'Rebel Music': When Hip-Hop Met Islam
Hisham Aidi's new book is a sort of musical tour around the world. It's called Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture. From hip-hop in Brazilian favelas, to Pakistani punk rock, to Gnawa-reggae in North Africa, it's a look at young urban Muslims and the music they make and listen to.
Speaking with NPR's Rachel Martin, Aidi recalls meeting a French band called 3ème Oeil — "Third Eye" — at a music festival in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop.
"I was talking to them about how they came out there to meet with Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, and they were very choked up and moved to be there and said, 'This is the mecca of hip hop,' and so on," Aidi says. "And just in talking to them, I began thinking about how youth, Muslim youth, minority youth in Europe, tend to romanticize the United States and the civil rights movement — and then the role of the U.S. government in selling the American dream in the European urban periphery."
Aidi says he researched the way that jazz, R&B and other American styles have extended beyond the country's borders, and found that the richest cross-fertilization between American music and Islam is found in hip-hop — beginning in the early 1970s with hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaata his cultural awareness group the Zulu Nation.
"They emerge in 1973. They form the Zulu Nation to combat street violence. And they begin to draw on Nation of Islam teachings and the texts that Muslims believe," he says. "And then in the early '80s, you begin to get references to Malcolm X, and eventually these references make their way into some hip hop classics — the works of Rakim and Public Enemy and so on."
That connection, Aidi says, would in part facilitate the eventual use of hip hop as a diplomatic tool, with the U.S. state department sending hip-hop envoys to Muslim countries around the world. He spoke with Martin about how that diplomacy has and has not worked; hear more of their conversation at the audio link.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Hisham Aidi's new book is a sort of musical tour around the world. It's called "Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture." From hip-hop in Brazilian favelas, to Pakistani punk rock, to gnawa-reggae in North Africa, it's a look at young urban Muslims and the music they make and listen to.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
3ÈME OEIL: (Singing in foreign language)
MARTIN: That's a band from France called 3eme Oeil. Hisham Aidi met them at a music festival in the Bronx, which he says is the birthplace of hip-hop.
HISHAM AIDI: They came out there to meet with Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. And they were very, you know, very choked up and moved to be there. And they said this is the mecca of hip-hop and so on. And just from talking to them, I began thinking about how youth - Muslim youth, minority youth in Europe - tend to look up to the United States, to romanticize the United States and the civil rights movement. And then the role of the U.S. government in selling the American dream in European urban periphery.
MARTIN: And I want to talk about that second piece in a few minutes. But first, could you take a big step back and talk a little bit about the historical connection between American hip-hop and Islam, because there is one.
AIDI: Right. What I argue is that the richest cross-fertilization that you have between American music and Islam is in hip-hop, that begins in the early '70s with the group Afrika Bambaataa, which emerged in 1973. They formed the Zulu Nation to combat street violence. And they begin to draw on Nation of Islam teachings. And then in the early '80s you begin to get references to Malcolm X. And eventually these references make their way into some hip-hop classics - the works of Rakim and Public Enemy and so on.
MARTIN: Let's hear a little bit of that early hip-hop with some Islamic allusions. This is from the group Poor Righteous Teachers and the song is called "Rock this Funky Joint."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK THIS FUNKY JOINT")
POOR RIGHTEOUS TEACHERS: (Singing) Like I could stand for this. But this is why I symbolized it, hip-hop rhymes, from a black mind, be kicking it to you all the time. As Salaam, you laikum or a peace sign, (unintelligible) my way of life (unintelligible) of Islam. I take my time, before I manifest a rhyme, stop (unintelligible) stop the music on a dime. Now, let's be a cappella, wisdom G I manifest and not just...
MARTIN: So, that came out in the United States in 1990. It does kind of sound like it, a throwback. But you say it's popular with European youth now, right?
AIDI: Yes. So, European youth, South America youth. I'm often asked when doing this research, I'm asked about early '90s hip-hop. Well that's the golden age of hip-hop, the hip-hop that was Afro-centric and political. And that is the hip-hop that is inspiring the political movements that I talk about.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: One of the things you discuss is the idea of using this kind of music as a diplomatic tool. The U.S. State Department apparently has a program using this music, started under the Bush administration, sending so-called hip-hop envoys around the world to countries with Muslim populations. What's the aim? What are the objectives?
AIDI: Well, it's not just the U.S. I mean, a number of governments - France, Germany, Britain - are trying to shape Muslim opinion to combat poor perceptions. And they have honed in on hip-hop because of the relationship between Islam and hip-hop. If you look at the research on interrogation, for example, Afghanistan and Iraq, hip-hop is rarely mentioned, right? It's often heavy metal, hard rock tracks that are used to break down detainees. Hip-hop is used more for a cultural persuasion. So, if you look at some of the State Department planners and what they've written about, they tend to say we see hip-hop as a natural connector. This program is actually modeled on the jazz diplomacy of the early Cold War era. And back then it was argued that jazz can be useful to counter Soviet propaganda and to win over peoples of the developing world because jazz represents a diversity of America, Jazz represents the inclusiveness of America and of American democracy.
MARTIN: Let's hear an example of this. This is by a group called the Reminders, a band who's been on one of these diplomatic music tours.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
THE REMINDERS: (Singing) (Unintelligible) sometimes (unintelligible), sometimes it's better, sometimes it hurts. The way it is, the way it is, the way it is, the way it is. Can it be like it was all so simple, even though pops was not around and mama had to struggle. Surviving in the ghetto, we hustle, that's universal, like an international player, get hit in the middle. Where the body of community's been torn apart, I was told if you want a change you got to start with the heart...
MARTIN: What is the diplomacy look like beyond concerts that are given?
AIDI: The music is a very small part of a much larger package. So, if you look at a cultural diplomacy towards Europe, for instance, there are workshops and conferences and so on American-style affirmative action, on American multiculturalism. There is a showcasing of American minority communities, particularly American Muslims, to show that whatever U.S. policy may be, American Muslims are affluent and integrated and so forth.
MARTIN: There's a certain irony, though, in particular in the American case but I imagine with other Western governments, if they're using hip-hop, American hip-hop to kind of encourage change or pro-Western youths in some Muslim countries. This is music, though, that was born out of political and social protest against the government.
AIDI: Right. Exactly. The music that domestically is blamed for all kinds of problems - misogyny, consumerism, materialism, academic underachievement - overseas, it's deployed to make the country safer and better liked. So, this has led to a debate in Europe - again, most Europe, not in the United States, because people in the U.S. are not really aware of these programs. But in Europe, it has led to a debate over what is the purpose of this music, what is the purpose of hip-hop? Is it protest? Is it policy? Or is the soundtrack to American power?
MARTIN: And what do you think after having spent some time thinking about this and interviewing people? What's the takeaway from this?
AIDI: I think, you know, soft power works, ultra-diplomacy works when it aligns well with hard power. So, in Europe, for instance, you know, these programs, if the French government is cracking down on, you know, rappers considered to be too hard left and the U.S. embassy reaches out to these rappers, these groups tend to be sympathetic, you know, and grateful. But if we're talking about Bahrain or the Middle East where you have the American-backed tyrannies and the U.S. is trying to send in artists to distract from certain policies or to alter public opinion, it does not work.
MARTIN: Hisham Aidi. He teaches at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. His new book is called "Rebel Music." He joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for talking with us, Hisham.
AIDI: Thank you, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. BJ Leiderman composed our theme music. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.