Hisham Aidi’s book, Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, newly released on paperback, is an exploration of the diverse ways that Muslim youth around the world search for what he terms a “non-racist utopia”. This cultural search often takes political, social and musical forms. The source material for the book is a combination of anecdotes, interviews and detailed research. In wide ranging segments, Aidi recounts stories of European Muslim youth who pay homage by visiting the grave of Malcolm X when passing through New York, young Afro-Brazilian Muslims who use the traditional carnival in Bahia to …
Hisham Aidi’s book, Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, newly released on paperback, is an exploration of the diverse ways that Muslim youth around the world search for what he terms a “non-racist utopia”. This cultural search often takes political, social and musical forms. The source material for the book is a combination of anecdotes, interviews and detailed research. In wide ranging segments, Aidi recounts stories of European Muslim youth who pay homage by visiting the grave of Malcolm X when passing through New York, young Afro-Brazilian Muslims who use the traditional carnival in Bahia to celebrate the Malê Revolt (a rebellion of enslaved African Muslims in Brazil during Ramadan in 1835), or young Moroccans who are increasingly rediscovering their historical relationship with Sub-Saharan Africa and the African Diaspora through Gnawa music.
It is often advocated that music is apolitical or that it transcends political divisions. However, for many musicians, creating music is not only rooted in musical talent and personal experience, but also in a political ideology and belief system which inspires the art. Islam and the long history of Islamic practices among black Americans was one of the foundations of the social culture in hip-hop’s “Golden Age” of conscious political rap in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The high output of popular political music in this period of hip-hop is acknowledged throughout the book as a continuing source of artistic inspiration for Muslim youth and black youth in Europe, Latin America and Asia who feel stigmatized by racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, or the war on terror. These youth are often living in marginalized communities like the favelas of metro Brazil or the economically depressed suburbs of major European cities.
Aidi presents not only the art of the youth communities profiled, but also provides political, socioeconomic and religious context in order to understand how these youth became marginalized, and the reasons they do not feel represented in mainstream forms of cultural expression. For example, one passage profiles the history of hip-hop in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It details how Afro-Brazilians created their interpretation of hip-hop in the de-facto economically and racially segregated favelas of Sao Paulo, where young musicians felt that their lives were not represented in the ostensibly post-racial modern samba. In the book, Honorê Al Amin Oaqd, the founder of the Sao Paulo arts collective Posse Hausa which is based at an Islamic center in the city recounts, “I got my political education through rap… through the music I discovered Malcolm X, and the history of the Malês… the Hausas who led the revolt (1835) were on different sides of the wars in Nigeria — but they came together in Bahia.”
Many of the musicians interviewed by Aidi from around the world mentioned the large impact that the 1993 Spike Lee movie Malcolm X had on their philosophical and spiritual trajectories. The profile of Black Nationalist Islam in the U.S. reached its apex of national visibility during the ’60s with the ascendancy of Malcolm X as an international leader of Black Liberation, and also as a committed anti-imperialist who remains deeply respected in Africa and Asia for his opposition to European colonialism.
Much of Rebel Music also details the history of black Americans who researched, created, and in some cases recreated or rediscovered a multigenerational identity that precedes the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. Black Americans have not only readopted Islam, like many of the jazz musicians did in the ’50s through the ’60s, but also West African religious and cultural traditions, from the Yoruba, Dahomey or Akan. Through these practices they are creating a link to a past history that predates modern racism and the dehumanization of their Black descendants. The book also discusses how music and spiritual practices of the Gnawa in Morocco are now included in Pan African Diasporan discourse and appreciation.
Adherents of the Gnawa sect of Sufi Islam trace their ancestry to slaves brought to Morocco over generations from Sub-Saharan Africa. After initially becoming popular with the large North African Diaspora in France and the world music circuit, Gnawa music is increasingly better known among the larger African Diaspora, and is now the most popular traditional music among Moroccan youth — a country whose cultural establishment has until recently privileged local Arabic musical traditions.
In the clip below, Yasiin Bey, Ferrari Sheppard, and their companions enjoy a traditional performance of Gnawa music in Morocco.
A constant in Rebel Music is that the music is discussed largely through the perspective of the musicians — taken from interviews and quotes by musicians. This is most evident in the extensive interviews that Aidi conducted with the brilliant pianists Randy Weston and Maurice El-Medioni, both in their ’80s.
The influential elder jazz patriarch Randy Weston discusses his history of incorporating Morrocan Gnawa music into jazz after living and performing in Tangier in the late ’60s. Below his group performs the song “Blue Moses”, which is also the name of his album released in 1972 which pioneered the use Gnawa rhythms in jazz compositions.
Maurice El Medioni is interviewed in a chapter that discusses the long history of Chaabi music in Algeria, a musical style that was performed by integrated groups of Jewish and Muslim Algerians until the ’60s. This style of music has gained international popularity in the past decade due to the documentary “El Gusto” which chronicles the reformation of Orchestra El Gusto, a group of musicians who began performing together in Central Algiers in the ’30s, until they were separated by the political and religious fallout of the Algerian War of Independence (think of an Algerian equivalent to the “Buena Vista Social Club”).
This revival of Chabi also coincides with a generation of young Sephardic and Arab Jews who are looking to rediscover their cultural roots. In this instance, the “non-racist utopia” that fans and musicians seek in this music is the historical memory of Al-Andalus–the Iberian Peninsula when it was under Moorish control.
Moorish Al-Andalus from this vantage point is viewed as a diverse society that embraced its religious pluralism consisting of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Another more recent time period detailed in the book is the history of peaceful religious coexistence in Algeria, before most North African Jews migrated to Israel or France following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
There is an extensive selected discography of the artists and songs mentioned in the book. As a music lover, I think the book is best read slowly, and with stops to fully enjoy the music referenced in Aidi’s writing and examples. Rebel Music details that youth culture does not passively develop in isolation from larger social, religious, and economic forces. Protests may arise spontaneously, but the philosophical, spiritual, and musical coping mechanisms that connect the racially marginalized of the world are anything but spontaneous — and deserve respect.
Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture
By Hisham D. Aidi
398 pages. Pantheon Books.
Newly released on Paperback