Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got something to say
But nothing comes out when they move their lips
Just a bunch of gibberish…
Dr Dre feat. Eminem – Forgot about Dre
As the prosecution summed up their case against the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, they played a music video of an Islamic song (nasheed) over which the chief prosecutor Chakravarty explained,
“by the casual way he walks, that he is entirely untroubled by what he is about to do. Because for a year he has been listening to terrorist songs, and reading terrorist literature, and he thinks that what he’s about to do is right. […] That day they felt they were soldiers. They were the mujahedeen.”
The portrayal of Tsarnaev as a jihadi sits uncomfortably with much of what was presented about him during the trial. As his defence attorney Judy Clarke described, “he was a teenager doing teenage things” – like smoking weed, watching Game of Thrones and quoting lyrics from Dr. Dre and Jay-Z.
Tsarnaev was not able to read the Qur’an in Arabic, let alone understand the Arabic music that was presented at his trial. However, there was a presumption that it was stimuli such as this music that put him on the path to violence. To what extent, though, can we factor in such music as an indicator of radicalisation?
Islamic songs, and even jihadi songs, form part of a process to remove music from the lives of Muslims who start becoming more observant in their faith. It is often a straight substitute as they attempt to adopt an identity that is a counter-culture to the one in which they have thus far been immersed. The vast majority of these Muslims never go on to commit any acts of political violence. Furthermore, we are speaking of a counter-culture of Islamic music that has been prevalent since the early 90s.
Often the threat of political violence or terrorism is presented as something new within the history of disenfranchised politics, as though somehow the grievance-based violence we see today within certain Muslim communities is detached from other forms of grievance-based violence around the world, and indeed throughout history. It is with this in mind that we should study and reflect on the reaction to rap in America, but in particular the songs F*** tha Police by N.W.A and Cop Killer by Ice-T’s Body Count in the early 90s.
F*** tha Police
When N.W.A’s seminal album Straight Outta Compton was released in 1988, the song F*** tha Police heralded a new expression of grievance that was willing to challenge authority in an openly hostile way. The song placed disenfranchisement with police in the context of abuses by the police, rather than presenting hatred within a vacuum:
“F*** tha police coming straight from the underground.
A young n****r got it bad ’cause I’m brown…
They have the authority to kill a minority.
F*** that s**t cause I ain’t the one,
For a punk mother***er with a badge and a gun to be beating on.
And go in jail,
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell.
F***ing with me because I’m a teenager,
With a bit of gold and a pager.
Searching my car, looking for the product,
Thinking every n****r is selling narcotas.”
The sentiment begun by N.W.A was later picked up by other groups such as Ice-T’s group Body Count, whose 1992 single Cop Killer became part of the national discourse around the role rap music played in relation to violence. Ice-T did not shy away from making the police a specific target of his frustrations:
“This next record is dedicated to some personal friends of mine.
For every cop that has ever taken advantage of somebody,
Beat ’em down or hurt ’em because they got long hair,
Listen to the wrong kind of music,
Wrong colour, whatever they thought was the reason to do it
For every one of those f***ing police,
I’d like to take a pig out here in this parking lot,
And shoot ’em in their muthaf***in’ face.”
The violent imagery evoked by Ice-T was criticised not only due to the content but also due to the environment in which the song was released. Earlier in the year, Ronald Howard was stopped in his car by a policeman, Bill Davidson, who Howard subsequently killed. Davidson’s family filed a lawsuit against Tupac Shakur and Time Warner, claiming that Howard had been listening to the album 2Pacalypse Now, and in particular the song Crooked Ass Ni**a. The family claimed that the following lyrics incited Howard to take Davidson’s life:
“Now I could be a crooked ni**a too
When I’m rollin with my crew
Watch what crooked ni**as do
I got a nine millimetre Glock pistol
I’m ready to get with you at the trip of a whistle
So make your move and act like you wanna flip
I fired 13 shots and popped another clip
My brain locks, my Glock’s like a f***in mop,
The more I shot, the more mothaf***as dropped
And even cops got shot when they rolled up.”
The national debate around the role of rap music in the moral degradation of society was best expressed in an article entitled The Music of Murder by Dennis R Martin, then President of the National Association of Chiefs of Police in the US. For Martin, the 144 police officers whowere killed while on duty in 1992 alone had been endangered by this song, leading him to ask: is it fair to blame musical compositions for the shooting incidents? Based on his understanding of history and the political climate, Martin was very much of the opinion that the two were inextricably linked.
While Martin’s article made some important points about the way in which society disrespects those charged with protecting it, he went too far in trying to ascertain a direct causal link between the music itself and violence. In response to Martin, Mark S Hamm and Jeff Ferrell wrote of what they saw as the flaws in his argument in Rap, cops, and crime: clarifying the ‘cop killer’ controversy. The piece is best summarised in a single paragraph where the authors dismantle the idea that there is direct causation:
“[…] Martin claims that “Ice-T’s Cop Killer [sic] gave [the Las Vegas youths] a sense of duty and purpose, to get even with a f-king pig.” If so, we should expect this same “sense of duty and purpose” to influence the behavior of some of the other 1.5 million listeners. Martin, in fact, describes popular music as “a tool to destabilize a democratic society by provoking civil unrest, violence, and murder,” and argues that “the lyrics of rapper Ice-T’s ‘Cop Killer’ do precisely that…”. He further notes the “predictability of police being ambushed after such a rousing call-to-arms…”. But we cannot, in fact, find another “predictable” case. The relationship between listening to “Cop Killer” and committing subsequent acts of violence appears to more closely resemble a statistical accident than a causal equation. (The probability of attacking a police officer with a loaded firearm after listening to “Cop Killer” is, according to Martin’s count, less than 1 in 375,000). Treating this relationship as one of cause and effect therefore not only misrepresents the issues; it intentionally engineers self-serving moral panic around rap music, and obstructs solutions to the sorts of problems which rap portrays.”
Hamm and Ferrell starkly lay bare the extent to which Martin exaggerated the threat posed by rap music. To isolate rap music as being the causal factor for violence against the police belies the fact that disenfranchisement of communities is the root cause of violent manifestations. In that sense, Martin’s analysis was actually an impediment to understanding and ending attacks on cops.
While there has been a great deal of emphasis on rap music as a form of political and moral subversion, the same has not been said of music that has been generated by the ‘white’ industry. Before the existence of N.W.A or even Public Enemy, in 1983 the heavy-metal group Metallica released their song No Remorse:
Only the strong survive
No one to save the weaker race
We are ready to kill all corners
Like a loaded gun right at your face
War without end
No remorse, no repent
We don’t care what it meant
Another day, another death
Another sorrow, another breath
No remorse, no repent
According to the The Journal of Negro Education, Jeanita Richardson and Kim Scott argued in their piece Rap music and its violent progeny: America’s culture of violence in context that rap has been singled out by the American establishment as being linked to violence, whereas music like that of Metallica’s has never been viewed in the same way. The piece references the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Communications who suggested that more research was needed to show any link between violence and heavy metal music. Their main conclusion, however, was that even as high up as the American Congress there was a bias towards the position that rap poses a direct threat to society, with no such equivalence being made for traditionally ‘white’ music.
‘White’ music has, though, on occasion similarly been linked to societal violence. After the Columbine High School shooting on 20 April 1999, the shooters Klebold and Harris were said to be fans of the music of Marilyn Manson, prompting media frenzy about the artist’s music. The documentary Bowling for Columbine, directed by Michael Moore, emphasised this point. Two months later,Manson published an article in Rolling Stone magazine entitled, Columbine: Whose Fault Is It?:
“So is entertainment to blame? I’d like media commentators to ask themselves, because their coverage of the event [Columbine] was some of the most gruesome entertainment any of us have seen. I think that the National Rifle Association is far too powerful to take on, so most people choose Doom, The Basketball Diaries or yours truly. This kind of controversy does not help me sell records or tickets, and I wouldn’t want it to. I’m a controversial artist, one who dares to have an opinion and bothers to create music and videos that challenge people’s ideas in a world that is watered-down and hollow. In my work I examine the America we live in, and I’ve always tried to show people that the devil we blame our atrocities on is really just each one of us.”
As Manson explains, violence within music is an articulation of a sentiment that already exists within society – it is art imitating life.
For many Muslims, including Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, black music culture can resonate deeply due to its anti-establishment narratives. If those same Muslims cross over to a more religious conservatism within Islam, they may choose to remove black music from their entertainment due to notions of what is and is not Islamically permissible. They instead adopt a form of Muslim counter-culture, housed within which there is a tradition of ‘jihadi’ nasheed (songs) and poetry, a historical tradition that has been more recently appropriated by groups engaged in politically motivated violence.
For some though, there is an area of overlap which can allow them to express their newfound identity within the longer tradition of subversive black music culture. This is best exemplified by the song Dirty Kuffaar (i.e. disbelievers) released in 2004 by Sheikh Terra feat. Soul Salah Crew:
The National Front man dem a Dirty Kuffaar
The Ku Klux Klan man dem a Dirty Kuffaar
The BNP man dem a Dirty Kuffaar
Ronald Reagan he was a Dirty Kuffaar
Prime Minister Tony Blair him a Dirty Kuffaar
The one Mr Bush him a Dirty Kuffaar
The National Front man dem a Dirty Kuffaar
Throw them in de fire.
From Kandahar to Ramallah we comin, sah,
Peace to the Hamas and the Hezbollah,
OBL cru be like a shinin’ star,
Like the way we destroyed them two towers, ha ha!”
The song Dirty Kuffaarwas played at a number of terrorism trials in the UK, as part of prosecution arguments that such material had influenced the individuals involved. What was not presented or discussed was what the content of the song itself tells us beyond the overt message of calling a variety of individuals ‘dirty kuffaar’. Based on the sections quoted above, it is interesting that excluded from the category of ‘dirty kuffaar’ are two Shia groups: firstly those who were involved in the Iranian revolution to depose the Shah and secondly Hezbollah. These two groups would ordinarily be referred to as ‘kuffaar’ by those who pronounce takfir (dissociation from Islam) on individuals, but instead the artists chose to show pictures of the Sunni American preacher Hamza Yusuf Hanson, declaring him to be one of the ‘scholars for dollars’ and thus making him among those who they believe have left the fold of Islam. Thus what defines “kuffaar” for them is not based on aqidah (belief) but rather on resistance, or lack thereof, within the larger Muslim world to occupation and despotism.
This music borrows directly from a predominantly south London ragga music scene, thus it is not placed within the longer tradition of ‘jihadi’ songs but rather within a context that is more readily recognisable to westerners. The song begins with the phrase ‘Lordamercy’, more commonly associated with African-American vernacular rather than any reference within the Muslim world. It is precisely this borrowing and transmission of ideas from one culture of resistance to another that has brought in a new area of grievance expression. More recently, the lyrics of former Al Shabab member Abu Mansoor al-Amriki and ISIS propagandist Abdel Majed Abdel Bary have again borrowed heavily from hip-hop in order to promote their messages of jihad and express their grievances.
Rather than creating an environment of jihadi thought and belief, however, much of the music that those who are engaged in political violence listen to is very much reflective of their anxieties about the politics of the world, especially the occupation of Palestine. Even as a subset of wider Muslim expression, the counter-culture expresses the emotional and political realities of growing up Muslim in a post 9/11 world. It is art reflecting life, rather than life reflecting art.
The Suggested Counter-Culture Panacea
According to Elisabeth Kendall, a potential solution to the jihadi propaganda that is being promoted in Yemen is to counter it with poetry and songs that will run contrary to jihadi messages, or in her words:
“…poetry as a weapon is currently beingstockpiled in only one arsenal: that of the jihadists.”
While this solution may not have been implementedin Yemen, it has been promoted within the western context and in particular in the UK through the Prevent strategy. In 2003, the US-based RAND corporation published a document, Civil Democratic Islam: Islam Partners, Resources, and Strategies, in which they specifically identified the promotion of Sufi Islam as a panacea to what they saw as problems in the practise of Islam in the West. According to the document:
“The artificial over-Islamizing of Western Muslims can be corrected if attention and support are given to the other ways in which they express their identity: music, culture.”
What is this culture that they speak of though, and whose music? The complexity of what culture and counter-culture mean within western Muslim communities only provides more questions about the best way to combat any threats of political violence. In the UK, there have been attempts to co-opt British Muslim street culture in order to try and turn individuals away from the types of discussions and thoughts that might lead them towards more ‘radical’ beliefs.
Hamza Arshad aka Badman, Abdullah-X, and his female counter-part Muslimah-X, all have become the latest faces fora more street-savvy image of counter-jihad propaganda. Arshad’s notoriety began as a YouTube hit when his videos about the travails of life for young Muslims became a sensation. The UK government’s Prevent strategy considered Arshad an asset and utilised him to push out messages that speak against extremism.
In a similar vein, Abdullah-X and Muslimah-X use animation in order to tackle issues with which young people struggle. The street-style of these individuals is reflective of a lack of understandingon the part of government, who feel that a relatable figure from among Muslims will be able to provide messages that are more readily acceptable. What all three individuals fail to capture is how Muslim street culture is not contrived but rather is a raw expression of anxiety. The messaging of these initiatives is still untested, and it remains to be seen whether these individuals are considered to be authentic in their voice or ‘sell-outs’ conducting government propaganda.
Where Muslim Counter-Culture Music and Gangsta Rap Intersect
In so many ways, the lack of complexity in the arguments about who Muslims are, and how their politics of grievance manifests, is rooted in the same politics to which Black communities found themselves subjected as their culture began to be blamed for the spread of violence. In reality, the reasons why individuals engage in violence are too complex to be narrowed to what they listen to or read. Causal factors must be considered in their totality in order to understand how it is that disenfranchised individuals and communities construct themselves in what they perceive to be hostile environments. It is here that gangsta rap and the counter-culture of Muslims intersect. Rather than listening to the music as an indicator of extremism, it would be better to listen to the pain such music speaks of and the rage that it wishes to express.
When the above is considered in the context of wider counter-terrorism measures, we must seriously consider whether or not our policies are creating the very phenomenon that we seek to end. Stop and search powers, profiling, harassment and systematic disenfranchisement speak more clearly to the reasons why individuals and communities ultimately choose violence as a form of political expression. The music they listen to, and the stories they tell, only serve to be the background beat to the real causes behind their actions.
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Asim Qureshi graduated in Law (LLB Hons) and LLM, specialising in Human Rights and Islamic Law. He is the Research Director at CAGE, and since 2004 has specialised in investigations into the impact of counter-terrorism practices worldwide. In 2009, his book, Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance, was published by Hurst, Columbia University Press and later by Oxford University Press. In 2010, he began advising the legal teams involved in defending terrorism trials in the US and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam and edited by Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
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