Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture

By Hisham D. Aidi

Pantheon. 398 pp. $29.95

The study of American Muslims has too often centered on immigrant assimilation, though a growing recognition of the deeply embedded Muslim presence in American history and culture is expanding the field. In “Rebel Music,” Hisham D. Aidi explores the significance of music for transnational Muslim consciousness, asking his own question: What happens when American musical traditions, infused with the unique history of American Islam as a voice of resistance, find new audiences in Muslim-majority societies? In this important work, he pays special attention to how governments around the world react to the political content of popular music. Despite some weaknesses, “Rebel Music” starts a crucial conversation for anyone interested in hip-hop internationalism, Muslim youth cultures and state interventions in religion.

The front cover to "Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture" by Hisham D. Aidi (Pantheon/Pantheon)

The interconnectedness of American Muslim communities with global Muslim networks is only beginning to receive proper attention, and as Aidi points out, few scholars recognize that influence flows in both directions. Aidi offers a much-needed focus on the role of music in these exchanges, exploring the ways in which the legacy of African American Islam, embodied in figures such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and now mainly transmitted through the global medium of hip-hop, speaks to Muslim youths in Europe and Muslim-majority countries. In its strongest moments, “Rebel Music” examines the ways in which hip-hop, despite its rich legacy of political resistance, ironically can serve as a voice of deradicalization.

“Rebel Music” covers a considerable range of material: the intersection of government, music and Islam in Brazil, Salafi tensions over the religious permissibility of music; punk rock in Pakistan; Muslim youths engaging Rastafarian culture in Morocco; the U.S. and U.K. governments’ interest in Sufism as an antidote to Islamist discourses; and the significance of the African American freedom struggle in Muslim internationalism.

Unfortunately, Aidi, who teaches at Columbia University, has not escaped some of the lingering problems that plague the academic study of American Islam. In his discussion of various African American Muslim communities, he appoints himself referee in contests of Muslim authenticity. He confidently states that there was “actually very little that was Islamic” in the doctrines of the Moorish Science Temple, an African American Muslim movement that originated in 1920s Chicago. Making frequent use of terms that have fallen out of favor in the critical study of religion, such as “orthodoxy” and “heterodoxy,” and describing groups with the condescending labels “proto-Islamic” and “quasi-Islamic,” Aidi assumes the authority to judge where “real” Islam can be located.

It is in the relations between these communities that Aidi misses some difficult nuances. For example, he classifies the seminal rapper Rakim, who declares in his lyrics that he is “in control of many, like Ayatollah Khomeini,” with American hip-hop stars such as Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey (the former Mos Def) who “work their Muslim identity into their art.” The problem here is that while Fiasco and Bey are Muslims, Rakim belongs to the Five Percenter movement, which originated in 1960s Harlem and holds that the black man is God.

Aidi rightfully includes Five Percenters as contributors to the Islamic presence in American hip-hop, but he misses the salient fact that they overwhelmingly reject self-identification as Muslims. Because Five Percenters disavow association with Muslim communities but nonetheless profess Islam as a way of life rather than a religion, Islamic references in the lyrics of Five Percenters artists such as Rakim, Brand Nubian and the Wu-Tang Clan might confuse uninitiated listeners. Delving into the Five Percenters’ complex relationship to Islam lies beyond the scope of this review and perhaps Aidi’s project, but to miss these details exposes an overall lack of rigor in his treatment of the material.

For this reviewer, an especially regrettable element of “Rebel Music” is Aidi’s discussion of taqwacore (Muslim punk rock), a scene in which I was intimately involved. Aidi makes several erroneous assertions. For example, in his discussion of the Kominas, the best-known taqwacore band, he misidentifies one song as being involved in a lawsuit and mentions another that, if it exists, has not been released. (Unfortunately, neither song title can be printed in a family newspaper — which gives you a sense of the liberties that some taqwacore groups take with social convention.) These problems could have been avoided with more careful attention to material that is widely available.

Despite these complaints, “Rebel Music” is an achievement. Aidi sets out to tell a global story, and each of the specific contexts that he examines would make for a fascinating book on its own. “Rebel Music” offers helpful insights on the globalization of youth cultures, the new hybrids that this creates and the efforts of modern nation-states to harness music’s social and spiritual power.

Knight is the author of nine books, including “The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop, and the Gods of New York.”