Heavy Metal Islam
My first foray into the arena of international hip-hop came when I read the book Heavy Metal Islam- Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam for an Anthropology class. The book is a travelogue of sorts, written by heavy metal musician and Middle Eastern history professor Mark LeVine. The title alone was enough to draw me in, but the stories I found inside provided a unique, first hand perspective of hip-hop in a different country that I had never seen before.
Now despite being a white kid from the suburbs of Washington D.C., I've always loved hip-hop. When I first discovered the genre, I was fascinated by the way artists sampled and blended different bits and pieces of music together to create a mélange of music. I was a big fan of all kinds of hip-hop, and I even hosted my own radio show freshman year for two hours every Friday. So when I read Heavy Metal Islam, LeVine's description of the ways that artists communicate and collaborate in the Middle East amazed me.
“Our whole life is inside,” describes a musician from a popular Iranian metal band, “Inside you don’t need to wear your veil, you can blast your music, dance… and otherwise feel free" (176). This is a common sentiment among artists. In Iran, musicians are restricted mostly by the Islamic government. All music must be approved by the Ministry of Culture, which screens for anything from rebellious lyrics to guitar riffs that are just a bit too edgy. Cassette tapes, which were banned by Khomeni after the Iranian revolution, are bought and sold by fans like illegal drugs. Public concerts are regularly shut down and heavy metal artists are reduced to playing “metal theatre,” where patrons must be seated, and cannot headbang or dance. So in repressive cultures like this, how do artists collaborate to put out decent music, and create communities where they can share this music and their culture? One word: Internet
"Hanging around the internet has become the equivalent of hanging out on the street corner,” LeVine declares (18). And it’s true, the internet has proliferated most countries in the Middle East to the extent where almost any city dweller can afford an hour at an internet café to link up and share information across national and cultural boundaries. Indeed, the very existence of LeVine’s text owes thanks to the internet, without which he would have never met all the musicians and politicians that he did. He met Reda Zine, one of the most influential figures in Heavy Metal Islam, through the internet. In LeVine’s own words, “It was just a matter of time before [they] went from chat rooms to rehearsal rooms, the recording booth, and ultimately to sharing the stage” (25). What is even more important is when the power of the internet to unite people goes beyond these transnational bridges, and establishes local bonds. People who live under oppressive governments, where finding a public space to perform and share non-traditional music is difficult, have turned to the internet to create local communities based around musical movements. The web magazine Tehran Avenue has succeeded in creating a “means of bringing the vibrant underground scene of Tehran aboveground” (192). The magazine hosts regular web based music competitions where local artists can share and discuss their music. This allows musicians and fans who would otherwise be oblivious of each other a chance to communicate and establish a common community. These communities are even beginning to gain the courage to speak out against the government. LeVine talks extensively about the flourishing blogger scene in Egypt, and how it has become one of the primary outlets for activists who want to voice their opinion. They are even training other activists in technical matters and blogging techniques. The members-only metal community metalgigsforum.com (no longer exists) is another place where artists and fans alike can speak out about politics with lessened fear of government backlash. The ability to have anonymity on the internet and garner widespread report even allowed the web site Marock Sans Frontiers (Morocco without Borders) to post an open letter challenging the Moroccan King, which is a definite no-no in Morocco. The internet has provided a ground-breaking forum for citizens to assemble and create public communities, complete with a public group identity.
In Egypt an artist’s popularity is heavily dependent on their MySpace page. In Lebanon, the rap duo Soap Kills has chosen to distribute their music online to avoid corporate restrictions and reach a broader audience. In Iran, rapper Peyman-Chet uploads his raps to the internet to be downloaded by thousands of people worldwide. Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because all over the world musicians are using the internet to disseminate their music and create virtual communities. Here in the United States, the artist Girl Talk and the band Radiohead both chose to release their most recent albums online for free. Hip hop in America is heavily reliant on mix tape sites like datpiff.com where artists, beat makers, DJs and lyricists can collaborate across the world. The internet is one of the musician’s greatest tools, and it allows music to travel to places where it can attract brand new audiences and bring people together despite cultural boundaries. Slowly, cultural revolution is coming to countries which are in desperate need of change. Iranian rappers are beginning to reclaim public space through internet advertised rap battles in the park. Young people are traveling through the cities of the Middle East blasting hip hop and heavy metal they downloaded off the internet through their car speakers and iPods, while tagging their favorite artists’ names on the walls of the subways and buildings. Hopefully, if the movement continues, the internet will allow those people in the Middle East who have been forced to build online societies to enact real change, and eventually, bring their public, group identities back into the real world.
Posted by Andrew Flowe