Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hip-Hop, Post 9/11

Autumn 2011 Perkins Perspective marks the beginning of its fourth year in existence. In this e-newsletter, we have tried to model Reconciliation 2.0. In this issue, that means our feature articles represent collaborations between Seattle city government, an affluent urban Presbyterian church, a community development organization, and church in a low-income community in the process of gentrification. Another article introduces you to a former student and staff member involved in urban missions.

All of these pieces coalesced in the midst of my contributing to a Seattle Times' piece on the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. As I look at the images of the Palestinian rappers and the iconic RUN-DMC, I'm reminded of the weeks and months following the fall of the Twin Towers.

On September 12, 2001, I was in Kobe, Japan, taking a brisk walk outside in preparation for a long flight back to Seattle. It had been a whirlwind week of taking care of immigration issues with my pregnant wife. As I walked along, the villagers bowed deeply and said, “Ohayo Gozaimasu,” the most polite morning salutation from the same people who had all but ignored me on prior walks. (I was used to being ignored by strangers on previous trips, unless they were drunk and wanted to tell me that I looked like MC Hammer or Michael Jordan.)

Not long after, my wife and I were preparing to leave for the airport when a neighbor arrived with a newspaper. She held up the front page, blaring the news of the World Trade Towers’ destruction.

That week, as I haunted train stations and malls in Japan’s Kansai area waiting to return home alone, I‘d occasionally run into talkative Middle-Eastern men who wanted to chat about being in the States. Once back in Seattle, I found a parallel phenomenon: Young Middle-Eastern men were now greeting me with the universal black salutation: “What’s up brother?” They said it with a look of sadness and solidarity. These emotions, and their implied politics, emerged from their recognition that they, too, would experience unfettered racial profiling.

Here I have to explain: When I was dating my wife, Risako, she was an exchange student fresh from Japan. Watching my interactions, she thought I was in some sort of (black) secret society or a special agent, because whenever I passed another black man on the street, or encountered them at the bus stop, or in a restaurant, we’d give each other a head nod and a silent, “what’s up?” Now I found myself receiving this old-school greeting from my new found Middle-Eastern brothers. It was intriguing.

I developed a theory. Following the attack on the World Trade Center, men with Middle Eastern backgrounds began experiencing the same stigmatization and public scrutiny as black men had for centuries in the United States, and they with a greater intensity. Now, under increased scrutiny in our surveillance society, racial profiling caused them to feel the ever-present burden of their race and religion.

In speeches and print, the burden of blackness has been articulated by black leaders from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. In our hip-hop era, commercial and conscious African-American rappers have used hip-hop as their version of a “black CNN” to communicate the sense that being a black man in America has led to a social dynamic that made them public enemy number one.

While African-American men had experienced slavery, legal segregation, Driving While Black, and the War on Drugs (now known as the New Jim Crow) for years, after the attack on the World Trade Center, Arab and Muslim men were suddenly under the glaring spotlight as we moved towards a War on Terror, stigmatized as potential extremists and profiled in public and private.

Unexpected Shifts The War on Terror began during my graduate school years while I spent my time in seminars and libraries thinking about numerous social and medical issues lens of race. These experiences have culminated in my ability observe a common perception among some Arabs and Muslims and African Americans in the global hip-hop nation. While on Hajj, Malcolm X began to recognize the humanity of Arab and non-Arab Muslims, 9/11 provided a deeper and more politicized context for reciprocity on a deeper level.

My observations are tied to my encounters with Arabs and Muslims following 9/11. Yet, they go back even further, to my experiences on the street and in academia. My first-hand familiarity with hip-hop and training in cultural and race studies has allowed me to see something new among some Arab and Muslim youth, and those that identify with them.

That is, the appropriation of hip-hop and their stigmatized identity as a means to speak back to mainstream society.

As a young man, I listened to hip-hop music during the War on Drugs, when neo-black nationalism emerged in hip-hop’s golden era it seemed to reconcile our past and present moment in dystopia for many young black males in the age of crack. Likewise, this music resonated with young Arabs and Muslims. Prior to 9/11, hip-hop music had deep roots in Islam; in fact, Islam has been called hip-hop’s “unofficial religion.” But whereas Islam’s influence on hip-hop originally came primarily through African-American Muslims and other black religious cults, as described in Arthur Huff Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis, now we see Arabic, Muslim, and Jewish youth appropriating hip-hop language, music, and style to subvert narratives that criminalize them, and as a tool for reconciliation.

In 2008, Naeem Mohaiemen wrote about this shift in hip-hop culture using in DJ Spooky’s book, Sound Unbound. In an article whose title is lifted from the hip-hop neo-black nationalist group Public Enemy, "Fear of a Muslim Planet,” he concludes:

One of the most overused phrases is "after 9/11." Yet we can at least say that the new realities have brought a change to Muslim hip-hop.

For Muslim youth, there were two new forces in their lives. First, there is the crackdown on Muslim civil liberties, expressed through the Patriot Act, INS deportations, "special registrations," "extraordinary renditions," no-fly lists, and torture memos. Second, there are the continuing U.S. wars of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq. All this has inspired the rise of new Muslim-identified hip-hop bands. Many of these are now Sunni affiliated and some are led by children of Muslim immigrants. Hip-hop remains the singular voice of black America, but that core is now made larger by Arab, Asian, African, French, and British Muslims.

These youth have developed a distinctly assertive identity under the descriptor "Generation M[uslim]," a movement that has gotten the attention of bloggers. Groups with identifiably Islamic names — Sons of Hagar, Arab Legion Divine Styler, Halal Styles, Iron Crescent, Mujahedeen Team, Native Deen, the Iron Triangle, and Young Messengerrzz — are defining themselves both as traditional Muslims and as multiracial.

Prior to 9/11, politically conscious African-American rappers tended to focus their subject matter on a derivative form of Islam, secret knowledge of the 5 percenters, and American racial politics within the black-white binary. Things have changed. One anthropologist of education interested in “hiphoporaphy” has tracked how shifts in the hip-hop nation are coinciding with globalization and the War on Terror, a phenomenon which in turn tracks with old-fashioned American racial attitudes.

In a recent fracas at the Rye Playland amusement park in New York, 15 people were arrested and the park shut down after a fight broke out between police and a group of Muslims. The Muslim patrons became incensed when a group of women were barred from certain rides because of their headscarves. In brief, these patrons felt that they were being profiled due to their conservative attire, which reflects Muslims enduring social aggression in the form of profiling and exclusion that African-Americans have endured for years. It was the ability to presage these kinds of experiences that led young Arab and Muslim youth to pick up the frustration among non-white American hip-hop artists and devotees.

Political Shifts, Media Transformation, and Cultural Transformations

A number of observable causes have led to this synthesis of Arab, Muslim and African-American cultures in the realm of hip-hop.”First, we are witnessing an increasing fluidity in identity performances among many Arab youth outside the United States who are identifying their experiences with the War on Terror and global warfare with those of African-American communities that have lived through, and rap and write about, the War on Drugs, urban poverty, police brutality, suspicion, and surveillance. Second, through art, music, film, and the Internet, we find black speech, culture, and ideologies being absorbed in the Middle East and Third World. Black youth identity politics have become mobile in such a way that transcends pop or commercial culture. Finally, African-American urban (or street) and Middle-Eastern identities are being projected across global geographies.

Here in Seattle, our own Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of Digable Planets has reinvented his act under the moniker Shabazz Palaces. His artwork incorporates pseudo-Middle-Eastern imagery. No longer “cool like that,” when performing, he often wraps his head and breast in the Palestinian kuffiya, a scarf that indicates solidarity with Palestinians, which have become synonymous with the ubiquitous hoodie seen in the recent London riots. After 9/11, high profile and street black males appropriated the scarf into their wardrobe for both superficial and political reasons. Similarly, Israeli rappers DeScribe and Remedy sell the scarves to fund their efforts. Two years ago, while a student, Ha Neen combined the scarf into urban fashion.

In 2010, Ha Neen’s activism at the University of Washington revealed how hip-hop devotees were using the music and culture to respond to racial profiling and the War on Terror. As a leader with Students for Justice in Palestine, she helped to sponsor two global hip-hop events: Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets and Writing’s on the Wall. In the first show, hip-hop artists Nizar Wattad and Omar Chakaki (hailing from Palestine and Syria, respectively) cultural activists and spoken-word performer Mark Gonzales, an Alaskan-born Mexican-American who identifies with Arabs and Muslims interrogated identity, hip-hop culture, and growing up as an "other" in the United States. In the first performance, they reveal how hip-hop and social justice created the context for reconciliation and healing.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Nizar Wattad truly heard the music for the first time. He went on to become hip-hop producer and screenwriter. He also helped fund Slingshot hip-hop, a documentary film on Palestinian hip-hop. The film has been called straight of out of Palestinian, which reveals its connections to black rap classics, Straight Out of Compton and Matty Rich’s Film Straight out of Brooklyn. In Slingshot a Palestinian rapper says, “We are the black people of the United States.” In 2009, the documentary New Muslim Cool detailed the struggles of Puerto Rican American rapper Hamza PĂ©rez, a former drug dealer, who attempted to turn his life around and redeem incarcerated me through introducing them to Islam.

On numerous levels, these artists work and testimony reveals how they see hip-hop as a subversive truth-telling medium connected to the African-American experience. The ability to tell their story provides the opportunity for empathy, dialogue, and reconciliation.

A naturalized citizen of the United States, Wattad became a devotee of hip-hop after hearing the music in Palestine. When talking about his movement toward identification with the black experience, he says the attacks on 9/11 motivated him to form a hip-hop group as a means to produce a counter-narrative to the mainstream media’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as “billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers.”

In Writing’s on the Wall, Gonzales, and other performers sought to “build a united front to bridge communities affected by physical barriers. The wall in Palestine, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the struggles against injustices [against all people] for human rights.” Gonzales believes that many non-white communities have experienced many "9/11s.” Gonzales has a valid point. However, I see something new here.

From my perspective, the ongoing War on Drugs and War on Terror, creating what many perceive to be state-approved terrorism in age of increased surveillance, are blending with memory and the poetic possibility of the creation of a community through hip-hop. New York City has hip-hop and tourist units. Following 911, for those affected disproportionally globalizing racial profiling based on race and the micro-physics of surveillance, hip-hop culture and Web 2.0 provide the mediums for the voiceless to contradict mainstream media.

In brief, the tragedy of 9/11 has-re-politicized the art, culture, and worldview of many participants in hip-hop culture in a manner that creates the context for reconciliation beyond the dividing walls that Christ eliminates.

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