From the Editor | Autumn 2011
Hip-Hop, Post 9/11
By Max Hunter, John Perkins Center Teaching Fellow
From the editor: The Autumn 2011 Perkins Perspective marks the beginning of its fourth year in existence. In this e-newsletter, we have tried to model Reconciliation 2.0. In this issue, that means our feature articles represent collaborations between Seattle city government, an affluent urban Presbyterian church, a community development organization, and church in a low-income community in the process of gentrification. Another article introduces you to a former student and staff member involved in urban missions.
All of these pieces coalesced in the midst of my contributing to a Seattle Times' piece on the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.
Hip-Hop, Post 9/11
On September 12, 2001, I was in Kobe, Japan, taking a walk outside the city in preparation for a long flight back to Seattle, Washington. It had been a whirlwind week of taking care of immigration issues with my pregnant wife. As I walked along the villagers bowed deeply and said, “Ohayo Gozaimasu.” The most polite morning salutation from the same people who all but ignored me on prior walks.
Not long after my walk, my wife and I were preparing to leave for the airport when an acquaintance arrived with a newspaper. She held up the front page – still blaring the news of the World Trade Towers’ destruction. No flights were getting into the United States, so I wasn’t going anywhere.
As I whiled away that week in Japan’s Kansai area waiting to return home, I‘d occasionally run into talkative Middle-Eastern men. They wanted to make small talk about being in the States. (On prior trips, I was mostly ignored by strangers unless they were drunk and wanted to tell me that I looked like MC Hammer or Michael Jordan.) When I was finally returned to Seattle, I found a parallel phenomenon: Young Middle-Eastern men were now greeting me with the universal black salutation: “What’s up brother?” They said it with a look of sadness and solidarity. The way in which they greeted me in a manner that resonated with many of us that grew up in the hip-hop era. It was a sense of being a public enemy and coolly dangerous, which is both exhilarating and saddening. These Muslim men reminded me of the black boys on the block in Brooklyn, D.C., L.A., and San Diego.
Here I have to explain a bit more. When I was dating my wife, she thought I was in a secret society, because whenever I passed a black man on the street, at the bus stop, or in a restaurant, I’d give them a head nod and a silent, “What’s up?” Now I found myself receiving the soul greeting from my Middle-Eastern brothers. Before, they either sold me alcohol and groceries or sped by me in their luxury cars. At least, that was the image that had remained from my chidhood. Now, they were de facto brother — read, assumed enemies of the state.
I had a hip-hop related theory. Following the attack on the World Trade Center, Middle Eastern men were feeling the same stigmatization as black men in the United States. Now under greater scrutiny in our surveillance society, they could feel an increasing burden of race. One need only look at the album cover to Public Enemy’s iconic image of a b-boy in the crosshairs of a rifle. African-American men had experienced slavery, legal segregation, Driving While Black, and the War on Drugs (now known as the New Jim Crow), and now Arab and Muslim men were being seen as potential terrorists — and would be stigmatized due to an evolution in the War on Terror.
During the last decade, the Muslim community’s response has continued to evolve in an unexpected way: hip-hop.
Having spent the last 10 years studying and thinking about education, culture, medicine and science through the lens of race, I have seen an emerging solidarity — political and spiritual — in the global hip-hop nation.
Although hip-hop music has deep roots in Islam and has been called its “unofficial religion,” this influence primarily came through African-American Muslims and other black religious cults described in Arthur Huff Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis. But now we see Arabic, Muslim, and Jewish youth appropriating hip-hop language, music, and style to counter society often criminalizing them while they use it as a tool for reconciliation.
Prior to 9/11, African-American rappers tended to focus on derivative Islamic religion, secret knowledge, and American racial politics within the black-white binary. Things have changed. One anthropologist of education interested in “hiphoporaphy” has tracked changes in the hip-hop nation that coincides with globalization, which coincides with the War on Terror and tracks with old fashion American racial attitudes.
We are witnessing the increasing identification among some Arab youth and others outside the United States who are identifying with the African-American communities that have rapped and wrote about the War on Drugs, urban poverty, police brutality, suspicion, and surveillance. In brief, the World Trace Center tragedy has transformed the art, culture, and worldview of young people in the hip-hop culture.
In Seattle, Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of Digable Planets fame reinvented his act under the moniker Shabazz Palaces. His artwork incorporates pseudo-Middle Eastern imagery. When performing, he often wraps his head and breast in the Palestinian kuffiya, which has become synonymous with the ubiquitous hoodie seen in the recent London riots. Israeli rappers, DeScribe and Remedy sale the scarf to fund their efforts at reconciliation. While a student , Ha Neen combined the scarf into urban fashion.
In 2010, Ha Neen worked with a group of University of Washington students to sponsor two global hip-hop events: Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets and The Writings on the Wall. Nizar Wattad, a hip-hop producer and screenwriter, helped fund Slingshot Hip Hop, a documentary about Palestinian hip-hop. In it a Palestinian rapper says, “We are the black people of the United States.” He sees hip-hop as a subversive truth-telling medium.
A naturalized citizen, Nizar Wattad has talked about this movement toward identify with the black experience. He says the attacks on 9/11 motivated him to form a hip-hop group as a means to counter the mainstream media’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims.
From my perspective, the ongoing War on Drugs and War on Terror blend with the memory of 9/11 and the poetic possibility of hip-hop answering what many perceive to be state-approved terrorism in an age of increased surveillance. For those Muslim youths affected disproportionally based on race and the micro-physics of surveillance, hip hop culture is now providing a way for the voiceless to respond.
Read the full version of Hip-Hop, Post 9/11 on the Perkins Center blog.
Max Hunter, Ph.D., is the Perkins Center at SPU's teaching fellow, and has been with the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University since 2008.
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