Shahada x Shadia: bearing witness
I’m often asked, “What value does Hip Hop have in the realm of cultural diplomacy?” A film review I read today in the New York Times about the new German film, “Shahada” (a thesis project by Burhan Qurbani that has been selected for next year’s Berlinale) struck a chord along that theme. Having not seen the film yet, I can’t comment on its merit as a work of art. However, the title and synopsis alone remind me that the word shahada, from the Arabic for ‘to bear witness/testify’, evokes not only the Muslim profession of faith, but an expression of personal knowledge and belief, which can also take the form of art. This brings me back to Hip Hop, a multi-faceted form of personal expression that serves to bear witness to one’s unique view of the world. It is also a profession of one’s belief that such expression can inspire others, and, in numbers, lead to change.
This explains how the same theme, shahada, can be used by both Hip Hop artists, such as American rap stars Mos Def and Freeway, who have openly discussed their conversion to Islam, and by jihadists, such as American-born Al Qaeda recruiter, Abu Mansour al-Amriki, who invokes shahada in his Youtube propaganda videos.
In response to those who ask me, “Why Hip Hop?”, I would offer that Hip Hop, in its true form, represents an artistic expression of shahada, not necessarily in a religious sense, but in a personal one, and, moreover, in a peaceful one. It is for that reason that I continue to advocate the support of Hip Hop-related programming by cultural diplomacy organizations, as well as others seeking to “engage the hearts and minds of Muslim youth”. One such organization that seems to get it is the British Council, who co-sponsored an event this past weekend at the Dash Arts center in London that featured Arab Hip Hop all-stars from Palestine (Tamer Nafar), Lebanon (Rayess Bek), Jordan (MC Samm), Algeria (Rabah Donquishoot), and London’s own Palestinian queen MC, Shadia Mansour, and US legend Talib Kweli. The event challenged the artists (many of whom had never met before) to take themes from the 6th century Arabian poems, the Mu’allaqat, and riff off of them to create new music in workshops, culminating in a tour throughout Europe. I’m excited to see and hear what these pioneers of the Arab Hip Hop movement came up with but I have no doubt that it will be an honest account of the world as they’ve seen it, just like the original Mu’allaqat, which described in great detail and poetry the world of pre-Islamic Bedouins. Shadia describes the feeling of reconnecting with that legacy in this quote from an article on Mondomix:
“The Mu’Allaqat poems… I thought I knew a lot about that era but after reading the poems, I learned a lot about my culture. The poems are about Bedouin life but the crazy thing is nothing much has changed… the traditions, the customs, our mannerisms… even the mentality, the conservative nature of that time is still alive in certain parts of the Arab world. To be honest, being Palestinian, being Arab and coming from a very cultural background I have taken my experience, my upbringing and what I feel and put that into all the songs we’re performing at the Roundhouse. Obviously we are all from different Arab regions and have different upbringings, but what I’ve learned from the poems is relative to how we are brought up and live as Arabs. I think it all made sense in the end.”
What other medium could so meaningfully connect young Arabs with their cultural heritage and at the same time allow them to connect with one another, and with other young people around the world, to bear witness, faithfully and creatively, to their lives at the turbulent dawn of the 21st century? Only Hip Hop, where followers make their own form of shahada, expressing belief in the power of music and poetry to affect change.