Reasoning Rap and Metal in the Islamic World

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Erik Brandt

In the December issue of the libertarian Reason Magazine, an article by journalist James M. Dorsey explores the cultural phenomenon of underground music scenes in the Islamic world. "Rap and Metal on Planet Islam" begins in Morocco with the story of metal head Nabyl Guennouni. Guennouni helped organize Casablanca's annual L'Boulevard des Jeunes Musiciens, a music festival that now pulls more than a hundred thousand in attendance. Seven years ago, Dorsey recounts in how the times have changed. Guennouni's efforts to put on a metal music event landed him and 13 others in hot water with Morocco's conservative Islamic politicians. After police arrest, a trial ensued in which "prosecutors produced as evidence against Guennouni fake skeletons and skulls, plaster cobras, a latex brain, T-shirts depicting the devil, and "a collection of diabolical CDs," which they described as "un-Islamic" and "objects that breach morality."

The turning point, according to "Rap and Metal on Planet Islam" came when the sentences Guennouni and others received for promoting "Satanism" and "prostitution" were overturned in 11 of the cases and reduced for three of the others. The reason? Popular support for the musicians. The ordeal marks the very real tension that underground youth music culture sparks with political and religious conservatism in "Planet Islam." Dorsey then goes on to broadly comment on how that dynamic plays out in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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Like any good article on the subject, the scholarship of UC Irvine professor Mark Levine is acknowledged next. LeVine, an accomplished musician himself, wrote an important book in 2008 titled "Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam." Dorsey, however, doesn't turn to that source in charting his own interpretation. Prefacing the "pent-up Middle Eastern anger" that youth underground music expresses as a result of authoritarian regimes and command economies, Dorsey cites instead LeVine's Freemuse report "Headbanging Against Repressive Regimes."

In the extensive write up, the UCI professor is quoted as comparing the musical currents to those that ran through the "Velvet Revolutions" of Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Dorsey writes, "LeVine describes underground musical communities as "avatars of change or struggles for greater social and political openness," saying "they point out cracks in the facade of conformity that is crucial to keeping authoritarian or hierarchical and inegalitarian political systems in power.""

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