Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.” That is the caption posted by Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, 24, better known in west London DJ circles as L Jinny or Lyricist Jinn. It was accompanied by a picture he tweeted of himself in Syria holding a severed head. Bary is now reportedly under investigation for being the voice of the hooded figure who beheaded American journalist James Foley last week.
This is not the first time European hip-hop has come under scrutiny for spreading jihadist ideas, as I document in my new book, Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture. In 2012, Germany officials tried to indict former rapper Deso Dogg another convert to Islam for his lyrics which allegedly inspired a 21-year old Kosovar to fire at a busload of American servicemen in Frankfurt. Rumor has it he was reportedly killed in April of this year in eastern Syria by a suicide bomb.
Two things are evident about European hip hop today: First, as in America, some of its biggest stars are Muslim, the children of immigrants and/or converts. Second, a number of these artists are (or have been) embroiled in controversies about freedom of expression, national identity, and extremism. European government officials are increasingly worried about the influence that Muslim rap artists wield over youth, and are scrutinizing hip hop practices in poorer immigrant neighborhoods, trying to decide which Muslim hip hop artists to promote and which to push aside.
In a perverse way, hip hop is as much a symptom of the larger problem of cultural alienation as it is a solution.
Britain was the first country to deal with what state officials now call Muslim hate rap.” In 2004, the song Dirty Kuffar was released online by rap group Sheikh Terra and the Soul Salah Crew. The video, splicing together images from Iraq, Palestine and Chechnya, praises Osama bin Laden and denounces George Bush, Tony Blair, Ariel Sharon, Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabias King Abdallah as dirty infidels. The track drew the attention of the Home Office and Labour MPs, who saw the lyrics and imagery as advocating violence. In 2006, Aki Nawaz of the popular hip-hop-techno group Fun-Da-Mental released an album All Is War, with a cover depicting the Statue of Liberty hooded and wired like an Abu Ghraib prisoner, and a song (Che Bin Pt 2) comparing bin Laden to Che Guevara. Two MPs called for his arrest. In 2011, the BBC had Radio 1 Xtra tune out the words Free Palestine in a track by the rapper Mic Righteous, so as to ensure that impartiality was maintained.
Europe’s Rap Wars
The debate over hip hop, Europes dominant youth culture, stands in for a much larger debate about race, immigration and national identity. With many of the biggest stars being Muslim, the disputes over which Muslim hip hop artists are moderate or radical are also disagreements over what kind of Islam to allow into the public space. As European state officials decide what hip hop policy to adopt, American embassies on the continent have slowly inserted themselves into this delicate dance between European governments and their hip-hop counter-publics.
Hip hop is at the heart of US embassies outreach to Muslim communities. The State Department has argued that hip hop can convey a different narrative to counter the foreign violent ideology that youth are exposed to. American rap artists are invited to perform at embassies in Europe. Local artists are invited to the embassy. The US ambassador to France has sponsored hip-hop conferences, inviting French rappers to his residence, including the controversial K.ommando Toxik (who, at the US embassy, performed a tribute to two boys who were killed by the French police in November 2007, an incident that triggered a wave of riots).
This debate over hip hop is playing out most poignantly in France, the country with the largest Muslim community in Europe, the second largest hip hop market in the world and a place whose traditions of laïcité (secularism) aggressively restrict expressions of religion in the public sphere. After the French riots of 2005, French MPs called on the government to prosecute seven rap groups whose lyrics had allegedly incited youth to violence. The artists were acquitted, but the French government began investing more heavily in hip hop at the local and national level, sponsoring concerts and funding local institutions in troubled neighborhoods in an effort to recognize marginalized cultures and identities, but also to foster a hip hop conducive to integration.
Its not clear, however, what kind of hip hop best aids integration, and which rappers to invite to the Grand Palais. Successful hip hop artists rarely appreciate being held up by politicians as models of successful integration, often because government validation separates them from their base and creates tension between rappers approved by the state and those who are not. Precisely this process is occurring in France, as seen in the interplay between Abd Al Malik and Médine.
Probably the most celebrated French hip hop artist of the last decade is French-Congolese rapper Abd Al Malik. A former street hustler raised in a housing project outside of Strasbourg, he embraced Islam as a teenager, joining the Islamist Tablighi Jamaat. He achieved some notoriety with his rap group New African Poets, before embracing Sufism and shifting from gangsta rap to spoken word poetry (le slam). Maliks poetry, accompanied by riffs of jazz and la chanson française, speaks of the value of hard work, education and the power of spirituality. In his music and his autobiography, May Allah Bless France (QuAllah benisse la France), Malik extols the Republics values liberté, egalité, fraternité saying they should be reinvigorated. Malik has won all kinds of artistic and non-artistic plaudits; he is raved about by elites as a Muslim role model and a symbol of a new multicultural France. In January 2008, the Ministry of Culture awarded Malik the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, one of Frances most prestigious cultural honors.
As hip hop gains public acceptance and rises to the level of high culture, French cultural and political elites are carefully monitoring the kind of Islam that is being diffused over the rap airwaves, and Maliks music embodies the kind of Islamic piety that can be permitted into the French public square. If Maliks music makes no political demands, his would-be rival, Médine, a popular underground hip hop artist, hits all the issues that the Sufi poet evades: the social exclusion of nonwhite French youth, conditions in the banlieues and Western depredations in the Third World. Sporting a bald dome and fierce beard, Médine raps in harsh, halting tones over hard-core instrumentals, about colonialism, Malcolm X, Afghanistan, the PATRIOT Act, police brutality and segregation. His videos show graphic images of war, street protests and water-boarding. His critiques of the French model of integration are blunt and forceful, the gist being that Frances urban crisis must be understood in light of the countrys colonial past and Western imperialism in general.
The more overtly pious Malik is celebrated, in part because he declares his love for the Republic, sees Islamic identity as compatible with the Republics values and, while he refers to the countrys colonial past, is not enraged at the French state. Médine, on the other hand, is not particularly vocal about his own religiosity, speaking more about rights for Muslims. Yet, ironically, the mainstream media has largely ignored him, and some radio stations boycott him, saying he promotes Muslim identity politics (communautarisme).
After the beheading of Foley, anxieties are building on both sides of the Atlantic on the hip hop connection in European Islam and its recruitment potential into the ranks of ISIS and other jihadist groups in the Middle East and North Africa. Fans, activists and state officials are obviously wary of stereotyping the musical genre without creating a whole new generation of underground jihadists like Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary. In this perverse way, hip hop is as much a symptom of the larger problem of cultural alienation as it is a solution.
[Photo source above: YouTube]
Hisham Aidi is author of Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture. He is a lecturer at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Institute of African Affairs at Columbia University. He was a Carnegie Scholar and Global Fellow at The Open Society Foundation and is coeditor of Black Routes to Islam.