Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Check the Fresh: New Muslim Cool

"I was raised like a Muslim, praying to the east" -Guru of Gang Starr

My first real introduction to Islam came from Hip-Hop, as is the case for many of my peers. Coming of age on the east coast in the late 80s and 90s meant that Islam became part of the songs you listened to, the names children were given, and was part of "fighting the power." As a teenager, my naive understanding of the deen of Islam was small, but Hip-Hop showed me that being Muslim and a rapper demanded a different set of standards for living, from not eating pork to dropping knowledge in rhymes. In short, I was in love, but from a far. Fast forward and I find myself in my 30s and have seen the influence of Islam come and go in Hip-Hop culture, but was I reminded of the power of spirituality and creativity merged when watching New Muslim Cool which premiers tonight on PBS POV. Check your local listing.

There are a number of reviews of New Muslim Cool already popping up so if you want a more traditional review check these from the Times and the Root. The film traces the protagonist Hamza of the M-Team (Muhajideen Team) as he forms a family, builds a career in community transformation, and rocks as a Puerto Rican Muslim MC. Whether hopping on stage with flaming machetes, making dua in Al-Aqsa Islamic Center in Philadelphia, or speaking to Christians in prison, Hamza shows the power of being grounded in spirituality, yet not encumbered by culture. I was most impressed that the film showed indigenous Islam at its finest. (Indigenous Islam usually refers to people born and raised in the US who have practiced Islam outside of a predominantly Muslim cultural context ... if you really want to learn more, in particular about the role of Black folks laying the foundation for Islam in America, check out Islam and the Blackamerican.) While the recent 15 years have put a face on Islam in America that is predominantly Arab and South Asian, there are large indigenous communities practicing various forms of Islam and continuing to challenge and refine the relationship between the religion and culture.

The film smoothly captures the contours of Hamza's life ranging from the struggles of his newly open Masjid (Mosque) getting raided by the Feds, his own quest to grow as a father, and his entering into a cross-cultural marriage. Unfortunately, a capstone narrative on how Hip-Hop fully fit into his evolved life was missing. Filmed over the span of multiple years, I wanted to know, how did Hamza's view on Hip-Hop as a site for resistance evolve? How had his embracing of Malcolm X evolved as he studied more? How did he see other Muslims in Hip-Hop, particularly non-Sunni Muslims? There is really rich territory to be unearthed on the marriage, divorce, and sometimes estranged relationship between Hip-Hop and Islam. But no film can cover all the bases. I thoroughly enjoyed New Muslim Cool for its careful treatment of Hamza who beautifully embodies two of the most powerful social forces of the past 30 years: Hip-Hop and Islam. As a child of Hip-Hop and an admirer of Islam, I was pleased to see that the "new muslim cool" may just be the maturation of the old muslim cool.

If you like this, you'll love my blog Uptown Notes.

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