In this work of non-fiction, Moroccan-American lecturer Hisham Aidi aims to highlight how music can galvanize social and political activism among Muslim communities across the world, with examples ranging from as far back as Muslim Spain to the present day. In doing so, Aidi presents a study so deep and broad in content that it becomes possible for the reader to become both impressed and overwhelmed at the same time.
The focus of Rebel Music, as outlined in Aidi's prologue, is the parallel he identifies between the experiences of marginalized Muslim youth in Europe's suburbs of today with that of African-Americans in the inner-city ghettos of the 1960s.
Aidi argues that a post-9/11 rise in Islamophobia and racial profiling, as well as the economic downturn in Europe and ever-increasing cultural "Americanization," means European Muslims more often look towards "African-American Islam" (popularly expressed through hip-hop music) as a model to which they can relate. It helps them to become spiritually, politically, socially and (ironically) culturally empowered.
From there, readers are taken on a heady whistle-stop, globe-trotting tour of Brazil, Cuba, the United States, Europe, North and West Africa and the Middle East, exploring how Islam came to take root in each population and how music was used as a way for Muslims of that region to cement their identity in each cultural context.
In one example, Aidi speaks of Brazil's rapidly growing Muslim population, with the majority of conversions happening within the Afro-Brazilian communities in Brazil's impoverished favelas (urban slums) -- coincidentally, the birthplace of Brazilian hip-hop. Even in Brazil's famous Carnival, there are now Moorish or Muslim-inspired floats. As one Brazilian whom Aidi interviews comments, "The very thing that will cause Muslims to protest in Europe... cause(s) no outrage in Brazil and that's because Muslims are very comfortable here."
While his thesis is compelling and the sheer magnitude of his scope impressive, there's a danger that his primary message is lost in the vast global portrait he paints. Aidi admits that some chapters were written as separate papers; that disconnect is noticeable, with some chapters repeating earlier ones, and others appearing to belong to a different book altogether.
The fascinating We Ain't White chapter, for example, talks about the importance of gaining minority status in the U.S., but, unlike the other chapters, has no connection to music. Aidi would have done well to focus his argument more, covering less material but sharpening his message overall.
In general, Aidi is successful in having penned a text that's appealing and engaging for a mass audience, beyond the niche market of scholars who specialize in this subject area. His personal interviews, combined with his knowledge and sheer passion for music, directs his work well, though readers would do well to keep their iPhones handy and YouTube the many musical artists Aidi speaks of so highly.
And that, in essence, is what makes this a remarkable piece of work. It's an opportunity for average readers interested in the fluid relationship between music and culture to enhance their appreciation and understanding for diverse Muslim communities and histories -- beyond what is usually celebrated and taught.
In the process, Aidi demonstrates how a community that is so often marginalized as the "other" and as having an anti-cultural narrative is, in fact, deeply woven into the rhythmic history of the world's one truly universal language: music.
And that can only be a good thing.
Welsh Winnipegger Nadia Kidwai is the program manager for the Canadian Muslim Leadership Institute.