by Emmy Abdul Alim
Deentight brings to the screen the untold story of Western Muslims struggling to find a balance between their culture and their religion.
"In an era where the media claims there is a clash between Islam and the West, how does one who is both Muslim and Western reconcile this paradox?", asks Mustafa Davis, filmmaker and director of the documentary Deentight. His film, which follows a group of hip hop artists living in the United States and the United Kingdom digs deep into this conflict, asks honest questions and gives truthful personal perspectives on the tributary issues of identity, culture(s) and Islam.
It is clear from the outset what Deentight does not set out to be - a prescriptive guide to the halals and the harams of hip hop. Mustafa Davis’ camera pans the spectrum of the debates. Mutah Beale (formerly Napoleon of Tupac’s Outlawz) is clear that there is no contention. For him, music is haram. HBO Def Poet Amir Sulaiman is also resolved on the matter.
For him, there is nothing more powerful than the spoken word to call people to Allah. The Hip Hop collective After Hijrah uses Hip Hop as da’wah, and "go where it’s needed". In the film we see them performing in a bar. Muslim Chaplain Usama Canon, brother of DJ/Producer Anas Canon has a problem with free mixing of men and women at hip hop concerts, especially when audiences get up on their feet and start dancing. Hip hop journalist Adisa Banjoko reminded us that the Prophet spoke to the people of his time in the language of the people. Hip hop, he continued, is the language of the young people of our time. Like it or not, hip hop is a world of youth culture, and da’wah through hip hop is one way to make sure young people remain true to Islam, and one way to call people to Islam.
Like it or not, hip hop is a world of youth culture, and da’wah through hip hop is one way to make sure young people remain true to Islam, and one way to call people to Islam.
"Urban Spiritual Art"
The debates are cacophonous, but Deentight gets to the heart of the matter concisely. What to do when your very person, life and identity is a sum of your culture and your religion, and you face the prospect of having to negate one because of the other? How do you live without the thing that contributes so significantly to the sum of your being?
For many of the artists featured in Deentight, hip hop and Islam are closely intertwined. Banjoko tells us that hip hop strongly connected to Muslims, that it was there from the beginning and that black Muslims, through hip hop, converted people to Islam. He points to the history that has shaped the United States vis-à-vis African-Americans and the years of segregation, when influential characters like Malcolm X inspired black communities towards their rights.
Mustafa Davis added, "Islam is part of our culture as black Americans. To be a black American and to be Muslim, to be Muslim is the pinnacle." To him, Islam and hip hop, hip hop and Islam, both served to empower black Americans, instilling in them a sense of positive purpose, belonging and entrenched identity. And just as hip hop empowered and provided an outlet for expression for the struggling black urban ethnic minority community in the 70s and 80s, so did it their neighbours the Latinos and Filipinos.
It is easy to spot DJ Raichous in a room. She is the one standing over the decks in her hijab. She was introduced to Islam via music by fellow Table Manners DJ Kidragon. She admits that balancing hip hop and Islam is a struggle, but, at the same time, a blessing. In one of the film’s most powerful moments of truth, HBO Def Poet Liza Garza said, "This is part of my blood. I was doing this, my mother was doing this, my grandmother was doing this, my great-great-grandmother was doing this." Is it something she can part with? "No, no, no."
If asked to give up either Islam or hip hop, Pop Master Fabel of the Rock Steady Crew would "run with Islam" because "that is what is going to take (him) to the next life." On the other side of the ocean in the UK, Muhammed Ali, or "Aerosol Arabic" as he is known, says that his "urban spiritual art" takes him closer to Allah.
"Dangerous Lifestyle, Though!"
Mutah Beale reminded us of hip hop as a dangerous lifestyle. He knows first-hand, having been closely associated with Tupac. But even this reminder that evokes images of violence, sex, drugs and alcohol could not overpower the unquestionable outpouring of commitment, devotion and love that the artists in Deentight displayed for Islam.
Mustafa Davis and the featured artists imbued the documentary with courage and sincerity. The film’s pace was driven by the inherent power and lyrical rhythms of hip hop, and its message was led by a collective conviction in faith.
Deentight opened in the UK ahead of its launch in the US. As the film opens in its homeland, Mustafa Davis is certain that the debates and discussions will continue, and intensify. Another film looking at Islam and hip hop that was recently released is Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s "New Muslim Cool" about Hamza Perez (who is also featured in Deentight).
One of the obvious reasons for the emergence of these films at about the same time is that the children of hip hop in the 1970s and the 80s are now old enough to examine and analyse the phenomenon through mature and experienced lenses.
This, coupled with the intense media spotlight that Islam and Muslims have been placed under since 9/11, has fuelled much interest in the relationship between Islam and the West. Deentight has given enough evidence that the "clash" and the dichotomy that the media expounds is certainly being productively processed and contributing positively to the society and communities in which they live. If you have the West on the one hand and Islam on the other, chances are, as we see in Deentight, they could very well meet in applause.
Click here to watch the trailer.