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Dear Bristol, let’s have a conversation (and get off the fence)

Ideas and Action

“We have to be the ones to make the change, now is not the time to be on the fence about things.”

Photos: Alvaro Martinez

Buzzing, diverse, packed, a few words to describe the Malcolm X centre the evening of Friday 25th of November. At an event organised by the Bristol Cable (find out more here), 280+ Bristolians gathered to celebrate the return of two intriguing women, both black, Muslim and lovers of hip hop, to their birthplace and the exact building where their journey was conceived.

Muneera Rashida born Tanya Williams and Sukina Abdul Noor born Yashima Douglas, embarked on an odyssey examining faith, political and social justice issues in 2002 as Poetic Pilgrimage, and haven’t looked back ever since. Under the protective and encouraging eyes of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela and a few other instrumental black activists, we were privileged to engage in conversation with the duo.

Bristol is an inspiring city, Muneera confirms. Black people have lived in Bristol for over 400 years, yet now, you can still walk the streets of Bristol’s inner zones and feel a strong sense of black pride, the kind that hasn’t been dulled by inequality, real struggle or the curse of the underdogs (except in Clifton obviously, it has been completely gentrified, the most cultural thing I would probably get is finely crafted Darjeeling tea from a place called The WoodenHagen, let’s be real). Black pride is graffitied on street corners, painted on the walls of creative spaces, it pulsates from St Paul’s Learning Centre to the barbers and butchers in Easton. A sense of community, togetherness and heritage. “Being from a place of community and music is inspirational,” Muneera says. After attending the Bristol is the New Black launch event, and seeing the amount of enthusiasm people put forth to get to know other people, share knowledge, life principles, goals and aspirations, it’s clear that the people help the people.

“How has your identity and Jamaican descent influenced your music, your outlook on the industry and what you see as your responsibility?” asked the conversation facilitator, Noha Abu El Magd.

Historians are able to map where in Africa we’re from with the music, the rhythms, the drummers, melodies, we preserve our culture in music. Sukina talks about reggae music which has always been a huge part of their lives and identity. Reggae, a music of resistance, was born out of the need for Jamaican people to articulate their plight. This music has meaning, it informs people about something, and when you listen carefully to the lyrics of their songs as Poetic Pilgrimage, or words of their poems, you’d catch on straight away that they hold this as the standard for every piece of art they create.

As Muslim women, they felt it was really important that they articulated their beliefs in their music so for example, in their first video, Land far away, there’s a skit about asking some Jamaican vendors, “Are your patties halal?” And they go, “Yah monn, Strictly halal!”. And this was important because it squashed the idea of Muslim food being just food from the South-Asian or Arab world. If the food is halal, it is Muslim food. The strength they have as a duo comes from the resistance their ancestors faced, so even when people say Muslim women shouldn’t be on stage, they’re completely shut down.

“We’re Jamaican Muslim women, it’s a different conversation because our history is different, music is our sword.”– Sukina

Muneera and Sukina converted to Islam in 2005. It was the product of a quest for answers that they couldn’t find from their religious establishments, not because they didn’t want to answer the questions, but because they weren’t prepared to. Questions about identity, race, slavery etc.

“We’ve always been seekers, our friendship sparked off by asking ‘What’s the meaning of life? Why are we here?’, at like 13 and 14 and a half years old. We’ve always been inquisitive. That led to Islam in one way.” – Muneera.

Muneera was raised in a Christian household, like many other Carribeans, where her mum practised really soulful Christianity, however, Sukina’s parents had embraced Rastafarianism before she was born. Once again, this adds another kink in the identity chain because it’s like, are you a Rasta or a Muslim or English? All three friend, all three. Rastafarianism is a very peace and consciousness led religion so it’s only natural that she incorporates those qualities into her everyday life, especially as she has taken up the role of an educator. She’s Muslim because she studied Islam using actual academic literature from her university and decided to convert because it worked for her. And she’s English because, well duh, she was born in England. In Islam, men and women are considered equal and the only time God has placed authority of men over women is in the household, only because they have the mental, emotional and physical qualities more suitable for provision for the family. Coming from a very matriarchal society, Sukina identifies with the equality of the sexes and elevation of women, however she feels that culture has changed the dynamics of women’s status in Islamic nations.

“How have you found the experience of being a black and Muslim woman in the industry, being very visible in your identities, and how have you been able to navigate your spaces for example restrictions of alcohol and restrictions in Muslim culture?” Noha Abu El Magd

“We didn’t know Muslims didn’t perform. It became necessary for us to perform because suddenly the Muslim community was being asked, how British are you? What does it mean to be British? Prove that you’re British. Not many women were articulating responses, not because they didn’t exist. Even now on mainstream media, they go to men to speak about women.”-Muneera.

I feel personally attacked by this truth. On national television, men are asked their opinions on women who don’t wax (?!), if women Olympians should wear make-up and why they do, if there should be a quota system for women in politics? It’s like asking a white man about racism (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie , author, activist and my heroine, completely shut this down a few weeks ago on BBC News Tonight). As Carol Wical, sports radio host and producer says, “Stop asking men about women, rich people about poverty, white people about race, and straight people about queers.” World, Stop.

No matter how many times Muslim scream “harammmm” (meaning forbidden in Islam) and stomp out when they perform, Muneera maintains that it isn’t simply misogyny or religious bias that caused all the negative feedback on such a positive conquest. After analysis of the comments, it was apparent that there was simply disdain for the type of music they did; music inspired by the hip hop culture. Who created the hip hop culture? Black people. Apparently, people don’t want to deal with the fact that they’re racist so they use religion and “laws” as a cover for discrimination. In 2016.

“A scholar came up to us and said, “If the words you are speaking are true, if you feel the way you feel about Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, you are doing a good job.” And we knew from that point that we were being sincere.” – Muneera.

Intention and sincerity are really important to Muneera and Sukina. There are a lot of restrictions in the industry, and a lot of challenges trying to keep up with the seemingly natural order of life in the industry as a Muslim. For example, limiting contact with men (hugs, handshakes etc.) and also having to perform in spaces where they serve alcohol.

“Being in spaces where they serve alcohol as well, obviously they weren’t going to shut the bar down for us. They serve beer in McDonald’s in Spain, what can you do about that, it’s just the culture. And you also have to take the cause of the event into consideration, for example if we were to perform at an event with a good cause, for example, fundraising for refugees. Our intention to fundraise trumps the fact that alcohol is served in that place. If I go to an environment where the intention is good and we perform and it’s all good, then it’s okay.” – Sukina.

She feels it is also very important that they’re in those sort of environments, because there are always people asking questions about their lives and people willing to make conversation. There is also almost always a Muslim who probably feels estranged from the rest of the community because he drinks alcohol, yet he or she is able to have an experience with them because they are in those spaces.

“We’re not like, come to our pure holy spaces and have a conversation with us. That’s important. We pray so hard before we go on any stage and we really make sure that what we’re doing is for a higher cause, and it’s always blessed.” –Sukina.

It isn’t easy for them to be out there doing what they do, they have definitely had their share of abuse and threats. “Go back to Saudi Arabia” (they’re English so this doesn’t make sense but I digress), “They’ll hang you! Get hung!” Same world where everybody seems to be vying for political and social consciousness, although now this is debatable, Trump did become president and Brexit did happen. But as Muneera says, “If there was an easier option, Poetic Pilgrimage wouldn’t exist.” Notwithstanding, they have inspired so many people and touched lives. It is also commendable that in the Muslim hip hop scene, there are males who have refused to perform if this duo isn’t allowed to, and it highlights how, at least, some parts of our world are evolving. Men now recognize misogyny and sexism and stand against it. Delightful.

It is a common belief that with a certain amount of recognition and influence, one must suddenly become a role model or spokesperson all the time for certain causes and belief systems. Many have come up to them asking questions not because they want to listen and actually engage in meaningful discussion, but to simply belt out their opinions and strangle them with entitlement to understanding. Live and let live. Never forget that people in elevated positions also just want to exist without having to defend themselves all the time, it is frustrating and exhausting.

At the end of the interview session, I spoke to Paul, an endearing red head who came up from Cornwall to visit his friends in Bristol and somehow found himself at the Malcolm X centre that evening. He was amazed at the whole concept because he had never had that experience before, and the fact that these women were so visible with their identities yet rooted in hip hop. “Female rappers are rare as it is, especially in mainstream media, but being Muslim as well, that’s really interesting.” He wondered if there was a specific Aha moment for them that caused them to become Muslim, because if you have a strong foundation in any religion already, surely, it’s quite a big step. Same here, Paul, until we meet again. I also obtained a comment from a Bristol local, Omojola, who is very much into spoken word and naturally just gravitated toward these strong, female artists, “They’re hilarious and they seem really accessible and knowledgeable. They make me want to know more.”

We had a mini concert at the end, where we were blessed with a combination of hip hop and some spoken word. The audience could get into the chorus of literally all of them and I found it so liberating seeing all different kinds of people; black, white, Asian, old, young, hijabi, non-hijabi, sipping apple juice and busting all sorts of moves while we chanted “You’re so beautiful to me” in unison. To ourselves, to each other. It was incredible.

“We are living in interesting times. We have to be the ones to make the change, now is not the time to be on the fence about things. If you don’t speak about something you’re allowing it to happen. Peace is not just something on a t-shirt, it comes with equality and equity, the people have the power.” Poetic Pilgrimage. 

PS: Muneera definitely talks more.

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