Deen Tight examines the complex relationship between hip-hop and faith for a generation of modern Muslims.
When two cultures clash
It's hugely popular across the world. But hip-hop has also become synonymous with decadence, with glamourising unsavoury lifestyles. It's not hard to see why it is often seen as contrary to Islamic values. This conflict is explored in a fascinating new documentary Deen Tight, following Muslim hip-hop artists in California, New York, the UK, Morocco and, finally, Abu Dhabi, as they try to find a balance between their faith and their music.
At its UK premiere this month-Deen Tight is to be broadcast on HBO in the United States and slowly rolled out across the world in the forthcoming months - the Q&A with the cast and director which followed the screening asked as many questions as the film. But the main issue they both grappled with was clear: rap might be associated with lewd lyrics, but is channelling the form into something with a more positive message, indeed, a pro-Islamic message, acceptable?
What gives the film its emotional charge is that the hip-hop artists involved really do find this an emotive, conflicting issue. Amir Sulaiman is both a stereotypical American hip-hop star and a devout Muslim. He sees nothing wrong with using music as a form of cultural expression. Everyone in the film, though, is stumped when asked what they would do if they had to choose between the two. "This film isn't here to give answers," says the director Mustafa Davis. "But I wanted to explore hip-hop from the perspective of Muslim artists. We live in a time when the media says there is a clash between Islam and the West, but this is a story of one of the most influential pop-culture movements of our time and its relationship to Islam."
Davis will be familiar to many: the Californian relocated to the UAE and was the executive producer of Tabah Films (which funded Deen Tight), producing many documentaries airing on the likes of Abu Dhabi TV. He has now relocated to Hollywood, but a key part of Deen Tight are the scenes in Abu Dhabi. There, we meet perhaps the most famous artist in the film, Mutah Beale. Beale, who was also known as Napoleon in Tupac Shakur's Outlawz, is the voice of dissent - or perhaps tradition - in a documentary which on the whole explores the positive side of hip-hop.
To hear Beale say that he has left hip-hop behind as an act of obedience to his religion is all the more powerful coming from someone who probably gained the most of anyone in the film from the scene. For him, Islamic hip-hop doesn't exist at all. "They are his beliefs, and it's very important to have them in the film, to make sure it's balanced. It's such a personal decision," says Davis. The director himself admits to throwing away his records when he converted to Islam. As a way to show that he was serious about his faith he actually stopped listening to music altogether.
As the film shows, this is a common experience, particularly with converts who have grown up with hip-hop culture, as many in America have. In the end, it has often led to a kind of middle ground: creating music or art with a positive message. By the end of Deen Tight, there is a sense that many of the artists are at peace with themselves and their decisions. However, none of this has been achieved without some deep soul searching.
"In a way, the story doesn't end with the end of the film," says Davis. "The debate will go on, and it is not important what I think about it. What is important is simply that the debate is had." Deen Tight has certainly generated discussion. It has had six showings in the UK and all have been full. The audiences have been young but questioning, and Davis reveals that he has already had four death threats since making the film. He says that he is not worried - on the contrary, he takes it as a positive that the film is being talked about.
And at its premiere, the sense of relief from people just to be able to talk about the relationship they have with music and faith was clear for all to see. Deen Tight might not win any Oscars but it does something far more important. It intelligently shines a light on faith, culture and identity.