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Written by leading scholars, the Focus On essays are designed to stimulate thought and enhance understanding of vital aspects of the Islamic world. New essays on specific themes, with links to related content within the site for further reading, are published throughout the course of the year. All visitors to Oxford Islamic Studies Online can access these essays, but related content links in Previous Features are available to subscribers only.

Underground Muslim Music Emerges: Metal, Hip Hop, and the Politics of a New Generation

Jordan Morreall, Tamara Sonn, Laura Thomas

From left to right, Bond, Mizo and DR, members of the hip-hop band "PR," short for Palestinian Rapperz, pose on DR's street in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Feb. 9, 2007. (Courtesy Alexandra Boulat/VII)

Heavy metal and hip hop have gone global. For decades, musicians and fans have been forging bonds across the Internet. This is not news to anyone born in the past half century. Nor is the strong strain of protest in the music; metal and hip hop were born in poverty, often critique hypocrisy, and rejoice in the richness of life. But what is recently gaining scholars' attention is that music—including metal and hip hop—is becoming the voice of protest among younger generations of Muslims worldwide.

To clarify, heavy metal is a genre of rock music driven by intense rhythmic parts. It originated in the late 1960s in English industrial towns. Hip hop is a genre of music that was born shortly afterwards in the ghettos of New York City. It began as the music played at summer block parties in the South Bronx, where musicians would improvise vocally over a Jamaican "sound system." A sound system consists of record turntables, a record mixer, an amplifier, and speakers, originally set up on the flat beds of pickup trucks. Eventually the improvisations became rap lyrics, and the sound system developed into looped instrumental beats. Both heavy metal and hip hop ferociously confront the challenges of life, and often set their sights on political subjects. In doing so, the musicians become channels expressing the discontent of their peers—the fans.

A number of recent works deal with the emergence of "Islamic" protest music—music performed by Muslims in extremely nontraditional modes to call attention to the miserable conditions endured by millions of oppressed peoples. Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat's Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North (2010) contains several articles about musical politics in Morocco, Indonesia, Turkey, and London. Ethnomusicologist David A. McDonald's "Carrying Words Like Weapons: Hip-Hop and the Poetics of Palestinian Identities in Israel" (2009) is soon to be expanded into a monograph of the same title. Indy filmmaker Platon Theodoris introduced the world to Muslim rappers in Australia in a 2008 film titled "Lakemba"; Jackie Reem Salloum's documentary on Palestinian hip hop artists,"Sling-Shot Hip-Hop," was featured at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

The most extensive work in the field has been done by historian and musician Mark LeVine in his landmark Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (2008). LeVine describes in vivid detail the popularity of alternative music genres among Muslims from Morocco to Pakistan. In places that allow relatively greater freedom to congregate and perform music, such as Morocco, hip hop and metal concerts draw tens of thousands of fans. But in more conservative areas, such as Iran, the Internet is the only viable option for popular social protest and resistance. Even in areas where the government blocks their signals, Web-savvy navigators find ways to connect.

Several factors account for the growing popularity of alternative music. One is the burgeoning youth population. In many parts of the formerly colonized world, people under 25 make up more than half of the population. In Gaza more than half are under 20. Nearly forty percent of Pakistan's population is under 15. Even more important, however, are the ongoing conflict, poverty, and lack of opportunity that plague the lives of younger generations. Metal and hip hop are often protest music, and there is a great deal in the lives of Muslim youths to protest.

Like their counterparts in the United States and United Kingdom, metal and hip hop artists in Muslim-majority countries focus on the grittier sides of life. The Gaza rap group Palestinian Rapperz lead singer Mohammed Farra says, "Rap came from struggle, and at least being a rapper allows me to take the realities of the occupation and transform them into songs" (LeVine 109). Moroccan metal band Syncopea lead singer Badreddin Otky screams about injustice, pain, genocide, and war. In Iran underground musicians affirm the value of life in the face of an official culture of martyrdom. West Bank rapper Stormtrap says, "Without music we wouldn't have much hope for the future" (LeVine 112).

These voices of protest are echoed in the works of Muslim rappers elsewhere. Somali-Canadian rapper K'naan, like American rapper Mos Def, works to broaden his listeners' awareness of suffering. Yes, the ghetto is bad, they say, but the world is a ghetto for far too many people. Denmark-based hip-hop group Outlandish's duet with Iranian-English singer Sami Yusuf—"Try Not to Cry"—is a heart-wrenching serenade for suffering children everywhere.

It is not only Muslims who join the chorus. Muslim voices of protest have been heard and joined by such artists as Kobi Farhi and Yossi Sassi Sa'aron of Israel's hip hop group Orphaned Land. Like Orphaned Land, Israeli punk band Dir Yassin, formed in 1997 (disbanded in 2002), challenged Israelis to recognize the suffering of Palestinians.

But there is at least one unique element to much of the alternative music coming from Muslims today—the opposition to violence. The artists understand the urge to lash out, but describe it as utterly futile. At the same time, they express frustration with those who fail to resist at all. Using words as their weapons, as Palestinian rapper Saz puts it, they provide a channel for the anger, frustration, and sense of powerlessness that fuels violence in others. West Bank rapper B-Boy of the group G-Town says, "Hip-hop for me, as a rapper, is a way to resist. Instead of using guns and stones, maybe words are going to bring me a solution. Or maybe just make me feel better." Palestinian rapper Ibrehiem Ghoneem contrasts his art with the gushy love music on the radio, saying that "what we're doing with rap is completely different. This is about resistance. The violence never seems to change anything, so maybe people will listen to us this way." Israeli hip hop artist Sagol 59 (Khen Rotem) agrees. "With hip-hop you start a dialogue, Jews and Palestinians. You go to the root of the problem" (John Pendygraft, "Middle East Word Wars," The St. Petersburg [FL] Times, 3/8/09:p6E).

Tamer Nafar of DAM, the best known Palestinian hip hop group, is from the Palestinian slums of Lyd, Israel. He grew up in garbage-strewn streets surrounded by drugs, crime and, of course, graffiti. In Arabic, English, and Hebrew he asks, "Who is the terrorist?" (min irhabi?) That is the name of one of DAM's most famous songs. It has gotten millions of hits on YouTube since its debut in the late 1990s. In "I Don't Have Freedom" (mali hurriya), he says, "We've been like this for over 50 years. . . . But I'm strong, staying optimistic. . . . My feet are the roots of the olive tree. Keep on prospering, fathering and renewing branches. Every branch grown for peace." In "Change Tomorrow" (n'ghayir bukra) his bandmate Mahmoud Jreri warns the children:

Don't grab a gun; grab a pen and write
"I am an Arab," like [poet] Mahmoud Darwish did.
I'll never kill the others just to live.
My heart is screaming: We are human beings.

Some researchers have referred to Islamic hip hop and Islamic metal. But does the fact that the artists are Muslim make it "Islamic"? Not necessarily, although Islamic themes of social justice and human dignity can be heard throughout much of the music, and some musicians describe Islam as their musical inspiration. The three people who formed Outlandish in the 1990s describe themselves as deeply religious—two of them Muslim (Isam Bachiri and Waqas Ali Qadri) and one Catholic (Lenny Martinez). Their 2005 album is titled "Closer than Veins"—a reference to the Qur'anic verse reassuring people that God is closer to people than their jugular veins (50:16). Iranian rapper Peyman-Chet describes his music as "Eminem inspired by Rumi" (LeVine 203). Salman Ahmad, of Pakistan's famous Junoon, calls his "Sufi rock" music his "jihad." Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour's 2008 documentary "I Bring What I Love" chronicles the controversy surrounding the album "Egypt" as a celebration of his Islamic faith.

Mark LeVine introduces his readers to a popular Shi`i sheikh (Muslim religious authority) from Iraq who says, "I don't like heavy metal, not because it's irreligious or against Islam, but because I prefer other styles of music. But you know what? When we get together and pray loudly, with the drums beating fiercely, chanting and pumping our arms in the air, we're doing heavy metal, too" (15). Nevertheless, many political and religious authorities believe metal and hip hop are un-Islamic or even anti-Islamic. Some have equated it with Satanism.

Yet the artists and fans carry on, thanks to the Internet. And unlike their predecessors, metal and hip hop artists take their message beyond the immediate community to the entire world. What is more, they do so in ways that may elicit empathy rather than anger or fear. Whether or not this wave of idealism and protest will be any more successful in effecting change than previous generations of political and militant activism remains to be seen. But at the very least it gives artists and fans alike reason to hope.

Selected Bibliography

  • Cooke, Miriam, and Lawrence, Bruce B. Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
  • Herrera, Linda, and Bayat, Asef. Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Knight, Michael Muhammad. The Taqwacores. New York: Soft Skull, 2009.
  • LeVine, Mark. Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam. New York: Three Rivers, 2008.
  • McDonald, David A. "Carrying Worlds Like Weapons: Hip-Hop and the Poetics of Palestinian Identities in Israel." Mid-Ad: Israel Studies in Musicology 7:2 (2009): 116-130.

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Subject Entries

Arabic Language and Literature
Arabic Literature
Arab-Israeli Conflict
Devotional Music
Music
Sufism

Biographies

Rumi

Primary Source Documents

The Merchant and His Clever Parrot
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