The Runnymede Trust, in a recent report, warned of a prevailing atmosphere of “Islamophobia” in England, of growing discrimination against its 1.5 million Muslim population, 80% of whom are of South Asian origin, and of ongoing racist violence against these so-called “immigrants”. Islamophobia can be equally applied to conditions in France, where the Muslim “immigrant” population of perhaps five million, composed primarily of North Africans, likewise faces racist hostility and structural discrimination. Among the recent dramatic instances of Islamophobia are the Rushdie affair in England and the so-called “veil” affairs in France. Meanwhile, in both countries these “immigrants” are, increasingly, second- and third-generation citizen and legal residents who are attempting to construct cultural/political spaces for themselves as ethnicized “Muslims” in Europe, and are actively involved in anti-racist movements. Among the manifold responses of European Muslims to Islamophobia has been hip-hop activism, a subject that has been largely overlooked in the relevant literature. This paper focuses on three of the most prominent figures in European “Islamic” hip-hop: from England, Aki Nawaz of the group Fun^Da^Mental and Natacha Atlas from Transglobal Underground; from France, Akhenaton of the group IAM. By now, a considerable literature exists on “Muslims” and anti-immigrant racism in England and France, and the music press has given substantial coverage to the artists under consideration here. But studies of Muslim communities have generally paid little attention to popular culture, and accounts of anti-racist movements (especially in England) frequently discuss popular culture, but usually neglect “Islam” and Muslim communities. The music press, finally, has not seriously examined the “Islamic” tendencies of Fun^Da^Mental, Transglobal Underground or IAM.3 I wish here to bring such connections into sharper focus.
Aki Nawaz: Islamic Warrior
Aki Nawaz (born Haq Nawaz Qureishi) was raised in Bradford by Pakistani immigrants who arrived in England in 1964 (his father worked as a bus conductor). Nawaz’s first notable musical stint was in 1981-1983 as the drummer for ur-gothic punk band, Southern Death Cult (which later transmogrified, sans Aki behind the drums, into The Cult). Aki’s hip-hop band Fun^Da^Mental came onto the scene in 1991, recording for Nation Records, which Aki had co-founded with the Afro-Caribbean Katherine Canoville. Aki, who adopted the performance names Aki-Stani, Righteous Preacher, and finally, Propa-Ghandi, was the group’s leader and most visible figure. Fun^Da^Mental made an immediate impact, on the charts, in concert, and in the media, with a hip-hop sound frequently compared to Public Enemy’s, an analogy that disguised the group’s localized specificity.
The group’s contributions should be seen, first of all, in light of Fun^Da^Mental’s intervention within the Bradford Islamic community, and more broadly, the Islamic/Asian community in Britain.4 The nineteen-eighties witnessed a contest for leadership within the Bradford community, involving the Council for Mosques, Muslim businessmen and professionals, and Muslim city councilors (11 were elected in 1992). Many youth of Muslim background were alienated from the mosques as well as the official community leaders, especially because of the mosques’ and leaders’ opposition to music, dance and videos, including bhangra, which had emerged in the eighties as the “Asian pop” music of Asian youth in Britain.5 Fun^Da^Mental’s expressions of pride in Islam appealed to Muslim youth who had been raised on British popular culture yet also felt “wounded” by British Islamophobia and the racist overtones of the (recent) Rushdie affair. Fun^Da^Mental was also part of the new wave of early nineties, post-bhangra, Asian dance musics which, Sharma suggests, served as “a site for the translation between diasporic Asian, Black and British identification” (1996:40). What was unique about Fun^Da^Mental’s Asian dance music was that it inserted Islam into that complicated identity configuration.
Fun^Da^Mental articulates Islamic/ethnic pride through its lyrics, musical mix, and imagery.6 On “Meera Mazab” (My religion in Urdu) Propa-Ghandi raps:
I was born as a Muslim, and I’m still livin’ as a Muslim
My spirituality determines reality. This song and others are peppered with lines from the Qur’an (in Arabic, but the same words are used in Urdu): “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest); “Subhanallah, ilhamdulillah” (Praise God, thank God); “Qulu allahu ahad” (Say: He is Allah, the One!, Surah CXII:1); “Allahu samad” (God the eternal, Surah CXI: 2). Propa-Ghandi also rejects the Western stereotype of Islam as a sexist religion: You say Islam and its sexism
But you’re blind, when it comes to global masochism The song “Mother India,” recited by poetess Subi Shah, names famous “strong women” from the Indian subcontinent and Arabia, including Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, and Noor Jahan, the Mogul empress. Among the ingredients Fun^Da^Mental throws into its extremely dense musical mix are the sounds of Qawwali (the Sufi devotional music of South Asia)7 and Middle Eastern beats. Publicity photos and videos typically show Propa-Ghandi (and other Fun^Da^Mental members) sporting an Islamic star-and-crescent medallion, a logo that also appears on the CD jacket of Seize the Time. Finally, Aki advocates a certain Islamic orthopraxy, expressing total opposition to alcohol and drug usage (Sweet 1993). It should be stressed that such “Islamic” elements are specifically South Asian (and to some extent, Middle Eastern), and are not found on the recordings of Muslim-affiliated US rap groups.Islamic community elders in Bradford were unhappy with Fun^Da^Mental’s chanting of Qur’anic phrases over dance beats, which is considered harâm (forbidden) for orthodox Muslims (Lewis 1994:180). Moreover, the Bradford Council for Mosques was disturbed by press reports that Aki Nawaz supported Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a position which undermined the Council’s efforts to project a moderate image for the community (Lewis 1994:181). In fact, the press (especially music publications) had misinterpreted Nawaz, who later clarified that “he oppose[d] any attempt to kill or silence Mr. Rushdie,” but understood “why Muslims are upset with the writer” (Stevenson: 1994).8 Other elements in the community were more supportive, as exemplified by this statement from the Urdu-language London daily Jang (Aug. 7, 1992):
Lyrics praising Islamic scriptures, Asian culture and condemning the West’s oppression of them are sung in a newly released cassette single called ‘Peace, Love and War’…So if you are confused about your roots and your identity, it might be worthwhile giving this enthusiastic group a try (quoted by Lewis 1994: 180). Fun^Da^Mental’s Islamism is also a critical component of the group’s anti-racist activity. A recent study of British Asian dance music, Dis-Orienting Rhythms (Sharma et al 1996; see especially Kalra et al, Huq and Hutnyk) underlines the role progressive Asian bands (such as Fun^Da^Mental, Kaliphz, Hustlers HC, Asian Dub Foundation and, yes, Cornershop) have played in bridging the gap between locally organized self-defense/Asian political groupings and popular-front, anti-racist mobilizations of the white Left, such as the re-organized Anti-Nazi League. These bands also lent significant support to the campaign against the CJA (the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act) of 1994, which allows the banning of raves and any large-scale demonstrations. Asian dance outfits, with Fun^Da^Mental in the lead, have performed and delivered speeches at anti-racist benefits and carnivals, at concerts and rallies organized by the left on anti-imperialist issues, and at left party conferences, and have campaigned to keep “Asian” issues at the forefront of anti-racist struggles.Fun^Da^Mental advocates militancy and self-defense as key elements of the anti-racist struggle and mobilizes Islamic imagery to this end:
You go for yours cuz I’m in jihad
So I’ll be comin’ around the mountain
With my Islamic warriors
Nubians wid jihad in my mind –“Meera Mazab”
Here Fun^Da^Mental figures the anti-racist fight as “jihad,” and links local struggles to those of “Islamic” freedom fighters elsewhere. The song “Mother India,” moreover, mentions in its list of strong women “Leila Khaled, freedom fighter of Palestine” (infamous airplane hijacker from the secular-Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Fun^Da^Mental’s “Dog Tribe” video, which was banned from daytime t.v. in England, shows Propa-Ghandi wearing a black-and-white checkered kûfîya, sartorial signifier of the Palestinian struggle, as he appears in concert and in fictional scenes where is beaten up by white racists and then anti-racist self-defense group. This video imagery, predictably, raised panics in both news and music press about Islamic “fundamentalism” (Hutnyk 1996: 161-163; CARF 1994). In “Meera Mazab” Fun^Da^Mental also invokes the 1990 slaughter of 17 Palestinians at Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif:
Massacre in the mosque, suicidal frame of mind
Take a look, can’t you see, look at Palestine I want to stress that Fun^Da^Mental invokes “Palestine” both as a figure of global struggle and because Muslims in England experience Western support for Israel’s repressive policies and the pro-Israel media slant as racism against Muslims and Middle Easterners.Fun^Da^Mental not only inserts Asian/Islamic concerns into the anti-racist front, but also works to forge unity between Asians and Afro-Caribbeans. Nation Records, as noted above, is an Asian-Black owned company, and Fun^Da^Mental is an Asian-Black band whose core, since 1993, has consisted of Propa-Ghandi and the Afro-Caribbean Dave Watts, a.k.a. Imp-D. According to Aki, “There should be unity between Afro-Caribbeans and Asians because the struggles are exactly the same” (CARF 1994). Although it is often claimed by anti-racist campaigners in England that the category “Black” includes both Asians and Afro-Caribbeans, Asian observers have noted a marked tendency to trivialize the Asian in “Black.”9 This marginalization likewise extends to “Islam,” which has scarcely entered the scope of discussions of anti-racism in England (at least, until recently), whether on the part of activists or within the field of Cultural Studies. Fun^Da^Mental’s novel intercession here is to posit “Islam” as a mode of Afro-Caribbean and Asian commonality, by invoking both “South Asian” Islam (discussed above) and the Black nationalist Islam (specifically, the Nation of Islam variety) that originates in the US.10 This, I believe, makes sense of Fun^Da^Mental’s frequent lyrical reference to Nation of Islam (NOI) leaders Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and Louis Farrakhan (on “President Propaganda,” “Dog Tribe,” “Seize the Time”; “Bullet Solution”).11 For example:
Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam
That’s where I got my degree from — “President Propaganda” Moreover, Fun^Da^Mental explicitly refers to Nation of Islam (NOI) teachings, which are highly heterodox from an orthodox perspective. For instance, it makes reference to the conception of the white “devil” (“grafted” by the evil scientist Yaqub approximately 6000 years ago, according to NOI teachings): “the devils that worked us out in the sunshine” (“Seize the Time”); “the devil operating through the media” (“Meera Mazab”).12 It also invokes Elijah Muhammad’s claim that Islam is the “original religion” of the Asiatic Black man and Christianity is an inauthentic imposition: I’m a soldier in the name of Allah
So put down the cross and pick up the ‘X’…
Back in the days of the slave ships
You had us whipped, raped and lynched
Took away the Qur’an, you gave us the Bible — “President Propaganda” Telling me Jesus is calling
Selling me books of make believe stories
Where people like me don’t seem to have glory…
They’re retailing Christianity and feeding you insanity — “Dollars or Sense” In addition, Fun^Da^Mental ingeniously weaves samples of well-known soundbites from Farrakhan and especially Malcolm X into its multi-layered, state-of-emergency dance mix.Fun^Da^Mental also attempts to educate white youth and leftists and to incorporate them within the anti-racist struggle (see Yellow Peril 1995). When addressing them, Aki Nawaz attempts to “normalize” the Islamic presence in Britain as well to as explain the reasons for “fundamentalist” tendencies among Muslim youth.
We’re living on the edge and that’s why there’s a massive rise in fanaticism especially amongst Muslims who are joining organisations like the Kalifah. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it’s a result of other things that are failing them, they’re being led that way because no-one is doing anything about what should be done. Then you get the whiteman going “they’re all fanatics” but he has put them in the position of having to be fanatics. (CARF 1994)I don’t really like fanatics but I can also see that a lot of fundamentalist groups are like freedom fighters and then the people in power come along and paint them with a different and more negative brush. (Yellow Dog 1995).
Fun^Da^Mental also seems to enjoy “shaking up” young whites, as evidenced by Aki’s remarks prior to performing at a Sidney concert before a crowd of mainly white indie-rock youths: we kind of look forward to going up on the stage to hordes of drunk and drugged-out indie kids and almost terrifying the shit out of them. We’re like the ultimate coming down pill. (Yellow Peril 1995). Fun^Da^Mental’s most recent release, Erotic Terrorism (1998), represents a stylistic shift from hip-hop to an industrial sound that resembles The Prodigy and Nine Inch Nails rather than Public Enemy. At the same time, “Islam” remains at the forefront, but the emphasis has shifted toward Pakistani Sufism, which is emphasized more than NOI ideology. Two cuts on Erotic Terrorism, “Ja Sha Taan” and “One Ness,” feature Qawwali chants in Punjabi, set to dance beats.Fun^Da^Mental’s uses of “Islam” are therefore central to its multi-pronged intervention: Islam instills religio-ethnic pride among Asian youth, serves as an image of anti-racist mobilization, creates links between Asians and Afro-Caribbeans, and shocks/educates white leftists and alternative youth.
Natacha Atlas: A Human Gaza Strip
Although Transglobal Underground (TGU)13 and their lead vocalist Natacha Atlas are not, strictly speaking, hip-hop artists, I include them here because hip-hop is one of the key constituent elements of their work. It has been difficult, in fact, for music critics and the music industry to pin a label on TGU’s music. Among the many contenders are: ethno-dance, global fusion dance-trance,14 ethnodelic, dub hop, global groove, world dance fusion, cross-cultural funk, Arab funk, polymorphic trance, ethnic techno, radical global pop, world techno, dub-rave-dance-trance-world, cross-cultural fusion, etc. (“In Town” n.d.; Taylor 1997; Anderson 1997; Wright n.d.; Hesmondhalgh 1995). Most recently, TGU has been marketed in the US under the category of “electronica.” TGU’s ambiguous position at the borders of “dance” and “world” musics has given rise to criticism, in particular from John Hutnyk, who in a trenchant article entitled “Adorno at Womad” says of TGU’s performance at the 1994 World of Music and Dance [WOMAD] Festival at Reading: “How is it that white British performers can wear Nepalese masks on stage, abstracted from their social and cultural context, without critical comment?” (1997: 109). Hutnyk goes on to criticize the routinization of “global sampling” in the world music scene as well as the depoliticized “hybridity-talk” that pervades both musical and cultural studies discourses, singling TGU as an exemplar of such depoliticized yet critically-hailed “hybridity.” As counter-examples of bands that are “hybrid,” non-essentialist, yet politically progressive, Hutnyk cites Fun^Da^Mental and Asian Dub Foundation, which are both directly involved in the anti-racist struggle and which their politics at events like WOMAD. David Hesmondhalgh (1995) raises similar issues, arguing in particular that TGU’s musical sampling practices should not be hailed–as music critics typically do–as instances of radical postmodernism and multiculturalism but instead seen as modernist appropriations that produce primitivist, exoticist and romanticizing significations of the Other.
Without disputing that TGU has exoticist and appropriating tendencies, I want to suggest that if one focuses on “Islam,” the picture looks somewhat different. I will argue, contra Hutnyk and Hesmondhalgh, that TGU and especially singer Natacha Atlas do articulate a progressive politics, although not in as overtly “militant” a fashion as Fun^Da^Mental, and that “Islam” plays a critical role in this regard. But first, it is necessary to clarify TGU’s image. It is incorrect to describe TGU as “white,” or even “predominantly white.” Band member Count Dubullah, in response to such claims, notes his own Greek/Albanian background (in England, these ethnic categories are not so clearly coded as “white” as in the US; moreover, Albanians are Muslim15), that Natacha Atlas has “Arabic” roots, and that, in performance, the band expands to include Africans, Indians and Sikhs (Morrell 1996). TGU moreover is not outside the orbit of progressive Asian bands and anti-racist activity, for it performs at anti-racist festivals, on the same bill as the “political” bands.16 Hutnyk’s model “political” band Asian Dub Foundation in fact got its start on the concert circuit by opening for Transglobal Underground on several dates in late 1994 (Luke n.d.) and has since opened for Natacha Atlas solo dates.17 Finally, TGU records for Aki Nawaz’s Nation Records, has shared personnel with Fun^Da^Mental (Count Dubullah and Neil Sparkes have recorded with both groups), and several of its singles have been remixed by Aki Nawaz.
I would argue that it would be mistaken therefore to insist on a sharp distinction between “political” Asian dance bands like Fun^Da^Mental and Asian Dub Foundation and a de-politicized exotic/hybrid/postmodernist musical tendency (world dance fusion) represented by TGU and Natacha Atlas. Both genres are released (in the UK) by Nation Records; both Fun^Da^Mental and TGU/Atlas have made a move away from indiscriminate use of the music of the world as the source of samples and towards collaboration with “indigenous” musicians.18 TGU could be regarded as one prong in Aki Nawaz and Nation’s Records multi-faceted strategy for progressive cultural/political intervention within British popular culture. The trajectory of TGU’s work is clearly consistent with Aki’s broadly-conceived anti-racist politics, his “punk attitude,” and his commitment to “reshuffling the global sound archives” while at the same time “insist[ing] on the primacy of their source material” (Toop 1993:14).19
TGU singer and solo artist Natacha Atlas is key to such a strategy. Natacha once described herself as a “human Gaza Strip,” which one press account acutely glossed as referring to the “complex melange of influences?both genetic and environmental–that have shaped her both as an individual and as a performer” (“Natacha Atlas” n.d.). Natacha’s “genetic influences” are hybrid, to say the least: her father, a Middle-Eastern Jew, born in Jerusalem; grandfather, “was born in Egypt, and his family came from Palestine. He came to Europe when he was 15” (Nickson 1997); her mother, an English hippie, fan of Pink Floyd, devotee of Gurdjieff (Barbarian 1996; Assayas 1996). Appropriately enough, Natacha grew up in the Moroccan and Jewish districts of Brussels, absorbing musics from both cultures and listening to her father’s old Arabic records (Ali 1995:53; Assayas 1996). When her parents divorced, she relocated in England, and reportedly became “Northampton’s first Arabic rock singer” (“Natacha Atlas” n.d.).20 At age 24, she went back to Belgium, where she belly-danced professionally in Arab and Turkish clubs and listened carefully to the Arab classicist musicians accompanying her. She describes going back to Belgium as a “return to her roots” (Barbarian 1996). By her own account, Natacha doesn’t suffer from an “identity problem,” asserting rather that she feels equally at home in more than one culture (“In Town” n.d.).
Natacha’s primary Middle Eastern “genetic” background, therefore, is Sephardi (or, to use the more politicized term, Mizrahi). Her “identification” with Judaism therefore is rooted in the Middle East and is affiliated (even by “blood,” in some complicated and unspecified way) to Islam. This is not as incongruous as it might appear from a Eurocentric/Ashkenazi perspective, for as Ammiel Alcalay so carefully shows in his After Jews and Arabs (1993), “Eastern” Jewry was for centuries intensely integrated into Arabo-Islamic civilization. The title of Natacha’s first solo album, Diaspora (1997), refers, Natacha says, not just to the “first dispersion of the Jews of Palestine but also those of all the races that have suffered injustice…The uprooted are everywhere. Iraqis, Yugoslavs or Palestinians…” (Barbarian 1996). It is noteworthy that all the diasporic peoples she names are Muslim (majority) peoples–assuming that that by “Yugoslavs” Natacha means Bosnian Muslims. One of Diaspora’s most compelling songs is entitled, “Laysh Nata’arak” (Why are we fighting?), which goes:
Why are we fighting
When we’re all together?…
Between me and you there is a long history…
Let’s return to peace
Let’s make peace, we are brothers The song addresses its call for peace to Arabs and Israelis in Arabic (the translation is mine), and therefore the primary Israeli addressees are the majority second-class Mizrahi Jews.21 Moreover, Natacha sings, “Let’s return to peace [emphasis added]” (Yalla nirga’ li-al-salâm), evoking a time, before the creation of Israel, of amicable relations between Arabic-speaking Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East.The plaintive title cut from Diaspora elaborates on these themes. Natacha sings, in Arabic:
My heart is wounded, my country…
And my life is torture
And the pain increases Natacha’s Arabic verses alternate with Neil Sparkes’ dub poetry, which addresses the English-speaking listener and emphasizes once again the rootedness of Eastern Jews in the Middle East:
The Kabbala revealed
Aramaic whispers in Jaffa and Tel Aviv
Spirits of the desert skies and plains
For what shall we mourn and grieve
Mesopotamia and Ur of the Chaldeas
Descendants of the Sephardim
Trading tolerance and unity
From Baghdad to the Promised Land
Children of Canaan
Daughter of the Maghreb
The song’s achingly beautiful atmospherics evoke Atlas’s feelings about her own family’s “uprooting”: “I don’t even know how we arrived in Belgium. I feel a great sadness, a feeling of loss” (Barbarian 1996).22 For Natacha, the diaspora is contemporary, a dispersion from the Arabo-Islamic Middle East, where?until the creation of the state of Israel?Sephardi Jews were “at home.” This is a Mizrahi, not an Ashkenazi, European Jewish vision of diaspora. As Alcalay (1993:1) observes: The modern myth of the Jew as pariah, outsider and wanderer has, ironically enough, been translated into the postmodern myth of the Jew as “other,” an other that collapses into the equation: writing=Jew=Book. By what sleight of hand?…Such an exclusive address…ultimately obscures the necessity of mapping out a space in which the Jew was native, not a stranger but an absolute inhabitant of time and place. At present Natacha?as a kind of riposte to the postmodern myth??chooses to divide her time between London and…Cairo, rather than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.Natacha voices her orientation toward “Islam” on “Dub Yalil” (from Diaspora), where she sings the opening lines of the idhân, the Muslim call to prayer “Allahu akbar, ashhadu an la allah illa Allah” (God is greatest, I witness that there is no god but God), over a dub beat. But Natacha does not complete the opening of the call to prayer, whose next phrase is, “wa Muhammad rasûl Allah” (and Muhammad is the messenger of God). Instead, she sings, “Allah ana bahibbak” (God, I love you). The fact that she recites the idhân without mentioning the prophet Muhammad, that she sings this religious text rather than “chants” it, that her singing is set to a dub-reggae beat, and that she uses the phrase, “God I love you”, all make this a highly heterodox “Islamic” production. Nonetheless, the song testifies to her Islamic affiliations. While growing up, Natacha states, her father used to tell her about Judaism and her mother about Gurdjieff, but she wasn’t interested. Now, she asserts, “I feel myself to be very Muslim, in fact. Sometimes I go to the mosque, last year I did [fasted during] Ramadan” (Assayas 1996).
Islam is also critical to Natacha’s understanding of her own and TGU’s cultural intervention in Britain. I would argue that, given an over-arching atmosphere of Islamo- and Arabo-phobia and racist violence against immigrants of Muslim origin, Natacha’s and TGU’s attempts to insert Arabic/Middle Eastern music into the British public sphere attests to a progressive cultural-political agenda. Natacha has been the key figure in this subversive activity, beginning in 1990 with her work in world dance fusion outfit ¡Loca! (on the compilations Fuse and Fuse II) with Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart (for instance, on Rising Above Bedlam) and with Transglobal Underground, and finally in a solo capacity (while continuing to work with TGU). She did vocals on Apache Indian’s top 20 hit, “Arranged Marriage”; the music press asserts, with typical hyperbole, that she was the first woman to sing in Arabic on the television show, Top of the Pops (“Natacha Atlas” n.d.).23 Natacha has also worked with Daniel Ash (on Coming Down, 1991), and her vocals are featured in the film, Stargate. As Natacha has gained visibility, she has tended to use more and more Arabic in her singing, whereas her earlier recordings featured more vocals in Spanish and French. Natacha’s articulation of Arabic has become clearer as she has gradually gained better control over the language, and her Arabic lyrics are now also more elaborated (Small 1997). According to Atlas, “now, something more [of Arabic music] is getting through [in Britain]. It’s no longer an alien sound” (Ali 1995:50). If the Arabic sonic presence is now somewhat more “normalized” in Britain, this is due in no small part to Natacha Atlas’s efforts.
Moreover, Transglobal Underground’s other core members have traveled in the Middle East and have seriously studied Arab music, in particular, the Eastern modes (mâqamât) and melodies (Small 1997; Twomey 1997). First exposed to Arab and Iranian records by Sam Dodson (stage name: Salman Gita) of Loop Guru (until recently, a Nation Records labelmate), later they studied with Middle Eastern musicians, including Natacha’s Egyptian relative, ‘ud player and composer Essam Rashad (Small 1997).More recently, they also collaborate with Middle Eastern musicians, including Essam Rashad (on TGU recordings and Diaspora) and Tunisian artists Walid and Rafiq Rouissi (on Diaspora).24 TGU member Alex Kasiek claims that Arabs, especially those living in the West, are pleased with what the group is doing:
For a lot of Arabic people if you start playing Arabic music they see it as a compliment. The West is contemptuous of their culture, they see [it] being some sort of frightening “other.” So they [Arabs] tend to find it as a mark of respect. (Small 1997) As for audiences in the Middle East, Atlas claimed in 1997 that her solo recordings were considered too avant-garde for the mass market, but that she had won acceptance for Diaspora among Moroccan youth (Snowden 1997:33). Since then both Natacha and TGU have had more impact on Middle Eastern markets. Natacha’s 1997 album Halim (released in the US in 1998) has been more successful , due no doubt to the fact that Halim (a tribute to the canonical Egyptian singer ‘Abd al-Halîm Hâfiz) sounds like a sixties/seventies style Egyptian-Lebanese pop album, with the addition of some dub and hip-hop beats. In July 1998, Natacha traveled to Beirut to perform her single “Amulet,” which has enjoyed some success in the region, on Lebanese television station LBC.25Meanwhile in 1997, popular Egyptian singer Hakim, interested in expanding his sales beyond the Egyptian market, enlisted TGU’s help in remixing a collection of Hakim’s greatest hits. Released in Egypt in 1998, the album (Shakl tânî/Remix) is a remarkable fusion of Hakim’s intense sha’bî vocalisms and TGU-style rhythms and deep bass. Although I was unable to obtain sales figures, the Hakim/TGU album seemed to be doing well in Cairo when I visited there in August 1998. Shakl tânî is expected to be released in Europe soon. Meanwhile, Slam!, Hakim’s record company, assisted Natacha Atlas in the production of her new album, Gedida, which was just released (February 199) in Europe. (It will be released in the Arab world as Gazouri, minus a few tracks that are too political or sexy).26As for the non-Arabic speaking English audience, Natacha considers “Islam” key to her success. The music press frequently calls attention to the exotic, “chiffon-draped belly dancing” she does on stage with TGU (“Transglobal Underground” 1996), and she has been criticized in some quarters for reproducing stereotypes of sexualized Middle Eastern women (Hesmondhalgh 1995: 9).27 But Natacha seems to prefer to stress her performances’ spiritual appeal:
I love the profundity of Arabic singing and the formality of it, and the way it seems to touch on the religious. I believe the Muslim call to prayer is the sound of God, that’s what ignites me and ignites Westerners who hear it and are moved by it. (“Diaspora Finally Available” 1997) Natacha is aware that the kids in the audience “don’t know what the fuck I’m singing about, but they have a feeling.” When she hits the high notes, she says, their eyes are shut, and “They look as though they’re reaching for Allah. It makes them feel good, spiritual” (Ali 1995:50).So whereas Natacha’s colleague Aki Nawaz employs “Islam” to shake up white youth, Natacha employs “Islam” to bring them into her spiritual world. The two strategies, I would argue, are complementary. The genius of TGU and Natacha Atlas is their sly insertion of subtle attacks on Islamophobia into a complex, multi-targeted, “club-friendly” (Wright n.d.) and upbeat, danceable mix that blends hip-hop, techno, Indian film soundtracks, African chants, and dub reggae with Middle Eastern stylings. While I think Hutnyk and Hesmondhalgh raise important criticisms regarding the exoticizing effects of TGU/Atlas performances and mixes and their appropriations of un-credited samplings, I do not agree that TGU and Atlas simply produce images of unmarked Otherness and a depoliticized notions of hybridity. Instead, their hybridized music is heavily “Islamicized, ” and therefore, politically charged.28
Akhenaton: 100% Métèque
Akhenaton, rapper and chief spokesperson for Marseille rap group IAM,29 was born Philippe Fragione, son of immigrants from the region of Calabria in South Italy, who settled in Marseille. When IAM burst onto the French rap scene30 with its 1991 release …De la Planète Mars, one of its most notable features was what André Prévos dubs its “pharaohism.” Four of the group’s six members go by ancient Egyptian names (Imhotep, DJ Kheops, Divin Kephren, and of course Akhenaton), and IAM’s lyrics are full of references to ancient Egyptian civilization. Prévos argues astutely that “pharaohism” permitted IAM to assert connections to the contemporary Arab world in an indirect, coded way: “The concept [of pharaohism] underlines Arabic origins while bypassing negative representations of North African countries gripped by Islamic fundamentalism and economic uncertainties” (1996:721).31 The jacket of IAM’s enormously successful second CD (L’ombre est lumière, 1993)32 even asserts that in ancient times, Egypt was connected to Marseille, but the continents subsequently drifted apart. I would take issue, however, with Prévos’s claim that IAM’s “pharaohism” is an original development that demonstrates French rap’s growing independence from US hip-hop hegemony (Prévos 1996:719, 721-722). According to Akhenaton, the name IAM (standing for Imperial Asiatic Men)33 was chosen after he read Senegalese writer Cheikh Anta Diop, one of Afrocentrism’s leading theorists, who spurred a pre-existing interest in the Asiatic Middle East as the origin of the monotheistic religions and in Egypt as the (Black) cradle of civilization. “Egyptianism,” in fact, is a long-standing theme of Afro-centric thought, dating back to the nineteenth century (see Gilroy 1993: 60, 208-209). I would argue that the real ingenuity of IAM’s “pharaohism” is that it gives “Egyptianist” Afrocentricity a Mediterranean inflection, asserting a kind of “Black Mediterranean.”
And more precisely, a Black/Islamic Mediterranean. From IAM’s beginnings, Akhenaton’s fascination for ancient Egypt and the Middle East was largely religiously-motivated; he consciously took his stage name from the first monotheistic pharaoh. Although Akhenaton only formally converted to Islam in 1993, IAM was already making positive references to Islam on …De la planète Mars in1991:
Allahu akbar, protège-nous des ténèbres absolues…
Comme a dit King Raz à qui je dis salaam
Ulemas nous sommes, âmes de l’Islam
(Allahu akbar, protect us from absolute darkness
Like King Raz said to whom I say salaam [peace, an Islamic greeting]
Ulemas [Islamic learned men] we are, souls of Islam) ?”Red, Black and Green” According to Akhenaton, the process by which he arrived at Islam was a lengthy one. His mother used to read the Bible to him as a child, stressing its “oriental” dimensions (Jorif 1995:25). Almost all his friends in polyglot Marseille are Muslims; their celebrations of Ramadan made him want to learn more about the religion. He found in Islam an attitude that was very rational and scientific, but most importantly, mystical (Péguillan 1995). It is Islam’s mystical dimension that Akhenaton finds most appealing, that he stresses in interviews (Cachin 1995:22; Robert 1995:26; Dufresne 1991:151), and that emerges most clearly from the lyrics of IAM and Akhenaton’s solo work.34 While clearly Akhenaton’s mystical tendency is, in part, a product of personal predilection, it is significant that, given an atmosphere of intense French hostility toward immigrants who, even more so than in Britain, are figured chiefly as “Muslim,” he chooses to espouse a “spiritual” as opposed to a “political” Islam. In interviews, he underlines that his Islam makes a separation between religion and politics–in unstated opposition, for instance, to the FIS, the Islamist political opposition in Algeria. On the song, “J’aurai pu croire” (“I could have believed,” on Ombre est lumière), IAM takes both Saddam Hussein and Iran’s ayatollahs to task for their hypocritical politicization of religion. Saddam tu ne me feras pas croire à moi
Que tu fais la prière en dehors des caméras
Sais-tu au moins qu’exhiber dans tous les coins
Est interdit par notre livre saint le Qur’an?
Et tu blasphème et blasphème et blasphème…
(Saddam you don’t make me believe in you
When you pray in front of cameras
Do you at least know that to display [your portrait] everywhere
Is forbidden by our holy book the Qur’an?
And you blaspheme and blaspheme and blaspheme) Akhenaton stresses that the Islam he espouses is tolerant and characterized by a mystical beauty, and that he is neither a “fundamentalist” (intégriste) nor a provocateur (Péguillan 1995). At a time when Le-Penist right-wing extremists are railing about the threat of an “Islamic invasion” and winning local elections, when FIS “terror” cells have been operating inside France, and when the mainstream press frequently depicts rap music itself as incendiary (exemplified in the harsh actions taken against hip-hop groups like NTM; Prévos 1997), it is little wonder that Akhenaton publicly advocates a transcendental and non-confrontational brand of Islam.But while he stresses its “spirituality,” Akhenaton’s Islam is in fact neither quietist nor apolitical. Promoting “Islam” in fact is part of IAM’s general effort to widen the space of tolerance for Arabo-Islamic culture in France, through its lyrical subject matter, its deployment of Arabic words and expressions, and its musical mixes which are splattered with Middle Eastern rhythms and samples of Arabic songs.35 For Akhenaton/Philippe Fragione, moreover, Islam represents a re-connection to his Italian “roots,” a “return” that he invests with an anti-racist inflection. Here again, Akhenaton demonstrates his creativity in putting forward a vision of a pan-Mediterranean Black -Islamic culture, a position that resonates with the reality of polyethnic Marseille.36
In interviews that appeared around the release of his solo album, Métèque et mat, released in 1995, Akhenaton discussed his conversion to Islam and its relation to his Italian heritage. Although the fact is little known, he says, Sicily was an Islamic state in the tenth century, and southern Italians have Arab blood, although they have forgotten this fact (Cachin 1995:21; Jorif 1995:25).37 The barbarian Lombards invaded from the north, carried out an inquisition and massacres against the Muslims and forcibly converted them to Christianity (Jorif 1995:25). (Akhenaton here both refigures Gramsci’s “Southern Question” as an “Arab-Islamic Question” and reverses hegemonic Italian notions regarding Northern Italian “superiority,” expressed most recently by the Northern League.)38 He goes on to assert that one still sees churches in the south that were originally mosques. He also claims that some Muslim sects in Italy practiced taqiya (dissimulation), and that therefore some (secret) Muslim groups continue to exist in Sicily today (Jorif 1995:25).39 Commenting on how his solo album investigates his Italian roots, Akhenaton asserts:
I realized that on the one hand, like all humanity, our cradle was African, on the other hand that the Arab race was present and influential in our blood and our customs…Métèque et mat, it’s that: the idea that my roots as an Italian from the South are in symbiosis with two others. (Robert 1995:24) The cover of Métèque et mat offers a brilliant visualization of Akhenaton’s efforts to yoke together these various cultural strands (African, Italian, Arabo-Islamic). A sepia-toned photograph shows a middle-aged Italian seated behind a chess board, whose king piece is an Egyptian pharaoh. The design that surrounds the name, Akhenaton, is Islamic, and the courtyard of the house that spreads out behind the chess player appears both Italian and Arab. The title of the CD, moreover, is a brilliant, multi-layered pun. Métèque et mat rhymes with echec et mat, the expression for “checkmate.” Métèque means “wog,” and so, the literal translation of the title is “wog-mate.” Furthermore, the word mat comes from the Arabic mât, meaning “to die,” and, contrary to normal French rules, and following the Arabic origins, the “t” is pronounced (the English “checkmate” carries the same Arabic etymology).40Akhenaton clearly regards Islam as a kind of potential but occulted cultural bridge linking Italian communities, the products of earlier waves of immigration to France, to Maghrebi-Islamic communities, the more recent arrivals. When he converted to Islam, Akhenaton says, his own family was very tolerant, and he realized then that Catholicism and Islam are closely-related religions. Besides common cultural roots, Italians and Arabs share similar experiences as immigrants, as Akhenaton stresses in interviews and on his solo CD. Both are métèques or “wogs,” in the view of dominant French culture. Both groups have suffered from racism, and many “métèques” responded by attempting to integrate so quickly into French life that they forgot their own culture (Péguillan 1995). On the song “L’Americano,” Akhenaton notes the assimilationist tendency among Italian immigrants and pokes fun at the “types aux origine truquées” (guys with “doctored” origins), immigrants who changed their last names from Malano to the frenchified Malan (Cachin 1995:21), just as some assimilated Arabs changed their names from Boubaker to Bob. As a result of such cultural losses?hence the nostalgia-drenched sepia of the CD cover and booklet?Italians have forgotten their traditions. Arabs meanwhile have become so frenchified that those living in state-funded high-rise apartment blocks (the dreaded HLMs) don’t know their own neighbors (Cachin 1995:22). “Car mat est le métèque / Fascinés par le mirage des idéaux de modernité” (For checkmated [dead] is the métèque / Fascinated by the mirage of modernity’s ideals), raps Akhenaton on “Métèques et mat. “People of the “south” (African, Arab, Italian), Akhenaton asserts, are losing their characteristic hospitality and are assuming a posture of aggressiveness. When the south loses its culture, Akhenaton warns, it becomes vulnerable to Americanization (FLX 1995:57). The métèques, therefore, need to reinvent community life and to develop a sense of personal responsibility (Cachin 1995:22). But such a common effort can only succeed if Italians remember why they immigrated to France: to escape fascism and repression. “I’m one of those who Hitler called the niggers of Europe” (Je suis un de ceux qu’Hitler nommait nègres de l’Europe), he chants on “Métèque et mat.” Akhenaton is “pissed off” that Italians have been involved in racist murders, and that many Italians are voting for Le Pen, forgetting their own past sufferings (Cachin 1995:21; Péguillan 1995).
Akhenaton asserts that IAM is “anti-political,” in the sense of wanting nothing to do with the state: “On ne me traitera pas de soumis à ce putain d’êtat” (They won’t call me submissive to this whore of a state, from “Non soumis à l’état,” ….De la planète Mars). But he goes on to say that the group is “political” only insofar as it actively opposes Le Pen and his National Front’s racist politics. IAM, whose members are variously of Madagascaran, Senegalese, Spanish pied noir, Algerian, Spanish, and Italian background, advocates a multi-ethnic anti-racism, one that reflects the diverse nature of Marseille and the banlieues, the suburban zones of the “immigrants” and lower-class in France.41 Although the French banlieues are multi-ethnic, they are heavily “racialized” in official discourse. And the symbol of all that is “other” in France is, most centrally, the young, “immigrant” Arab-Muslim, the zonard of the banlieue (see Bazin 1995:116).42 Unlike in the US, where racial/ethnic difference is structured around the polarity black/white, in France, the principle opposition is between white native and immigrant Arab other. Since the main thrust of racism in France is anti-Arab and anti-Islamic, IAM’s successful insertion of Islam and Middle Eastern music into the space of popular culture (as with Fun^Da^Mental and Transglobal Underground) is ultimately political. IAM is also critical of “global” racism. The song, “Tam tam de l’Afrique” (…De la planète Mars), for instance, decries the West’s enslavement of Africans. In interviews, IAM has also disparaged the West’s war against Iraq, stressing that the conflict originated from disputed “boundaries” drawn by the colonial powers, and in the song, “J’aurai pu croire,” it blasts the US conduct in the 1991 Gulf War:
Ils on intervenu au Kuwait pour le pétrole et l’argent
Les droits de l’homme ont rien à cirer au pays du Klan
(They intervened in Kuwait for oil and money
The rights of man have nothing to polish [?] for the country of the Klan) “Le soldat” (from Ombre est lumière) exposes the horrors of war from the point of view of a soldier, no doubt referring to the Gulf War, to which France contributed troops. On the song, “J’aurai pu croire” (Ombre est lumière), IAM takes Israel to task for its repression of Palestinians, mentioning, among other examples, the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, and says: Mais balles contre cailloux, canons à pierres
Excursions frontières, je ne puis me taire
Le David d’enfant est devenu Goliath
(But bullets against pebbles, cannons against stones
Border raids, I can’t shut up
The child David has become Goliath) As in Britain, Muslims in France experience such instances of Western imperialism in the Middle East as racism. It should be noted as well that the anti-Arab hysteria that erupted in France during the 1991 Gulf War, in which anti-Saddam fever intersected with deep-seated antagonism toward domestic Arabs, was a particularly horrible experience for Maghrebis in France (see Gross et al 1996: 146-147; Ben Jelloun 1991).IAM’s 1997 album, L’école du micro d’argent, represents a more political move on the part of the group. Full of vignettes on daily life in urban France, L’école presents a much darker view than 1994’s Ombre est lumière,which contained its share of danceable and humorous numbers. The shift was prompted by the increasing influence in the south of Le Pen’s fascistic Front Nationale (FN), as exemplified by the 1995 murder of Ibrahim Ali, a Comoran teenager who belonged to BVice, a hip-hop group close to IAM, by an FN activist, and by the election of FN mayors in several urban centers in the south (Davet 1997). It was IAM’s “sound architect” Imhotep (née Pascal Perez), who was most instrumental in pushing the group in a more overtly political direction. Imhotep/Pascal was born in Algiers in 1960, to a pied-noir family of Spanish origin, who were close to the Arabs, despised by the rightist colon terrorist organization, the OAS, and supported the left when they moved to France in the wake of Algerian independence. According to Imhotep, L’école du micro d’argent represented an effort to rekindle the spirit of revolt in France, against the FN and against racist immigration laws, as well as to educate the youth (“Lutter contre…” 1997). In particular, IAM is working to encourage young people to vote, so as to turn back the FN electoral tide. IAM also participated in a counter-demonstration organized on the occasion of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s visit to Marseille (de Monicault 1997) and contributed to the rap single, “11’30 contre les lois racistes,” produced at the initiative of Madj (of rap group Assasin) and in collaboration with the grassroots anti-racist organization MIB (Mouvement de l’immigration et des banlieues). The single, aimed at raising the consciousness of youth regarding racist immigration laws, had netted 500,000 francs for MIB by October 1997 (“Rap: les producteurs…” 1997; Fara C. 1997).
Finally, I want to mention IAM’s connections to US hip-hop, and especially “Islamic” rappers. Although Akhenaton’s Islamic orientation is mystical and not “political,” he is well-versed in the teachings of Muslim Black Americans. He was influenced in this regard partly by his mother, who Akhenaton describes as having a rather “revolutionary” tendency and as someone who read Angela Davis. As a teenager, Akhenaton spent summers visiting relatives in the US, where he read the works of leading African Americans such as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Elijah Muhammad. Having been exposed to Nation of Islam teachings, he is critical of what he calls the “home-made” religions of the US (Dufresne 1991:151), which he distinguishes from the more “authentic” Islam practiced in France. Other IAM members of the group equally understand the gap between the Islam of Black North Americans and the Islam of French Maghrebis and Africans. According to Imhotep, a Muslim in Marseille would find Black American Islamist discourse “bonkers.” IAM’s dancer and some-time rapper, Algerian Malek Sultan, discusses the Five Percent Nation of Islam), whose members style themselves Gods,43 noting that the celebrated US rapper Rakim is a member. Malek Sultan regards their beliefs be a “sacrilege” (profanation) (Dufresne 1991: 151). Yet, while IAM marks the distinction between the local, more “orthodox” Islam and the Black nationalist Islam of the US, it is nonetheless heavily influenced by US “Islamic” rap styles. Of the three groups under consideration here, IAM is the most prototypically hip-hop, and its musical style is the closest to US rap?although, as Akhenaton is careful to note, IAM’s sound is slower, uses Oriental music and rhythms, etc. (Dufresne 1991:15). Asked in 1995 by music magazine L’Affiche to list his ten favorite albums (Cachin 1995:22), Akhenaton’s choices were all US rap releases. Five of his favorites were by artists who belong to the Five Percent Nation (Raekwon, Eric B & Rakim, Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, and Mobb Deep); a sixth was by A Tribe Called Quest, two of whose members are orthodox (“Sunni”) Muslims. Akhenaton has elsewhere expressed his admiration for Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan (FLX 1995: 54). Moreover, US rap group Sunz of Man, who belong to the Wu-Tang “family” and are also Five-Percenters, guest on “La Saga,” a cut from IAM’s third album, L’école du micro d’argent (1997), throwing in some recognizably “Islamic” raps:
‘Bout to take it to another chamber
From Medina to Marseille…
Never ate ham, never gave a damn
Television tells lies to your vision
So, beware of the trick-nology set off to fool the mind Medina, in Five-Percent argot, stands for Brooklyn. Not eating ham is a reference to Five-Percent and NOI injunctions against the consumption of pork, a ban shared by orthodox Muslims. Describing television as something which “tells lies to your vision” is typical Five-Percent word-play; “tricknology” is an NOI term for deceitful “white” teachings. The IAM album on which “La Saga” appears, moreover, can be seen as a kind of artistic tribute, or analogue at least, to the influential vision of the Wu Tang Clan, Five Percent rappers whose work is heavily invested with samples from karate films and references to the ideology of Oriental martial arts, and who call their native Staten Island “Shaolin.”44 The cover of L’école du micro d’argent features armored Chinese warriors, and raps on the album feature numerous references to martial arts, Taoist philosophy (IAM’s other lead rapper, Shurik’N Chang-ti, is a Taoist), and even to the monks of Shaolin.Although IAM’s second release Ombre est lumière was, in Tony Mitchell’s judgment, “in many ways the unacknowledged masterpiece of Francophone rap” (1996:41), it seems to have had no impact on the US market, and therefore the group’s latest release L’école du microd’argent is almost impossible to obtain here. IAM’s collaboration with Sunz of Man and the group’s links to other Five Percent rappers, especially the Wu Tang Clan, have gone virtually unnoticed in the US. Nonetheless, they bear testimony to a kind of “Transglobal Islamic Underground” of cultural flows and affinities that exist despite deep-seated differences over the nature of “Islam.”
I want to conclude by arguing for the importance of paying close attention popular cultural manifestations of “Islam” in Europe, given the ethnic, political and cultural importance of “Islam” to youth of Islamic background in Britain and France. While we should by no means ignore Islam’s “religious” appeal to these youth, we also must situate that appeal in relation to ethnic, political and cultural factors, which in many instances may carry more weight than the “religious.” Through such a focus, we will also expand our understanding of the extremely heterogeneous nature of “Islam” in Europe, and shift attention away from a single-minded focus on issues (such as the “veil,” female genital mutilation, hallal diets, etc.) that often have contributed to stereotyping rather than to an understanding of Muslims. Cultural-political interventions like those of Aki Nawaz, Natacha Atlas and Akhenaton are likely to continue to be of critical importance for young Muslims, as part of larger efforts to create new “spaces” for multi-faceted Islamic identities and as weapons in the battles against racist violence and Islamophobic discrimination. There are similar manifestations elsewhere in Europe: for instance, a high-profile German rap group called Cartel, composed of three Turkish “immigrants,” plus a German and a Cuban, who have injected Turkish music styles into rap and have addressed anti-Turkish racism (Robins and Morley 1996; Soysal 1997:521, 527).45 And 1996 saw the release of French rapper Yazid’s album Je suis l’arabe (I am the Arab), a militant assertion of Arab issues and Arab identity. On “Je suis l’arabe,” Yazid raps:
Je suis l’Arabe, stopper l’oppression est ma mission….
Le pays de laïcité ne tolère pas l’Islam
Le chômage ravage, on parle d’immigration
Et lorsque la banlieue s’enflamme, on parle de l’intégration
(I’m the Arab, stopping oppression is my mission..
The country of secularism doesn’t tolerate Islam
Unemployment ravages, they talk of immigration
And when the banlieue burns, they talk of integration) On another cut, “Islam,” Yazid defends and explains his religion. Yazid asserts both his ethnic and his religious identity much more forcefully than has been seen before in French rap.We have not witnessed the emergence of such popular cultural phenomena in the US, where “Islamic” hip-hop has chiefly been a Black nationalist articulation and where Muslims have not been “ethnicized.” But perhaps a portent of the future is a new figure in New York City’s “illbient” and Asian club scene, a young woman DJ whose mother is an Egyptian Copt and who goes by the stage name Mutamassik. Mutamassik has recorded remixes, which drop in samples from Egyptian pop, for the latest Arto Lindsay releases (Mundo Civilizado and Hyper Civilizado). Although not a Muslim, Mutamassik attempts to re-vision Western stereotypes about Islam and the Middle East. Styling herself as the Egyptian Breakbeat Assassin, the “audio terrorist” (Owen 1997: 32), she tells journalists her name means “fanatic” in Arabic ( whereas the usual translation of mutamassik in Egyptian Arabic is someone who clings tenaciously to their beliefs), explaining that she is “playing on that stereotypical fear of Arabs” (Ali 1997).
Illbient Islam, anyone?
Department of Anthropology
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72701