I do engage the literature on black internationalism, critical race theory, urbanism, and transnationalism. I draw on some political science approaches—namely political realism—to counter the reigning “clash of civz” and culturalist explanations of Muslim youth alienation, simply to show that extremism and so-called extremist discourses are a response to and product of state policy. Yet I also realize that a state-centric approach is ultimately ill-equipped to capture the transnational flows I discuss. The book also looks at the histories of various musical forms—rap, punk, reggae, Gnawa, Andalusi, jazz, and others—to show how music reflects and captures myriad trends and policies.
[Graffiti by the French-Tunisan artist El Seed. Image via the author.]
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
HA: My dissertation book was on labor movements in Latin America and organized labor’s response to neo-liberal policies. I am still looking at state policy and social movements, though here the focus is more on cultural policy and public diplomacy—that is, race, art, and the so-called War on Terror.
One of the policies I am interested in is how, in the last decade, governments—especially the US—have tried to reform and shape Islamic belief. For example, take Washington’s effort to promote Sufism as an alternative to Salafism. In the US, after 2001 you get a crackdown on Salafi/Wahabi mosques domestically, and for a while Sufi groups—the Turkish Gülen movement in particular—became the preferred alternative here in the US. You may recall in August 2010, at the height of the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy, New York Governor David Paterson came out in support of the mosque, saying, “This group who has put this mosque together, they are known as the Sufi Muslims. This is not like the Shiites—they’re almost like a hybrid, almost Westernized.” This preference for Sufism would extend to foreign policy as well. In 2003, the National Security Council established a program called Muslim World Outreach, with a budget of 1.3 billion dollars, aimed at “transforming Islam from within” by supporting organizations in Muslim countries deemed “moderate.” Of course, the question then arises—who defines what is Sufi and what is not? Who is “moderate” and who is not? Music played a central role in this “Sufi strategy,” as it was called. Given the Salafi opposition to music and Sufism’s use of song for worship, policymakers in Europe and the US came to see music as a quick and easy way to distinguish between “radical” and “moderate.” As I show, across musical genres—in rock, rap, Gnawa—you get a rift between artists who participate in state-sponsored Sufi de-radicalization initiatives and those who resist efforts to coopt Sufi practices into the War on Terror.
Another policy I examine is race classification. I detail how the last decade has seen a surge of race activism by North Africans and Middle Easterners in Europe and America, who are lobbying for legal minority status—and to not be categorized as “legally white” anymore. This push against “obligatory whiteness” is divisive, pitting younger activists against older community leaders who think racial agitation will only draw more surveillance and harassment.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HA: Whoever is interested in music and the politics of race. The two books that I had in mind while writing were Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Robin Kelley’s Race Rebels. These were my bibles as an undergrad, and I was trying to follow in these scholars’ footsteps: trying to use music as a lens to understand links between empire and racial oppression.
Regarding impact, I hope the book alerts young people to the soft power initiatives directed at them.
[Mural by Mohammed Ali in Birmingham, England. Image via the author.]
J: How has the book been received thus far?
HA: The response has been incredibly positive. I am surprised by the media attention, as I didn’t know the mainstream was this interested in what young Muslims are listening to or producing. That said, much of the attention has been on hip-hop, and on hip-hop’s relationship to Islam—and how governments can use hip-hop for counterterrorism. Now the focus on hip-hop is understandable; rap may be the most familiar art form I discuss, and hip-hop policy is also in the news, with The Guardian’s recent revelations that USAID was trying to infiltrate Cuban hip-hop circles to spark unrest on the island. I for one wasn’t surprised by that story—nor by the claim that the Serbian promoter in charge of the Cuba project then went on to similar projects in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Ukraine.
But the book looks at lesser known cultural trends and non-American musical forms as well. I was at the Center for the Memory of Carnaval in Rio in 2013, digging through old brochures and paraphernalia, and I was surprised: the pop Orientalism one sees expressed in carnaval, samba songs, and telenovelas is rather counterintuitive. Likewise, I spent a couple of months in Paris interviewing older Jewish Algerian musicians. Their story, their exile, is wrenching, and the larger debate about Judeo-Arabic music in France is intense—between liberal Muslim integrationists who think that Andalusian music, the Judeo-Arab repertoire, can ease their entry into the European mainstream, and the Black Power-inspired race activists who couldn’t disagree more. I was actually surprised to find—going through Arabic material about Fanon—that this Martinican thinker had a keen interest in Andalusian music as well; he thought that this repertoire could bring Muslims and Jews together in a new independent Algeria.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HA: I am not sure what my next project is; I’m wrapping up unfinished essays now and tying up loose ends. I am trying to finish a piece about the globalization of Malcolm X—on his significance fifty years after his death—and the controversy sparked by Manning Marable’s biography. I am also working on a shorter piece on the interaction between Fanon and Ali Shariati—on the latter’s interest in race and black political thought. But the next project will be either focus on race formations in Latin America or race formations in the Arab world—I haven’t decided, but either way I’ll probably use music as an entry point.
Excerpt from Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture
Talk of 1492—the year Islamic Spain fell to the Reconquista, and Columbus set sail to the New World—and a common Andalusian past, and the appearance of neo-Moorish cultural trends are part of a larger tendency that can emerge when Muslim and Hispanic immigrants or Muslims and Jews encounter one another in Europe and America; but few expected such a discourse to emerge from a housing project near Copenhagen. The precedent of Muslim Iberia—like the history of the black freedom movement in the New World—is a fount that young Muslims are drawing on. Groups like the Murabitun, based in Chiapas, Mexico, or the Alianza Islámica, active in the Bronx and East Harlem during the 1990s, see continuities between Islamic Spain and the New World, and their narrative connects Andalusia with the Black Atlantic. The banner hanging at the Alianza’s center in the South Bronx celebrates the African and Islamic roots of Latin America: against a red, white, and blue backdrop stands a sword-wielding Moor, flanked by a Taíno Indian and a black African. The Spanish conquistador is conspicuously absent.
In Europe today, Muslim youth are weaving Islamic, Afrocentric, Asian, and Latin American elements to produce new identities and movements in an example of what Yale anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has described as “culturalism”: “the mobilizing of cultural material and cultural differences in the service of a larger national or transnational politics.” This culturalism is both fascinating and unsettling for Europeans. The American ghetto has long been recognized for its cultural pluralism. (In 1929, sociologist Harry Zorbaugh described the Near North Side slum in Chicago as one of “the most cosmopolitan areas in a distinctively cosmopolitan city.”) But the cultural diversity of the European Muslim “ghetto”—in fact the very notion of a “Muslim ghetto,” a contested idea—is relatively new. European commentators are taken aback when artists and youth leaders in these urban spaces put together narratives that embrace different causes (Darfur, Kashmir, Mumia Abu-Jamal) and connect local places—specific neighborhoods and housing projects—with past eras (Timbuktu, Islamic Spain, the Harlem Renaissance) and far-flung geographic regions (Africa, the Orient, the South Atlantic) to show that this minority community can transcend its local isolation and be part of a global majority.
Music is a powerful lens through which to view the identities and movements emerging in Muslim communities. Music has long been used by youth to protest, proclaim identity, build community, and interpret the world. But the dominant Salafi movement—with its opposition to music—has meant that debates about music, its permissibility and purpose, are paramount in contemporary Muslim youth culture. In What the Music Said, Mark Anthony Neal observes that in the 1970s, the dance floor became the place where the African-American diaspora reintegrated itself. I would argue that today music is the realm where Muslim diaspora consciousness and identity politics are most poignantly being debated and expressed. Music can offer a snapshot of local movements and trends as well as the larger cultural politics of America’s encounter with Muslim youth and Europe’s relationship to its postcolonial citizens. Moreover, while music may not, as Jacques Attali claims, presage larger social political change, it is a mechanism of social control, increasingly deployed by states to “moderate” Muslim youth. As the Canadian-based neuroscientist Steven Brown argues in Music and Manipulation, through its “affective” power and ability to communicate ideas, music can shape identity, ideology, and group solidarity; and states aim to control music flows as a way to homogenize mass behavior. In Europe, as Islam-inflected cultural forms reach the mainstream, state officials, diplomats, and counterterrorism officials are carefully watching, wondering if these music flows are undermining national cohesion and how they can be incorporated into a politics of counterextremism.
[Excerpted from Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, by Hisham Aidi, by permission of the author. © 2014 by Hisham Aidi. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]