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.
Part artist, part ambassador
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.”
‘Breaking down the hyphen’
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.
Education through imagery
Musicians are not the only artists offering nuanced glimpses into the Muslim American experience—visual artists are also using their paintbrushes and their cameras to help educate others. Asma Ahmed Shihok, for instance, uses mixed media paintings and popular American icons to study both American and Pakistani national/cultural identity. After immigrating to New York, Shihok, a Pakistani by birth, began a series titled “Home,” in which she transforms the cityscape using elements of Pakistani and Muslim culture. Her work plays with well-known New York City landmarks in ways that demand a double take: One image dresses the Statue of Liberty in Middle Eastern earrings and necklaces, and another redraws the New York City subway map with Arabic labels instead of English.
Shihok ultimately produces a vision of New York City as seen through the eyes of a Muslim American immigrant, where sparks of her former locale blend seamlessly with her new home in the city. This depiction, of course, is perplexing to some—anti-Muslim activists and vandals will sometimes demand that Muslim Americans “go home.” Yet Shihok’s imagery exposes viewers to a far more complicated understanding of “home” that is shared by many Muslim American immigrants—if not immigrants in general. Shihok’s work suggests that, at least for her personal understanding of the Muslim American experience, “home” is a concept that is neither explicitly foreign nor wholly domestic to the Muslim immigrant, but rather is an ongoing process of reimagining both.
Similarly, feminist photographer Sadaf Syed produces work with the explicit goal of breaking down stereotypes of Muslim American women. In her recent photo documentary book, iCOVER: A Day in the Life of an American Muslim COVERed Girl, she uses photography to depict ordinary American Muslim women—many of whom wear the hijab, a traditional Muslim head covering—as they operate in a range of professions, including a mother, an artist, a soldier, and a professional boxer.
Sayed’s intent, similar to that of many other Muslim American artists, is to provide an educational experience for others.
“Hijab is not a barrier to an active lifestyle, and I wanted to prove that we too are Americans and that we are more similar than not,” Syed said in an interview. “And sometimes showcasing Muslim veiled woman (in particular) a certain way for example that they are oppressed, uneducated, haters, have no ‘outside life’ that becomes oppression and takes our liberty away! It’s not the hijab but the lack of education!”
Once again, art is used to provide Americans with a new understanding of what it means to be a Muslim American, using visual nuance to challenge negative, flimsy, and uncomplicated stereotypes about the role of Muslim women and what does or doesn’t count as “American.”
Muslim American art as a community builder
While artists have used their art to individually shift the perception of Islam in the United States, the power of Muslim American art is not confined to recording studios and gallery walls. In addition to altering and expanding their own genres, Muslim artists have become heirs to the American tradition of using art as a medium for building community across differences.
The Inner-City Muslim Action Network, for instance, is a social-justice-oriented nonprofit co-founded by activist and scholar Rami Nashashibi. In addition to fighting for a wide range of justice causes in America’s inner cities, the network hosts “Community Cafés” in urban areas throughout the United States. The idea is simple: The “cafes” assemble scores of talented Muslim visual artists and musical acts such as Mos Def and The Reminders for the community to come interact with and learn from. The result is both unifying and educational. As the group’s website explains, these events allow local “socially conscious people” unfamiliar with Muslim art and artists “to collectively celebrate and engage in diverse and creative artistic expression.”
But Muslim American artists aren’t just bridging communal divides in the United States. They’re also using their talents to forge global relationships. Anas Canon, for instance, worked with the State Department’s Performance Arts Initiative to create “Hip Hop Ambassadors,” a program to promote understanding and demonstrate America’s diversity through performances and collaborations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Indonesia. Their 2011 tour took the group of Muslim American rappers to Algeria and Tunisia, where they teamed up with local Tunisian artists to Rock the Tunisian Vote for the elections soon thereafter.
Hip Hop Ambassadors, Community Café, and the network’s other arts programs such as the annual Takin’ It to the Streets music festival demonstrate again how young Muslim American artists can intertwine their songs, projects, and artistic endeavors with a fierce dedication to social change, activism, and community building.
In an American cultural milieu of occasional discord and even controversy between Muslims and non-Muslims, Muslim American artists are offering an important alternative lens through which to see the Muslim American community. Through the power of music, art, and communal events, artists have become an important educational and experiential force that can break down stereotypes and allow Muslims and non-Muslims alike a chance to interact and better understand one another.
To be sure, anti-Muslim sentiment may very well persist in some corners of the United States for some time. But if the current artistic landscape is any indication, Muslim American artists appear more than ready to meet the challenge of bridging cultural differences, with their voices, cameras, and paintbrushes at the ready.
This post was originally published by the Center for American Progress.
Photo of Kareem Salama