Documentaries and stereotypes

Dear The Root:

Normally, you are a pretty good website with progressive, thoughtful stuff.  Why on earth was it necessary to headline an article about a Muslim hip hop artist “An Intimate Look at Hip-Hop’s Jihad?”

According to Wikipedia (which I know is not the most reliable source, but bear with me), “jihad” simply means “struggle,” or “striving in the way of Allah.”  That’s all well and good, as it seems that Hamza Perez is doing his best to lead a godly life as a prison chaplain, musician and community activist.

However, I’m sure you know that most Americans associate “jihad” with the worst prejudiced rhetoric of the Bush years and therefore that using it in your headline is going to make readers think “terrorist hip hop” as opposed to “hip hop for positive social change.”  And that would be a shame, because it appears that Hamza Perez is doing good work and making good music.

Sincerely, Meredith

On another note, the documentary looks really cool.  I’ve done some research about the connection between Islam (specifically West African Muslim liturgical chant) and African American music in the past and this is right up that alley.  Check out this video, it will blow your diasporic hybridized mind:

Asperger’s and iPods

We all know that music is an important way for people, especially teens, to form their identities and to share those identities with other people.  The Philadelphia Inquirer had a new spin on this concept last week, detailing a recent study where researchers gave iPods to kids with Asperger’s syndrome to help them socialize better.  The iPod content was varied; many kids loaded it with music, which had a calming effect, and some kids also had instructional videos on daily tasks with which they had trouble, or recordings that prompted them with conversation topics.

We often think of music helping with socialization in other ways: people hearing traditional music and connecting with a cultural identity; people hearing liturgical music that creates a common religious experience; people bonding over a genre of music that they both like, etc.  But here is a concrete example of music (loosely defined here as human-organized sound in order to include the instructional recordings) that is being used as a direct agent of socialization for people who seem to have trouble in this area.  Perhaps sound is more integral to this process than we ever realized.

Hip-hop Shabbat?

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this combination of hip hop and the Jewish Friday night liturgy.  As an artistic project, it’s not the best hip hop or liturgical music that I’ve ever heard, but I can see it appealing to some people.  As liturgy, I’m skeptical.

First, it seems intended more as a gimmick to get people into services than anything else, as opposed to a serious attempt to update the liturgy.  That isn’t the best strategy to build a religious community over the long term; eventually the crowd that’s been there all along will get sick of the gimmick and the newbies will have to adjust to the traditional music, or leave.

People need better reasons to come to services than so-so hip hop every few weeks–they need to feel like the services are meeting their spiritual needs, and that the community is one that they want to be a part of through holidays, board meetings and lifecycle events.  Once the hip hop is gone, if the deeper stuff isn’t there, what’s the point?

Second, even people who could care less about a higher power often come to a synagogue (or any other place of worship, for that matter) to connect with their tradition and to experience the comfort of familiar ritual.  I’m all for updating the liturgy, but it has to be done in a way that has a degree of continuity with the historical tradition.  (Before you get too upset about using pop songs for liturgy, the uptempo melody of “Adon olam” that many of us are used to was originally a German drinking song.)

In the sample “Challah at a Balla” from the Hip Hop Shabbat website, there are fragments of traditional b’rachot, and a smattering of traditional themes from the Shabbat liturgy (“Bo’i kallah” rhyming with “holla,” anyone?).  But most of the track is dedicated to inanities with a faint Jewish flavor (“Don’t mess with my tribe/There’s only one G-d and he’s on our side”…what?), and the whole thing seems like a 52-card pickup of Shabbat iconography.

The final bone I have to pick with these artists is their decision not to use women performers in their upcoming album of the weekday prayer service, Modeh Ani. For my non-Jewish readers, extremely observant Jews observe a halakhic principle called “kol isha,” “voice of a woman,” which forbids a man to hear a woman singing (opinions vary on whether this applies only to solo singing, or to singing when a woman is part of a mixed-gender group) on the grounds that it causes inappropriate sexual arousal.

This clearly limits women’s role in public religious life, including forbidding them from leading religious services, among other things, and in my opinion (and the opinion of most non-Orthodox Jews) is one of the worst manifestations of the pervasive and pernicious sexism found in the Jewish right wing.

Anyway, the guys behind Hip Hop Shabbat are hoping that Modeh Ani will catch on in the observant community, defending their decision to boot women performers by saying, “We are being exclusive in order to be inclusive.”  Exclusive of half the entire Jewish community in order to accommodate  the sexist, backward opinions of the fringes?

Given that the kind of people who observe kol isha are the core group who consistently do weekday services (i.e. the core market for Modeh Ani) it’s more like “We are being exclusive in order to boost sales.”  I’ll always have a problem with kol isha and other similar restrictions on women’s full participation in the Jewish community, but I would have less of an issue with the rhetoric around this particular album if the artists were at least honest about their agenda.

My advice, on both artistic and ideological grounds: this iteration of a hip-hop liturgy isn’t worth your time.  If you’re interested in the idea in general, though, check out The Socalled Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah.  It’s fun to listen to and is a much better-crafted update of the Passover liturgy that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.  Or take a look at Joshua NelsonI especially like his version of “Adon olam” (gospel, not hip hop).

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