Sing out sisters
Published 10 July 2008
rap is developing a large following in the US and UK, yet female artists trying
to break into the scene are often intimidated, or even threatened
n the male-dominated world of hip-hop, female
rappers have always had it tough. But, as Neelo fer Mir will testify, it's even
tougher if you are a devout Muslim woman. Mir, a 27-year-old south Londoner, is
a huge fan of artists such as Jill Scott and Alicia Keys, and has long held
dreams of emulating their success as a rapper and spoken-word poet. As she
established a following on the open-mike circuit, won an award for her work and
attracted offers to collaborate with the likes of the Mercury Prize-winning DJ
Talvin Singh, it seemed that her dream was coming true.
Unfortunately, her family and other Muslim
friends and acquaintances don't share her vision. Mir has had to battle their
suspicion that she is just using her love of rap and performance as a cover to
behave in what they feel are un-Islamic ways: going to nightclubs or meeting
"Baring your soul on stage is hard,"
she says, "so when you're leaving your family home to go and perform, you
want to feel support. Instead, you feel as if you're two inches tall. There is
an old-school mentality, very much alive today, that women really don't belong
in performing arts - they should remain in the domestic arena. And me being a
strong-minded, very opinionated female from a Muslim family, it's difficult for
me, because I'm seen as going against the grain. The criticism I get is hurtful
and it's really difficult to be who I want to be, both as an individual and as
Mir is not alone in wanting to break into an
industry that is seen by the more conservative elements in Muslim communities
as highly undesirable for young women. She is one of more than a dozen artists
whose work is featured on Sisterhood, an online mixtape of previously
unreleased songs by up-and-coming female Muslim rappers, MCs and poets from the
UK, US and Europe. Their music deals with a range of issues that each has been
affected by on some level.
For example, 18-year-old Lady Dizzla, a rapper
and dancer of Yemeni and Indian descent who is based in London, contributes a
track called "I Won't Cry", about the physical and emotional scars of
rape. "Open Soul Closed", by Angel MC Shay, a Sheffield-based rapper
and writer who has been creating lyrics since the age of 12, was written at the
time when the British government was debating the merits of going to war in
Iraq. Lyrical Lailah, from Bradford, addresses the silence surrounding violence
Judging by the success of the recent Dangerous
Ideas tour of leading MCs and rappers, there is a big audience for Islamic
hip-hop in the UK. Artists from all over the world played to sold-out venues
during the tour, the aim of which was to showcase contemporary Islamic culture
and encourage young British Muslims to express themselves through the arts.
Both here and in the United States, Muslim rap artists are gaining popularity
among young Muslims, who want a form of entertainment that reflects both their
mainstream musical tastes and their religious beliefs. The internet has fuelled
the market for Islamic hip-hop, building an international fan base for Muslim
acts such as Native Deen, from the US, and the UK's Mecca2Medina.
Within this growing scene, however, female rappers
are facing a tough time. "In many Muslim communities, there is virtually
no support for young women who want to express themselves as creative
artists," says Deeyah, the singer who founded the Sisterhood
project from the hundreds of songs submitted to her through her MySpace page.
"It's not one of the professions expected of a woman.
"Many are actively discouraged from
expressing their thoughts and dreams through music. A big part of the problem
is the cultural expec tations placed upon women. There is the association of
music with sexuality and a westernised form of expression. The main aim I had
in putting together the Sisterhood project was to let young Muslim
girls know they are not alone in their struggles to get their music out
Deeyah's own experiences show just how bad it
can get for a Muslim woman who insists on freedom of artistic expression. Born
in Norway, she was dubbed "the Muslim Madonna" after the release of
her first album, a mix of classical Pakistani music, jazz and folk. The record
was a huge commercial success, and Deeyah went on to work with internationally
renowned artists such as Jan Garbarek and Don Cherry.
However, her act alienated her from Norway's
Muslim community. Following the release of her self-titled second album, the
opposition grew louder. Norwegian Muslims claimed she was a bad role model
after promotional videos for the album showed her with her back exposed and
dressed in what was deemed to be sexually alluring western attire. Deeyah
received verbal threats against herself and her family. And during one concert
in 1995 she was attacked onstage.
The following year she came to London, hoping
that things would be different, but the problems were soon to return. When the
video for her single "Plan of My Own" was aired on an Asian music
channel, featuring the singer dancing seductively with a man, the death threats
and harassment started again. She is now based in the US and needs the constant
protection of bodyguards. "People have said to me, 'If you wore more modest
attire, toned your act down a little, you'd be OK.' Well, you know something?
I've tried wearing traditional costumes onstage and I'm still the whore. I'm
still the person who's wrong."
Muneera Rashida, of the leading London rap act
Poetic Pilgrimage, agrees that wearing more conventional attire such as the
hijab when performing often does little to appease critics. "I personally
want to wear the hijab," she says, "but that's got nothing to do with
what you think of me onstage or how you think I should look. That's between me
and my Lord and it should be the same with Deeyah. But when we perform as
Poetic Pilgrimage we face people who say: 'You're a Muslim, you're wearing the
hijab and you're mixing your religion with this type of music. How dare you?' Whichever
direction we turn in, there will be someone with something to say.
"Those opinions are not necessarily the
majority," she stresses; "they're just the more vocal opinions, often
expressed by the people who own the mosques and the publishing companies. They
feel this gives them the right to shout louder than anybody else."
Dr Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Great
Britain argues that the traditionalists have a point. "If you look at the
case of Janet Jackson, who caused such a furore a few years ago when she
exposed her nipple during her performance at that year's Superbowl, it shows
that even among non-Muslims, there are clearly understood ideas of
decency," he says. "Many Muslim women do perform to audiences of
other women at weddings, for example, because the sexes are strictly
segregated. Those performers enjoy a good career. It's when women perform for
wider, mixed audiences that differences of opinion emerge.
"These objections are based on the Islamic
view that women should not draw unnecessary attention to themselves, because of
the impact this will have on a male audience. The moral framework of Islam has
already been laid down and women should not push beyond its boundaries for the
sake of commercial gain."
Ishmael Yasin, a rapper with Mecca2Medina,
believes that opposition to artists such as Neelo fer Mir and Deeyah is slowly
losing ground. "Many of the Islamic arts programmes which have sprung up
in the past few years need government funding, which clearly stipulates that
you can't discriminate on the grounds of race or gender. So, organisations
putting on events now include women performers where they would never have
thought of doing so before. That has opened up the doors for acts like Pearls
of Islam and Poetic Pilgrimage.
"People like myself and others I work with
understand that you need to encourage this. In Asian and Arabian cultures, from
which many Muslims in this country originate, women are not really prominent in
the life of society. Often a minority of men from that cultural background
share a chauvinistic mentality and try to use Islam to mask it."
"Sisterhood" is available at
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