01 Marzo 2017 14:31
'My great-uncle Sam Block, a civil rights activist, was stabbed with a pen in Mississippi for not staying in the black section. Fortunately, he wasn't killed. It's ironic because, years later, my grandmother insisted that I use the pen as a weapon. She wanted my poems to be fists.'
Alia Sharrief listened to her grandmother. Margaret Block was a Mississippi teacher and poet, and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers. 'I still can't believe she died in 2015. She was my idol,' says Alia. 'I still hear her sometimes, telling me: "Girl, do your thing!'''
Margaret Block, second from the right.
Alia was born in Sacramento, California, 27 years ago. She's an activist and hip-hop artist. She is not yet widely known, but she has played in California and New York, sometimes performing alongside more famous artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, Alicia Keys and Janelle Monae: 'People usually know me as the "hijab rapper,"' she says.
Alia is breaking new ground in the hip-hop world by finding inspiration for her lyrics in the Koran and Malcolm X speeches, as well as in more traditional hip-hop touchstones like Tupac. Her rhymes often deal with what it is to be a black Muslim in the USA.
Her songs recall how Muslims helped win independence for the United States in its war against Britain, as well as contributing to the construction of the nation. And also how, decades later, many African-Americans turned to Islam as a way of rebelling against white supremacy.
Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are two of the most famous examples of this phenomenon, but many other black people did the same thing, including Alia's parents, who'd both converted before they met and fell in love.
'People know me as "the hijab rapper"'
'My mother has always been inquisitive. She went to Catholic school, but couldn't find the answers to her questions there, so she joined a cultural and religious study group where she met Muslims. Later on, she made the decision to convert.'
The arrival of Donald Trump to the White House coincides with a frenetic moment for the rapper. Alia is putting the finishing touches to her second album, Back on My Deen. Like her 2012 debut, Mental Cycles and Mood Swings, this album is heavily autobiographical, 'but it goes much deeper – that's why it's taken so long.'
She also just released Don't Forget Me, an EP of songs written in the heat of the political moment that her country is currently experiencing. She played one of the songs – 'Who Ready' – at the Women's March in January. Her performance was defiant; she pumped her fist in the air, calling for rebellion against the new government: 'I'm not afraid of Donald Trump! I'm a revolutionary!'
It's inspiring to see how Alia takes up social movements of the past and updates them to modern times. While Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King led the fight for civil rights in the USA, Alia's cause is human rights, and the difference is crucial. 'We've had problems with the police for a long time. Many blacks are being killed with impunity. I'm fighting for us to be treated as human beings.'
It's no longer acceptable in the US to banish someone to the back of the bus or force them to use a separate bathroom because of the colour of their skin. People can't be publicly and officially segregated as they were in her great-uncle's generation, at least not in most areas of everyday life. But an African-American can still be shot for looking 'suspicious'. African-Americans are also more likely to be poor, die in childbirth, go to jail, or be given a death sentence.
Civil rights are universal, but the system is still racist says Alia. And hatred for Muslims has grown. 'For me, it's a double dose!'
'Oh my God. We've always been here!'
Originally, Alia had wanted to be a soul singer. But during an operation she had to be intubated and her vocal cords were accidentally scraped: 'I stopped forcing my voice because it hurt too much. I stopped singing Cristina Aguilera and Whitney Houston songs and started to rap.'
She wrote her first rap when she was 12, although she'd been imitating her brothers' favourite MCs in her living room since she was four: 'My first rap was about being a gangster. I called myself Homie C. I got the name from a clown on the TV. Homie the Clown!'
Many episodes from Alia's life find their way into her lyrics and poems. Like when she was first called 'the "N" word': 'There was a gang of Ku Klux Klan living just round the corner. I was in fourth grade.' Or like when her classmates called her Aladdin or Jazmin. Or like that time two airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers.
'I was in school that day. Some of my friends started laughing at me. One of them tore off my hijab.' On a personal level, despite the fact that she was living far away from where the tragedy took place, Alia was profoundly impacted by the World Trade Centre attacks in New York.
'If there's one thing I like about black people it's that we truly forgive. Challenges are like that, like wearing a crown.'
'Before 9/11 there wasn't as much anti-Muslim prejudice around. Then suddenly, being Muslim made me stand out: there was a target on my head. I was like – "What is this? I'm innocent, I don't know these people, I don't accept their propaganda that says Muslims want to take over America. We don't support that madness. We just want to live in peace."'
Alia explains that her parents always turned bad experiences into something to laugh about. So, while she sensed the hatred, her sense of pride also grew. 'They were really sarcastic. At the end of the day we were always making jokes about everything.' This gave her the sense of peace she needed to delve deeper into her identity.
'It took me a while to find other black Muslim women. I had to turn to books. I'd always heard stories about Muhammad Ali, but I didn't really know anything about him, or any of the others. And my God, it's not just now, we've always been here!'
When slavery ended, many African-Americans moved en masse to the cities. Due to restrictive housing and employment practices, ghettos proliferated. It was then that many African-Americans, partly inspired by Muslim immigrants from Africa, as well as those from Pakistan and India, who came to the US fleeing persecution, returned to what they believed was the religion of their ancestors.
'My hair and my hijab are one. In fact, when I take the hijab off I feel like I've pulled my hair out. It's part of me.'
Later, many were attracted by the words of a young black man who had shed his slave name and put an X in its place. Malcolm Little became Malcolm X, converted to Islam and exhorted his supporters to fight racism, with violence if necessary. In contrast, Martin Luther King, a Baptist pastor, called for peaceful resistance.
In prisons, conversions to Islam multiplied between the 60s and 70s.
There are those who argue that Malcolm X's philosophy – traditionally spurned in favour of King's pacifist beliefs – is more relevant now than ever.
In 2014, a number of grand juries in the United States refused to charge white police officers with the deaths of black men. This unleashed a wave of protests in dozens of cities across the country, from Ferguson to New York, and led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Some of Malcolm X's most famous quotes were read out at these protests, many of them advocating violence as a legitimate form of self defense. For Alia, the Muslim leader is a prophet, but she highlights another aspect of his teaching: 'intelligence'.
'There are whites oppressed by drugs and poverty. There are oppressed Asians and Latinos. White privilege must be recognised, but we're the 99%, and they're the 1%. We've got to unite and go out there and do something productive, non-violent.'
'The hijab is my hair'
Eric B & Rakim.
Rakim (on the right) was the first rapper to openly declare his Islamic faith in 1987. Then came Afrika Bambaataa, Public Enemy, and, in the 90s, Wu-Tang Clan, Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes and Mos Def.
For many young African-American hip-hop fans, the 1990s represented the first big exposure to Muslim culture. It had a huge impact on the rate of conversions – including among heavyweights of the sporting world, like Mike Tyson.
The most successful Muslim rappers today are Yasiin Bey (previously known as Mos Def), T-Pain, Nas, Andre 3000, Lupe Fiasco and Ice Cube. No woman features among their number. 'I'm a black female Muslim rapper with a hijab and a positive message. Sometimes I think it's too much for people.'
Alia believes that the music industry excludes rappers with hijabs. That's why she founded the Hijabi Chornicles, as a platform for spreading the work of American Muslim female artists. 'We're surrounded by racism and stereotypes, but if there's one thing I like about black people, it's that we truly forgive. Challenges are like that, like wearing a crown.'
Alia isn't afraid to denounce machismo when she detects it among Muslims. 'Lots of people think we shouldn't be doing this because it's a sin. But we need it! It's good for us. It means we can fight against Islamophobia and the Muslim patriarchy.'
However, she also believes that society is confused by the oppression of Muslim women: 'First they discriminate against us, and then they use us as proof that Islam oppresses women in general, which is not true. It's not Islam that oppresses us: it's men.'
To her, the hijab provides protection: 'It gives me a sense of security, I never fell that it's hiding my identity. My hair and my hijab are one. When I take it off I feel like I'm pulling out my hair. It's part of me.'
'My mother asked me to take off my hijab. I can't let myself give in to fear, it's not going to happen.'
If Trump's victory has hit anti-racist movements in the USA like a bucket of cold water, an individual such as Alia Sharrief embodies the youthful, vibrant and dance-friendly rejection of his policies. A walking, rapping LOL, proud and respectful of the legacy of the civil rights movement and its leaders, ready to use the power of hip-hop to get her message across.
'The day after Trump's victory there were people saying that they'd lock up all the Muslims in camps. There were mothers asking their daughters to take off their hijab. But I won't give in to fear, that's not going to happen.'
Margaret Block, Alia's grandmother, left a quote that Alia lives by: 'You can't see something wrong and not do anything about it. But I don't consider myself a leader. I'm just a citizen doing what I'm supposed to: being a citizen.'
What would Alia's grandmother have made of Trump?
'Wow, that's deep. If my grandmother had seen Trump as president she'd have been sad, but also prepared. She'd say: "We've had Nixon, Bush. Girl, get ready, and look after your loved ones. It's time to be with the people."'