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Muslim Americans Bridging Communities Through Art and Music

Muslim Americans Bridging Communities Through Art and Music
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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.

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72 comments

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5:07AM PDT on May 27, 2013

Though different people are, the art is the universal language to communiate for peace

2:43PM PST on Dec 27, 2012

Thomas P. " Phil. A...what do you suppose the artist is trying to ' indoctrinate' us with? Love? peace? .That is what islam is about " Oh boy ! How do you know ? Are you a new convert to islam? or have you read quran or any of their history? From Quran Sura 9:111" Allah has purchased from the faithful their lives and worldly goods and in return has promised them paradise. They will fight for the cause of Allah, they will Kill and be Killed ." And that is exactly what muslims have been doing from the times of their so called profit Mo-ham-mad.
" I find that muslims look and sound a lot like I do and want same things I do " Doesn't Christians, Buddhist, Hindus, Baha'is, look like you and also want same things as you? What's the big deal?
I suggest you read quran and understand Islam ,
Sura 3:28 " Let believers NOT make friends with Infidels in preference to the faithful ,he that does this HAS NO connections with Allah unless you guard yourselves against them. Allah admonishes you to fear Him, for to Him you shall all return " So don't come here giving us your B.S about love and peace of islam.

1:50PM PST on Dec 27, 2012

Scott h. " The Koran it has passages that deny the rights of others to believe differently is not a book of peace.." You are so right. From Quran Sura 2:193 " Fight against them[ infidels/kafurs, derogatory word for non muslims] until Idolatry is NOT more and Allah's religion reigns supreme " And that is what muslims have been doing from the times of their Mo-ham-mad. Sura 48:13 " And if any believe NOT in Allah and His messenger ,we have prepared for those who reject Allah,a Blazing Fire for the disbelievers." Muslims will NEVER assimilate with non muslims.

1:31PM PST on Dec 27, 2012

Robert O. " .The trouble is there are those that have made up their minds about muslims and don't want any differences bridged but instead would rather remain INTOLERANT and see to..." Looks like youand naive people like you think that muslims are very tolerant towards non muslims in muslim countries. see www.compassdirect.org

2:10AM PST on Dec 24, 2012

The Koran it has passages that deny the rights of others to believe differently is not a book of peace. While Westernize Muslims will be somewhat assimilated it is going to be a long time before the hate espoused in the Koran changes if ever.

10:29AM PST on Dec 22, 2012

I agreed with the line, "Muslim artists have become heirs to the American tradition of using art as a medium for building community across differences." because it shows that they can expand their message through a non-violent way. By doing so, they enable communities to understant them.

12:39PM PST on Dec 20, 2012

Twiggy, I take issue with your race and gender baiting, framing this as a "white male privilege" issue. It's as though you've ignored the entire liberal movement from the 60s onwards. There are an awful lot of white males in this country who simply aren't on the nasty page of history you're talking about. That all went down 50 years ago. I'm a generational product of those social transformations. I resent you labeling me, a white male, when I know these issues are also about Religion, Nationalism, and Class. Yes, you get immigrants, they take crappy jobs and have less money. Likely to be more crime among them, until generations pass and economic conditions change for them. Today it's Muslims; used to be the Irish.

Regarding Malcolm X, I don't know if the word "assimilated" is getting the right emphasis here. Blacks were assimilated in the USA the way the Borg assimilated races in Star Trek The Next Generation. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. From this day forward, you will serve, us.

12:29PM PST on Dec 20, 2012

Ernest I can't take it seriously. *Indonesia* is the largest Muslim population in the world. It started in Saudi Arabia. Cultures and ways of life echo around the globe, transforming as they pass from one place to another. Christianity started in Judea and eventually converted the Roman Empire, back when it was a superpower. That's the only reason it's so globally popular now. The Mongols had a way of life, it changed some when they conquered the Chinese. You haven't learned anything about history, all the religious wars people have gotten bent out of shape about. Catholics and Protestants used to be at each other's throats. Now except for a few places like Ireland it's all toned down quite a bit, it isn't a big deal any more.

Learn not to hate, to be open to change, and not to live with a mind full of fear. It's reasonable to fear a terrorist and do something about it. It's not reasonable to fear anyone who has a different word for "God" than you do. Even with a terrorist, it's worth trying to understand how we create them, using our fear.

11:00AM PST on Dec 20, 2012

A marvelous example of how the arts are leading cultural change and displaying the future to all of us.

9:16AM PST on Dec 20, 2012

@ Brandon V. .” I thought fear of Muslim immigrants was more of a European thing.” Yes. They got an earlier start learning what Muslim immigration really means. Have you read the news from Denmark, France, Germany, Belgium, England? “Our way of life” has a history that includes serious criminal acts. So does every other way of life. If you want someone else’s way of life, the way to get it is to move to the area where it is practiced, not to replace your own with it as an experiment. @ Mary R. And I can tell where you are coming from. Uninformed Islamophilia. @ Thomas P. I “ suppose the artist is trying to "indoctrinate" us with” good feelings about Islam to counteract the news about daughters being doused with acid, about cutting off noses and ears of runaway wives that could no longer tolerate the beatings, [allowed in the Quran] rape victims being whipped or stoned to death for “adultery”because they couldn’t produce five male witnesses required by Sharia [Muslim] law, and the suicides by burning alive by Muslim women to put an end to an intolerable existence . PS, I have spoken to a Muslim and I don’t live in fear. Thanks for asking.


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