August this year marked the twentieth anniversary of The K Foundation’s burning of one million pounds of its own money on the remote Hebridean island of Jura. Prior to this audacious work of (anti-) art for a short time in the late 1980s – in their previous incarnation as the pop group, The KLF – they had helped rekindle a counter-cultural efflorescence reviving the ‘Summer of Love’ for a new acid house generation. A decade earlier, Factory Records had enacted Situationist principles in absolving its artists from the oppressive contractual obligations usually associated with record labels, and later building the iconic Manchester nightclub, The Hacienda, its name a reference to a passage in Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism (1953). From different conceptual starting points, both Factory and The KLF reinvested their money into creating new art, wilfully trading at a loss. The idea of destroying money accumulated through selling pop records seemed a logical end to subverting the enslavement of art to commodification. Whether or not it was, in fact, an elaborate hoax, The K Foundation’s absurdly provocative spectacle was a rare act of impassioned dissent in a soulless industry.
An X Factor-driven pop world in which Lady Gaga’s attire passes for subversion
The mere suggestion of artistic monetary sacrifice seems unimaginable today in an X Factor-driven pop world in which Lady Gaga’s attire passes for subversion. Even ‘alternative’ music – which unlike that of The KLF often trades on the existential angst of outsiders – has long since been swallowed up by the mainstream and the false promise of cyberspace autonomy. In this way, while an ‘indie rock’ band like Arcade Fire may deploy an online guerrilla campaign to promote its latest Kierkegaard-inspired album, Reflektor, its product remains tied to a marketing juggernaut. Caught, paradoxically, in a monetary embrace, it is no surprise that like Radiohead before them, they headlined Glastonbury earlier this year, once a left field cultural event, now the biggest mass audience music festival brand. As Jon Savage has noted recently, it is ironic that the (mostly working-class) teenagers whose inventive subcultures have been appropriated by business interests for decades are now the very demographic largely excluded from its fruits (Glastonbury 2014 tickets started at £215).
But if bourgeois culture has captured any vestige of radicalism in music, its reach is epitomised today in the unlikeliest of quarters – the emergence of Islamic pop, from singers of Islamic ‘nasheeds’ like Sami Yusuf, to the folk-inflected Dawud Wharmsby, teenage pop of Rauf, and even the son of controversial satellite preacher Zakir Naik, Fariq, who raps in-between his father’s sermonising on the Salafi channel, Peace TV.
“Islam is the New Black”
Radical ideas are often fuelled by the periphery of society, channelled through outcast categories of class, race, gender or sexuality. They agitate at the edges first until being swallowed up, recycled and repackaged to the mass market. In the pop world, the story of African American music is the most obvious example of this two-stage process, evident in artists such as Dr Dre who have travelled the deceptively long road from Compton to Hollywood. Today, religion, or more aptly, Islam, might be added to these outcast categories which have inspired radicalism. As young British artist, Sarah Maple, put it recently in the title of one of her controversial works which draws on her own Muslim background, it could be said that ‘Islam is the New Black.’ But does this subversive parallel cut any deeper than the vacuous act of Rihanna sporting a burqa in an Abu Dhabi mosque? If Muslims really are the new outsiders in the West, why have so many contemporary Muslim musicians seemingly bypassed the radical stage?
The British Muslim ‘lifestyle’ magazine, Emel, which has fostered many emerging Muslim pop idols in its pages for several years, epitomises the sanitisation of Islamic art for liberal audiences in the West. It has targeted an affluent, middle-class, professional Muslim demographic. Symptomatic of a wider trend among an elite coterie of influential Muslim liberals intent on creating an aspirant, marketised brand of global Islamic culture, it tends to propagate an orthodoxy its focus on artistic expression belies. These days even hardened erstwhile religious reactionaries have succumbed to liberalism’s seductive embrace. After years of being a rigid Muslim conservative, Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), an Emel favourite, has decided it is now ok to play music again. The post-9/11 predicament of Muslims, it seems, has meant that even the orthodox establishment has given permission to play music, in attenuated form, in the service of some greater good but within the bounds of what they deem fit. This development is less about artistic progress than the instrumentalisation of music as ideology. The Sufi academic, Tim Winter, has even rendered nursery rhymes wholesome with his collection of British Muslim song, ‘Halal Mother Goose’.
Islamic music today shares a great deal with Islamic banking. Both reflect the promise of an authentic Islamic way of operating detoxified of Western immorality, yet diverge very little from their liberal and neoliberal Western counterparts in practice.
Being imbricated in the structures and flows of global capital through its marketing strategies, it is perhaps no accident that Islamic music today – which is to say music by Muslims which is self-consciously marketed as sacred – shares a great deal with Islamic banking. Both reflect the promise of an authentic Islamic way of operating detoxified of Western immorality, yet diverge very little, if at all, from their liberal and neoliberal Western counterparts in practice. On the most mundane level, this is evident in the concerts staged by Muslim pop stars, in stadia full of the adulation of teenage girls who have come to see their idols in the flesh. That the words sung may often be in Arabic and allude to Islamic sources cannot obscure the sense that what is being witnessed is a secular practice with an Islamic veneer. The singer, Rauf, who covers American pop songs but substitutes their lyrics for Islamic themes such as in ‘Jumuah’ – a song about going to Friday prayers based on ‘Friday’ by American pop singer Rebecca Black – is only the most literally banal example. No amount of tortuous reference to Islamic strictures on music can change the paradox that in trying to distinguish themselves from mainstream liberal Western culture, Muslim pop idols have rather been subsumed by it.
Islam has long played a role in African American popular music, however, where its creative spirit has often been fuelled by heterodoxy rather than religious orthodoxy. Several influential hip hop artists have, at one time or another, been associated with the Nation of Islam and its offshoots, Public Enemy being perhaps the most noted. It was the radical vitality such influences brought to bear on their art which, in turn, inspired wider artistic recognition outside of Islam among both critics and the music buying public. A meeting of renegade art forms and cultures produced a genuinely novel and vital aesthetic in which Islam played a key role. Even today, seminal African American artists echo a rich vein of imagery and allusion in Nation of Islam mythology in songs such as OFI (Object Flying Identified), the 2010 comeback single from Juan Atkins, a godfather of Detroit techno, with its oblique reference to the Nation’s Afrofuturist cosmology of the ‘Mothership’. While the occultist conspiratorial imaginings of The Illuminatus Trilogy! – published in 1975 by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson and a key influence on The KLF – seem far removed from the sobriety of Islamic pop songs, here there is a deeper connection to a shared counter-cultural milieu.
In trying to distinguish themselves from mainstream liberal Western culture, Muslim pop idols have rather been subsumed by it.
In fact, Islam was no stranger to the original ‘Summer of Love’ which was itself a culmination of decades of counter-cultural agitation against bourgeois rationality reaching back to Dada, Surrealism and even further. Such currents have always had an affinity to antinomian strands of Islamic heterodoxy, including aspects of Sufism, in their emphasis on automatism and the immediacy of individual transcendental experience. The figure of Hassan I Sabbah, the mediaeval founder of the so-called ‘Assassins’, was, for example, a key influence on William Burroughs. The punk-inflected ‘taqawacore’ scene in the US and the growth of creatively hybrid rock music in parts of the Muslim world in recent years – notably in Mali but increasingly throughout the Middle East, South and South East Asia – echo this counter-cultural ethos in some ways. But taqwacore is a minor trend and, by and large, the latter music does not self-identify as being religious or sacred, or else apes the commerciality of Western rock with an Islamic veneer, evident in so-called ‘heavy metal Muslim’ bands such as Janoon in Pakistan. Rather it functions as a reconfiguration of ‘world music’, itself a Western construct, in which guise it is increasingly being marketed in bands such as the Malian Tamikrest who have taken over the mantle of Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as the quintessentially exotic radio-friendly sound from the Orient for bourgeois consumption.
In today’s satellite TV-saturated world of Islamic pop culture, where Muslim pop assorts oddly with Salafi orations – sometimes, as if seamlessly, on the same channel – alternative genealogies of Muslim art in the UK in particular can easily be overlooked. The British counter-cultural music scene in the 1980s, of which The KLF and Factory Records were a part, was also the site of a first wave of homegrown Muslim musicians. Artists such as the London-based Aki Nawaz, who started his career in the gothic band, Southern Death Cult, before forming the radical collective Fun-Da-Mental, and Aziz Ibrahim, a guitarist from Manchester who has played with prominent alternative music artists, The Stone Roses and Ian Brown, as well as Paul Weller, reflect a different dimension of Muslim pop with a deeper artistic legacy. Both Nawaz and Ibrahim have also run small independent record labels for artists who would struggle to find commercial outlets. The irony is that, coming from working-class British Pakistani backgrounds, they share far more in common with the bulk of British Muslims than today’s purveyors of Islamic pop marketed as the cultural aesthetic of choice (an aesthetic which, strangely, echoes the suburban bourgeois landscapes of the novels of Hanif Kureshi – more often populated by profane Muslim characters – rather than any religious idyll). While Emel magazine has featured Nawaz, it is hard to imagine him or Ibrahim performing on the Muslim equivalent of The X Factor (which, sadly, does exist) while going on to make their contributions to British youth culture.
The colonisation of the Islamic pop moderation agenda has also made its way into the once radical culturally hybrid world of Muslim hip hop. Paradoxically, while non-Muslim artists continue to imbibe the spirit of the early influence of heterodox Islam, many Muslim performers have increasingly distanced themselves from this artistic heritage, particularly after 9/11. This scene has largely been cleansed of outliers with hostility to Five Percenters, for example, emanating from increasingly orthodox artists and their fans, including the prominent writer on Islamic hip hop, Adisa Banjoko. This new agenda is epitomised on the website www.Muslimhophop.com which links directly to Islamic fatwas on music from conservative websites such as www.Islamonline.com, the online home of the rulings of Qatari-based Egyptian scholar, Yusuf Al Qaradawi.
In this overweening institutionalised agenda, radical artistic freedom and unruly militancy are seen, implicitly, as equally sacrilegious. Shorn of aesthetic vitality, the didactic production-line blandness of much Muslim pop tends to function as little more than the ambient music for the manufacture of Islamic ‘moderation’ in society.
Zaheer Kazmi is part of the Faculty of History, University of Oxford and co-editor of Contextualising Jihadi Thought.
This article reproduced with permission of Carta.