Written by Jack Jenkins
To most listeners, Kareem Salama’s music does not sound much different from that of any other American country western singer. His songs, similar to so many other country tunes, are filled with stories of good friends and heartbreak, belted out in a thick Southern drawl over the thumping rhythm of a 12-string guitar. Even his attitude is familiar—when asked what makes his music “country,” Salama’s response is folksy, simple, and to the point: “Probably my accent.”
But for all the similarities, there is a key difference between Salama and most other country singers: Salama is a Muslim.
For many Americans, this detail can be puzzling. In a musical genre populated by some openly anti-Muslim stars such as Hank Williams Jr., how exactly does a Muslim American find a home? More pressingly, since Muslim American artists can be, by definition, the most visible representation of Islam in America, how do they pursue their artistic passions while also confronting various misconceptions and stereotypes of Muslims in the United States?
In the midst of these challenges, evidence suggests that contemporary Muslim American artists are not only thriving in the American artistic landscape, but that they are in fact carving out a unique niche for themselves—one in which their art is fast becoming a point of connection, not consternation, between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States. As the examples below explore, the work of these artists is both changing the artistic landscape and also becoming an important vehicle for bridging religious and cultural divides in the United States.
Because of the complicated nature of the U.S. religious milieu, Muslim Americans sometimes find their unique religious and cultural identity misunderstood by non-Muslim Americans. As such, Muslim American artists are frequently thrust into a complicated role that is equal parts artist and ambassador for the Muslim faith. While many might prefer to simply pursue their artistic passion, Muslim American artists can be forced into a false dichotomy—namely, the need to assert an “American” identity while also “explaining” their Muslim roots.
Artists such as Salama, however, are rising to meet this complicated challenge. Country music, for instance, is a famously story-driven genre, so it comes as little surprise that Salama often speaks (and sings) of his own quintessentially American story. Born in a small town in Oklahoma to Egyptian parents, he is quick to make jokes in interviews about his “redneck” friends, recount fond memories of attending rodeos with his family, and point to childhood pictures on his website that depict a young Salama clad in oversized boots and a cowboy hat.
“Islam is my religion, but culturally I’m an Okie,” Salama told Sky News in a 2008 interview.
But while Salama stresses his Oklahoma roots, he doesn’t shirk his faith. On the contrary, Islam deeply influences his music: Salama first experimented with songwriting after studying classical Arab poetry in college, and while his lyrics rarely include explicitly religious language, some of his songs are inspired by the work of Islamic scholars.
“I am like incense; the more you burn me the more I’m fragrant,” Salama sings in his song “Generous Peace,” a nod to the words of Muslim Scholar Imam Muhammed Shafi’ee.
By knitting these two aspects of his identity together in story and song, Salama makes the case to listeners that his Muslim faith and his small-town American upbringing are not mutually exclusive. “My religious values and my cultural values reinforce each other,” Salama said. “I like [country music] because it’s a particularly reverent genre.”
Salama creates a musical conduit through which Muslims and non-Muslims alike can begin to find shared ground and better understand one another. It’s a small first step, but, as Salama points out, it can be an important one.
“I am certain there are some people who can’t accept [me],” Salama said, adding, “But hopefully, even if they don’t like you as a person, they will like the music.”
Although the term “Muslim American” is often used as a catch-all, it often fails to encapsulate the diversity of “hyphenated” identities claimed by practitioners of Islam in the United States. As such, many artists are attempting to tease out the particularities of their hyphenated status by deconstructing unhelpful generalizations and offering audiences a more nuanced, more personalized understanding of life as a Muslim American.
Omar Offendum, for example, is working to explore his specifically Syrian American identity while making a name for himself in another quintessentially American musical genre—rap music. Offendum, a rapper who got his start as one half of rap duo the N.O.M.A.D.S., recently released his first solo effort, SyrianamericanA. In it, he frequently rhymes about his three-fold status as a Syrian, a Muslim, and an American. He also cites influences that are both Eastern and Western: In one song he translates a poem by the great Arab poet Nizar Qabbani, and in another he works with Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
With lyrics such as “I write right to left, you write left to right, metaphor of a foreigner’s plight” and rapping in both Arabic and English, Offendum’s music offers listeners a peek into what it’s like to have a foot in two worlds but be fully a part of both. As online magazine FEN put it, Offendum’s music “truly breaks down the hyphen” of being a Muslim American and a dual citizen, and it offers fans a translation—often literally—of a hybridized identity that is both fully Muslim and distinctly American.
By contrast, Anas Canon, a musician/producer and African American convert to Islam based in the San Francisco Bay area, is discernibly less interested in the ethnicity-based particularities of his identity. He speaks and sings openly about his Muslim faith, and he founded Remarkable Current, a Muslim American artist collective and urban music record label that has released 15 albums since 2001. But unlike Offendum, Canon believes the draw of Islam—and thus the power of his music and Muslim identity—lies in its wider appeal.
“Quite often I even find Muslim organizations attempting to muster up political capital by galvanizing the community based on ethnic lines,” Canon wrote in The Washington Post. “By reacting in such a manner it weakens the very thing that makes the tradition great; its inclusiveness. … I find it damaging to allow world events to turn a tool designed to bring one closer to the Creator into one that breeds divisiveness.”
Canon explores this commitment to Muslim diversity and inclusivity in the music he produces, much of which revolves around collaborations between Muslim artists from a variety of races and nationalities. Canon’s song “A Young Man’s Spark (Bouazizi),” for example, features African American and Tunisian rappers rhyming about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man who set himself on fire to protest his government and helped spark the so-called Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East.
Both American and Tunisian rappers cite Allah throughout the track and draw parallels between the plight of Tunisian protesters and that of many urban American youth, with lines such as “Yah, Allah, My Lord, My Liege. We don’t want to see police shoot young teens. We’ve seen enough death, and blood in the streets.”
Here again, the complexity of Muslim American identity is exposed, explored, and expanded through music, breaking down stereotypes and helping listeners understand that gross generalizations are almost always inadequate for explaining what it means to be both Muslim and American.
Photo of Kareem Salama
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