Charting the influence of Islam on black American music and culture

Parts of American popular culture have long been inspired by Islam – and a new book traces the links across the centuries.

A scenes from the annual gnawa festival of Essaouira in Morocco. North African music is only one of the many rich strands that have informed black culture across the Atlantic. Abdelhak Senna / AFP Photo
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You may not think there's a direct link between Shakira and Malcolm X, but both have their place in this wide-ranging book, which looks at the historical connections between music from "the black ­Atlantic" (including the US, Jamaica and parts of South America) and Islam. Aidi is a lecturer in both Columbia University's international affairs and African affairs departments, and his deep research and command of broad swathes of history is impressive.

He traces a path from the first Spanish and Portuguese immigrants to America in the 1500s and the Islamic Moorish culture they brought with them all the way through to the “hip-hop ambassadors” that the US State ­Department currently sends to Middle Eastern countries in order to promote American diversity, free speech and creativity.

There's a chapter in Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture on the centuries-old myth of the "enchanted Mooress", which is where Shakira, the Colombian pop star with a Lebanese father, comes in. She's described as the "global cultural icon of the 9/11 decade and the 'enchanted Mooress' par excellence". Other sections focus on Judeo-Islamic Andalusi music in Algeria; a strain of Pakistani punk called Taqwacore; and a Moroccan fusion of reggae and gnawa – a hypnotic African-Islamic strain of music that can put listeners in a spiritual trance.

As a novel form of vicarious globetrotting, reading about these musical mash-ups is a lot of fun, but Aidi strains to incorporate them into his overarching argument, which is that young Muslims in Europe and the US during the past decade have been drawing inspiration from black anticolonial struggles in order to “reinvigorate Islamic thought”. To understand this, he retraces the way that African-American leaders themselves have embraced Islam during the past two centuries as a way of redefining their own identity.

It’s a fascinating slice of cultural history, beginning with the late 19th- and early 20th-century sects Ahmadiyya and the Moorish Science Temple of America, which both linked Islam to African-­American self-improvement initiatives. Ahmadi Islam began in colonised India, but missionaries were sent to the US and a mission was founded in Harlem in 1920.

These movements were followed by the establishment of the ­Nation of Islam in 1930, which also preached a strong message of black self-empowerment and went on to help drive the civil rights movement. A chapter is devoted to its charismatic leader Malcolm X (who eventually converted to Sunni Islam before his assassination in 1965) and emphasises the enduring influence he continues to have on African-American youth culture and on Muslims around the world.

It's music that Aidi has chosen as a lens through which to explore this social history, and so we hear about these religious movements as background to a section on the mass conversion to Islam of American jazz musicians in the post-war era. The magazine Ebony is cited – in 1953 it printed a list of 200 Muslim jazz hotshots under the title "Ancient Religion Attracts Moderns".

Jazz is now a niche genre: it’s hip-hop that’s been synonymous with African-American youth culture for the past three decades, and it’s arguably the lingua franca for pop culture-obsessed youth of all races around the world. Aidi explores its connections with Islam at length – and there are more than you might think.

A list of African-American hip-hop superstars who have embraced the religion over the past few decades includes Ghostface Killah, Mos Def, Ice Cube, Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes. While Aidi doesn’t come up with a simple formula for what’s driving this kinship, he suggests that the continuing influence of black Muslim activists such as Malcolm X on the culture of the young and disenfranchised could be a factor.

These waves of black activist influence have also reached the outskirts of cities in France, Holland and Germany, Aidi writes. He tells a story about a French rap group called 3ème Œil (“Third Eye”) whom he met at a hip-hop festival in the Bronx. One member of the group, a Muslim called DJ Rebel, expresses his excitement at being at the birthplace of hip-hop and of meeting Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc, who threw trailblazing block parties in the 1970s. Bambaataa has spoken in interviews about being inspired by both the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers. Rebel thanked them both, he says, “for what they have done for us blacks and Muslims in France”. He adds: “They gave us a language, a culture, a community.”

Whether this speaks to a larger trend to do with Muslims in Europe and the way that they are turning to hip-hop culture is debatable. It could be argued that the faith of artists like DJ Rebel is less important than the fact that they are members of racial minorities. Although he doesn’t address this particular point, Aidi does rightly point out that Muslims have been the targets of a specific type of ideological suspicion in the West in the years following 9/11, so a sense of brotherhood is more important than ever.

For the lay reader, these abstract lines of thought will be less interesting than the particular stories that Aidi tells, which are colourful, emotionally engaging and often told with a keen appreciation for irony. The author’s tone remains impartially academic throughout, but scepticism towards recent American foreign policy can be read between the lines.

He underlines the irony implicit in the way that the US has switched sides when choosing Islamic allies. During the Arab Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, the US sided with conservative ­Islamist monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, over the Arab-nationalist republics, led by Egypt. An American diplomat to Saudi Arabia at the time is quoted as saying that the US “had a benevolent attitude” to the strict Salafi Islam practised in Saudi Arabia at the time, which was seen as “devout, quaint, but not dangerous”.

By the time the “War on Terror” was under way, Islamism was no longer thought of as harmless, and the US began backing Sufism, a mystical form of Islam seen as “moderate” and tolerant, in countries from Indonesia to Ethiopia. This strategy was eventually shelved too, however, after the initiative came under fire for mixing theology with counter­terrorism and stirring up sectarian tensions.

In 2005, a more whimsical project was dreamt up by the US government for countering extremism abroad. The State Department began sending rappers, DJs, b-boys and beat-makers to countries in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe to perform and run workshops for locals. The aim, according to a mission statement, is to “use hip-hop as a tool for cultural diplomacy and conflict resolution”. It’s part of a tradition of ­peddling soft power that stretches all the way back to the 1950s, when jazz artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong were sent to Soviet countries to promote the American way of life.

The scheme seems positive enough, but Aidi suggests there is hypocrisy at play. He quotes a rapper from the group Native Deen who has been a hip-hop ambassador on one of these programmes and who remembers friends telling him: “Y’all are going to be puppets, going over there saying: ‘Everything’s OK. We’re bombing your country, but we have Muslims, too!’”

Another artist, Lowkey, points out that hip-hop at its best has “challenged power, it hasn’t served power”. He adds: “When the US government loves the same rappers you love, whose interests are those rappers serving?”

The cultural landscape Aidi writes about may be too complex to sum up with a neat “theory of everything”, but he does an admirable job of mapping it, piece by piece. The stories he tells show how African-American culture and Islam have intersected and supported each other, how they’ve been both reviled and co-opted by those in power and how they continue to be a vibrant source of creative resistance despite it all.

Jessica Holland is a regular contributor to The National.