Reasoning Rap and Metal in the Islamic World

In the December issue of the libertarian Reason Magazine, an article by journalist James M. Dorsey
explores the cultural phenomenon of underground music scenes in the
Islamic world. “Rap and Metal on Planet Islam”
begins in Morocco with
the story of metal head Nabyl Guennouni. Guennouni helped organize
Casablanca's annual L'Boulevard des Jeunes Musiciens, a music festival that
now pulls more than a hundred thousand in attendance.
Seven years ago, Dorsey recounts in how the times have changed. Guennouni's efforts to put on a metal music event
landed him and 13 others in hot water with Morocco's conservative
Islamic politicians. After police arrest, a trial ensued in which “prosecutors produced as
evidence against Guennouni fake skeletons
and skulls, plaster cobras, a latex brain, T-shirts depicting the
devil, and “a collection of diabolical CDs,” which they described
as “un-Islamic” and “objects that breach morality.”

The turning
point, according to “Rap and Metal on Planet Islam” came when the
sentences Guennouni and others received for promoting “Satanism” and
“prostitution” were overturned in 11 of the cases and reduced for three of the others. The reason? Popular support for the musicians. The ordeal marks the very real tension that underground youth music culture sparks with political and religious conservatism in “Planet Islam.” Dorsey then goes on to broadly comment on how that dynamic plays out in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Like any good article on the subject, the scholarship of UC Irvine professor Mark Levine is acknowledged next. LeVine, an accomplished musician himself, wrote an important book in 2008 titled “Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” Dorsey, however, doesn't turn to that source in charting his own interpretation. Prefacing the “pent-up Middle Eastern anger” that youth underground music expresses as a result of authoritarian regimes and command economies, Dorsey cites instead LeVine's Freemuse report “Headbanging Against Repressive Regimes.”

In the extensive write up, the UCI professor is quoted as comparing the musical currents to those that ran through the “Velvet Revolutions” of Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Dorsey writes, “LeVine describes underground musical communities as “avatars of change or struggles for greater social and political openness,” saying “they point out cracks in the facade of conformity that is crucial to keeping authoritarian or hierarchical and inegalitarian political systems in power.””[

When the UCI professor joined KPFK's Uprising Radio morning show two years ago to discuss his book in an hour long special with Reza Aslan, he actually noted right from the onset that doom and gothic metal from the US and UK, spurred in part by early neo-liberal structural adjustments, is what translated into inspiration in the Islamic youth forms of the culture, not glam rock or hair metal. “We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal,” were the words Moroccan metalhead Reda Zine recounted to LeVine.

Conservative interpretations of Islam and authoritarian regimes definitely spur youth angst and counter-culture, but there are many more hierarchical and inegalitarian systems of power that LeVine noted as a driving force of it which the Reason Magazine article largely ignores — the continued legacy of European colonial imperialism as well as current Israeli and American occupations in the region. The professor writes in the introduction to Heavy Metal Islam, “These artists, secular and religious alike, are devoting their lives to creating an alternative system that builds an open and democratic culture from the ground up, against the interests of both the political, economic and religious elites of their countries and, many believe, of the United States and other global powers as well.”

An Iranian rapper, Salome, mentioned in the book is much more nuanced in her music than the Reason Magazine article would ever let on as she denounces sanctions against her country in Grow Green in This Land. Salome rhymes “We know how to deal ourselves / it is not an excuse for you to interfere.” In another song responding to the 2009 election crisis in Iran, Salome declares in a barrage, “This nation says No / Says no to autocracy / Says no to censorship / Says no to sedition / Says no to beating and killing /
Says no to injustice / Says yes to democracy!”

The documentary SlingShot Hip Hop and Palestinian hip-hop groups like DAM show rap aimed at the realities of Israeli occupation from the refugee camps, to being an Arab in Israel, to the so-called security fence constructed on the West Bank. These examples are just a thin sliver of expressions left out of Reason Magazine's write-up as there are indeed many more worlds contesting for space within “Planet Islam.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *