Last month, Disney Channel teen star turned pop/country singer turned twerking “hip-hop artist” turned back into pop/country singer, Miley Cyrus, once again came under fire for her unexpected and shocking transformation on the cover of Billboard magazine. Though this isn’t exactly new – celebrities tend to reinvent themselves and their personas almost as often as they change outfits – this makeover was more loaded, steeped in appropriation, disregard, and the kind of privilege that allows for such blatant cultural theft, without accountability or consequences.
The anger was justified. Cyrus had spent the past few years sporting grills, dreadlocks and cornrows, twerking and grinding her way to the top – “parading around as a living breathing parody of all things Black,” as Etienne Rodriguez wrote in Medium. But now, appearing in a light pink, girl-next-door dress with tousled blonde hair on the magazine cover, the twenty-four-year-old seems to have decided that being Black is no longer profitable. As Jagger Blaec wrote in The Establishment,
Seeing Miley categorize all of her “hoodrat” shenanigans of the past few years as a “phase” is exactly why people of color constantly fight to protect their culture. Cyrus has been waiting for the perfect moment to retreat back to her country facade and the white privilege that comes with it. And it is black women who will suffer from this, who will be ridiculed for the aspects of their identity Cyrus borrowed for a profit, long after she’s shed the faux-extensions and taken out the gold grills to get back into the good graces of her white fan base.
After years of wearing Blackness as a costume and using Black bodies as props, Twitter users declared, “Miley Cyrus is white again.”
In her latest book, “Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States,” published in 2016 by NYU Press, anthropologist Su’ad Abdul Khabeer touches upon this precise form of appropriation and simultaneous dismissal of Black culture and Black music, which is “targeted for two parallel tracks of regulation: disavowal and instrumentalization” (22). In the United States, she writes, “cultural appropriation is often cast as the adoption of a passing fad, which, in the particular case of Black expressive cultures, conjures up the specter of minstrelsy” (134).
But Abdul Khabeer complicates the appropriation of Blackness by focusing not on the usual suspects (White celebrities, teenagers, White people in general), but by examining how Blackness functions within a very particular context and religious community – the Muslim community in the United States. “Muslim Cool” is an examination of how young Muslims in the United States, both Black and non-Black people of color, construct their identities and ways of thinking about and being “cool” through Black cultural production – largely through hip hop.
Young Muslims-Black Culture
As Abdul Khabeer writes on her website, Muslim Cool is forged at the intersection of Islam and hip hop, and is “a way of being Muslim that draws on Blackness to challenge white supremacy and the anti-Blackness found in Arab and South Asian U.S. Muslim communities.”
The Purdue professor of anthropology and African-American Studies spent almost two years (and a decade of informal research before that on the relationship between hip hop and Islam) conducting ethnographic fieldwork with Black and non-Black (mostly Arab and South Asian) Muslim youth activists, artists, and musicians in Chicago.
Through these conversations, Abdul Khabeer learned about the process of “self-making” for this young generation of Muslims who derive their style, music, politics, and, in many ways, their Islam from Black culture, recognizing that Blackness has always been central to the history and experience of Muslims in the United States.
Like Miley Cyrus, these young, non-Black Muslims borrow from Black culture, from their style of dress to their vernacular, but unlike Cyrus, their relationship to Blackness is multi-layered and complex, a combination of appreciation, engagement, and instrumentalization.
The book addresses, at length, the anti-Blackness still pervasive in immigrant Muslim communities (a problem Abdul Khabeer’s subjects – whom she calls her “teachers,” are acutely aware of), and how Muslim Cool’s engagement with Blackness both challenges and resists, but also reconstitutes, this racial hierarchy:
For Muslim Cool, Blackness is a point of opposition to white supremacy that creates solidarities among differently radicalized and marginalized groups in order to dismantle overarching racial hierarchies. Yet as the stories in this book illustrate, these solidarities are necessarily entangled in the contradictions inherent in Blackness as something that is both desired and devalued…the proliferation of Black expressive forms devalues Black life as often as it celebrates it. (6-7)
In an interview with the Atlantic , Abdul Khabeer explains how her “teachers” engage with Blackness in ways that are more respectful and constructive than appropriative:
In the book, I talk about young people who are engaging hip hop, and thereby engaging the black experience, to really understand who they are in the world, who they are as Muslims, and who they are as racial minorities. Then they do something with that—they become activists, or work on some racial-justice issue. They appreciate a particular culture, find what’s meaningful to them, and are in community with those people.
This is opposed to appropriation, which is like: This thing exists, you think it’s cool for your own reasons, and you take it up and you use it. The people who created it and the issues that are important to them—it doesn’t really cross over…They appropriate, rather than appreciate.
The book is divided into five chapters, as well as an introduction and conclusion. Abdul Khabeer begins by tracing the “loop” of Muslim Cool – the process by which Black Islam (in particular, heterodox movements like the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters) influenced hip hop, which in turn shapes young Black and non-Black Muslims today who “return to black Islam as a way of thinking and a way of being Muslim – as Muslim Cool,” she writes. Abdul Khabeer also introduces us to IMAN, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago – a social justice-oriented community center, where Abdul Khabeer once worked and which she calls “a central site of Muslim Cool.”
IMAN works to rehabilitate and uplift Chicago’s southwest side, through the provision of services, community organizing, and arts-based activism. At IMAN, the Black experience in America is privileged, in stark contrast to some of the Arab and South-Asian, faith-based community centers many of Khabeer’s “teachers” grew up attending.
In “Muslim Cool,” Abdul Khabeer describes the fissure and tensions between Black American Muslims on one hand – seen as “indigenous” or more native to the United States – and South Asian and Arab American “immigrant” Muslims, on the other. Sixty years ago, the dominant image of a Muslim in America was that of the Black Muslim (thanks to the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X). Today, “Immigrant Islam” is seen as more legitimate, authentic, and authoritative; these immigrants are now the ones with the “power to define Muslim identity and practice in the United States” (12). In pursuit of the “American Dream” and hoping to recreate a sense of home, many of these immigrants moved from the city to the suburbs, distancing themselves from “a certain kind of Blackness, the undisciplined and un-middle-class Blackness that is, incidentally, most commonly associated with hip hop” (43).
“Muslim Cool” examines how the children of these immigrants are returning to Blackness, challenging the logics of anti-Black racism and understanding how the Black struggle resonates with their experiences as racialized Muslim subjects.
Muslim Cools – Music and Style
In her book, Abdul Khabeer examines specific manifestations of “Muslim Cool” through music and style.
She speaks with Muslim DJs and emcees who create politically and spiritually conscious music interwoven with and influenced by Islamic references, and discusses the ways in which Black music is heavily policed in Muslim spaces.
She recounts her conversations with a number of young Muslim women, both Black and non-Black, about their headscarves and decision to sport the “hoodjab” – a style of hijab (tied back in a bun) that has become a signifier of Muslim Cool and is reflective of Afrodiasporic traditions, as opposed to more “traditional” styles originating in the Islamic East. The style allows wearers to reclaim Afrodiasporic headdress as Islamic, while serving as “a simultaneous expression of religious devotion and a spiritual politics that rejects the feminine standards of white supremacy” (122). For these women, the hoodjab is statement, reclamation, performance, and resistance.
Abdul Khabeer also looks at the style of Black Muslim men – another act of Muslim Cool – who she labels “Muslim Dandies.” Black Dandyism borrows from Edwardian and Victorian-era style, “through a very self-conscious use of colors, prints, fabrics, hemlines, cufflinks, pocket squares, shoes, bags, hairstyles, head wear, and other materials” – borrowing and remixing White styles to challenge the status quo and “disarm whiteness through the use of its own signs” (143).
Like the hoodjab, these fashion choices are a form of resistance and racial redemption, “to reclaim the privilege to be authoritative as Black, urban, working-class men,” and to counter a “politics of pious respectability” that privileges only certain forms of traditional Muslim male dress as authoritative and authentic.
In the final chapter of her book, Abdul Khabeer examines the Black Muslim subject’s relationship with the state, and how the artists, activists, and institutions (like IMAN) that exemplify Muslim Cool are “strategically deployed to reinforce the hegemonic power of the state” (179). In particular, she discusses the state’s use of “hip hop diplomacy” as the twenty-first century version of the jazz diplomacy of the Cold War era:
“Jazz ambassadors,” particularly U.S. Black American artists, were used to counter the perception that the United States was a racist nation, a perception the Soviets attempted to use to their advantage. In the post-civil rights and post-9/11 era, hip hop has similarly served as a tool of the broader agenda of cultural diplomacy. It has been deployed by the state to manage the U.S. profile abroad but also to manage young Muslims who are perceived as potential terrorists. Critically, in this management of an imperial relationship with the “Muslim World,” U.S. Muslims have become a strategic asset for the state’s efforts to “reform” Islam outside the United States” (180).
Incorporating popular culture and forms of dissent into the state narrative helps the U.S. government present itself as a beacon of multicultural inclusion and justify its status as “the dominant global power” (181). Abdul Khabeer calls this the “post-civil rights domestication of racial politics,” in which the civil rights struggle has been reduced to a demand for full citizenship in the Unites States and delinked from internationalist and transnational struggles for emancipation. “Multiculturalism, when deployed by the state, is a triumphant narrative of American exceptionalism,” she writes.
In this new era, Muslims have also been racialized and targeted by the surveillance state – “parallel to the post-civil rights multicultural state is the post-9/11 surveillance state.” The state enacts policies of surveillance and detention policies while retaining the narrative of multiculturalism – “surveillance meets multiculturalism in what scholars refer to as the U.S. government’s support for ‘moderate Islam’” (200). Muslim Cool’s relationship with the state, then, is one that requires politically conscious Muslim activists and artists to examine what it means to “belong,” and what kind of sacrifice that requires.
Muslim Cool is the first study of its kind to examine the emerging youth culture and identity formation that lies at the intersection of Blackness, Islam, and hip hop. The book is an academic ethnography in every sense – laden with anthropological terminology, concepts, and academic references – and will be difficult to access for those unfamiliar with or outside of academia. But the ideas, relationships, and complexities the book unpacks should be required reading for anyone – particularly Muslims of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds – who cares about how race and religion intersect and clash with each other, state power in the contemporary United States, and how young people of color make meaning of it all.
Watch the New York City book launch for “Muslim Cool” below