If there’s one thing I can say for certain about students at the College, it’s that they’re busy, especially on weeknights. So, when I walked into Griffin 7 on Thursday night to hear Su’ad Abdul Khabeer speak and saw that the room was packed, I knew I must be in for a treat.
Khabeer is a towering character; a renowned academic, activist and artist, she currently serves as an associate professor of American culture and Arab and Muslim American studies at the University of Michigan. Khabeer is also the author of the popular book Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States, the subject of Thursday’s talk.
Khabeer’s book was inspired by her upbringing. She grew up in Brooklyn in the 1990s during what she described as the “golden era” of hip-hop. With Jay Z and The Notorious B.I.G. at their creative peaks, she found their lyrics personally meaningful as a black woman with Muslim roots.
From Tupac Shakur to Kanye West, hip-hop is replete with references to Islam, the Qur’an and Allah, Khabeer explained. Whether artists themselves are Muslim or not, the relationship between black artists and Islam has always been a distinctive feature of the American hip-hop landscape.
Muslim Cool is in many ways a celebration of these references and of the symbiotic relationship that hip-hop, blackness and Islam share. But Khabeer doesn’t stop there; her book delves deeper into this complex relationship and asks difficult anthropological questions that challenge popular conceptions of black and Muslim communities.
Ultimately, she concludes that what Americans consider to be “cool” is largely constructed by Muslims and artists engaging with Muslim culture. This theory is at the crux of her book and was a central point of her talk.
Khabeer’s theory is not without its detractors. Many see the use of Islamic imagery by non-Muslims like Kanye West as exploitative – an unjust appropriation of Muslim culture. Khabeer, however, sees the situation a bit differently. While there are certainly artists who cross the line, she views references to Islam in the lyrics of many artists as more celebratory than appropriative. In fact, Khabeer views this interaction between black and Muslim cultures as an essential aspect of black identity in the United States.
By the conclusion of her hour-long talk, Khabeer had more than lived up to the hype. Her personable nature and active engagement with the audience made for a wonderfully colorful, free-flowing discussion in which members of the student body, faculty and local community could weigh in, crack jokes and ask questions. My friends and I were in agreement; even on a busy Thursday night, we were glad to have made the time for such a unique event.