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After Converting, Islamic Afro-Jamaican Rapper Challenges Feminism

"For every open-minded feminist I meet, there is another who thinks I am oppressed."

British MC Tanya Muneera Williams is here to change your perception of Muslim women. In an essay in The Independent, Williams details her conversion, and how she defies conventional expectations of what Muslim women look like: "I remember how society responded to me prior to my conversion. I was a girl about town and although I encountered racism and sexism I walked about hassle free, whereas now I face anything from micro-aggressions to complete disdain. For me, this is even more troubling than the overt Islamophobic name-calling on the Internet. That I can put down to bigotry, whereas the small everyday hostility from seemingly normal people speaks of the changing climate in the UK."

Williams is one-half of the Bristol-born hip-hop duo, Poetic Pilgrimage; she and her other musical half, Sukina Owen-Douglas, made their musical debut in 2002. Eight years later, Poetic Pilgrimage released their Star Women Mixtape, in which the artistic twosome sampled “Satta Massagana,” a prominent reggae track recorded by the Abyssinians, a dedication to staying true to their Jamaican heritage. The single from Star Women Mixtape, "Land Far Away," was filmed in West London, due to its heavy influx of Afro-Caribbean immigrants. The video, in William's words, was to “celebrate our Jamaican heritage and highlight the inclination toward spirituality that is naturally cultivated through the use of reggae music.”

Black Muslims, particularly Black Caribbean Muslim women, face erasure in the mainstream, especially in the hip-hop industry. “Sukina (my band member) and I often joke about performing to new audiences and how it takes about three songs before they get over the shock of hijabis running across the stage, telling them to throw their peace signs up,” wrote Williams in a blog post on Huffington Post UK in 2015.

The intersection of Black Muslim women's concerns remain also relatively invisible in discussions of Islamophobia. Fellow Muslim Safura Salam agrees, arguing for a reclamation of space for Black Muslim women, with the creation of #BombBlackHijabis. "In the conversation about Blackness in Islam and about women in Islam, the intersection of Black Muslim Women’s issues are often ignored. While South Asian and Arab women have many struggles in common, the struggle of the Black Muslim woman is unique. Often, speaking about us makes others uncomfortable. They aren’t sure how to relate. They want to sweep us away under the rug of an Islam that is 'color blind'."

Williams directly recalls experiencing discrimination from other Muslims concerning her faith and identity: "The additional element black often means I have to deal with discrimination from fellow Muslims. Despite the fact that Islam has a long history in Africa, there is a pervading idea that Arabs and Asians are 'The True Muslims'. Although the Koran teaches differently, we are not at a point where enough meaningful dialogue has occurred in order to ensure the text and everyday attitudes of people are in alignment, so racism prevails." The Koran itself is also written in a percentage of African languages, and the book describes the beloved Prophet Muhammad as beautifully "dark."

Reclaiming space as an Afro-Jamaican woman for Williams means challenging what feminine self-expression means, as the Western world still views the hijab as a symbol of women's oppression. "It has been said my hip-hop group Poetic Pilgrimage has feminist tendencies and this is something I am still grappling with. Yes, it’s true there is definitely a theme of female strength and dignity in our music, however since wearing a headscarf as a woman of colour, I am starting to wonder if feminism is really about all women expressing themselves," she notes. "For every open-minded feminist I meet, there is another who thinks I am oppressed by either my father, or that my husband forces me to wear hijab (if only they knew I’m still on the lookout for one of those and my father is a non-religious Jamaican)."

Prior to her conversion, Williams was raised in Christian home in the 1980s, explaining that Islam was the "furthest thing" from her mind. "I was raised in the church but left because I had questions on race and gender that no one could answer. I was not the typical teen, I enjoyed partying but I would much rather play jazz or reggae in an incense-filled room while discussing philosophy, world religions and the meaning of life," she confesses. Williams represents an early wave of Afro-Caribbean immigrants who are finding solace in Islam. Although Jamaica is predominately Christian in faith, the country is reportedly said to be becoming a haven for Islamic worship.

Although Williams was already on a quest for spiritual enlightenment with the musical creation of Poetic Pilgrimage, it would not be until 2005 that the group's musical direction would forever become transformed. "What finally pushed me was contemplating the life of Malcolm X and reading a book by Moroccan Feminist Fatima Mernissi. Their journeys to enlightenment intrigued me so much that I wanted to taste what they had. I converted to Islam on 16 June 2005, three weeks before the 7/7 terror attack. Being concerned for the safety of my loved ones, like all Londoners, I did not realize those tragic events would impact so deeply on my experience of conversion."

With the passing of Brexit, a wave of terror was unleashed in its aftermath, targeting the UK's immigrants, particularly those with an Islamic background. As women's hijabis were ripped off their heads on the streets and the burkini ban forbade women from wearing religious garments on the beach, Williams sees hip-hop as being the defiant force to provide empowerment for Black Muslim women, particularly in the Western world.

"A model that really gives me hope for the future is hip-hop," she says, "this community has always been embracing and inclusive - even the underdog is welcomed as long as they honour the culture. Through this genre my group has been able to break more stereotypes than any government policy. In the spirit of this, the one hope for the UK’s future that I see is an increased diversity of Muslims in the mainstream media. Not just [the] token black, female, disabled, elderly or Muslim voices, but a true reflection of the amazing wealth of experience one religion can include."

 

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Last summer, thousands of music lovers of African descent gathered on the sands of Portimao, Portugal, waved their beloved countries’ flags and witnessed performances from the best in afro-pop, reggae, and hip-hop at Afro Nation, the premier traveling beach festival unifying music of the African diaspora. This was a euphoric scene for acts who had never performed for a large Black festival crowd, Afro Nation co-founder and U.K. music industry veteran Obi Asika tells VIBE. Nigerian promoter Adesegun Adeosun Jr., aka SMADE, and business partner Asika saw a need for a space to celebrate African music in Europe and created a globetrotting festival as the answer. Most of the featured acts have been from Nigeria, where the music industry is rapidly growing, the U.K., and Jamaica. As the festival evolves, Afro Nation will feature more artists of African descent from Europe, Central Africa, Latin America, and more.

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For Women’s History Month, VIBE spoke to the three sensations about their latest music, why Afro Nation is a game-changing platform, the evolving musical connections between Jamaican and African artists, and their women inspirations in music.

SHENSEEA

Shenseea, a versatile singjay, deejay, rapper, and singer, grew up in Jamaica’s capital city Kingston. The 23-year-old broke out as dancehall’s most promising star in 2016 with the flirty “Loodi” featuring Vybez Kartel. Since then, she has released a steady stream of energetic records, showering each riddim with conviction and lyrics of self-reliance that speak to women and girls like “Shen Yeng Anthem,” “Trending Gyal” and “Blessed.” Shenseea is inspired by fellow Jamaican dancehall artist Spice, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna, who she calls “a complete boss.”

Thus far, Shenseea has collaborated with dancehall veterans like Sean Paul, and internationally with Trinidadian soca star Nailah Blackman and American rappers Swae Lee and Tyga. American hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall artists are common cross-cultural link-ups. But now Shenseea says there are more musical connections between popular Jamaican dancehall artists and African-based artists too. “I feel like it has been going on, but more so between the reggae artists,” she says. “Now it's evolving more between dancehall artists and African artists.”

Here is a quick history. Popular music in the Americas, including Jamaica’s biggest musical export reggae, is rooted in West African music. Reggae has several influences including Jamaican folk music mento and American R&B, and its predecessors ska and rocksteady. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, enslaved West Africans brought their rhythms to Jamaica and subsequent generations reimagined the sounds that circled back to Africa. Late reggae legend Bob Marley, a Pan-Africanist, and The Wailers toured the continent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this era, artists like Ivorian musician Alpha Blondy created a marriage of their traditional sounds and stories of home with the socially-conscious riddims birthing African reggae.

As technology digitized music production, dancehall music evolved out of reggae and dub music and  defined a younger generation in Jamaica. It would also inspire African artists, too. In the 2000s and 2010s, dancehall influenced “Afro-dancehall” artists Shatta Wale and AK Songstress of Ghana, and Patoranking and Wizkid of Nigeria. Ghanaian hiplife’s soft synths and dancehall’s percussion are said to have influenced the popular Nigerian sound “pon pon,” in 2017, according to OkayAfrica. DaVido’s inescapable “If,” is the most commercially successful “pon pon” track. Mr Eazi’s “Banku” style also borrows from Nigerian and Ghanaian pop and dancehall. With this has come more collaborations across the genres. Like Jamaican dancehall hitmaker Popcaan enlisting DaVido for “Dun Rich” in 2018, and Burna Boy collaborating with Serani and Jeremih on “Secret” in 2019.

The marriage between these sounds is impacting how Black fans experience music worldwide, which is especially pushed by second and third generations of people who migrated from Africa and the Caribbean to the Americas and Europe. In major cities, you’ll find Afro-Caribbean parties, where DJs play music across the diaspora. Afro Nation takes it to the next level by bringing these artists together on a bill.

The innovation of this sound is a diaspora-wide project. In the mid-to-late 2010s, UK, British artists J Hus and Afro B popularized the fusion of Afro-pop, dancehall, American and British hip-hop, and R&B music, in new genres known as “afro bashment” or “afroswing.” In 2019, Jamaican-American DJ Walshy Fire’s 2019 Abeng brought together afro-pop, with soca, and dancehall artists. Shenseea has some diaspora link-ups on the horizon. She already worked with Shatta Wale, the African dancehall king, on “The Way I Move” in 2018. Recently, she recorded an unreleased track with Mr Eazi and is in talks to work with Patoranking and Davido, she tells Vibe.

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Teni is also tuned into these evolving connections between the Caribbean and Africa. “You can hear it in the drums and melodies,” the 27-year-old singer and songwriter says. “We love to have fun and dance and that extends into our music.” In 2019, the New York Times dubbed Teni a member of the new guard of Nigerian musicians. In October, she released her Billionaire EP which showcases her afrobeat fusion. The title was inspired by her time in Los Angeles. "I saw all these great cars and I just imagined a world where we can all afford things we like no matter the price," she says. On the Pheelz-produced afrobeat, she croons her wealthy ambitions. On the earnest “Complain” she singraps over JaySynths' afroswing beat.

Teni’s entertainment career began with her comedic viral videos. Her breakout hit was the 2017 “Fargin,” which spoke out about the harms of rape culture. Teni admires African music legends Brenda Fassi, Angelique Kidjo, and Mariam Makeba. Them "using the power of their music to influence governments and shape economies is beyond incredible,” she says.

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Although Sho Madjozi and fellow artists are fusing the diaspora sounds in their music, she sees the Afro Nation platform as a necessary space for people of African descent to share these cultures in person. In these moments, “we notice how strong we really are" and "how powerful this gift of culture is,” she says. Hip-hop queen Lauryn Hill is her icon and inspired her to stand firm in her truth. Madjozi’s realness shapes her assertive lyrics and her vibrant style. She performs in “xibelani” skirts to pay homage to her Tsonga heritage, a group of people native to Mozambique and South Africa. She adorns her hair with her signature colorful Fulani braids. “My whole statement is to be free,” she says. “I hope it shows Black girls everywhere to not be shy or small. This world is ours as much as anyone else’s.”

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