“We Muslims have been at the forefront of nearly every genre of urban popular music,” Anas Canon, aka BeLikeMuhammed, writes on the Remarkable Current Web site, RemarkableCurrent.com. What’s remarkable about Remarkable Current, he adds, is that this time, “we have created our own platform.”
Indeed, while Muslims have long been a part of black America’s contribution to pop culture, from sports superstars Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to rappers Mos Def and Q-Tip, there has never been an organization quite like Remarkable Current. Founded by Canon three years ago, RC is an independent record label, a community outreach group, and a cultural education outfit. In addition to putting out several critically acclaimed records and touring nationally, the collective has also produced a series of events and workshops aimed at broadening the understanding of contemporary Muslim culture, spanning a wide range of genres from spoken poetry to traditional Moroccan music to R&B to jazz. The latest such event, The Refinery 3.0, is an all-ages, alcohol-free New Year’s Eve concert at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Theater (3201 Adeline St., 9 p.m., $20), followed on New Year’s Day by an educational conference, “Establishing an Alternative American Identity: A Muslim Perspective,” at Oakland’s CMS Elementary School. Both events spotlight the role of art and music in community empowerment, and are designed to stimulate constructive dialogue.
According to the Revert, a soul singer who also plays guitar and bass, RC provides “a positive alternative to pop culture” — something sorely needed in an age of negativity. “People are ready to hear something uplifting,” he says. And while the religion of Islam forms the cornerstone for the cultural expressions of RC’s artist collective, don’t expect the Refinery to be your typical overly didactic, religious-themed event: “We’re not recruiting; it’s about art.” In fact, the Revert — whose name refers to the belief that one doesn’t convert to Islam, but reverts to an original state of being — doesn’t even like to use the word “religious” to describe his music, preferring the term “spiritual.” “It’s not like Christian gospel music, like Jesus Jesus Jesus,” he says, adding that Islam “is like a guiding post” that grounds each of RC’s artists. “There’s nothing in your life that isn’t touched by Islam when you’re a Muslim,” he says, pointing out that the faith transcends both race and class.
“Islam is so totally universal,” he states, citing Malcolm X’s hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, when he experienced a spiritual transformation after seeing Muslims of all colors praying together in harmony, as an example. Furthermore, he adds, while most Muslims in America are of African descent, the majority of the world’s 2.5 billion Muslims are Asian. Even so, there’s a widespread belief that Islam preaches hate, and furthermore, that most Muslims in this country come from a Middle-Eastern background. “Even in the bay, there’s a perception that Muslims are Pakistani,” he says, adding that that isn’t necessarily the case in urban East Coast cities he has toured, such as New York and Philadelphia.
The groundbreaking efforts of the Revert and his fellow RC artists not only run counterintuitive to the American understanding of Islam, but are somewhat revolutionary from a Muslim perspective as well. To the more conservative elements of the Islamic community, he explains, secular music is often seen as haram, or something that goes against God. There’s a parallel, he adds, between Muslim artists doing hip-hop today, and the reaction of Christians to rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s. “We’re going against the mainstream,” says the Revert, who notes that the Refinery’s lineup includes artists both young and old from different places and ethnicities — including trumpeter Khalil Shaheed, Moroccan musician Sidi Yassir, Amir Sulaiman, and rapper Tyson. “It’s a really good time for revolutionary music.”