From one Jewish hip-hop artist to another…

SoCalled’s 2007 song “You Are Never Alone” and Drake’s recent Sprite commercial, presented without comment except to thank Matt for the heads-up.

Kosher punk

heeb’n’vegan posted a review of several Jewish punk concerts back in August and I am now finally getting around to discussing it.

This trend isn’t surprising to me at all, besides the fact that it’s surfacing in the late 2000′s as opposed to the 80′s or 90′s (but I could be wrong, seeing as I was but a wee child back in that day and was primarily listening to Paul Simon, Mahalia Jackson and Raffi on LP and cassette tape, and not Jewish music).

I’m writing a chapter for my thesis right now on why explicitly-Jewish hip hop makes sense in the context of the klezmer revival (and why the klezmer revival makes sense in the context of the folk movement of the mid-20th century).  There have been two broad trends in Jewish-American music in the 20th and 21st centuries (basically since mass numbers of Ashkenazi Jews came to the US): 1) less-observant Jews making music that is a hybrid between whatever music they were making before, i.e. traditional secular music from their home in Europe, and American popular styles; and 2) Orthodox Jews (mainly since the 60′s) making kosherized versions of popular styles so that the kids don’t go off the derech–i.e., regular pop music has lyrics that the Orthodox community considers objectionable, so they make music that sounds just like regular pop music, but has “Torah-approved” lyrics.

This seems to be primarily an example of the latter.  The band Moshiach Oi! (Messiah Hey!, more or less) has songs like “I Wanna Learn Torah” and “Shabbos,” which have straight-up Orthodox lyrics and straight-up punk aesthetics.  Their song “Am Yisroel Chai” (the people Israel live, which is the title of a folk song that they reinterpreted) has lyrics that to my mind showcase the worse side of Orthodox ideology:

We stand for life, they stand for war

We stand for peace, they stand for more

We stand for G-d, they stand for death

We’ll scream “Am Yisroel Chai!” with our last breath

Right, because all the goyim clearly have no morals.  Moving on.

The band CAN!!CAN seems to be doing a bit better, viewing the use of punk as within the evolving, innovative aspect of Jewish tradition–and using punk to welcome people who might be otherwise alienated from the Jewish community back in.  I won’t argue with that.

Jewish punk seems to be in the stage Jewish hip hop was in back in the 80′s: some Jewish musicians are playing non-overtly-Jewish punk, and there are some Jewish punk bands that are overtly Jewish, often parody mainstream punk bands (like the band Shabbos Bloody Shabbos) and don’t incorporate Jewish aesthetics, though their lyrics are almost exclusively “Jewish.”

Back in the 80′s, we saw hip hop bands like 2 Live Jews making songs with titles like “Kosher as We Wanna Be” and “Wash This Way” (a takeoff on “Walk This Way” referencing netilat yadayim).

Now we have much better-sounding stuff from Jews exploring Jewish identity while using hip hop and traditional Jewish music (however that’s defined) as a more fluent vernacular:

Give Jewish punk 10 years and I expect great things.

Taqwacore

Like Jewish hip hop, Muslim punk or “taqwacore” is about finding one’s place at the intersection of a global religion and a nation-state in which that religion is in the minority.  I’ve heard of taqwacore a few times before, but it seems to be getting more buzz lately and I thought it was worth a shout-out.

Taqwacore as such is the brainchild of a guy called Michael Muhammad Knight, a convert to Islam who became disillusioned with his faith and, in 2003, published a novel called The Taqwacores in which a bunch of Muslim kids who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere else move into a house together and do their own thing.  (Basically just like parts of West Philly, but plus Islam and probably more fun…anyway.)

The novel inspired a full-fledged genre of Muslim punk music, which is becoming more and more successful all the time; most of the music deals with issues of concern to American Muslims and generally sounds like regular punk music with a few nods to Arab influence here and there.  The musicians conceive of themselves as

stoking the revolution – against traditionalists in their own communities and against the clichés forced upon them from the outside – “we’re giving the finger to both sides,” says one Taqwacore. “Fuck you and fuck you.”

Here’s a review of an Al-Thawra concert earlier this year. As an aside that should be developed further at some point, I think it’s pretty interesting that this is (to my knowledge) the only music scene that has grown almost entirely out of an imaginary group of music-makers in a fictional work.  It’s almost too pomo to be happening in real life.

Unlike Jewish hip hop (which is the topic of my current research hence my constant reference to it), which tries very hard to contextualize itself within and connect itself to both mainstream American society and to the larger Jewish diaspora, taqwacore seems to be more about individual identity–more about asserting oneself against the larger Muslim and American communities.  (Not that there aren’t elements of both in each style.)  I don’t always like the strident individualism in the punk ethos, but I think in this case it can be really valuable for members of a community who are often seen by other Americans, and by the media, as monolithic, dogmatic and obedient (especially women).

Taqwacores don’t unproblematically identify as Muslim; they have many different views on the practice of Islam, on American culture, on music, and how they deal with all of the above and more.  They’re also really savvy about speaking for themselves–check out the Taqwacore Webzine–and seem to be making room for themselves and their unique take on American Muslim identity.  Perhaps their paradoxical “shared sense of isolation” will be the tension driving a new way of thinking about Islam in the American public sphere.  We can hope, right?

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