The Politics of Islamic Hip-Hop

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Music is universal, so it probably shouldn't be surprising that an increasing number of Muslim young people--especially those growing up in the cultural mixing bowls of Europe--are listening to and performing hip-hop music. But there could be more to it than that, as globalization and the tumultuous politics of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are leading many young Muslims to express themselves and expand the counter-culture through this famously political form of music. Peter Mandaville writes in Yale Global, Yale's publication studying the effects of globalization, that "The Rise of Islamic Hip-Hop" is about much more than just music. The movement began as a reaction to the spread of Western hip hop's popularity among young Muslims living in Europe.

Beginning with the group Mecca2Medina in London in 1997, the Muslim hip-hop movement has grown with impressive speed even as it struggles to achieve mainstream recognition within both the Muslim community and the wider hip-hop scene. Many Muslim artists cite passing references to Islam in mainstream hip-hop, and in their minds, the natural extension is to bring a religious identity front and center. For some, hip-hop is also a vehicle for engaging world politics. Figures like Fun-Da-Mental frontman Aki Nawaz attracted controversy for the 2006 album “All Is War,” which some viewed as glorifying terrorism. The music of another edgy act, Blakstone, features aggressive and confrontational lyrics. ... Many Muslim hip-hop artists, such as the female spoken word duo Poetic Pilgrimage, complain about persistent racism, even within Muslim communities in the West, contending that their work transcends ethnic and racial barriers.

Mandaville says that rap music might be playing this role because Muslims in Europe can identify with American black communities that created the form.

Listening to South Asian Muslim teenagers in this post-industrial British city, one can understand how Islamic faith and American hip-hop music coexist. Searching for music that reflects their own experiences with alienation, racism and silenced political consciousness, many teens, even quasi-religious groups, turn to the urban music of black America.

But what are the politics of this emerging genre? Mandaville notes that hip hop is traditionally leftist, but that its Islamic tinge both reinforces that liberalism while also complicating it with conservative religious overtones:

These developments become more significant when one considers the demographics of Islam, with some 70 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under the age of 30. Embracing hip-hop could be a fad or signal young Muslims’ growing affinity with leftist values. Islam, however, has never fit comfortably on a political spectrum defined in conventional terms of right and left. The Islamic worldview is socially conservative in most of its mainstream forms, but the centrality of social justice in Islam has always meant that Islamic parties share some common ground with the left – even where the politics between them are contentious.

Mandaville says this movement could signal "sparks of growing cooperation between Islamists and leftists in the Middle East" as young people become "dissatisfied with the failure of conventional Islamist groups to deliver results." Musical "avenues of political expression and mobilization" could grant young Muslims the ability to form and disseminate political beliefs or even political ideologies without the need for traditional Islamic institutions or religious groups.

Image: Iranian rapper Shain Najafi at an event.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.