When Hisham Aidi moved to Harlem in the mid-1990s, it was partly to attend graduate school at Columbia University and partly because he was drawn to the music scene in the historic African-American neighborhood.
Aidi was an aspiring DJ, and in Harlem he soaked up the music. As a scholar, he noted other things as well—the cultural influences and legacies from around the world that met in the neighborhood, and the preoccupation with Islam and surveillance of Muslim Americans that followed 9/11.
The result of these observations was the scholar’s award-winning book, Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture (Pantheon 2014). The 2014 book traces fascinating, often overlooked connections and encounters between the Muslim world and the West. In fact, a focus on the complicated ways culture and identity are built through exchanges and shifting political agendas runs through all of Aidi’s work.
Such scholarship strikes me as all the more necessary at a time when governments are bent on closing borders and when right-wing populists call for the defense of supposedly homogenous national identities.
Rebel Music is an engrossing investigation of Muslim diasporas; of shifting identity and race politics; and of music as the field where these politics are “most poignantly being debated and expressed.”
The book is easy to recommend but hard to summarize. The author, who today teaches international and public affairs at Columbia University, refers to the book in a conversation with Al-Fanar Media as “a deliciously overstuffed lasagna.”
Readers of Rebel Music will learn things that will surprise them—about Carnival floats in Brazil designed with a fanciful Middle-East theme (surrounded by “veiled, burqa-ed and fake-bearded street dancers”); about some of the first Muslims to come to America, brought there as slaves from Africa;about Pakistan’s rock and punk band scene; and about the appeal of Islam to black Jazz musicians in 1950s Chicago.
The book spans centuries and moves from Rio de Janeiro to Paris to Casablanca to Harlem. Aidi is fascinated with the way people, ideas, identities and sounds travel and change. Perhaps this is because the scholar himself comes from a marginalized yet cosmopolitan part of Morocco, a region that is a crossroads of Berber, Spanish and Arab culture. Aidi was born in Tangier, in northern Morocco. The North of the country has a history of rebellion and was neglected for decades under the former king, Hassan II. In the North, says Aidi, “you grow up speaking broken Spanish, broken French, broken Arabic. You don’t see yourself represented in Morocco.” His current research focuses on this region, on its history as part of the Spanish empire and on trans-Saharan migration there.
Aidi lived in Spain and Belgium and won a scholarship to attend an American boarding school. He attended Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania and wrote his undergraduate thesis on Paul Bowles, an American novelist and musicologist who spent much of his life in Tangier.
Aidi’s first book, Redeploying the State: Corporatism, Neoliberalism and Coalition Politics (Palgrave 2008), looked at the circulation of leftist ideas between Latin America and the Arab world. For his second book, he told Al-Fanar Media, he thought: “Let me try to tell the story of the encounter of Islam and the West through the angle of black internationalism and music.”
Northern Morocco also has a rich musical history. Tangier, an international free zone from the 1920s to the 1950s, was a meeting point for artists and genres. American jazz musicians and later bands such as the Rolling Stones came there and were inspired by collaborations with local musicians.
Aidi’s second book, which is written for a general audience, comes with an online playlist. The professor analyzes the relationship between jazz, Islam (many African-American jazz musicians were converts to Islam) and the civil rights movement. He writes about Gnawa music in Morocco and Judeo-Arabic cabaret music from Algeria. And he pays particular attention to hip-hop, “the soundtrack of the American empire”—a popular genre that represents U.S. culture around the world and contains a potent subversive charge.
“Through hip-hop, Muslim youth were exposed to black history, and non-Muslims were introduced to Islam,” Aidi writes. “It is the encounter between hip-hop, the lingua franca of youth, and Islam that produced one of the most dynamic and polemical forces in youth culture today.”
While American hip-hop in the 1990s was deeply political, “most political hip-hop today is not from the United States,” Aidi says. “You see it in Paris, you see it in Dar es Salam. The beats coming out of the Maghreb are incredible.”
Ideas, identities and politics travel alongside music. Young people in the Arab and Muslim diaspora in the West have looked to the civil rights movement and more recently to the Black Lives Matter movement to articulate their own feelings of discrimination and their own demand for recognition. Rappers in the Arab world have written songs that became protest anthems and have been jailed for lyrics criticizing the police.
Rebel music also observes the shifting and hapless attempts by Western diplomacy to back certain cultural forms in the Muslim world in an effort to reform Islam or to promote particular strains of “moderate” Islam. Aidi documents how at one point American officials supported conservative Sunnism as a bulwark against black American radicals such as Malcolm X. Later, they championed Sufi music as a means to undercut Salafism (a fundamentalist strain of Islam that condemns most forms of music and the use of instruments). Both right-wing politicians and Islamic fundamentalists have railed against the subversive influence of hip-hop and rap.
Today, Aidi says, young Muslims are under pressure from governments, public intellectuals, right-wing groups, Islamists and security services. “I was interested in the response of young people to this incredible pressure they are under,” he says.
Most often young Muslims are regarded, in the West and in their own countries, as a problem, a pool of potential malcontents, unemployed and susceptible to radicalization. What I found refreshing about Aidi’s approach is how he focuses on what young people themselves find pleasure and meaning in. In our interview, he questioned “the idea that so many young people are a recipe for disaster. It is always approached as a top-down policy problem: You need jobs, you need schools. Let’s look at [young people’s] survival strategies.”
“A lot of hip-hop today talks about not belonging on either side of the Mediterranean. There is a crisis of belonging, a crisis of identity,” he goes on. But this also leads, he says, to the creation of fantastic new identities, of “geographies of liberation.” Music is being made by musicians communicating online from different cities around the world, mixing genres and references. “A kid in Marseille will claim solidarity with Gaza and Harlem and a favela in Brazil.”
Aidi seems to love nothing better than finding and highlighting these connections. “There are so many connected histories that need to be revealed,” he says. “There is so much concealed history.”