The Test of the American Muslim

TheTestOfTheAmericanMuslimDear Daughter,

I have something I want to share with you, which I have never explained to you before.  When I was a young man, I made a decision that would change the course of my life and ultimately yours as well.  The skeleton in the closet of our lives is that as a wide-eyed, peach-fuzz lipped, knuckleheaded, eighteen-year-old, in the middle of one brisk March night, I said the following words that would change who I was forever: “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his last prophet.”

It was long before the frenzied age of rampant Islamophobia and nearly a decade before hijacked airplanes would slice into our hearts, like rusty blades that leave wounded tissue gangrenous with infection, claiming thousands of American lives along with our innocence, in a cacophony of death.  There was no Muslim “Kaiser Soze” (boogeyman) yet; Bin Laden was not in the public conscious and most people in our nation associated Islam with the eloquence and dignity of Muhammad Ali, and not the straggly bearded, turban clad foreign accents that terrorized us from faraway lands.

My two friends, the lanky and tall Abbas and the pudgy faced Osama, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” in unison to affirm the pledge I spoke that night that made me a Muslim, and the sound of their cry ricocheted through the air like a lost memory echoing in the back of my skull, for I too was a victim, spoon-fed imagery of explosive Middle Eastern tropes.  The hidden truth is that in the eyes of America, my brown skin and my unique heritage already categorized me as “other” in the eyes of xenophobic America.   America was already Islamophobic, it just hadn’t learned the vocabulary yet.  I grew up through the hostage crisis, embassy bombings, plane hijackings, and the Gulf War; I’d been the victim of school yard bullying and the default Iranian, Arab, Libyan, and Iraqi in all those instances, and ostensibly a Muslim, because of my brown skin.  The same lovely hued skin you have.

America had already considered me “the other” in many ways, long before I became one, and back then I always had a cowardly way to retreat from the otherness they asserted upon me.  I could say with conviction that I wasn’t Muslim or an Arab, or anything else other than what I was.  Or take it a step further, become strategic and grow to hate and then bully the Muslims around me. The venom inside me had burgeoned into racial and ethnic slurs that I found myself using under my breath, and eventually I’m loathe to admit, at the top of my lungs in order to distance myself from those who had distanced me from my identity as an American.

I became the bully that I despised by targeted the false-identity they ascribed to me, in others and challenging their othering with self-hate.  In that clouded time, Chuck D and Lord Jamar cut through my mental fog and spoke directly to me through cassette tapes stuffed in Walkman’s while the Poor Righteous Teachers taught me like no other teacher had in school and collectively, these Hip-Hop artists introduced me to a man named Malcolm X.  It was ultimately Malcolm who began the process of healing me, and by the time I met your uncle Abbas as an eighteen-year-old college kid, I was enamored with the discipline in the faith of Islam.

Abbas, now a successful surgeon, was the first practicing Muslim I had ever met, and in him, I saw a Muslim who was emblematic of what Islam taught, as manifest in the example set by Malcolm; in our friendship, I discovered the essence of Islam, is love. This was a far outcry from the Muslims I had met through Hollywood, showcased in the media, or those whom I’d previously interacted with. Our brotherhood helped introduce me to Islam, but my decision to become Muslim was a choice to become what the world already thought I was—it was ultimately a resolution to embrace my otherness.

From that day to this one, I have survived by living in the hyphen; as a Muslim-American, in a nation that devolved rapidly from President Bush making a distinction between American Muslims and those who committed the atrocities on 9/11, to a president calling for a Muslim registry and travel ban. The otherness I’d embraced in my youth now encircles me like the serpentine wrappings of the pariah I’ve become—but one I would have been regardless of my choice to become a Muslim or not. The Qur’an foresaw the test we’d face as Muslims in America when in Chapter 29, it states, “Do people think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe,’ and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and God will certainly know those who are true from those who are false.”

The great secret that I have kept from you is that I didn’t choose this life for you—but that it was chosen for us, by the ignoramuses that have equated brownness with otherness and have hung hyphens around all of our necks.  The fact is whether you choose Islam or not, you will be inextricably related to it, and you can deny it at every turn, join the bullies, or choose to follow this path and thereby control the hyphen.  This is the test.

Whether you choose to wear a scarf on your head or not, you will be a default ambassador for Islam.  You will be forced to explain it and its practices at every turn and stupid people will question your nationality because of it; they will question your loyalty and they will typecast you into the role of other, so they can define themselves as civilized citizens while they demonize you. This is your test.

What may seem like a vice grip akin to a being trapped between a rock, or in this case Iraq, and a hard place, is truly a special place to be, because like the Quranic promise of a test of faith, there is a test of what it means to be American too.  Ostensibly America is just a promise.  It is a dream deferred until it is tested and realized for those collecting on its promissory notes.  For example, it takes a person like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to test the promise of the freedom of expression by sitting during the national anthem, just as it takes a conscientious objector like the late Muhammad Ali to test freedom of religion.  It will take someone like you embracing the otherness they cursed you with in order to litmus test the promise of America for yourself, by walking this path, donning a scarf, and ultimately living in the hyphen, until America accepts you for what you are and who you choose to be.  This is America’s test, not yours.

Love,

Dad

Black Skin, White Masks: My Song with Lord Jamar

If any moment validated what I do as a poet and artist, it was speaking with Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian over the phone about the track I’d just sent him and my concept for it.   Anyone who knows me, knows that Brand Nubian, and in particular Lord J, with his lyrical content, voice, and spirituality had a profound influence on me as an artist and as a Muslim.  I remember playing Claimin’ I’m a Criminal on repeat, over and over again as a college student—Lord J’s and also Sadat X’s lyrics spoke to me on both an experiential and existential level.  Here were two black men, who embraced their identity and did not wear masks.

From time to time I’ll ‘check’ for Lord J, and I always appreciated how sincerely he ‘repped’ his faith and identity in all the forms of artistic expression.  It’s something I sought to do in my artistry as well, and found in Lord J a model to emulate.  So for all these reasons, talking to Lord J was a bit surreal for me.  However the conversation surprisingly flowed naturally between the Hip-Hop legend and me, the upcoming poet.  I showed him the respect he deserved which I think he appreciated.  We live in a time where many a young artists neglect the forefathers and forbearers of Hip-Hop, i.e. those who laid down the path that these young artists themselves now walk freely.  Many of these artists are oblivious to who the legends are, and the years these figures spent in the game, at a time where Hip-Hop was given no ethos in popular culture.  I guess I must’ve stood apart from them to Lord J in some way because he also showed me love and agreed to participate in a song which was ironically aimed at the very concept of identity which he’d been speaking up for, for years.

It was almost as if the song was meant to be.

We began and ended the conversation with the word “Peace”, and a week later I had lyrical gold sent to me as an e-mail attachment.  I called up my boy, fellow Brand Nubian fan, Hakim, who always plays the role of the laidback cool kid in the back of the room… but even he was noticeably ‘juiced’ as I leaked the news.  “I just got a feature from Lord J,” I said.

Now I’ve been in the booth with E-40; and on my first solo I worked with Raekwon, Canibus, Sadat X, Hussein Fatal and Killah Priest, and since then other legends, as well as contemporary heavyweights.  However this song and its message along with the person featured on it, held special weight.  It meant and still means something special.

This ‘feature’ meant an almost perfect marriage or Lord J’s appearance to the lyrical content to the custom beat made by Arun Trax which used a vocal sample from the late Khalid Abdul Muhammad; in addition to top it all off, the song itself was titled after the seminal work of Frantz Fanon, White Skin, Black Masks.  The song was meant to be both a history lesson regarding people of dark skin or African descent in the West as well as a wake-up call to many of what Hip-Hop had been and could still be: message driven music.

So for the backdrop for this song, my team shoes an appropriate video, the infamous ‘Black Sambo’ by Warner Brothers; a ‘banned cartoon’ because it depicts in the most heinous of ways a child of black descent in such a negative light.  It spoke to the essence of the song and seemed almost tailor made to convey the  lyrical message which ironically speaking to issues that sadly still exist in society today.  Another layer of irony is that it was images like ‘Back Sambo’ which reinforced in the minds of many black and other children of color growing up a sense of inferiority.  These children then grew up to wear ‘white’ masks to move forward in society.


Hip-Hop
is a way of communication positive messages and it gives voice to the voiceless.  However those that say Hip-Hop is dead say so because it has become a co-opted art form in becoming an almost self-deprecating form of expression especially as it is packaged in its erudite now popular form—I would argue that in this sense while Hip-Hop seams ‘dead’ to its message driven roots, the message does live on.  Hip-Hop is alive overseas; it lives in basements, in backpacks, in taped up headphones worn by street urchins, in cyphers comprised of orphans, and in vocal booth microphones that embrace the spit of authentic stories which are often ignored by popular media.  Hip-Hop lives in large part to the continued investment of those who have laid the path like Lord J.

Lord J, gains nothing from our collaboration—instead he builds and gives back, he allows the spotlight that has embraced his years of work to shine ever so briefly on an up and comer like myself.

PEACE, Lord Jamar, thanks for doing this young up and comer a solid on this joint.  I was honored that you would consider it in the first place.  While the song may not have a mass audience, it speaks to issues that continue to affect the masses. PEACE, Professor A.L.I.

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Keep Hip-Hop Alive watch the video here and support the song and album Carbon Cycle Diaries on iTunes.