Photo via Wikimedia

Cool Piety

This is an edited extract from John O’Brien’s upcoming ethnography on Muslim Youths in the United States: Growing Up Muslim in America. Highly ...

Dec 13, 2014

Photo via Wikimedia
Highly religious young people in the United States — adolescents who regularly engage in traditional religious practices and are socially enmeshed in faith-based communities — face a dilemma regarding their involvement with mainstream popular culture. On the one hand, popular culture products carry significant appeal for young people, as they provide teenagers with the aesthetic means for expressing a stylistic individuality, demonstrating a measure of independence from adult norms, displaying cultural know-how to peers and simply experiencing pleasure. At the same time, much of U.S. American pop culture includes references to or portrayals of social behaviors considered obscene or sacrilegious by most major religious traditions and their leaders, such as extra-marital sex, drug and alcohol use and profane language. The symbolic friction between U.S. American pop culture and traditional religious morality places highly religious U.S. American adolescents in a contradictory situation in which a core social expectation of their age group peers — active involvement in pop culture — is at odds with a core social expectation of their religious community — the abstention from cultural materials with content deemed immoral.
While research on institutional resolutions to the pop culture–religiosity dilemma is useful as an account of the actions and intentions of institutions and leaders, it often leaves a crucial piece of puzzle uninvestigated — the experience of religious young people themselves regarding pop culture and religiosity. To assess whether and how religious youth navigate the tension between their daily religious and pop cultural commitments it is necessary to turn the focus of analytical attention from the institutional level workings of cultural production to the ground-level processes of cultural reception.

Everyday cultural reception and social identity

Sociologists of culture argue that the meaning of a given cultural good — song, painting, TV show — does not reside within the work itself, but is produced in the interaction between the aesthetic item in question and a receiving audience. Research on cultural reception has demonstrated that people often interact with cultural goods in active ways that reflect their social identities — i.e. class, race, gender — and frequently, though not always, express dissatisfaction with their social circumstances. For example, Fiske found that when disenfranchised homeless men watched the movie “Die Hard” together, they energetically cheered for the weaker party in every violent confrontation, even when this meant rooting against the movie’s hero.
Works on cultural reception since the 1990s have adopted the earlier canonical works’ important emphasis on the agency of consumers and have brought two significant theoretical improvements to bear: a sensitivity to the diverse social concerns of modern subjects beyond the acceptance or rejection of hegemony, and an awareness of the fluctuating and constructed nature of contemporary social identities. Regarding the first point, reception-oriented scholarship in the sociology of music has demonstrated the immense variety of everyday cultural work that actors can do through specific kinds of interactions with music. Like their predecessors, post-1990s reception scholars make social identities a prominent concern, but rather than treating the reception of cultural goods as a reflection of fundamental pre-existing identities, these researchers demonstrate the ways that cultural reception works towards the construction and maintenance of contingent and complex social identities. For example, this research has shown that young people can consume pop culture, and frequently music, in ways that demonstrate or encourage allegiance to a traditional social identity, such as African-U.S. American, an organization or subculture that crosses boundaries of traditional social identities, such as a social movement or music scene or a culturally relevant and appealingly complicated version of a traditional identity, such as hip-hop Indian, basketball-playing Catholic.
In this same vein, scholars studying the relationship of young peoples’ religious identities to their pop culture reception have found that, in addition to traditional religious institutions and sacralized pop culture, secular pop culture can play an important role in the religious identity work of young people. This line of argument asserts that religious youth use pop culture forms to make sense of and concretize abstract religious ideas as they discuss them.

The uses of music in everyday life

As Tia DeNora and other sociologists of music in everyday life have found, music serves as a particularly potent cultural resource for modern social actors as they work to construct a sense of self and identity, produce meaningful social situations and occasions, and generate experiences of pleasure. For De Nora, music’s affordances — of rhythmic and melodic patterns, socially shared stylistic meanings and affecting evocations of mood and emotion — serve human actors as easily accessible, tangible yet flexible building blocks for everyday meaning-making.
In generating an identity performance of cool piety through kinds of hip-hop listening, my subjects are using music engagement to navigate oppositional social pressures stemming from their religious and age-group communities. More generally, these findings suggest that the generation of bi-cultural identity performances and experiences through pop culture reception practices is one everyday means through which modern actors manage situations of conflicting cultural demands.

The flexible meanings of hip-hop and religion

Beyond its allure as a genre that bestows a sense of “complex cool” (Jeffries, 2011) on its listeners, hip-hop is also known for its cultural flexibility and its ability to travel well and express different meanings in various contexts. Scholars of hip-hop have identified rap’s usage by a diverse array of social groups around the world to construct identity and represent local concerns. Crucial to the usefulness of hip-hop among diverse practitioners is the adaptability of its core aesthetic strategies of flow, rupture, and layering to suit diverse contexts. The particular aesthetic affordances of hip-hop — a grounding steady beat and ongoing lyrical flow tempered by built-in and repeated alterations of stable meaning through rupture and layering — make this genre particularly well suited to modern multicultural subjects, who find themselves negotiating diverse social settings and associated behavioral expectations in daily life, and who need to work quickly to shift meanings and balance a sense of stable self with an ongoing cultural flexibility.
In much the same way that sociologists of music have revealed music to be more of an activity demanding participation than a passively received object, sociologists of religion argue that religious experience and meaning is not something that descends upon social actors from above or outside of them, but must be actively created and sustained through repeated human effort. While much of the social scientific study of religion has focused on how social actors draw religious meaning from sources they already consider to be sacred, objects and rituals which are set apart from everyday life and afforded special treatment, recent work on religion in everyday life emphasizes how the special treatment of otherwise mundane objects and situations can be an important way that actors experience, and demonstrate, their religiosity. In other words, through symbolic interaction, human actors can bring religious meaning to bear, even if only temporarily, onto and through otherwise nominally secular activities. This process, which some call sacralization, is also engaged in by my own subjects, who, rather than always conceiving the world as preconstituted realms of sacred and profane, do work to treat musical and cultural objects in ways that make them sacred enough to align with a social situation heavy with religious meaning or profane enough to complicate what they fear is a too sacred religious identity. This ongoing work of religious and secular meaning-making — flexible but constrained by local authorities, behavioral norms, and concrete settings is central to my subjects’ ability to weave between religious and secular symbols, meanings and contexts.
For these young men, carefully developed ways of listening to hip-hop music serve as tangible means for expressing, enacting and complicating their religious faith and identity. In this way, hip-hop listening serves as way of being religious and actively generating a certain kind of ongoing religious identity performance. At the same time, engaging in religious behaviors and sacralization work serves as a tangible means for them be a certain kind of hip-hop fan, one whose music consumption works with a committed religious life. In other words, my subjects take advantage of the symbolic power and flexibility of both hip-hop music and religious Islam to manage the cultural tension between the two and produce a complex local identity that assists them in feeling, and seeming, both religiously observant and secularly cool.

Subjects, setting, and methods

The central subjects of this study are the Legendz, a friendship group of five second generation immigrant Muslim U.S. American young men, who I refer to by the name of their sometime active hip-hop group. I met the Legendz while volunteering and conducting fieldwork with the City Mosque’s Muslim Youth Program, a weekly adult-facilitated gathering focused on providing social and religious activities for Muslim teenagers. The City Mosque is one of the most liberal mosques in the area. Its leaders permit the co-mingling of young men and women within the mosque and on youth retreats and allow the limited playing of music in the mosque building and at community events. The City Mosque is quite open with the broader community, hosting interfaith events as well as informational sessions about Islam for non-Muslims, and has attracted an unusually multi-ethnic Muslim membership. The neighborhood surrounding the mosque, where the Legendz live, is a religiously and ethnically mixed working class area, including South Asian, East Asian, Arab, Latino and African immigrant families, as well as African-U.S. Americans.
The Legendz clique is comprised of two African brothers, Muhammad and Yassir; two Arab brothers, Yusef and Abdul; and Zaid, a South Asian youth. The Legendz met when they were of elementary school age and were attending the same Quran classes at the City Mosque. By the time I met them, the four core members of the group had known one another for about 10 years. In addition to being close friends, the Legendz have come to form a semi-professional hip-hop group over the years. During the time I spent with them, their enthusiasm for this activity, but not their hip-hop fandom, waxed and waned. At the peak of their energies, the group was performing once per week and writing and recording consistently. The Legendz were excited to play for Muslim and non-Muslim audiences alike.

The musical practices of the Legendz

To manage the tension between religious commitments and secular pop culture participation in their daily lives, the Legendz utilize three distinct musical practices. First, by applying religious guidelines to their music listening, the Legendz work to enjoy the pleasures of secular hip-hop while remaining so-called good Muslims. Second, by collaboratively locating Islamic symbols of piety nested within otherwise secular hip-hop songs, the boys work to experience a potent religiosity through culturally youthful means. Third, by making constant, fleeting references to hip-hop’s un-Islamic elements, the Legendz work to briefly pivot away from religious orthodoxy and suggest a secular worldliness to complicate their religious identities. These musical practices require the consideration of local standards of Islamic piety in the course of musical engagement, and therefore push the Legendz into a deeper intimacy with their religion as a lived and managed reality. At the same time, the practices maintain an involvement in secular hip-hop, and therefore allow the Legendz to experience, and express, Muslim identity as something fun, agentive and compatible with youthful independence. The Legendz address the pop culture — religiosity dilemma by utilizing this repertoire of listening practices to manifest a way of being a practicing Muslim that attempts to pay heed to both their secular adolescent and religious Islamic cultural obligations — a cool piety. As will be seen, cool piety is not a solidified identity or subculture, but an ongoing project that must be constantly maintained with subtle interactional work, carefully deployed symbolic signals and routinized musical practices.
The Legendz’ ability to manage the pop culture–religion dilemma is not purely a result of their own efforts. Two characteristics of their local cultural context help to make their negotiations workable. First, like the leadership of other U.S. religious congregations seeking to retain young believers, the City Mosque has adopted a liberal orientation towards the presence of music in the religious community. While hip-hop music containing haram, orreligiously impermissible, sentiments is certainly not allowed in the mosque, leaders of the youth program at the mosque defend the permissibility of other kinds of music including hip-hop in Islam and, occasionally, in the mosque itself. Some younger leaders even go so far as to point out the similarity between the rhyming raps of hip-hop and the rhyming recitations of the Quran. This general openness towards secular youth music on the part of mosque leadership does not make all of the Legendz’ hip-hop activity workable within the mosque, but it does provide an opening in which the Legendz’s listening practices, and alterations of hip-hop music and culture, can take place.
Second, the Legendz’s musical practices are assisted by the sizable number of rap artists who are either Muslim themselves, or at least have a familiarity with Islamic ideas. Many prominent Muslim rappers are or were members of the Five Percent Nation, a breakaway sect of the Nation of Islam. The presence of Five Percenter, Sunni, and Sufi Muslim rappers within hip-hop, both currently and in the past, means that the lyrics and audio tracks of many well-known hip-hop songs are inflected with references to Islamic thought and theology, as well as other sonic cues relevant to Muslims or Middle Eastern or Arab cultures. This characteristic of the hip-hop genre enables the Legendz to experience, and jointly celebrate, an aesthetic commensurability of secular music and religious Islam that would be otherwise unlikely. In the end, though, it is the Legendz own active reception of hip-hop that gives locally resonant meaning to the music in ways that allow them to develop and embrace a vital and complex version of Islamic being.

Islamic listening: applying religious rules to hip-hop engagement

The Legendz are practicing Muslims and demonstrate a consistent adherence to the basic tenets of Islamic behavior as it is locally understood: saying daily prayers; abstaining from alcohol, drugs and premarital sex; observing dietary guidelines; and expressing belief in Allah, the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. While the boys did not always say all of their five daily prayers, they almost always did so when in the mosque and I saw them frequently pray in spaces outside of the mosque: in a park, on a beach or at a friend’s house. They also all maintained the yearly month-long fast of Ramadan, and were generally open with non-Muslim friends at school about this practice and their religion in general. Finally, the Legendz did not consume alcohol or drugs in any continuing or significant way and also abstained from pre-marital sex. The boys also spent the majority of their non-school time within social worlds associated with Islam: the mosque, the youth group, their own families and their all-Muslim friendship group.
At the same time that they are practicing Muslims, the Legendz are also ardent fans of hip-hop music, and spend much of their time together listening to, talking about, informally performing and making references to hip-hop albums, artists, songs and videos. Initially exposed to hip-hop music by aunts, cousins, siblings, classmates and MTV in their late elementary and early middle school years, the Legendz found the music attractive for its seductive rhythms and wordplay, as well as its resonance with their own daily concerns as young working class men of color growing up in urban America — experiences of discrimination and marginality, heterosexual male masculinity and minority identities. Unlike some hip-hop fans, the Legendz did not make strong distinctions between “real” — authentic, underground, message-oriented — and “commercial” — mass-marketed, superficial, sex- and violence-oriented — hip-hop. Rather, during the time I spent with them, they listened to, talked about and informally performed songs by a wide range of artists, from the sincere and conscious Black Star to the silly and nasty Sir Mix-a-Lot. This diverse canon served the Legendz well, as it allowed them to engage with and deploy different kinds of hip-hop songs and moods as called for by a specific situation or setting.
What the great majority of the hip-hop songs and artists shared in common was that they held the potential to present a lyric or sonic element which could be seen as in conflict with the cultural system of religious Islam as locally manifest in their mosque and community. Many of the hip-hop songs listened to and talked about by the Legendz, from the commercial to the more underground, include the frequent use of profane language, sexual imagery, references to drugs and alcohol and/or descriptions of graphic violence. As mentioned above, the leaders of the Legendz’s mosque do not, as some Muslim religious authorities do, argue that all secular music is haram. They do, however, openly disapprove of music that includes references to or is seen as encouraging haram behaviors such as dancing, the use of alcohol or drugs, profane language and pre-marital sex.
As one mosque leader told me, “Halal [permissible] music is halal. Haram music is haram.” This local judgment on music casts much of mainstream hip-hop out of the sphere of acceptability, and presents the Legendz with a practical cultural dilemma: how do they engage with their beloved hip-hop music while spending time together in settings where Islamically appropriate behavior is the norm? At the same time, how do they maintain their status as morally upstanding Muslims, a designation important both to them and their community, while participating in urban hip-hop culture? The answer, for the Legendz, lies in how they listen to the music. By consciously and carefully working to interact with hip-hop in religiously appropriate ways, the Legendz strive to invent and practice modes of Islamic listening. One example of Islamic listening took place one Sunday afternoon in the main lobby of the mosque as Muhammad spoke with two friends, Aziz and Hasan. Earlier, Muhammad had been telling the other two boys that he had some new hip-hop by a Somali rapper:
Muhammad lets Aziz listen to the Somali rap on his MP3 player, and then passes it to Hasan. Hasan starts moving his body to the music.
Muhammad reaches out both of his open hands towards Hasan, and in an exaggerated Arab accent, says, “Zere is no dancing in zee mosque, bruzzah [brother].” Hasan smiles and stops dancing, but keeps listening and bobbing his head slightly. Muhammad smiles.
Here we see Muhammad encouraging a specific way of listening to hip-hop within the mosque, bobbing one’s head but not dancing, that is less likely to clash with local Islamic behavioral standards. While the mosque location suggests a general standard of Islamic conduct, its religious leaders — and Islamic theology, more broadly — provide no particular guidance regarding listening to secular music in a sacred space. The Legendz work to fill this gap by providing themselves and their friends with ad-hoc solutions for being a religious Muslim fan of secular hip-hop.
In practicing and sharing religiously acceptable modes of hip-hop listening, the Legendz work to manage the pop culture–religion dilemma in ways that neither require them to abandon their allegiance with religious Islam nor to shun secular hip-hop. Two elements of Islamic listening interactions, both evident in this example, demonstrate how this musical practice allows the Legendz to feel that they are staying true to both their religious practice and their identities as hip-hop fans.
First, Islamic listening requires an active engagement with norms of good Muslim behavior, as locally defined. While many of the Legendz’ daily activities tend to be either nominally secular — school, basketball, skateboarding — or overtly religious — praying, Qur’an class — listening to hip-hop in the mosque falls between these spheres and, as such, requires the Legendz to proactively orient themselves as religious subjects in relation to a secular phenomena, and vice versa, and to take a stand on these matters.
This is what Muhammad does, when he tells Hasan, “There is no dancing in the mosque, brother.” In this way, and due to the music’s problematic relation to Islam, hip-hop listening in Islamic settings becomes an occasion for what is otherwise a rare occurrence in the Legendz’ daily lives: the intentional application of Islamic behavioral guidelines to their own actions. In practicing Islamic listening, the Legendz make their musical behavior, and themselves, Muslim, according to their definition, by aligning their embodied actions with local religious ideals. By listening to music in this way, the Legendz are actively practicing being good Muslims through a specific kind of engagement with hip-hop.
A second element of this interaction demonstrates how Islamic listening allows the Legendz to still feel like real hip-hoppers, even as they curtail music listening with religious rules. Here, as in other cases of Islamic listening, the Legendz make sure to signal their allegiance to youth culture in the course of the interaction. The intended audiences for these signals include the other Legendz, other youth present at the mosque and the signaler himself. In the current case, for example, Muhammad signifies this youth cultural allegiance in two ways: by allowing Hasan to continue listening to the music and bobbing his head and by parodying the accent of an Arab mosque elder while advocating for a more Islamic behavior. Enlisting a comedic trope well known within mosque youth circles, a caricature of the overly serious and uncool mosque authority figure, Muhammad works to portray himself as someone who is on hip-hop’s, and Hasan’s, side even as he actively restricts Hasan’s hip-hop behavior to more rigidly align with local religious expectations. In signifying allegiance to youth culture in the course of practicing Islamic listening, the Legendz work to demonstrate — to other youth, each other and themselves — that while they may be applying a religious norm in this particular case, they still maintain a youth-oriented perspective and are not completely beholden to religious Islam.
At first glance, Muhammad’s use of the exaggerated accent may seem to indicate a mockery of mosque elders, the mosque or even Islam itself, but two pieces of evidence counter this interpretation.
First, during my three and half years with the Legendz, they demonstrated immense respect for the mosque, which they called both a “sanctuary” and a “clubhouse,” and its leadership, whom they considered “family.” The boys were embedded in the community to such an extent that, as in many family settings, teasing comments across generational boundaries were usually intertwined with affection. Along these same lines, the Legendz, like other second-generation immigrant youth, frequently performed highly exaggerated versions of the accents of their parents and other community adults as a means of simultaneously expressing tenderness for and demonstrating a measure of differentiation from older-generation adults. Given this cultural context, Muhammad’s adoption of a stylized accent to represent a strict Islam from which he wishes to momentarily dissociate himself does not indicate a broader lack of respect for these community members or their approaches to religion. It is rather a playful yet symbolically meaningful way to bring hip-hop listening into line with local Muslim practice while still appearing to be a cool hip-hop fan.
The combination of open application of religious rules and signifying allegiance to youth culture which characterizes Islamic listening allows the Legendz to demonstrate a knowledge of and affinity for youth musical culture even as they work to partially conform it to local Islamic standards. A second example of Islamic listening, which took place during a hip-hop performance by the Legendz at a Muslim youth arts showcase, reinforces this point. As was always the case when the boys performed as group, whether for Muslim-only or more general audiences, their songs were free of profane language or references to sex, drugs or alcohol. The Legendz were received warmly by the audience of other youth, parents and mosque leaders. The morning after the performance, the Legendz recounted the successful show with Michael, one of the youth program staff.
Michael and the boys talk about their show last night. Michael says, “The sound was pretty messed up.” Abdul says, “Yeah, because that guy had a soundboard from Toys R Us.” People laugh.
Michael says, “I’m just glad none of you all was grabbing yourselves.” Muhammad nods and says, “I was going like this.” He takes his left hand and moves it down right near his crotch but then moves it to the side. Michael smiles.
Here again we see the two characteristic elements of Islamic listening interactions. First, at the show, Muhammad was required to actively consider and apply a norm of Islamic behavior, here, bodily and sexual modesty, in order to make his hip-hop cultural participation compatible with an Islamic context. In this way, Muhammad is enacting Islamic religiosity through the medium of hip-hop, embodying Muslim behavior through a familiar pop cultural form. Second, the day after, Muhammad demonstrates to himself and others that he knows about the un-Islamic gestures affiliated with hip-hop, even if he chooses not to use them. In telling the other Legendz that he did not grab his crotch, Muhammad is both letting others know that he did the Islamically appropriate thing, that he successfully tailored hip-hop for an Islamic context, and that he knew exactly what that un-Islamic thing was. In particular, he demonstrates familiarity with a gesture of overt masculine sexuality drawn from hip-hop culture, while still demonstrating a commitment to Islamic norms in neglecting to fully enact that gesture.
Some might argue that Muhammad’s refraining from fully enacting hip-hop’s sexual gestures in this example has less to do with an attempt to manage the dual cultural commitments of hip-hop and religious Islam than it does with a basic desire to avoid getting into trouble in the mosque. My empirical findings counter this assertion. When the Legendz performed hip-hop outside of the mosque — at school dances, secular youth centers and urban performance spaces — they presented a similarly profanity-free and religiously-tinged kind of hip-hop, avoiding swear words and sexual references, and rapping about family, politics and Islam. This demonstrates that their work to reconcile hip-hop and Islamic practices was not simply a function of the mosque context, but part of a wider project of bi-cultural identity management and performance. Moreover, this line of thinking, that if only the Legendz could engage with profanity they would, essentializes urban youth hip-hop identity and culture, suggesting that there is a specific set of practices that hip-hop fans have an internally motivated need to engage with in order to realize their authentic hip-hop selves. I would argue that Muhammad is making such a challenge here, by implicitly suggesting that his knowledge of the gesture of crotch-grabbing makes him enough of a hip-hop fan that he did not also have to do it. In these small ways, the Legendz are working to refashion both hip-hop fandom and Islamic behavior, so that these occasionally oppositional cultural forces might be more compatible in their everyday lives.
During my time with the Legendz, the boys continually made slight adjustments to hip-hop behaviors so that they would fall more in line with Islamic norms. Songs played on cell phones were turned down or off at certain points to avoid obscene lyrics. Recited raps were edited on the fly to remove references to sex or drugs. Overt dancing or other embodied responses to music were quelled within the mosque or other Islamic settings. In working to resolve the tension between secular hip-hop and religious Islam, a tension that emerges repeatedly in the course of their daily lives, the Legendz are constantly triggered to openly consider and customize Islamic religious guidelines. In this way, the Legendz are pushed to engage with their religion in a direct manner.
In adjusting their hip-hop behaviors to be more Islamic, the Legendz experience what can be an abstract system of beliefs and theology as something tangible and immediately relevant. For the Legendz, the musical practice of Islamic listening is a local means of producing religious action, one that they experience as fun, creative and youthful, and one that is complementary with their other, more traditional religious practices.

Listening like a cool Muslim: finding Islamic piety in secular music

A second way that the Legendz manage tension between religion and pop culture through music listening is by finding Islam within hip-hop, collaboratively locating elements expressive of Muslim religiosity within otherwise secular rap songs. I first experienced this musical practice one day, as the Legendz and I walked out of a fast food restaurant across from the mosque, and discussed our favorite rappers.
We start walking out the door and back onto the street. Abdul says, “Talib Kweli is one of my favorites. He’s good.”
“I saw Mos Def and Talib Kweli perform one time as Black Star,” I say.
“Really?” they say.
Muhammad says, “What songs did they do?”
“I can’t really remember,” I say. “It was a while ago.”
Abdul asks, “Did they do that song ‘Definition’?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “They did the one about, ‘Black is the…’”
Muhammad picks up the line and starts reciting the rap, “Black is the color of my true love’s hair.”
By the next line all three of them are rapping together: “Black is the veil that the Musliminas wear.”
“That’s tight!” Abdul says.
Here, the Legendz are engaging in the well-documented phenomena of experiencing a shared social identity through joint musical engagement. This identity group-building function of music listening can be seen here, as it is the active and shared process of locating and celebrating the Islamic cues in the music, rather than some active element of the symbols or sounds within the music itself, that works to build a sense of Muslim identity among the group. As mentioned above, as a genre, U.S. American hip-hop is uniquely suited for this purpose, as a number of rappers are either Muslim or have a familiarity with Islam. As a result, many rap songs include phrases of Islamic scripture, Arabic-sounding musical cues, or other Muslim-associated cultural elements, often overlooked by the casual listener.
More that just gaining a sense of Muslim-ness through listening to music together, something that members of any religious group could do with sacred or sacralized music, the Legendz pinpoint and celebrate a certain kind of Muslim-ness located within a certain kind of music. That is, while the music does not magically produce a sense of identity by itself, the specifics of the music’s genre and symbolism, and the particular meanings they carry for the listeners, do make a difference for how hip-hop is drawn on by the Legendz. The specific symbols of Islam identified and celebrated by the Legendz when they listen to secular hip-hop are almost always resonant of a high level of Islamic piety. In the excerpt above, the lyric jointly latched on to by the Legendz describes a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, or headscarf, which is understood to be a sign of religious devotion. The color of the veil in the song, black, further deepens this association with piety, as a black hijab is linked with an especially strong commitment to modesty.
When the symbol of the black hijab is invoked by popular rapper Mos Def, and then re-recited by the boys, their response is enthusiastic, “That’s tight!” However, the common sight of a woman wearing hijab within their own families or mosque communities never elicits this kind of energetic approval. This symbol of Islamic piety is jointly celebrated by the Legendz in this instance because it is framed by a musical context associated with youth, coolness, and an extra-religious worldliness.
Most of the lyrics in this Mos Def song, and others that the Legendz listen to in this way, are not concerned with religion or Islam at all, and so the religious symbolism is set within a diverse array of lyrical symbols and therefore never becomes all-encompassing. In addition, the strong beats and dance-associated rhythms pull against an overarching sense of Muslim religious conformity. The rap songs within which the Legendz locate Islamic symbols always shared these two qualities — they included lyrics or musical cues associated with a high level of piety — the call to prayer, Qur’anic scripture or characters, the hijab — and the musical and lyrical context surrounding these symbols was unmistakably hip-hop and predominantly secular.
The Legendz did not treat the appearance of any kind of Muslim identity or Islamic reference within popular hip-hop as worthy of enthusiasm, but only those that were clearly highly pious within a secular musical framework. For example, popular rappers who casually dropped Islamic Arabic phrases — such as Alhamdulillah, thanks be to God or a salaam aleikum, peace be upon you — into their songs without further proving religious devotion were treated with suspicion. Mainstream artists who claimed a connection with Islam in songs, interviews or on awards shows but then rapped about alcohol, sex and partying were singled out for harsh criticism in conversations behind the mosque. It was not the mere appearance of Muslim identity within popular rap that would gain the Legendz’ approval and excitement. Rather, only instances of high Islamic piety nested within what they considered a secular hip-hop framework would elicit such shared enthusiasm.
Celebrating Islamic identity by locating religious symbols within secular hip-hop allowed the Legendz to demonstrate an allegiance to Islamic piety without seeming overly devout. The boys regularly poked fun at those who they considered religious in a too all-encompassing way. These parties included mosque adults who lectured youth on the minutiae of Islamic rules, as well as youth who spent a bulk of their time praying or memorizing the Qur’an. The most frequent criticisms of the too religious, though, were aimed at Muslim musicians and rappers who limited their music to addressing Islamic themes. As I accompanied the Legendz to concerts of Muslim musicians, the boys repeatedly made fun of performers whose strictly Islamic lyrics or self-presentation made them seem boring, cheesy or, from the Legendz’s perspective, out of touch with the real world. This common characterization of Muslim musicians was expressed by Muhammad one day at a community concert, when I asked the boys if they would consider giving one of their rap demo CDs to the popular Muslim musician Sami Yusef.
We eat our lunches. I overhear Muhammad talking to Yassir about a song they are working on called “This is how we pray.”
“Hey,” I say to Muhammad and the others, “You should give Sami Yusuf a demo.”
“Man, what’s he gonna do?” says Muhammad. “He probably can’t get us on his label … We’ll probably give it to him and he’ll say, [affecting accent and raising his arms upward with palms facing each other about shoulder’s width apart]: ‘My label is Allah.’” The other guys laugh.
In contrast to their celebration of rappers who interject signs of Islamic piety within otherwise secular hip-hop, the Legendz are disparaging of Muslim musicians whose music is primarily about Islam. When listening to secular hip-hop while identifying symbols of Islamic piety within it, the boys are able to feel simultaneously religiously devout and secularly cool. This is a cultural experience that listening to overtly “Muslim” rap does not provide them.
In listening to hip-hop in a way that involves a constant searching for messages of Islamic piety within a secular audio landscape, the boys establish themselves as certain kinds of Muslims, those who can and do experience religious devotion and youthful worldliness at the same time, who demonstrate a cool piety. While the occurrence of Muslim religious symbols within secular rap provides an opportunity for the Legendz to find cool piety through hip-hop, it is only through the process of actively locating and sharing this style of Muslim identity that the Legendz repeatedly cast themselves, and each other, as cool Muslims. This kind of collaborative identity experience took place one evening when my wife, Saba, and I accompanied the Legendz to a dinner event at the mosque and talked about hip-hop.
As we sit at the table with the Legendz, Yusef tells Saba about the performance the boys had earlier in the evening.
Saba tells him, “We just got the new Lupe Fiasco CD. Have you heard it?”
He smiles and nods enthusiastically, “That’s a really good CD! I think he actually has the adhan [call to prayer] on one of the tracks!” Saba and I nod.
This example again demonstrates that it is symbols of devout Islamic practice, here, the call to prayer, that attract the Legendz’s special attention when they listen to secular hip-hop. While it is possible that Yusef noticed the call to prayer while listening to this CD by himself, his uncertain phrasing suggests that he may have heard this reported from another Muslim friend. This possibility, as well as the way he excitedly passes this news on to us, demonstrates how the practice of listening to hip-hop as a cool Muslim is a social experience, one that is given meaning through interaction. When Yusef tells us that he thinks this secular hip-hop includes a symbol of Islamic piety, he is doing more than celebrating a reference to his own minority religion within pop culture form. He is also demonstrating to us that he is someone who is able to identify, and who identifies with, this particular combination of Islamic and musical symbols. In other words, he is a cool, pious Muslim.

Pivoting away from piety: using hip-hop to signify a complex Muslim identity

While the Legendz sometimes engage with secular hip-hop in ways that emphasize a simultaneity of Islamic piety and pop cultural cool, at other times, the boys enlist secular hip-hop to briefly but intentionally demonstrate their familiarity with the un-Islamic elements of hip-hop culture. In so doing, the Legendz work to project a measure of independence from religious obligations, employing hip-hop’s haram content to interactionally pivot away from Islam. As discussed above, the Legendz’s ability to project a multi-dimensional identity and extra-Islamic worldliness through participation in hip-hop is important to the boys because they, like most religious youth in the United States, are wary of those whom they consider too religious. One way they make distinctions between themselves and overly devout Muslims is through the strategic deployment of hip-hop’s irreligious content in everyday interactions. The continual presence of hip-hop music and cultural references in the Legendz’s daily lives affords them multiple opportunities to momentarily display a degree of autonomy from Islamic strictures and to suggest to themselves and their peers that they are more worldly and independent than the identity of good Muslim might imply.
Hip-hop’s massive popularity among mosque youth, as well as its well-known association with deviant themes, makes it a particularly useful resource for the Legendz’s demonstration of multi-dimensional Islamic identity within their community. Because specific songs and rappers are well known by the youth, and because the local association between secular hip-hop and un-Islamic behavior is so strong, the Legendz need only make the slightest suggestion of affiliation with hip-hop to gain a measure of countercultural cachet. An incident which took place one afternoon during a youth program meeting at the mosque demonstrated just how subtle these implications of deviance from Islamic behavior can be. During this session, the Legendz were asked to prepare a rap song for an upcoming youth program reunion. In working on the song, the boys considered various currently popular rap songs as templates.
The crew of boys gathers to start working on their song. I sit with them.
They joke around for a while, then Muhammad takes the lead, “OK,” he asks the group, “What beats can we use?” People throw out ideas: Tupac, Timbaland, but nothing seems to stick. They play around with different rhymes set to songs they know, trying to get some good lines for their song for the reunion. Once in a while Abdul does a line in a heavy Arab accent.
After Muhammad tries one line out, Yusef says, “Yeah, you could use that!”
Muhammad continues rapping: “MYP [Muslim Youth Program] is my other half. Lean like a cholo … Lean like a Muslim.” People in earshot laugh, especially the girls at the table working on the picture collages. Muhammad smiles.
Here Muhammad improvises a brief parody of the then popular hip-hop song “Lean Like a Cholo” by the rapper Down. Through his informal performance of a short piece of the song, Muhammad calls to mind the lyrical content of the well-known original, which focuses on gang lifestyles, casual sex and dancing. It is the juxtaposition of these clearly un-Islamic themes with the mosque location and the word “Muslim” that makes Muhammad’s parody funny, and causes the nearby girls to laugh. By making a fleeting reference to this song and its content, Muhammad momentarily distances himself from Islamic normativity, interactively suggesting that he and the other Legendz have a familiarity with songs, lyrics and maybe even behavior such as this. This use of hip-hop symbolism works to make the Legendz seem, and feel, like more than just pious Muslims, even though the great majority of their behavior hews closely to local Islamic norms.
The Legendz’s interactive suggestions of hip-hop-related deviance are not just a matter of ignoring appropriate Islamic behavior and pursuing hip-hop-related profanity. They involve an active pushing off against Muslim behavioral norms using specific Islamic references as conservative foils for their brief displays of hip-hop-inflected rebellion.
As the Legendz work together to prepare a presentation on the duties of a good Muslim for the youth group, Yassir intentionally mishears the name of the revered scholar Al-Bukhari as “Bacardi,” the brand of rum frequently referenced by mainstream rappers.
After sitting through a lecture on the sirah, meaning the life of the Prophet Muhammad, Aziz alters the Arabic word to the name “Serena,” which triggers a group recitation of an explicitly sexual verse from the Kanye West single, “Gold Digger.” During a humorous conversation considering how one might pray in a night club, Yusef revises the movements of prayer to suggest a funky new dance move, then quickly stops when he remembers he is in the mosque.
Such hip-hop-associated suggestions of behavior are almost always made in close proximity to Islamic symbols or practices. These references are always brief, and usually involve stifled laughter and knowing glances among the Legendz, who signal to one another and anyone else watching that, although they may be practicing Muslims, they know about more than just Islam.
The Legendz’s interactional work to distinguish themselves from musicians who hew strictly to Islamic themes, mentioned above, is another form of using hip-hop to pivot away from what they consider an all-encompassing and monochromatic religious identity. This type of distancing is even more precise, as the Legendz push off not just against Islamic rules in general, but also from the attempts of adult Muslim leaders and musicians to combine forms of hip-hop culture and Islamic religiosity in a way that will appeal to youth. While the Legendz are practicing Muslims who are involved in hip-hop, they resist being pigeonholed as Muslim rappers because, to them, this signifies a boring, overly-serious and one-dimensional identity. This resistance to the Muslim rapper label was demonstrated by Abdul one day over lunch with the other Legendz at a fast food restaurant. Toward the end of the meal, I asked Abdul if the boys were Muslim rappers.
There’s a pause, Abdul says, “I mean, we are…but only when we’re playing for Muslim things.”
“So you guys only play Muslim stuff when you’re playing for Muslim audiences?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “I mean, we play political stuff … and we talk about Islam and everything. But my other stuff that I write, I mean, it’s crazy. You wouldn’t want to see it.”
In working to distance himself from a strictly religious identity, even that of a Muslim rapper, Abdul utilizes the association of hip-hop with deviance to suggest a darker side to his identity, one that is so “crazy” that I “wouldn’t want to see it.” In employing hip-hop in this way, Abdul and the other Legendz repeatedly work to insinuate a potentially un-Islamic dimension to their identity, one that always exists just out of sight, without needing to actually engage in haram behavior. These visible hip-hop associations signal to others, and themselves, that the Legendz have a measure of cultural autonomy and a cool, interesting and complex Muslim identity, even as they generally conform to locally normative religious expectations.

Discussion and conclusion

This article has demonstrated three musical practices through which a group of Muslim youth attempts to interactively produce a way of being a religious teenager that is both religiously devout and secularly cool. First, the youth practice of Islamic listening, a way of consuming hip-hop that falls within Muslim religious guidelines, in order to maintain status as good Muslims while engaging with secular, and often sacrilegious, music. Second, the youth jointly identify and celebrate symbols of pious Islam nested within secular hip-hop to experience themselves as cool Muslims. Thirdly, by making constant and fleeting references to hip-hop’s un-Islamic elements, the youth attempt to project a complex religious identity, one that reflects secular worldliness in conjunction with religious devotion. Through these practices, the Legendz work to construct and enact a practice of cool piety, a way of being Muslim that is devout without being too religious and that is cool without being un-Islamic. As my data demonstrates, cool piety as a mode of youth religiosity is never fully achieved, but is rather an ongoing project which requires continual interactional work through particular kinds of engagements with pop culture forms.
Two environmental factors assist the Legendz in generating experiences and impressions of cool piety through musical practices. The first is the correlation of specific settings with certain practices. Both Islamic listening and “pivoting away from piety” almost always took place within the mosque. This religiously dense location helps to facilitate the achievement of these practices both because the mosque presents itself as a place where people are expected to appear pious and because the setting provides an accessible cache of religious symbols, discourses, and practices which can either be visibly adapted, as in Islamic listening, or momentarily shunned, as in pivoting away from piety. In contrast, the practice of listening like a cool Muslim usually took place outside of the mosque, where secular music could be more freely consumed, and where the identification of sacred symbols would stand in relief to a secular physical setting.
The second environmental factor that aided the Legendz in their generation of cool piety through music listening was audience composition. The presence of other Muslim youth, familiar with both sacred Islam and secular hip-hop, was crucial to the Legendz’s effective conjuring of cool piety through adapting hip-hop practices for Islamic purposes and for pivoting away from Islamic piety. Here the meaning of cool piety, and the boundaries around the Legendz clique, were made manifest, in part, by the reactions of other, slightly less cool, Muslim youth to the boys’ cultural agility and symbolic suggestions of deviance. For all three practices, and most obviously listening like a cool Muslim, the boys’ primary audience was each other, as they worked to remind themselves, again and again, that they could be both Muslim and cool.
In addition to demonstrating the multi-faceted dynamism of youth pop cultural reception, the case of the Legendz also provides evidence of one way that traditional religious identities can be maintained in the midst of a secular cultural context. This paper demonstrates how particular practices of pop culture engagement provide actors with direct and active ways to experience and maintain their religiosity. Practices of pop cultural reception are particularly well suited for facilitating the maintenance of modern religious identities in an U.S. American context because they allow religious people to feel culturally autonomous, even as they embrace traditional practices.
Practices of pop cultural reception can allow religiously devout people to feel culturally autonomous for two, intertwining reasons. First, many pop cultural materials, especially those available to youth in the United States, express values of individuality, rebellion and freedom, both in content and form. Experiencing these materials in conjunction with traditional and often adult-led religious practices can inject these routine aspects of religious life with a jolt of energy and vitality. This finding also echoes the conclusions of social historians of popular religion — that the intermixing of pop cultural forms with traditional religious practices, while often resisted by religious leadership, provides lay practitioners with ways to embrace religious identity and practice that are revitalizing and accessible. One reason that pop cultural reception can be key to the maintenance of religious identities in secular contexts, then, is because U.S. American pop cultural forms, with their inscribed aesthetic values of independence and freedom, serve as symbolic complements to the communal and traditional rituals of religious life.
This intermingling of secular and religious cultural forms does not come easily, though. As the case of the Legendz illustrates, it takes a significant amount of ongoing, ground-level cultural work to manage the tension between these symbolic elements. Yet, while negotiating this tension requires effort, it is not effort that seems particularly troublesome or stressful, at least not in the existential ways that the conventional thinking about religious people might suggest. As everyday modern religious subjects move daily through a mix of religious and secular symbols, they are hardly traumatized by this situation. Instead, many approach the task of balancing these elements as something pleasurable, even playful. It is this playfulness, this continual working to find ways to be both religious and secular, that also gives religious people a sense of autonomy about their religious identities. Managing the tension between secular pop culture and religious practices gives people the opportunity to actively engage with the specific elements of their religious traditions and their favorite pop cultural forms. This, in turn, pushes them to a greater familiarity and facility with both symbolic systems.
Beyond the question of religion, this article proposes one explanation for how modern, multi-cultural individuals operate in situations characterized by conflicting cultural expectations. This article suggests that a social context of conflicting cultural expectations may be eased by pop culture reception practices aimed at the repeated generation of bi-cultural identity performances and experiences.
John O’Brien is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Research and Public Policy at NYUAD.
John O'Brien is a contributing writer. Email him at
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