Poetic Protest: Women, Hip-hop, and Islam

Felicia Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX)

When we think about protest music, we tend to think about music sung at political rallies or music created for a cause—the labor movement for example, or anti-war songs. But sometimes protest music is subtle. Sometimes performance itself—the getting up on stage in front of people, the very act of appearing in public—is the protest. Such is the case of Poetic Pilgrimage, a British Hip-hop duo comprised of Muneera Rashida and Sukina Abdul Noor. Their music certainly can be political: their song “No More War” decries war in all forms and encourages listeners to see the destruction that our material culture has wrought. “I’ve seen it all before: death, destruction; heard it all before: greed, corruption; no more, no more war,” they chant in the chorus.

Poetic Pilgrimage, “No More War” (2008)

Their more recent song “Silence is Consent,” featuring Mohammad Yahya, takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, asking how leaders on all sides of the dispute can sleep at night, knowing what the war is doing to innocents. They lash out in particular at those who hurt women. “Not in my name,” they say, and berate these leaders for bringing shame upon their umma (faith community). They extend their complaint to other countries whose leaders choose to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who stand by while atrocities are committed. They call out leaders in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia, in part for decimating their own populations, and also, in some cases, for colluding with powerhouses like the United States to incite civil strife in their own countries.

Poetic Pilgrimage, “Silence is Consent” (2011)

These are powerful songs, written to bring attention to critical social justice issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two women have been censured for their performances, not because of explicit content or anti-war politics, but because they are Muslim women who dare to perform their rhymes over music.

Rap—and particularly Islamic rap—has long been dominated by male voices. Even at the height of “conscious rap” in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when the airwaves were dominated by MCs affiliated with either the Five Percent Nation or the Nation of Islam, women were hard pressed to create space for their voices and perspectives. There were exceptions, of course, but for every Queen Latifah and Sister Souljah rapping for sisterhood and social responsibility, there were dozens of men and all-male crews spitting misogynist rhymes. Rap is a tough career path for any woman; women who choose to dress conservatively—sporting elaborate head coverings and loose-fitting clothes that cover most of the body—and rap about politics, women’s rights, and the beauties of Islam seem to a larger public the very antithesis of what rap has come to be.

But Poetic Pilgrimage and other Muslim female MCs and spoken word artists have begun to challenge our expectations about women in Hip-hop in general and Muslim women in Hip-hop in particular. In May of 2015, a new collective of artists known as The Hijabi Chronicles introduced themselves to a Berkeley, California audience. The name of their collective calls attention to their headscarves: they all wear a type of modest head covering known as a hijab, which immediately marks them visually as Muslim. The group’s founder, Alia Sharrief, insists that Muslim women have a place in Hip-hop music and culture: “I am trying to convey that Muslim women belong in Hip-hop. Though it is a male-dominated arena, we’re definitely here. We’re knowledgeable, we have rhymes, we have soul, and we have something to say,” she told an interviewer in May.

Sharrief’s own music draws on prominent tropes of American Islam and Black Nationalism. In the video for her new song “Who ready,” for example, graffiti images of Malcolm X and armed Black Panthers alternate in the background. Musical heroes such as Bob Marley and Tupac appear as well. But not all heroes are men in the video: it frequently cuts away to an image of a woman whose face and mouth are covered with a scarf that matches Sharrief’s own. Next to the woman is a slogan that upends conservative views about womanhood: “A woman’s place is in the struggle.” Sharrief and her companion take revolutionary poses: their left fists pump the air in Black Power salutes as they rap, “Put your fist up, tell ‘em you’re a real revolutionary; cause when the time comes we’re ready to ride.” Sharrief is not asking; she is taking her place in the revolution.

Alia Sharrief, “Who Ready” (2015)

Sharrief’s single “Black Heros” [sic], featuring Aminah Bell, is even more explicit about the role Sharrief wishes to play: “You’re gonna see, we’re gonna bring truth ‘cause we’re black heroes, baby.” This song responds to Iggy Azalea’s “Black Widow”; both are rapped to the same music. But whereas Iggy Azalea’s song is about romance, temptation, and foreplay, Sharrief teaches her audience about the roots of black history and calls for the release of all black political prisoners. And in the process, she identifies herself as a black hero.

Alia Sharrief, featuring Aminah Bell, “Black Heros” (2014)

But there is another challenge that these and other Muslim musicians share: the role of music—and particularly that of instrumental music—in Islam is hotly debated. Islamic scholars interpret the relevant hadiths (verses) of the Qur’an differently, leading to varying schools of thought. For some, only vocal music is permissible. For others, instruments are permissible as long as the resulting music is moral. For still others, such as Sufis, music making—and the state of ecstasy reached through music making—is seen as the most important path to communication with God. This debate places Muslim artists in a difficult position: if they choose to perform with instruments, they will never appeal to the faction of Muslims who take a conservative view and only value vocal music. If they choose to perform without instruments, they risk cultivating a limited audience and reaching fewer people with their messages. For Muslim women to perform in public and to perform over instrumental music is doubly striking. As one self-proclaimed Muslim convert wrote for The Clique: “It’s no secret that in some stricter circles, music is considered a tool of the devil — and to have two women performing to music, well, you might as well just carve ’666′ onto the tables.”

The women of Poetic Pilgrimage take the view that as long as their music is righteous and used for good, instruments are permissible. Hip-hop Hijabis, a brief documentary released in March 2015 about the duo, their music, and their “musical journey of faith,” shows the women in several performance contexts, including as part of an “I Am Malcolm X” tour. During this tour they had to make a choice about how best to present themselves to a particular conservative audience in Bradford (West Yorkshire, England), in order not to offend Muslims there who objected to women performing music. 

At the Bradford venue, the men on the tour performed their sets as usual: with full complements of turntables and instrumental backing tracks. The women, however, chose to perform their rhymes as spoken-word texts rather than stay silent, but the decision was clearly difficult. Just before the women took the stage, Sukina explained why there was conflict at all: “People thought that a woman being on stage is her kind of exposing herself. The voice of a woman, they say, is like part of her private parts that shouldn’t be seen by the public.” As they prepared to deliver their rhymes, Sukina offered a brief introduction in which she confronts the injustice head on: “[This poem] is inspired by the fact that as Muslim women performers, we’re often told that we’re not allowed to perform at certain events or that if we perform we have to sit down, or we’re not allowed to … use music like brothers do or whatever. Our biggest argument to this is the fact that if our voices aren’t heard, then someone will speak for us.”

Hip-hop Hijabis, a short documentary by Mette Reitzel about Poetic Pilgrimage, a British hip-hop duo comprised of two Jamaican-British Muslim women. Footage of the “I Am Malcolm X” tour begins about 8 minutes into the video.

Later they travel to Morocco, where they participate in ecstatic music making and singing with Sufi Muslim women. Their concert in Morocco includes their full instrumental soundtrack; men, women, and children of all ages dance and share the space with these women who came to Morocco to share their love for Allah. (The footage from Morocco begins about 19 minutes into the above video.) In this venue, there is no objection to their performance and they are welcomed.

During a radio interview (captured in the documentary) Sukina shares that the duo receives messages from other Muslims on a regular basis about the impermissibility of what they do, chastising them for performing, being on stage, and being out in front of a public audience. But Sukina insists: “If I thought it was forbidden I wouldn’t do it.” They do not rhyme in order to flout convention. These women, like Ali Sharrief and other Muslim women on the mic, rhyme because they have something important to say and they will not be silenced.

For Discussion

  1. Look up music by the Muslim women rappers Eloquence, Miss Undastood, and MC Suriya. How does their music compare with that of the artists discussed above?
  2. How do these women challenge or reinforce your ideas about how women should participate in hip-hop?

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