Muslim Entertainment: An Insider’s Perspective
I started to become serious about Arts and Culture just after I turned 16. I got bit by the acting bug in high school and changed my career goal from being a lawyer. Not a huge stretch. I quickly became known in high school as “the actor”. I decided to go to New York University to major in theatre. I auditioned and got accepted into their highly competitive Tisch School of the Arts. But I couldn’t afford 20G’s a year. Anyway I also auditioned for and was accepted into Rutgers University’s school of the Arts program, Mason Gross. Based on my academic record I qualified for a scholarship from Rutgers which served me quite well as eventually I left off acting (my degree is in English and Sociology). There are only a few accomplishments I have done in life that I actually take pride in (Pride can be a negative trait as well) but my scholarship to Rutgers is one of them. But this isn’t an autobiography of Brother Dash. My point is to show that I’ve been involved in The Arts over ½ my life which is longer than I’ve even been Muslim. I’ve been an extra in two movies (Lean on Me and Juice-Tupac’s 1st film), done TV interviews, radio, had the first independent spoken word record label in the country with national distribution, performed for over 60,000 people in one year alone, and my performances have been seen by millions on television throughout much of the world. So I have extensive experience in the entertainment world. I am an “insider” so to speak. But as a practicing Muslim am I an entertainer? Do I want to simply entertain? Is that the point of a Muslim in the Arts? I would argue that it isn’t. And that is part of the problem with Muslim Entertainment today. It’s full of…well…entertainers! Do we need a bunch of Muslim entertainers? Or do we need Islamically oriented ARTISTS?
A Little History
Muslim Entertainment as far as those living in the West are concerned had its beginnings in the early 1990’s. While there have always been Muslims in Entertainment dating back to Jazz and Be Bop, Rock and Soul and even the very beginnings of Hip-Hop there was still no Western Muslim equivalent to “devotional” music like American Gospel for example. Whilst not the focus of this essay (I love saying “whilst”) the main reason for this can be seen in Muslim attitudes towards the very permissibility of music or specifically wind and string instruments and a general aversion to all things “cultural” (as if Islam and culture are inherently at odds). As such much of Arts and Culture in the West have mainly been de facto Arab or South Asian cultural expressions of Islam even when the creators themselves are non-Arab/South Asian. This is because what is “Islamic” has been fused with the cultural traditions or sensitivities of traditionally Non-African Muslim peoples.
But in the early 90’s with people like the American convert Mustaqeem Dean Muslims began to sing a westernized version of “Nasheeds” (traditional devotional odes sung a capella or with minimal percussion). From this nasheed movement came other genres such as Muslim hip-hop. Other forms of artistic expression have begun to emerge including what I would argue is the most Islamic of performance art which is Islamic poetry or Spoken Word. When I re-entered The Arts world in the early 2000’s (I was largely absent after my Shahada up until then) Spoken Word is the medium that I chose. It more closely fit my emerging Islamic identity. The subject for another essay however.
Art vs. Entertainment
Entertainment’s job is to pass away the hours; art should make profound, eloquent and affecting statements about the human condition.
-Mitchell Krieger, former director of Opera Pacific
What I have always felt about Muslims in the Arts is that we should be artists and not entertainers. Art touches the soul and can captivate hearts and minds. Art speaks to the human condition or helps with a spiritual connection. Entertainment has its place. I am a consumer of entertainment myself. But it has its place in moderation. As Muslims in The Arts why do we need to contribute to Entertainment? There’s not enough entertainment out there already? We don’t have choices? We need “alternatives” to mainstream entertainment? If I want Kanye or Nas or Jay-Z then I will watch them not Muslim amateurs imitating their style and behavior on stage. When I think of Muslims in The Arts I think of a kind of artistic and cultural contribution that takes me a little higher or at least attempts to. Today I see a lot of artists who are calling themselves Muslim but there is little that is Islamic or uniquely “Muslim” about what they do. Case in point is a recent hip-hop tour in England featuring several Muslim artists. While some of the lyrics may have the customary “Allahu Akbar” thrown in the packaging was all typical mainstream. Apparently things started to get a bit out of hand and a virtual party atmosphere was created. Now for a non-Muslim reading this you may be saying “What’s the big deal?” But we are talking about a religious audience where the atmosphere is supposed to uphold a particular standard of Islamic etiquette. And let me state for the record. I am not raising this mantle of Islamic holier than thouness. I ain’t holier than anybody else. In fact Allah has chosen to cover my sins, my faults and inappropriateness from most of you reading this. There is a hadith that says and I will paraphrase “If Allah chose to uncover what you do in private the stench would be so bad that no one would bury you.” But we are not talking about the private realm we are talking about the public sphere and we are talking about an Islamic trust that we as artists AND organizers have with the public. A Muslim parent doesn’t expect to see an artist on stage at a Muslim event who doesn’t uphold certain basic standards of Islamic decorum. But when you book an artist who has a picture of himself with strippers and a pole publicly displayed on his website what do you expect?
And this is not a commentary on where someone is in their spiritual development. I am all for gently supporting people “where they are at”. I am all for having compassion and understanding and helping people along but NOT at the expense of someone’s child. Grow on your “own dime” as they say.
As artists we have been given a gift from Allah. Some of us have the gift of speech. We can captivate an audience with our words, cadence, and ideas. Some of us are gifted visual artists turning a dirty brick wall in Birmingham, UK into a masterpiece of artistic and social relevance. Some of us are gifted musicians adding beautiful sound to a world full of strife. We can use these gifts to better Muslims who are looking for Islamically oriented “entertainment” or rather as I prefer Arts and Culture or we can just ape around. I can’t tell you how many events I’ve been a part of where the talent just wasn’t up to snuff. Most nasheed artists would never make it in mainstream. Most guys doing hip-hop would be relegated to talent showcases. I don’t know how seriously people take their craft but with the exception of some individuals like Preacher Moss or Mo Amer or my fellow spoken word artist Amir Sulaiman (and there are others) not too many have spent years honing their craft in front of more sophisticated crowds. I have heard nasheed artists at major events struggling to hit notes, singing off key, and having very amateurish stage presence. Now it’s wonderful that you are praising your Lord. That’s great. But you can do that in your living room. Once people pay their ticket they should be given a quality performance.
As artists we also need to “check our nafs” at the door. Why EXACTLY are you doing this? Are you trying to be a star? I am an avid consumer and producer of the culture of my society. But my society doesn’t need for me to be the next pop star.
The Dawah Fallacy
Let’s put an end to this “I’m doing this as dawah” fantasy. Will rapping or singing about Allah have an effect on a Non-Muslim to the point where it opens their mind to discovering more about Islam? Possibly but is that likely to happen for more than a handful of people? Is the medium of hip-hop and pop music conducive to spirituality? I don’t think so. I think at best it can spark an interest. In 80’s and early 90’s hip-hop we have many examples of rappers saying: “Hold up the peace sign A Salaam Alaikum” (Big Daddy Kane) or “My way of life is that of Islam” (Wise Intelligent from Poor Righteous Teachers). These tracks did perhaps point people in a particular direction. But it wasn’t religious rap. These were not tracks entirely about Islam and they were in a context of mainly positive, sometimes party, or conscious hip-hop. So the consumer in this regard was someone primarily interested in conscious rap and the Islam was along for the ride. Now this may have opened the door for some people to become Muslim but it wasn’t “dawah rap”. So we must be honest with ourselves and the medium that we choose.
Part of the problem is that almost all Muslim Entertainment events are organized by charities and non-profits. They are not organized by people with an artistic or even entertainment mission. As such their priorities and skill sets are different. These organizations are notorious for not paying artists properly if at all, haggling over travel expenses, and treating some artists like God’s gift and others like servants. I myself have done performances that I got stiffed on. But because I do what I do for reasons other than money or fame I don’t continue to go after these organizers for my dough. Many of these organizations use entertainment simply as a means to fundraise. To add insult to injury they refuse to even pay the artists after these artists have largely been responsible for providing the motivation for the audience to donate in the first place. Why can’t you pay artists a percentage of the fundraising if you are going to be so cheap as to not compensate them properly? Even further these organizations tend to go to the same well of artists over and over again effectively shutting out new talent. This talent inevitably becomes discouraged and some have left Muslim Entertainment altogether to pursue fame and ‘mis‘fortune(ha ha cute I know) in the mainstream. Unfortunately they will do more harm in my opinion to themselves. But that’s another article. I know of a Muslim artist who told me that he was no longer promoting himself as a Muslim rapper but as a rapper. He would not shy away from being known as Muslim of course but that he would no longer market himself to the Muslim community. He grew weary of the lack of opportunities to perform, the paltry payment, the favoritism and unfortunately the racism behind-the-scenes. Yes this is the unknown side of Muslim Entertainment. Take a look at the line up of the last few years of Muslim concerts and you will see what I mean. In fact if it weren’t for the events that I and brother Hasan Johnson have organized ourselves the percentage of Non-Arab, Non-South Asian performers in the last few years would be even less! And this is not to even mention the utter lack of organization and ineptitude behind-the-scenes. And people are starting to become weary of these events. The 2008 Evening of Inspiration tour was very poorly attended. The show in New York City (with its estimated 1 million greater NY area Muslim population) barely had 200 people in a venue for over 1,000. The MAS Youth tour featuring the rap (sort of) group Outlandish came nowhere near recovering their $600,000 investement most of which was in the costs associated with booking Outlandish a Denmark based group.
Has the novelty of Muslim Entertainment worn off? Have people come to these events expecting an Islamic concert but instead get a concert that has the look and feel of a Non-Muslim event?
No Girls Allowed
Another problem with Muslim Entertainment is the lack of sisters. Sisters are represented behind-the-scenes to a certain extent (and when they are the events actually run smoother than when brothers are in charge) but not on stage. Muslim women will rarely if ever get bookings to sing for a mixed audience and it’s tough for them to get bookings to rap. One artist, Miss Undastood, mentioned in an interview with the podcast program The ChaiPod that female artists don’t get the requests to perform at certain events like the brothers do. They are shut out of the process. Where Muslim Women are represented seems to be in Spoken Word. Now some of this is due to religious views on Women singing (to mixed audiences) but alot of it is just chauvinism if we want to keep it real.
So whilst the tone and tenor of this article is highly critical (told you I liked that word) there is much good. As I alluded to there are some wonderful brothers and sisters involved in the Nasheed, Hip-Hop and Spoken Word scene. There are visual artists like Aerosol Arabic and Salma Arastu doing wonderful work. Calligraphers like Hajji Noor and actors like the Progress Theater group out of Baltimore. Poets like Pearls of Islam, Warsan Shire, Gaith Adhami and others who are really trying to incorporate a holistic Islam with both conscious and spiritual elements. There are artists who are truly interested in promoting Muslim cultural expression and are not trying to be pop stars. There are even some like Khaleel Muhammad who will “check” other artists. Khaleel and I did an event together and I recall Khaleel admonishing another artist behind-the-scenes on some really unsavory comments this artist made regarding a certain group of people. Khaleel immediately, and without hesitation, said “hold on bro…what you said was wrong and inappropriate and this is why”. The next morning the artist in question apologized publicly to all of us and his identity I will continue to keep to myself.
I have also seen artists stop and give time to their supporters. I have seen artists like Baba Ali go out of his way to include a group of sisters in the experience of having dinner with us. The organizers, all male, hadn’t really included these sisters who had won the chance to eat dinner with the artists (yes we can argue having such a contest in the first place another day). Baba Ali made a concerted effort to introduce himself to them and ask them some questions so that they weren’t totally left out due to someone else’s interpretation of gender etiquette. Another artist Rakin Fetuga from Mecca2Medina opened up his home to me when no hotel was available at the last minute. He also personally escorted me to the airport via train even though he had work to do because I had never taken the tube to the airport before. These are stories that are not well known to the public. But Mecca2Medina doesn’t get the support that some other artists get whose purpose is not necessarily Islamic propagation while M2M’s is.
So in conclusion let us re-examine Muslim Entertainment before we go so far down the “lizard’s hole” that there is no return. Each progressive mistake, slip-up, etiquette faux paus, issue that we allow to pass by becomes acceptable and the bar becomes lowered to the point where it resembles nothing of Islam whatsoever. We should be supporting and championing Artistic expression that speaks from our cultural identities and social realities. We should be exploring all sorts of genres. I am not against hip-hop, nasheeds or even rock and country. But we need to understand the limitations of these genres as well. I am a big proponent of Spoken Word obviously. But I know the limitations of even my genre. We have so much benefit and beauty to offer as artists, organizers and supporters. So let’s do it. Allah is the most beautiful and he loves beauty so let’s just be beautiful people shall we?