Remember when “rap music” was an innovative tool of expressing frustration with urban poverty and crime? Well, some of that “protest” core remains, especially in France, where rap was adopted quickly, but not co-opted by producers and turned into a cesspool of dirty language and sexual stereotyping, as happened in the US.
Remember when Islam wasn’t demonized?
A really “bad boy” who made good is Abd al-Malik. He was born Régis Fayette-Mikano in 1975 in Paris to immigrant parents who then moved to his father’s native Congo for a few years, then returned to a ghetto outside Strasbourg. You have to see the segregation that rings many large French cities to believe it. The picturesque “old towns,” from which tourists rarely stray, are often surrounded by concrete block thickets of hideous apartment buildings (“banlieues”), giving rise to a dangerous underclass of potentially uneducated, unemployed, and restless youth.
Régis was one of those boys, raised by a single mother (his father had deserted the family), and five siblings. Nevertheless, she insisted that he attend a prestigious Catholic school in the “white” part of Strasbourg, working herself to exhaustion to provide for her children. He showed exceptional intellectual gifts that were recognized by his teachers. However, to keep pace with his peers, he often skipped class to engage in petty crimes such as mugging, car theft, drug dealing and the like.
Instead of succumbing to the drugs, or losing his life in gang violence, he discovered a thriving Islamic subculture in Strasbourg.
From his memoir:
“I lived Islam as a body of commandments that I only needed to put into practice scrupulously. My satisfaction was made all the greater when I noted everything my discipline was allowing me to escape. While we were keeping vigil, the youth at the foot of the buildings were smoking joints and knocking back one half-liter after another of 8.6—those well-known cans of Dutch beer that are 8.6 proof alcohol. These kids would drink and carry on, shouting unbelievable insanities and violently fighting among themselves when everything else had worn them out.
Most of the time the whole scene was enlivened by the squealing tires of stolen cars—a kind of background music. We, on the other hand, were certainly not large in number, but our meetings took place in an atmosphere that was serious and one of real solidarity. At that time, our ideal was to live the way Muslims had during the time of the Prophet as it was described to us in the books of piety. For us, the modern Western world, with its insipid and materialistic values, its contempt of dignity and human spirituality, constituted an aberration in history, a cancer even, that only Islam had the tools to cure.”
He converted to Islam at 16, but became at odds with the religion’s prohibition of music, as well as its sometimes violent anti-West rhetoric. He traveled to Morocco and met with a Sufi leader.
“Sufi” is a mystical dimension of Islam “beyond any one religion.” It seeks “spiritual essence” beyond words, and is something like the deepest aspect of Buddhist “Nirvana.” Malik’s personal relation with Sufi stresses the unity of all men, despite superficial differences. While developing his New African Poets group and releasing his first albums, Malik also attended university, gaining degrees in both Classics and Philosophy.
In 2004, he released a book of spiritual essays titled “May Allah Bless France,” showing his profound desire for a more compassionate world, rather than allowing himself to be turned into a tool for the more radical Islamists in the post 9/11 world.
His music defies easy categorization, including elements from blues, jazz, and slam poetry, always with a mystical and very romantic openness that seems to fly in the face of the usual “raw anger,” misogyny and homophobia we’re used to hearing in “typical” rap.
Explore his message if you dare! (Knowledge of French is helpful.)
© 2012 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs