2. Policing Music and the Facts of Blackness

From: Muslim Cool

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77 2 Policing Music and the Facts of Blackness In the fall of 2007 DJ Man-O-Wax resurrected “Turntable Dhikr,” a live DJ set he had first started working on six years earlier. As the name implies, Man-O-Wax used the turntable to perform dhikr, a custom of remembrance practiced by Muslims around the world. The turntable, a record-playing device, is the hip hop DJ’s instrument: through the skilled use of the turntable, DJs create new music by cutting, scratching, and mixing prerecorded sound. The practice of dhikr typically includes chanting the names of God and prayers upon the Prophet Muhammad and his family, as well as prayers for the self and for one’s community. The instrument of dhikr is, customarily, the voice. During an interview about Turntable Dhikr at the IMAN office, Man-O-Wax described his motivations as follows: I thought, man, it would be cool if I took all these different Muslim references in hip hop, and chop them up into samples, and then I brought in different dhikr styles from different countries, a little African, Middle Eastern and the [Indian] Subcontinent on purpose, and that was it. It was me trying to do the same thing that Sufis who make dhikr with music do, [but] as a DJ. Outside of his work with IMAN, Man-O-Wax is a member of the Zulu Nation and a founding member of the hip hop crew the Fifth Element Warriors (FEW). At the time of my fieldwork FEW was a multiethnic (U.S. Black, White, and South Asian American) and multifaith (Muslim, Rastafarian, and nondenominational) all-male crew. I watched Man-O-Wax perform Turntable Dhikr along with members of his crew on a number of different occasions. I first viewed Turntable Dhikr at IMAN’s Community Café, which was also the first public performance of the live DJ set. At Community Café, the predominately Muslim and multiethnic audience response to Turntable Dhikr was en- 78 | Policing Music and the Facts of Blackness thusiastic. Subsequent performances I witnessed at an MSA dinner and at the yearly convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) were markedly different. These invitations to perform Turntable Dhikr came from young Arab and South Asian U.S. American Muslims whom Man-O-Wax described as using music to push social boundaries in their communities. Accordingly, at the performances I observed (and at others I did not) in the Arab American and South Asian U.S. American Muslim communities of Chicagoland, Turntable Dhikr was at the center of controversy. The audiences at the events I attended consisted mostly of young Muslims of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, and overall they neither enthusiastically cheered nor jeered Turntable Dhikr. There was however, at each performance, an assertive contingent of audience members who made their strong objections known. These were not older folks, as one might expect, but young people who would pull event organizers to the side and passionately urge them to shut down Turntable Dhikr during the performance or denounce the set at its conclusion. During our conversation I offered Man-O-Wax my then-nascent theories as to why the set was so controversial: Su’ad: I think a couple of things are happening [at the performances of Turntable Dhikr]. One, there is maybe a general ambivalence toward music. Man-O-Wax: Right. Su’ad: Then, there is the sense that what is religious is very different from everything else. Man-O-Wax: Yep. Su’ad: Then, there’s this sense of this inability to think of the body as an instrument. Then, it’s the fact that it’s a turntable and it’s hip hop and it is related to black people, so all— Man-O-Wax: All this together just made it like haram [forbidden] upon haram upon haram! [Laughs] Man-O-Wax and I laughed at his quip “haram upon haram upon haram” because we shared an understanding of the fraught musical context of U.S. American Islam and the ways in which music is policed in U.S. American Muslim communities. U.S. American Muslims, like Policing Music and the Facts of Blackness | 79 Muslims around the world, are embroiled in a debate on the permissibility of music. Those who argue for the impermissibility of music cite a hadith (narration of Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds) in which the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have forbidden music.1 This tradition along with...


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Relations with Muslims.
  • Muslims -- United States -- Social conditions.
  • African American Muslims -- Social conditions.
  • African Americans -- Race identity.
  • Hip-hop -- Social aspects -- United States.
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