Media, Islam and Hip Hop
This article was written as a conversation between Steve Furay, a graduate student of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Karim Adel, aka Rush from the Egyptian hip hop group Arabian Knightz. This article is the first in a series of dialogues between the two that will discuss global affairs, relations between Islam and the West, and how hip hop affects the youth of these two worlds.
Steve Furay: Your goal is to bridge a gap between the world and Arabia as a hip hop artist, becoming a part of a culture that is used to confronting images and preconceived notions. Hip hop has its own confrontation against power structure, but that is nothing compared to the conflict between American media and Islam, which is now regularly using the terms radical and Islamic almost synonymously. That’s not to detract from our need for coverage of Islamic people because the US is very involved in their affairs on two battlefronts, but it’s the regular use of terms like “radical Islamic ideologies,” that has distorted our understanding of Muslim people, including who the US’s actual enemies are and who can be our allies for peace.
Karim Adel: So now because a few people are used as tools to be misinformed about Islam, all Muslims are radical? First of all since the last fourteen hundred years till now, Islam has been the fastest growing faith ever. How can a religion that apparently states to kill everyone and stops you from doing anything from technology to music to art, how can such a faith have gathered so much support all over the world? I suggest people need to stop taking criminals as Muslim examples, and grab the holy Quran and read it yourself, don’t let no one make up your mind for you.
SF: I imagine that the current state of Islam and west relations makes you very self aware of how you present your religion to the world, your lyrics are about expressing the many dimensions of your identity, including as an Islamic man. You’re calling upon yourself to be expressive and not hold back.
KA: Not just that brother, as Muslims, our duty is to present the ethics of Islam to people through our behavior, and what are we doing now as Muslims? We are falsely giving them an un-Islamic image and we are scaring them away. But you have to think, who’s really promoting such wrong ideas about Islam to the West and to Muslims to brain wash them?
SF: Is there a perception in the Middle East that these effects have been from the result of outsiders to the culture?
KA: Isn’t it an actual fact that Bin Laden and his squad in Afghanistan worked and received training from the CIA? The US was directly linked to the brain wash and training of those Muslims, people involved with the war made a lot of money off those wars. Did the average American get the same thing? No, so just like the government plays tricks into fooling you to accept and support a war on so called terror they also fund the mass brainwash of Muslims in this side of the world to become killers.
The Quran states you have your faith and I have mine. Islam promotes freedom of faith and respecting other peoples beliefs, the same book tells Mohammed and his followers to look after Christians and Jews under our reign or command in the Islamic state because they worship the same god we worship.
SF: Do you feel that being a part of hip hop culture gives you extra ability for you to personally confront today’s perception of Islamic people because hip hop artists identities have regularly been either criminalized or seen as outside societies bounds?
KA: Of course. I believe in communication skills. People listen to music now more than they read or listen to priests, preachers or sheikhs. My main aim is to bridge the gap, tell the world the truth about Islam and the Middle Eastern conflict. And also to tell my people return to the true ethics of Islam, teach them to not let a sheikh tell them what god said.
The first commandment of the Quran is read, not listen or follow, make up your own mind. You’re Muslim? Why? You hate Islam? Why? Someone told you? Well, then you’re a puppet. God don’t make puppets, humans make puppets, god makes thinking humans..
SF: And creative thinkers. You’re using a mode of expression that was started in New York City, by people with a very different struggle.
KA: Yes, it’s all one struggle, survival and seeking justice is the struggles of every person. And that’s what Arabia has been denied, so everyone can relate.
SF: A core issue of mine with the media is with their defining of Arabic people through their images and language. They have created the Muslim people as an ‘other’, an enemy that can be feared by the site of a long beard or a traditional garment. The media have only developed an incomplete definition of the Islamic groups that are not for peace and are spreading fear with violence.
I see the perpetuation of the media representing Muslims as being synonymous with radicals as bad media, in the same way the perpetuation of glorifying gun violence through hip hop is bad hip hop. But hip hop music that’s both self-expressive and reflecting reality is the tradition of good hip hop that you want to follow.
KA: Yes indeed that’s why hip hop is growing so fast in Arabia. Hip hop always was the voice of the voiceless, who is more voiceless than Arabs and Muslims now? If you are simply reflecting everyday reality that is happening around you, then it’s being real. The Arabic world has seen a lot of violence and the world is turning its face away from it. It’s a matter of justice, not religion.
SF: There is a grass roots movement for peace in the Middle East [examples: Just Vision, Association for Peace and Understanding in the Middle East, Middle East Children’s Alliance], but we don’t hear about this in the US, we only hear about the conflict between the heads of state. This is a perspective that is getting very old, literally, the people involved are aging, but populations of the nations are getting more and more youthful. A great deal of the population is 25 and under. I feel that it is their perspective that must change society and perhaps hip hop can be a voice. It has bridged so many gaps already, why not there?
KA: Yes, that’s what made me want to enter hip hop in the first place, to open channels of communications and understanding.
We do our music to represent us, we also go clubbing, we also live, and we also have good times as well as bad. So I think we live just like everyone else, why wouldn’t everyone else relate?
SF: Now you’re trying to build a bigger brotherhood with non-Muslims through hip hop culture and find unity as creative people. But through hip hop you’re not going to be talking to everyone, because hip hop itself has created its own dividing lines within society. Even within hip hop music, there’s a divide between the underground and the commercial.
KA: We ain’t doing no bling bling, whip-dick-car music, we still doing music though that can play in the club. And I’m sorry, even a street cat is more than just that, no one is only one thing or one way. There is always something that’s common between you and the listener, so no matter what he does. He still has kids, he still looks at the news, he still fears god, he still struggles for a meal like I do so he will be able to relate to something I say.
God created us all as human not as Arabs and so on there is no chosen ones; we are all children of god so we need to live together as one family.
SF: Do you fear they won’t listen because of your religion?
KA: That’s not real, because there is a lot of those street cats who are Muslim or are close to a Muslim in the hood. Plus, even those who don’t like Islam because of any trick-knowledge or misinformation, they want to know who they perceive as the enemy. They want to know how he thinks and what he says.
Didn’t millions of Americans watch Bin Laden’s tapes? And he ain’t even a person who represents real Islam, so imagine a person who doesn’t address them as an enemy and who actually knows about Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Who’s more capable in relating to them? Who can relate to an average man who’s struggling with the current economy? Someone who’s blinging and wiping his ass with money, or someone who talks about their struggle with the economy just like them?
SF: A hip hop head whose identity has been seen as problematic by the same people who see Islam as a threat.
KA: Exactly, and that’s why I know Americans will also relate, I know people are struggling everywhere now. That so called bling bling rap is a lie, none of those MCs live like that either, especially now. So not only is it not relatable, it’s fake.
SF: The US like the rest of the world exists with a lot of hypocrisies.
KA: Hypocrisy is everywhere, that’s why it’s a global struggle.
SF: I think the real struggle is the pursuit of truth, and directing our actions towards what’s actually happening. Acknowledging that the US and Arabia have no real understanding of each other because the media dialogue is performed with a huge bias that is controlled by a very limited amount of people. It should be our pursuit to take back this dialogue that has been controlled for so long by these interests through independent media.
KA: Very true, once we understand that we can look and see each other eye to eye, let’s hope music can succeed in what dumb politicians failed in.
SF: I think it has one big advantage. You feel music.
KA: God always talked to people in terms of what they needed at the time. Jesus came when medicine and healing diseases was the fad, and he was given healing powers.
Mohammed came in the height of the poetry culture in Arabia and hence the Quran is a poetic religious miracle written in rhyme form. So why can’t music be what’s good now? Why can’t it be the medium that leads people back to peace and to god?
SF: It seems like language is the only thing that’s perceived as real anymore.
KA: Words are the most powerful thing on Earth, words written in three holy books changed the world. Words affect people more powerfully and widely than swords or guns or bombs.