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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Music to help change tunes: Artists Rise Against Islamophobia

American artists unite against rising attacks on Muslims in new compilation, writes James McNair

Emel Mathlouthi, who has contributed to the Philia: Artists Rise Against Islamophobia compilation. Courtesy Julien Bourgeois
Emel Mathlouthi, who has contributed to the Philia: Artists Rise Against Islamophobia compilation. Courtesy Julien Bourgeois

Instances of arson, vandalism and violent threats targeting mosques in the United States between January and March of this year doubled compared to the same period in 2016, according to The Independent’s Rachael Revesz, who obtained the figures from the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in March.

“Muslim leaders and advocacy groups have expressed strong concerns about a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric from political leaders,” wrote Revesz, “and also [about] anti-Muslim violence, which has risen to post-9/11 levels.”

The factors engendering the kind of Islamophobic mindset that often inflames violence are too complex for this space, and combating the ongoing rise of Islamophobia in the US is a mammoth task that will require a variety of strategies, but as is so often the case with just political causes, music is one way of raising awareness, and a new album is attempting to do just that.

Philia: Artists Rise Against Islamophobia is a 20-track compilation available now on Floating House Recordings.

The diverse array of artists featured include US indie rock bands Vetiver, Fruit Bats and Small Leaks Sink Ships, rapper Heems (Himanshu Kumar Suri), and Tunisian-born, New York City-based singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi.

Taking its name from the Greek word for ‘brotherly love’ and responding to the US Department Of Justice’s confirmation that instances of bullying, discrimination and hate crime targeting American Muslims have indeed dramatically increased this year, the Philia project aims to “connect people through music and the arts, [and] to promote the ideals of civic love and respect across America”.

All proceeds from sales – and from a five-date Philia concert tour that wrapped up in Washington DC on Sunday – will go to the Unity Productions Foundation, an educational organisation that specialises in combating Islamophobia in America.

Given the current political climate, all comment relating to the topic of Islamophobia is of course very delicate. This might explain why few, if any, of the songs on this album are overtly political.

Of the US-born artists featured on the album, Washington DC’s Hamilton Leithhauser, the former frontman of indie band The Walkmen, has been the most outspoken thus far.

“It is disheartening ...,” Leithhauser told an online music magazine that laying some of the blame for the current anti-Muslim rhetoric at US president Donald Trump.

“His singular accomplishment thus far [has been] the amplification of irrational fear and prejudice.”

Leithhauser contributes a cover version of Shane MacGowan and the Popes’ The Song With No Name to the compilation, but one of the most forward-looking songs on Philia: Artists Rise Against Islamophobia is the aforementioned Emel Mathlouthi’s Insanity, a striking blend of electronica and traditional Tunisian influences which she co-produced with French-Tunisian musician Amine Metani and the Swede Johannes Berglund.

Chatting down the line from her tour bus in France, Mathlouthi admits that she herself has not been the target of any directly Islamophobic behaviour in the US or elsewhere.

“But you have to remember that being an artist gives me some protection,” she says. “It’s a shield against basic racism, because music breaks down barriers and the people who come to my concerts see me as a singer rather than a person of a certain ethnicity.

“There’s a broader dimension to the problem though,” she adds, steering our conversation towards more subtle gradations of race and inter-faith relations. “Sometimes even when people don’t mean to be racist, their ignorance of other cultures and faiths and their satisfaction with their own knowledge and culture makes them part of that movement.”

In Mathlouthi’s experience, the mainstream US media is particularly guilty of such tunnel-vision.

“Just because I’m from a Muslim country it doesn’t mean that I need to be reminded of that constantly, or that I need to be treated differently, or that I need to be subjected to someone else’s fantasies about my ethnicity,” she says.

Born in Tunis in 1982, Mathlouthi is no stranger to the interface between politics and music. Her protest song Kelmti Horra, which translates as ‘My Word Is Free’, became an anthem of both the Tunisian revolution and the Arab Spring, and she later sang it at the awards ceremony for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

Famed US chat-show host Jay Leno was in the audience that night and told Mathlouthi how surprised he was to find himself so touched by a song sung in Arabic.

“He saw that we were not so different after all, and all those cultural divides crumbled to dust,” she says.

While politicised songs by western artists such as Bruce Springsteen or U2, say, are rarely the core or sole topic of their media interviews, Mathlouthi feels that the US media in particular has typecast her as a kind of Muslim-issue talking-head.

Interestingly, when NPR’s All Things Considered – an influential radio show – interviewed Mathlouthi recently and she didn’t conform to what she considered to be their projected stereotype, the piece was subsequently dropped before it was to be broadcast.

NPR had wanted political soundbites, and Mathlouthi, quite reasonably, had wanted at least some questions about her 2017 album Ensen and her songwriting.

“I’m not promoting any kind of religious belief as an artist but I feel like the US media in a very clumsy way still puts me in a marginal position”, she says. “With NPR, I felt there was no interest at all in who I was, or what I was doing … I thought: I’m not here to serve your narrow vision.”

Mathlouthi’s take on how she is perceived by the media is fascinating, but Philia: Artists Rise Against Islamophobia is of course designed to raise awareness about a deeper, more grave kind of misunderstanding.

Other tracks on the CD include John Vanderslices’s cover of Radiohead’s song of discrimination and alienation Karma Police, and Drop Electrics’s atmospheric and apocalyptic-sounding Aisha and the Knife.

“I like the fact that the album is so crossover and not just a group of Arab artists promoting something,” says Mathlouthi, “but as an Arab musician, it was very important for me to contribute something which showed my most creative and original side.”

“Islamophobia is essentially a fear of otherness, but art is a powerful response to that, because it promotes empathy and the good that we want to see the world.

“It’s important to remember that humanity is about beauty and culture, not just politics.”

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