- Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States by Su'ad Abdul Khabeer
Halfway through anthropologist Su'ad Abdul Khabeer's Muslim Cool, the author tells a first-person story of going to a "girl party" in a Chicago suburb. This is a house party exclusively for Muslim women and girls at which they can "let their hair out (or down), literally and figuratively, in an all-female environment," socialize, and dance.1 As she and her friend get into the groove and belly dance, she slowly realizes that their hostess, a Palestinian Muslim immigrant mother, and the other girls, all Palestinian American Muslims, have stopped dancing and are simply gazing at her and her friend, fascinated by "the 'spectacle' of the two dancing (Black) girls."2
Khabeer, troubled by this sudden atmospheric shift in what is supposed to be a space of equality, quickly exits the dance floor.
This gaze of difference informs one of the core projects of Muslim Cool: to interrogate the alterity of Black Islam within the "ethnoreligious hegemony" of contemporary US Muslim identity.3 However, this is only one part of Khabeer's thesis on the exchange and interplay of race, religion, and culture. Her companion observations are, not coincidentally, as follows: Black hip-hop music and culture function as vehicles for young Muslims to realize and own their religious identity; hip-hop music and culture itself came of age vis-à-vis a relationship to Black Islam; and a current stylistic amalgamation of Blackness and Islam, which she calls "Muslim Cool," is the result of this loop, fed back upon itself, a living, breathing instance of agentic resistance to hegemonic pressures via a cultivated style.4 Her project is less to surgically isolate ownership of any particular cultural form and more to map a [End Page 182] complex cultural landscape of power and exchange, following paths and hints where they may lead in fine ethnographic detail.
Khabeer's fieldwork is based on multiple years as an observer, organizer, advocate, and activist at Chicago's Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). As a reflexive anthropologist, Khabeer radically locates herself—Black, Latina, and Muslim—in her observations. She's also a self-proclaimed "hip-hop head," and many of her sites of inquiry involve the Chicago hip-hop scene. Chapters are organized as follows: an introduction to the flows of the argument behind "Muslim Cool"; specific attention to raced and religious musical practices surrounding hip-hop; attention to the radical potential of personal dress for both Black Muslim women (the "'hoodjab") and men (the "Muslim dandy"); and a chapter on the United States' exporting of Muslim Cool as neoliberal state apparatus abroad. The book concludes with an appended discussion of the place of Muslim Cool in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, which she regards as a project cut from the selfsame cloth. She writes: "Muslim Cool is a way of being Muslim that draws on Blackness to contest two overlapping systems of racial norms: the hegemonic ethnoreligious norms of Arab and South Asian US American Muslim communities on the one hand, and White American normativity on the other."5
The work is sound and compelling. Media studies folks—or anyone else interested in the interplay of race, power, and popular culture—will especially find chapter 1, "The Loop of Muslim Cool: Black Islam, Hip Hop, and Knowledge of Self," to be a master class in ethnography, media consumption and production practices, and identity making, all the while hewing tightly to a situatedness in terms of structural oppression and historical context. To call this simply a hip-hop "audience" or "reception" study would be to diminish its heft and scope. It is, rather, a formidable rumination on the evolution and meaning of a cultural form in a specific ethnoreligious context. Thankfully, Khabeer explodes any simple critical application of "appropriation"—that increasingly useless blunt instrument—and instead elegantly charts what she calls the loop of cultural relationships from Islam...