The Next Movement
A place where belief and art propel a new phase of Islam in America
by Yahsmin Mayaan Binti BoBo
Taking a retrospective glance into my own life to pinpoint exactly where, and when, the days of my activism began would be difficult. Perhaps the interest was sparked when my father explained what the colors of red, black and green symbolized for those of African ancestry. I’ll never forget the passion with which he explained this to me and my younger brother. Or perhaps, the light bulb went off over my head when I read passages in Malcolm X’s autobiography about seeking Human Rights in the world courts. This inspired me to consider international law, as a profession, later in life.
In any event, the plans were set in motion. It was inevitable.
I joined the Black Student Union in my predominantly white suburban high school where we petitioned for a day off of school for a film screening. After a week of insistence, BSU students were fruitfully awarded the privilege of a field trip the day Spike Lee’s Malcolm X premiered. In my sophomore year, though at a different high school, I worked with a county youth commission and had the chance to rub elbows with local politicians, all of whom still serve offices in some capacity or another. Although it was a great opportunity, I wasn’t satisfied with the pace at which some of these bureaucratic wings in my community moved.
Somehow I found my way to the Oakland-Berkeley borderline to the offices of a small, grassroots publication called The Commemorator that was run by former Black Panther Party members. I had a chance to work alongside legendary elders, embarked on my first experience in publishing and aided with community outreach projects. This gave me insight regarding real life dealings with the fluctuating economy and sociology, things that I studied in textbooks but needed to have them applied in real life.
Yet, I still felt as though something was missing. Although honorable, there was emptiness in my spirit that only Islam could fill. I began to read beyond what instructors required in their syllabus. Consequently, I said my shahadah less than a year after my work with the Panthers and hastily joined a masjid sharing similar objectives, whose leadership had come from that same generation.
It became my new home and I settled in, continuing work there for many years.
I was apart of a sizeable wave of new converts to this particular community and we were the youngest among congregates- representing the late teens to mid twenties, primarily college bound or enrolled. The energy we brought was incredibly intense and I often look back upon those times and wonder if the leadership could even handle our enthusiasm. Plus, we were generously dubbed the Hip Hop generation due to our strong ties with music, arts and youth culture. This had both a positive and negative effect on how we were perceived and then, received. Rather than directing these energies into a student union, we put our attitude and skill to use on the streets of East Oakland where the most worked needed to be done.
Many of the programs needed to be streamlined and the technologies updated, however, we met strict reluctance from the elders. Likewise, most of the philosophy deserved to be modernized and more inclusive to others, especially youth and non Muslims, but we were often turned away when suggestions were presented. I was advocating for arts based programming and stressed that our approach should be tailor fit to the culture of the people we sought to live amongst.
After many years battling the stubborn will of our elders, most of those young Muslim organizers walked away and moved on to bigger (and better) things. The community itself began to dry up once the fountain of youth overflowed and drained out. It’s fair to assume that circumstances like these, with disastrous consequences at times, happen with many groups and not just isolated pockets like ours. Had the older leaders in the community been prepared to greet new congregates with the same enthusiasm we brought, perhaps things would’ve progressed for longer. And maybe the proper work could have been accomplished.
Apart from small community gatherings and projects, many Muslim organizations have widened their goals to include conferences that attract nationwide participation. One of the primary challenges faced by event coordinators and organizations is youth engagement, participation and retention. Generation gaps, that seem to be as vast as the Grand Canyon, often distance those who lead such activities from those who attend such activities. But this is not without good intentions on the part of these elders; I do believe a concerted effort has been advanced to include and encourage a younger audience now. However, it wasn’t until recently (perhaps the past 5 years) that organizers took some of the youth’s interests seriously enough to facilitate entire panels wherein topics are explored that actually spark interest and affect their lives.
In some cases, the generational divide is just as sociological as it is related to varying age groups. Even in the immigrant facets of our great community, there are colossal differences among parents and their children, especially pronounced as kids enter young adulthood. The traditions that were brought to this continent have slowly modified with the development of their youth, who are coming of age in America rather than across bodies of water that spawn thousands of miles, back home.
This year, I am pleased to say that MANA conference visionaries have taken titanic strides toward engagement with those young folks. And it couldn’t have been in a more timely fashion as we just closed a highly successful presidential campaign that awakened the country to a new day, at least politically, as a result of record numbers of youth voter turnout. Secondly, this conference directly follows an arts leadership retreat organized by Chicago’s IMAN where performing artists and activists were strategically gathered to rejoice and network on a common ground and in a creative outlet.
All of these happenings have sparked a creative/spiritual surge among youth- one that elders can no longer afford to overlook. After all, there’s power in numbers and that’s why in this year’s conference program, workshops that seek to be inclusive of younger participants are at the forefront and given high priority. I am honored to be apart of one particular workshop named “Culture, Rhymes and Styles- the Deen and Da’wah of Hip Hop” that will include a panel of respectable artists from around the country.
There is no doubt in my mind that Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali influenced those in their respective era, but the youth of today have legends like that to thank, in addition to the likes of Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco just to name two pop culture icons. Mos Def shines bright in his own ambiance, but with successive seasons of HBO’s Def poetry, he endeavors to showcase other radiant talents as well. Lupe Fiasco, on the other hand, expresses brilliant songwriting with very little profanity, something uncommon in today’s world of Hip Hop.
It is artists like these that forgo preachy didactics to ensure their listeners understand Islam in a whole new context, and a realistic one at that. The influence, therefore, seems much more lasting, genuine and effective to its recipients, no matter how it might sound to someone who may not be a fan of the music. But defining the responsibility of these artists can be tricky, and is debated by the old and young alike. Could their message and lyrics be considered an invitation to Islam? Is there example to their audiences positive? How can da’wah be used within the context of music or can it at all?
These are pressing questions the youth attempt to answer within their own circles but not often without the mutual consultation of learned men and women. Controversy colors such discussions but one thing is certain- the prophetic wisdom passed down indicates the importance of speaking to a people in a language they understand.
In the spirit of forging an agenda, in light of our society, this is what it’s all about- the clarity of language and the message that’s conveyed.
Yahsmin M. B. BoBo is an essayist and music journalist with published work in Words Beats Life Global Journal of Hip Hop Culture and Platform Magazine. She sits on the Editorial Board of Timbuktu Review and co-founded Illume Magazine while presiding as Editor in Chief for its first year. By day, she writes curriculum for youth programming and consults non-profit professionals in areas of program development.