Hisham Aidi, a lecturer at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, has a new book out called “Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture” that explores looks at hip-hop’s hold on Muslims in cities around the world.
In a recent interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin, Aidi talks about how hip-hop represents the richest interplay between American music and Islam, beginning with the pioneering Afrika Bambaataa in the 1970s. Islam’s presence has remained strong and steady throughout hip-hop’s development; Michael Muhammad Knight’s recent book, “The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip Hop and the Gods of New York” does a deep dive into some of this.
But Aidi’s work points to an odd phenomenon that has developed in which national security officials have tried to use hip-hop to promote a more moderate political agenda among Muslim youth across the globe. In a book excerpt published at Salon, Aidi makes his case:
As in America, some of the biggest stars on the European hiphop scene are Muslim, the children of immigrants and/or converts, a number of whom have been embroiled in controversies about freedom of expression, national identity, and extremism. Britain became the first country to deal with the issue of “Muslim hate rap” when, in 2004, the song “Dirty Kuffar” was released online by rap group Sheikh Terra and the Soul Salah Crew. The video, splicing together images from Iraq, Palestine, and Chechnya, praises Osama bin Laden and denounces Bush, Tony Blair, Ariel Sharon, Hosni Mubarak, and Saudi Arabia’s King ‘Abdallah as “dirty infidels.” The track drew the attention of the Home Office and Labour MPs, who saw the lyrics and imagery as advocating violence. In 2006, Aki Nawaz of the popular hip-hop techno group Fun-Da-Mental released an album, All Is War, with a cover depicting the Statue of Liberty hooded and wired like an Abu Ghraib prisoner, and a song (“Che Bin Pt 2”) comparing bin Laden to Che Guevara. Two MPs called for his arrest.
Realizing the influence of hip-hop, when in April 2007 the Home Office introduced Prevent, an initiative to stop British Muslim youth from being lured into violent extremism, it made sure that hip-hop figured prominently. Muslim organizations in Britain would receive Prevent funding to organize “Spittin’ Light” hip-hop shows, where American and British Muslim rappers with “mainstream interpretations” of Islam would parade their talents. The initiative was directed at younger Muslims, who may not have been associated with mosques or other religious institutions. Prevent’s advocates claim that art can provide Muslims with “an acceptable outlet for strong emotions.” Given Prevent’s involvement in the arts, leaders of cultural organizations—wooed by the American embassy and the British government—are unsure of whether to accept state funds.