Now’s the Time

It becomes increasingly clear the role that converts need to play in Islam in America. For far too long, those who have chosen to be Muslim have taken a back seat to those who’ve hailed from Muslim lands. This “at the back of the bus” mentality can be blamed on no one other than ourselves and we all — so-called converts and non-converts alike — suffer the consequences for it. On today’s edition of The Takeaway (heard here locally on 90.1FM WHYY), the host engaged three groups in a “spiritual conversation”, of “Muslim, Jewish, and Christian millennials who are keeping, losing or reinterpreting their faith”. The Jewish counterparts talked about how, even if they held somewhat non-traditional views on Judaism, still strove to have a Jewish identity rooted in principle and practice. The Muslims, on the other hand, who were interviewed openly opposed base tenets of Islam, such as abstaining from eating pork, drinking alcohol and extra-marital sex. One would ask these “Muslims” and oneself, what is it that actually makes you Muslim? The host and the writers of the show have gone for the okie-doke of Islam by ethnic proxy: Afghani, South-Asian and Iranian. Once again, the media has completely ignored Blackamerican Muslims (who are both born-Muslims and converts, who make up a significant percentage of Muslims in America) as well as those groups (whites, Latinos, Chinese-Americans, Jews, etc.) who choose Islam as their faith and way of life. In a twist of irony, most of the Muslims who would constitute the above group complain of hegemonic domination, leading to their ostracization from the Muslim community. And yet they employ similar tactics to speak authoritatively on Islam for no other reason than their ethic backgrounds, squelching out the narratives of those who’ve chosen Islam willingly and all the strictures therein, to the best of their abilities. Simply put, Blackamerican, Whiteamerican and other non-Arab/-Persian/-South-Asians do not constitute bona fide Muslims and are off of the radar of the media and their interviewees.

In my opinion, the only way to break this monopoly is for “converts” to speak out and speak out loudly. Not only to the media but to our own communities, who to be frank, often adopt us as mascots (or as I have said to Imam Suhaib Webb: avatars) to root and cheer for “their religion”, while many of us continue to live isolated, frustrated and disenfranchised lives. But, as Charlie Parker – one of America’s greatest artists once said: now’s the time. Now is the time for converts to, like our predecessors in that First Community which was comprised entirely of converts, take the reigns, and spearhead a change in the narrative of what is Islam in America: namely that it is American, and that it’s not solely tied to some foreign-born, alien, and even hostile, enterprise. This charge should not be done to the exclusion of those who came from abroad; many of their efforts are why folks like myself even heard of Islam. But it is high-time that we — and I believe we are the only ones who can do this (partly because we already possess the social- and cultural-capital to do so). To fail in doing so is to have those who are opposed to the religion of what Muhammad taught صلى الله عليه وسلم continue to speak for us in the public sphere. For I believe that is what the guests on today’s show are.

And God knows best.

More Thoughts On the Relation Between Islam, Blackamericans, and Bebop

The following is s short excerpt from The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective [335-7], by Ingrid Tolia Monson. Monson’s book provides some further insight on the nature of the relation and attraction that Islam held for Blackamerican jazz musicians as well as Blackamericans as a whole who embraced Islam.

Art Blakey’s African Travels

Ingrid Tolia Monson It is clear that its members of the New York jazz community of the 1940’s demonstrated awareness of both the anticolonialist internationalism of Robeson and Du Bois, as well as the more cultuml and spiritual pan-Africanism and pan-Asianism of Islam. Art Blakey emerged in the New York modern jazz scene through his work with the Billy Eckstine band from 1944 — 1947 (Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were his bandmates in 1944) and his recordings with Thelonious Monk in 1947. He had come to New York from Pittsburgh with Mary Lou Williams in 1938 and worked with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra from 1939 — 1941. Blakey’s first recordings as a leader were four sides for Blue Note in December 1947 with the 17 Messengers, a band conceived as a training band for young musicians. Its members included Sahib Shihab and Musa Kaleem (Orlando Wright). Blakey, whose Muslim name was Abdullah ibn Buhaina, dated his conversion to Islam at about this time. Blakey never publicly explained his path to conversion to the Ahmadiyya movement, but Dizzy Gillespie reports that a Muslim missionary named Kahlil Ahmed Nasir convened many New York musicians to the faith (Gillespie 1979).
ship. Although Blakey later remembered going to Africa for two years beginning in 1947, he likely spent only one year in Africa.

Blakey consistently denied that he ever played music while in West Africa. In one of the most detailed accounts of his African sojourn, Blakey told two French interviewers in 1963: “For two years, I immersed myself solely in philosophers, religion, and Hebrew and Arab languages. I do not remember havin
Blakey’s choice of the name Messengers for his short-lived group of 1947 and for the more enduring group from 1954 onward signifies in several directions. From an Islamic perspective, the word invokes the Islamic belief in Muhammad as the messenger of Allah; from a more broadly African American cultural context, the word implies the common cultural belief that African American music has a message, that it “says something” of deeper cultural significance. Since the Ahmadiyya movement believed in a continuous prophetic tradition (i.e., that there were prophets after Muhammad), the name of the later group, the Jazz Messengers, implies a prophetic view of the music itself. After the failure of the 17 Messengers in 1947, Blakey was unable to secure regular work and decided to travel to Africa, to pursue religious studies by working his way over on a g played an instrument even one time during that entire period” (Clouzet and Delorme 1963). Blakey’s denials later became even more emphatic: “I didn’t go to Africa to study drums — somebody wrote that — I went to Africa because there wasn’t anything else for me to do. I couldn’t get any gigs, and I had to work my way over on a boat. I went over there to study religion and philosophy. I didn’t bother with the drums, I wasn’t, after that. I went over there to see what I could do about religion” (Nolan 1979: 19).

Implying that his religious quest was somehow incompatible with music (a remarkable assertion when considering religion in West Africa), Blakey always stressed that his main inertest in Africa was religion.

Although Orthodox Islam disapproves of music, particularly instrumental music, Islam in West Africa has long blended the celebration of Islamic festivals and beliefs with traditional animist worship practices that are deeply musical. In West Africa Blakey is likely to have encountered Muslim groups who made considerable use of drumming. He is also likely to have encountered Akan, Ewe, and Yoruba religious ideas, practices, and music, as well as secular urban popular music in his travels. In 1963 Blakey explained African American interest in Islam to his French interviewers: “Islam brought the black man what he was looking for, an escape like some found in drugs or drinking: a way of living and thinking he could choose freely. This is the reason we adopted this new religion in such numbers. It was for us, above all, a way of rebelling” (Clouzet and Delorme 1963: 38).

Citations and Further Readings

  • Manley, Marc. “The Social Origins of Bebop.” The Manrilla Blog: Academics. 28 Nov. 2008. Web.
  • Monson, Ingrid. African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective (Critical and Cultural Musicology, 3). New York: Routledge, 2003.

Jazz, Bebop, and Cultural Resistance

America’s Troubled Past

Stereotypes regarding blacks and those of African heritage predate the arrival of African slaves to the North American continent. For centuries, descendants of the Diaspora labored both literally and figuratively under the perpetuated myth that blacks were inferior to whites.


A 1738 clipping from an advertisement featured in a Philadelphia newspaper, American Weekly Mercury, offering slaves for sale.

And while there were remarkable figures down this track of history that resisted and gave lie to the prejudices that whites held against blacks but it would not be until the dawn of the 20th century that America and her dominant culture would be shook up. From the dance floor, to the band stand and finally to the radio waves, a new artistic movement was giving rise to a cultural movement that would resist these stereotyping. But it was not to settle solely for resistance; it clamored for change. A decisive change that would see Blackamericans as equals in their own land and it was jazz that would provide that vehicle. This new religion of cultural resistance would come to be known as bebop. It would have many priests and priestesses, but without a doubt, its pope would be known as Charles “Yardbird” Parker”.

From the Dance Floor to the Band Stand

Much of Charlie Parker’s early life remains shrouded in hearsay and mystery but without a doubt, he is the high priest of the bebop movement, at least in terms of its sound. Parker is solely responsible for taking the jazz sounded that preceded him and altering its sound such that it became undanceable. Parker, and many black musicians of his era, felt that their musical endeavors were not being taken seriously – mere entertainment for whites to dance to. By spreading up the tempo, introducing complex harmonic and melodic tendencies and even reworking classic show tunes [much to the chagrin of the original authors!], Parker formulated a new musical expression that would become known as bebop.

Bebop, like other artistic movements, was not conceived in a vacuum. World War II played an important backdrop that informed the mood of many musicians that came up around this time. When America was pledging herself abroad to fight racism, many blacks felt that she was double dealing under the table in the way blacks were treated by both her citizens as well as the government.

Dizzy Gillespie – Preaching the Gospel of Parker

If Charlie Parker was the high priest of bebop then Dizzy Gillespie would one of the early disciples that would spread its gospel. A musical genius in his own right, Gillespie would come to be seen as the movements leader as Parker’s drug dependencies would hamper his latter career and indeed lead to his early demise. And like many other black jazz musicians, much of Gillespie’s music would have an Afro-centric flair to it. One of his most famous compositions, A Night In Tunisia:

Bebop would provide a framework from which Blackamerican jazz musician could recreate themselves, both imaginatively at first, and later, in the avant-garde movements, physically as well. Many black jazz musicians saw bebop as a mode of expressing blackness – a modality that the dominant political, social and cultural climate would not allow.

Resisting the Dominant Culture

Like all power artistic movements, it is only a matter of time until the dominant society will seek to legitimize [deeming it “cool”, attending jazz clubs, etc.] the art as well as the artists, leading to justification. With the gradual acceptance of jazz by the dominant culture, many black jazz musicians sought to keep pace with the wave legitimization, moving into new areas of musical and artistic expression.

Bebop and Intellectualism – The Rise of Afro-Centric Music

Bebop also provided its artists modes of expression that could blend eccentrism, intellectualism, black pride and host of other ideas that would challenge popular consensus of what constituted blackness. Upon seeing the gradual acceptance of bebop, the music would change pace again, moving off in new directions, with the avant-garde being one of its most cerebral expressions.

If one of bebop’s initial contentions was to move the attention from the dance floor to the band stand, avant-garde sought to move the music entirely out of preconceived notions of harmony and structure. Highly cerebral in nature, the avant-garde movement could be compared to other European artistic movements that refused to be canonized as seen here in this 1969 performance of the Miles Davis Quintet from their Bitches Brew album:

Preaching To the Masses

Many bebop musicians saw their music as more than simple rebellion. They also saw within it a healing force and an educational one, as we see in this interview with Archie Shepp:

John Coltrane – Bebop’s Gnostic Saint

Religion and more specifically, spirituality, played a significant role in the growth and development of both the genre and the musicians. Through the medium of bebop and the explorations of black intellectualism, black jazz musicians appropriated and took from multiple religious and spiritual traditions from Islam to Hinduism. John Coltrane, one of the iconic masters of bebop, his best selling album remains A Love Supreme, which is infused with spiritual-like chants and whose liner notes contained translations from the Qur’an.

Bebop indelibly left its mark on the artistic landscape of not only the United States, but the world. This phenomenon of black music would eventually grow and prosper far beyond the borders of America. Its reception in Europe was hailed as genius by many, while it took America many years to finally realize this. In fact, many Blackamerican jazz artists moved abroad for either a time [Dexter Gordon and Bud Powell to name two] or permanently like such luminaries as Johnny Griffin. While largely forgotten in modern times, bebop has left behind a legacy of musical genius infused with cultural rebellion as well as fostering a safe haven for black intellectualism to grow and prosper.

Social Origins of Bebop

It was no coincidence that jazz’s rise to prominence was at the juncture of World War II and the increasing demands for social equality from Blackamericans, many of whom including those that were jazz musicians, participated in the war and wanted their public and political due. These were the tumultuous times that would give birth to jazz, or more correctly, bebop. And from this unique American musical form would come a art form that would challenge and resist the status quo of dominant white thought regarding the inferiority of blacks as well as incubate new a consciousness of black intellectualism.

To appreciate bebop’s stance in history, one must observe the history that precedes jazz; specifically, the history of Blackamericans and their ascendance out of slavery and a culture that, as of the 1940’s, was still pro-Jim Crow, either de jure in the North or de facto in the South. For many black musicians, bebop was a means of both insulating and protesting against a cultural system that produced signs and signifiers of black inferiority. These sentiments were gelled in the minds of Blackamerican musicians after returning from World War II, a war that was supposed to have been fought against the notion of racism. And yet, many blacks felt that hypocritically, that same government that sent them off to war still perpetrated state-sanctioned discrimination against Blackamericans, and turned a blind eye to public hostility; both physical and psychological. Thus, it was no coincidence that bebop took musical form with high tempos and hard driving polyrhythms, characteristics that would define its sound, struck back against the ideology of the dominant white culture just as percussively and psychologically as they perceived themselves to be attacked.

Jazz’s musical roots come primarily from the blues, a form of folk music that has its roots in Africa, and secondarily, swing, big band and ragtime music, coming out of the early decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Much like its musical forefather, jazz lamented over its existential crisis of being subjugated by a dominant white power. Unlike the blues, however, bebop was not to remain a catharsis, sung in waiting for the hope of salvation through the benevolence of God. Rather, rather jazz sought to beseech the wrath of God, its music being fueled with the anger and rage of a people’s mistreatment for some three hundred-plus years. This anger was so prevalent in the music, that by the latter part of the 20th century, bebop and its alternate forms, such as post-bop and avant-garde, were perceived as “the angry black man’s music”. This collective anger is evident in the recounting of how jazz was perceived even as late as the 1970’s, by Ed Michel, a music produced for one of jazz’s most prestigious labels, Impulse!:

By the seventies “it seemed as though Impulse became the label characterized by the angry black tenor man,”.

Not content to site on the sidelines, jazz throughout its history would comment time and time again on social justice topics ranging from the plight of Blackamericans in the prison-complex system (such as Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, an album in direct reference to the 1971 Attica Prison riots) to such lamentations of the past as John Coltrane’s Song For The Underground Railroad.

At the transition point between jazz and swing/big band music, was a desire on the part of these musicians to be taken seriously. Many felt that as members of swing bands, they were forced to take a back seat to the audience — a predominantly white audience at that. Their music was reduced to a sort of ambiance, where particularity of the musician was inconsequential. Billy Ekstine, who led one of the most famous jazz ensembles during the 40’s and 50’s, commented that many popular songs were re-arranged with fast tempos where the audience could not dance to them, forcing them to pay attention to the band as the primary focus.

As jazz musicians sought to stake out their territory as concert-style performers, with a captive audience, they encountered many forms of social resistance along the way. In the 1940’s, many jazz musicians (primarily Blackamerican) were not allowed to perform in white-owned clubs in the South. One way of circumventing the problem was by embracing Islam as a sidecar expression of their jazz identities. Through becoming Muslim, and taking Muslim names, many Blackamerican jazz musicians found they could enter white-owned establishments, play there, eat there, etc. Such incidents were not confined solely to the South. In Delaware, Oliver Mesheux, a trumpeter, was initially detained from entering a white club but when presenting his race identification card, which was marked “W” for white and with his newly assumed name, Mustafa Dalil, he was allowed to enter .

Striving for a more genuine reception did not come without its backlashes from the dominant white constituency. Many whites saw bebop as an illegitimate musical expression. It was castigated as a jumble of sounds, too unintelligible for the human ear. In her 1921 article, Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation, Anne Shaw Faulkner describes jazz as evil and that it was the natural expression of bizarre Negro dances; a voodoo accompaniment to “half-crazed” barbarisms . The allegations about bebop were consistent to popular conceptions about blacks during this period: that Blackamericans were linked to barbaric practices, were intellectually degraded and morally abject. Some even took it so far to allege that jazz and bebop could have a morally toxic affect on the more scrupulous Anglo-Saxons, converting them to the “savage” tendencies of blacks and other minorities. To hear that bebop was anti-Christian or even anti-civilizational was not unheard of.

But it was not simply the dominant cultures perceptions that bebop sought to combat. It was also the system of exploitation that many if not most black musicians had to deal with in the early 20th century. Socially, Blackamericans had few rights and musicians even fewer. Many were forced to play without contracts and had little legal power if their rights were infringed upon. Economics proved to be one of the crucial points that younger musicians in the bebop movement sought to countermand. They also criticized their older Blackamerican counterparts as being complacent to accepting these terms from the white-dominated music industry. Younger musicians saw musicians who came out of the established system as acquiescing to white dominance, giving up their rights to control their own musical destinies. The importance of economics cannot be over emphasized and was one of the many reasons younger black jazz musicians jumped ship from the swing bands to the small combo bebop ensembles. Feeling less restriction, both socially and artistically, many felt they had a greater influence on how they were to be compensated economically as well as their artistic endeavors taken more seriously.

As much as post World War II sentiments played a role in the development of bebop, it cannot be reduced as nothing more than a reaction to it. Rather, it was itself symbolic of the changes that abounded at this time. With increasing numbers of Blackamericans moving north in search of better socio-economic prospects, this newer generation was exposed to bourgeoisie culture and the various intellectual and artistic movements, especially in Harlem, the birthplace of bebop. This flux created new potentialities for alternate modes of expression of blackness in America, modes that would not be housed in the dominant white and black middle-class cultural values.

The list of bebop’s influential musicians would be beyond the scope of this paper, but it would be prudent to name a few important names. On any list, Dizzy Gillespie would rank quite high. Gillespie was the primary musician who, while not inventing the style (that would Charlie Parker), made it famous and known to the greater world. Gillespie, who grew up in the South, was confronted with the realities of a white supremacist construct. He saw bebop as a form that could transcend the racist system he was subject to: “We refused to accept racism, poverty, or economic exploitation, nor would we live out uncreative humdrum lives merely for the sake of survival”. Other musicians, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, and Joe Henderson to name a few, would continue to champion the ideal of bebop as a means of resisting dominant values and asserting their own political voice according to their own proclivities.

Bebop also championed a new era in black intellectualism. A musical form that required the technical mastery of a musicians chosen instrument, it also placed demands on the musician to have advanced knowledge of music theory. Bebop was a musical form that borrowed not only from its past, namely the blues and ragtime music, but also from European classical music. Bebop musicians were free to study and interpret the musical works of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, to name a few, and many were classically trained musicians.

Beyond all of the prerequisites that a bebop musician had to master was the relation of bebop to the newly-conceived mode of blackness. Bebop musicians saw themselves embarking on a new modality of blackness that would incorporate an intellectual astuteness with a sophisticated urban sensibility. Kenny Clarke, a prominent bebop drummer, was of the opinion as to how he saw the relationship between bebop and blackness: “Whatever you go into, go into it intelligently.” Bebop helped in swear in a new era of black intellectual consciousness and many of the prominent poets and writers of its time, such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, were both affected by and contributed to it. Ellison saw bebop as a cultural revolution, where the world was opening and up and society could now present a whole new set of circumstances and opportunities.

This intellectual rebellion manifested in both the music and the mode in which the musicians carried themselves. Along with the idea of shattering preconceived white ideas on the supposed mental inferiority of blacks to white, bebop musicians fostered an environment where there music and their fans tackled intellectual matters. From the choice of songs titles to the style of dress (horned-rimmed glasses, goatees, suits and the like), all this constituted a new way of the bebop musician carrying his or herself, a direct affront to white-held beliefs on the nature of blackness.

Bebop’s rebellion against social norms did not come without a darker side. Along with the sophisticated musical styles also came a lifestyle that was never able to successfully detach itself from alcohol and drug use. In fact, some practitioners of the art even embraced drug abuse as part and parcel of being a bebop musician. Sadly, many prominent young musicians spent the better part of the careers behind bars due to drug charges (Dexter Gordon missed most of the 50’s and Frank Morgan most of the 60’s). In fact, Charlie Parker, the founded of the bebop sound, died due to complications of drug use. But for better or worse, all of these social attitudes cemented bebop as being wholly against the status quo of early and mid- 20th century America.

As is the case with many art forms, bebop ran the risk of appropriation from the dominant culture. Initially an underground movement, eventually bebop won itself a wider audience. Whites would travel uptown to Harlem to hear the performances of the masters of the form by the 1950’s came about. By the 1960’s, bebop was fully appropriated by whites as a “hip” and “cool” aesthetic, interwoven into a the lifestyle of urban whites. In reaction to this, bebop would shift its gears again and seek to recreate itself in the form of post-bop and the avant-garde jazz movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. Just as bebop had done away with ragtime sensibilities, so had free jazz, avant-grade and post-bop done away some the canon that bebop had forged in the 1940’s. New structures of music were introduced such as modal forms, heavily tinged with eastern sounds and rhythms, as well as the free jazz and avant-garde movements which contained little of the harmonic and melodic structures of bebop. It was also to these movements that many of the pro-black and culturally-resistant bebop musicians would migrate to. Initially trained in the bebop form, they felt that bebop had been compromised with its ascendancy to white acceptance.

Much of bebop’s sensibilities can be understood as the resistance of blacks to the labeling of the dominant culture. As has been mentioned, whites had many preconceived notions of blackness that did not sit well with this new crop of young musicians. Bebop sought to break those stereotypes. And even after bebop itself had begun its assimilation and appropriation by whites, many of these musicians moved to new musical expressions such as the alt-bop movements of free jazz and avant-garde in an attempt to avoid being labeled. Gone was the tradition of reinterpreting old show tunes. Instead, much of the music became quite conceptual and cerebral; so abstract, that in fact, a clash ensued between the old and new guard. The likes of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, their musical efforts were criticized as sacrilegious to the tradition of bebop. This sentiment only fueled the alt-bop movements to continue in their vain. Only with breaking ties completely with the past, with a tradition that had sold itself off to the dominant culture, could they remain to jazz’s roots.

In its current form, jazz today resembles little of the insurrection of its formidable years. This is due in part that society itself has changed in some ways. With the passing of various civil rights acts, changes in social mores and overall improvement of life for many Blackamericans, jazz and more specifically, bebop, drifted from the limelight. Even at the height of bebop’s popularity, bebop commanded the attention of only a percentage of Blackamerican imagination. In fact, while bebop was enjoying its largest number of patrons, most Blackamericans were turning their attention to rhythm and blues. And yet, as we see today, black youth culture will always seem to find a voice. As many Blackamerican families continued to suffer from economic deprivation and social neglect, it would be black youth that would grab the world’s attention; only this time it would be hip-hop as the musical form. Of which the relation between the two “bops” can only hoped to be explored in another paper.

Citations and further readings:

  • Kahn, Ashley. The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. London: Granta Publications, 2006.
  • Gillespie, Dizzy, and Al Fraser. To Be Or Not To Bop. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1979.
  • Faulkner, Anne Shaw. “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation.” Ladies Home Journal. August 1921: 16-34.
  • Porter, Eric. “Dizzy Atmosphere: The Challenge of Bebop.” American Music Vol 17, No. 4 (1999): 423-27.