In the last post, I talked about how “The Thaw” reminds me so much of similar North American Muslim discourses that I encountered when I converted. In particular, “The Thaw” reminds me of a particular Muslim rap song by Native Deen that I encountered well after I converted, but when my kids were young and thirsting for all the worldly things that we were trying to censor or prevent their access to.
For us, worried about keeping our kids Muslim (meaning, very conservative and inward-looking Muslim), the cassette tapes of “Muslim rap” and nasheed boy-bands and folk-y stuff that were slowly becoming available in the place we were living in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s seemed like a godsend. At least, Muslim songs with English words for a change that went beyond kindergartener-sounding stuff like “A is for Allah.” Music that sounded cool enough that it could engage our increasingly restless preteens and teenagers. We were perennially short of money, true, but we bought those tapes whenever we could get them, and played them for the kids (and to be honest, also for our own musically-starved selves…) at home and in the car.
Some of the lyrics of these songs disturbed me to varying degrees, but I tried to shove my reservations to the back of my mind. Here we were, after having endured years of music drought, making do with a few Arabic and Urdu nasheeds that we either didn’t completely understand or understood too well (and didn’t like their message…). We now had something half-way decent in English, that the kids would actually listen to. Far be it from me to start raising picky questions about lyrics. I’d better just be grateful, and hope that they’d keep on writing and performing, and that the writing would get better.
We didn’t have that many tapes, so as we played them, the same songs would come up over and over. I soon unwillingly learned the words to Native Deen’s “M.U.S.L.I.M,” and tried to suppress a twinge of… I wasn’t quite sure what… whenever it came on:
“One billion strong all year long
prayers to Allah even in Hong Kong
You can never be wrong if you read the Qur’an for it’s never been changed since day one
Others may brag, say that we lag but they don’t know all the power we had
the power we had, the power we have so Muslimoon don’t you ever be sad
Take many looks, go read their books
and see all the facts that your friends overlook
You can always be proud, you can say it out loud
I’m proud to be down with the Muslim crowd
M-U-S L-I-M, I’m so blessed to be with them M-U-S L-I-M, I’m so blessed to be with them…”
There was just so much packed into only the first part of the song. I didn’t want to think too much about why it was it bothered me, so I didn’t… but the bragging, pep rally-ish tone of it didn’t sit well with me.
Now that I don’t feel that I’m practically obliged to listen to stuff like that any more (I can choose my own music! Wheeee!) I can examine what it was about the song that bothered me. The first verse goes from Islam as a world religion with a large population to the assertion that you can’t go wrong reading the Qur’an because it’s never been changed to vague references to the good old days in which Muslim empires held political power… and that our pride in this has to involve an “us and them” vibe. And that all these complex issues—world population growth trends, a rather illogical slogan equating a book having not been changed with its possession of truth, an often at best ethically problematic historical record… should lead us to cheer. Because all these things just mean that we’re on the winning team—and in the end, that’s all that matters. There is no need for deeper reflection on any of these matters.
The line “take many looks, go read their books” particularly strikes me as I listen to that song now. Their books. Meaning, non-Muslim historians. Because of course our history will always be authoritatively defined by outsiders. That’s just a given. And that “we” are forever suspicious of “them” and “their agendas” when they write “our” history is also a given. The idea that we might encourage our kids to become historians never occurred to us at the time, of course—after all, we had been taught in The Cult that studying the arts or humanities at university would corrupt our faith with “ignorance,” and the immigrant-dominated Muslim communities that we encountered wanted their kids to be business owners, or (for the middle-class) doctors or engineers or something “practical.” Not historians.
Unfortunately, the “us and them” vibe (with a tinge of paranoia) in that line is further elaborated later on in the song:
“…everywhere I see even on tv
people talking trash about the way I be
what they all hate is if we get great
’cause we’re the only ones with our heads on straight
don’t ever frown or your head looking down
if you read the Qur’an you’re the best in the town
y’all have doubt say we have no clout
but within a few years see how we’ve come about
we’re back on the scene, we’re the number one deen
I’m proud to be down with the Muslimeen…”
Way to fill kids’ heads with several very problematic notions: That “they” are out to get “us,” that there’s some sort of general plot to prevent “us” from regaining our alleged former greatness, that simply being part of this community and taking part in its key rituals somehow makes you better than everyone else, and that being “the number one deen” is all about… the numbers of adherents (as opposed to, say, how these adherents actually behave).
But problematic ideas or not, I see the appeal. It’s got a catchy tune. It provides an ego boost. It doesn’t challenge kids (or adults) to reflect in any way, but simply leads them to affirm what they already want to believe—that they are on the winning team, no matter what it might look like to others.
But (one might well say) it’s just a song. Intended primarily for teens. What did you expect? Of course it’s going to be simple. Simplistic, even. Of course it’s just going to hammer home a few straightforward ideas that are designed to give kids who are facing bullying or peer pressure to get involved with gangs or drugs or other harmful/illegal activities some pride in themselves that will hopefully encourage them to pursue more constructive goals. And what is wrong with that?
I might agree to some extent if in my community (or any other I knew of) there had been an atmosphere that encouraged more careful reflection on the issues the song raises rather than sloganeering and thought-stopping catch-phrases. So that when our kids began to outgrow the pep rally approach to Muslim identity, there would be something else to give them. But unfortunately, the ideas expressed in the song mirror a lot of the rhetoric routinely aimed primarily at adults in khutbas, halaqas, and at Muslim conferences.