Perhaps if you were once young and black, or young and brown, but definitely young and Muslim in the heart of a midwestern city surrounded by corn fields, trees, whole stretches of land where you were feared. Perhaps then you would sneak out of a house, or take the money your father gave you for food or college textbooks, and you would go to see a live show wherever you could find a band playing some songs that you knew enough words to.
You might find some other weirdos like you. The outcasts, the Muslim kids who also knew what it was to have a head covering torn from their head in a crowded school hallway, the ones who knew what it was to both run into a fight and run away to survive. You might find a small corner and dance together, sing together, revel in being alive and imagining yourself, for a few hours, un-feared and un-killable.
Having “a place to belong” is something that often works on a sliding scale. The urgency of owning a space with people who look like you and share some of your experience increases the further against the margins you are. Live music, even at its most unhealthy and potentially violent, has historically provided a small mercy for young people who found no mercy elsewhere.
A live show was the first time, as a teenager in Columbus, Ohio, that I found a few other young Muslims who had the same relationship to music that I did. At an early Fall Out Boy show at The Basement, a venue in my hometown of Columbus that is, very literally, a basement, I first noticed them. Muslims who I noticed from school or Friday prayer at the mosque, camped out in the back of the venue. Ones who didn’t grow up in a house like mine, where most music was widely accepted (or, at worst, tolerated.)
We connected through our stories and mutual passion for feeling most at home during a concert, or our stories of our families. How we all learned to sneak rap albums past our parents (the trick, back when “Parental Advisory” stickers were actually stickers, involved peeling the sticker off your cassette or CD before you made it back to your house.) How our homes varied from understanding to fiercely strict, and how we still found ourselves at live shows with each other. Occasionally, we would travel to a concert in another Midwest city, Chicago or Detroit, and see more of the same. Teenage Muslim music fans who we connected with online at the dawn of social media, who shared our passion and our stories.
These were also the spaces where I understood that my fears were not entirely unique. The ways that I felt about navigating the world were shared by others, the few of us drawn together by both our need to escape into music, and the things that drove us to the escape.
I was a college freshman on a small Ohio campus in September 2001. A time where the word “terrorism” most loudly latched itself to my Arabic name, latched itself on the shoulders of my Muslim friends from Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon. I did not go outside often in the winter. When I did, it was to make the short trip to some cheap show, indie or punk rock, underground hip hop. Wherever I knew I could see some of the other Muslim kids I knew, and we could sit in between songs, covered in sweat, and speak of our survival.
In Islam, live music and concerts are a tricky thing. In many Muslim households, the act of going to a concert is seen as haram, or sinful. I knew young Muslims who would go to concerts only when they told their parents they would be elsewhere, and had others cover for them. This may never change. In 2015, I read about Muslim teenagers in Turkey and London, rushing to Justin Bieber concerts. Muslims at Coachella and Bonnaroo, basking in that small window of freedom, sinful as it may be.
Hasn’t that always been the way of it? We all choose our sins, and their measure. The ones we believe will render us unforgivable, and the ones that we will wash off with a new morning. This is something that I find particularly hard to ignore as we again look upon an act of terror that has overshadowed all other acts of terror. Even the ones that have spanned decades, or centuries. As we again discuss selective outrage. Rather, the merit of life, or what we do with how others choose to mourn. Most importantly, as we again ask questions of what Muslims around the world “deserve” and what they “need to do.” Then again, have we ever really stopped doing this?
It is a luxury to be able to tear your gaze away from something; to only be made aware of old and consistent blood by a newer shedding of blood. It is a luxury to see some violence as terror and other violence as necessary. It is a luxury to be unafraid and analyze the very real fear of others. I know and understand all of this, and still, as I turned to Paris, even with my knowledge of the world’s many horrors, I was particularly struck to read about the shootings that took place in a concert venue. Many concert-goers, mostly young, were gunned down while taking in an Eagles of Death Metal show. I considered the dead, how many among them may have gone out hoping for an escape from whatever particular evil was suffocating them. I considered how many may have been young Muslims. Then, as always, I considered all of the young Muslims still living.
Historically, when people who identify as Muslim kill a large group of people who are assumed to be non-Muslim, the world wishes to see dead Muslim bodies in return. In America, men stand outside of mosques with guns. People urge others to violence against anyone who they believe to be Muslim. Worldwide, in response to this senseless violence, Muslims are assaulted, ostracized, and further misunderstood. I still hear and read stories about Muslims who navigate airports differently, aware of the discomfort that others have around them in that setting since 9/11. There are few things like being feared simply due to having a body. There is no way to easily come to terms with this. Those who fear you may wish that you simply make yourself small, if you refuse to disappear. This is how a simple, public space becomes something entirely unpleasant. This is how a place of release and joy becomes something you hold an arm’s length away.
It is hard for me to put these things together. Young Muslims around the world, afraid and eager to find a cleansing space. A concert venue, much like the ones where I felt most unafraid, covered in blood. A world, eager for revenge, people to hang their rage on. The idea of feeling most like yourself when watching live music seems small to some, I’m sure. I can only speak for how I found safety and comfort, while also considering how spaces of safety and comfort have become increasingly rare for young Muslims over the past fifteen years. Attacks and intimidation at mosques aren’t entirely surprising. Much like assaults on black churches, people will always come first for where you pray. But knowing what music, specifically live music, can do in these times, I worry about Muslims being afraid in those spaces. Or worse, being feared in those spaces.
It is jarring, what we let fear do to each other; how we invent enemies and then make them so small that we are fine with wishing them dead. How we decide what “safety” is, how ours is only ours and must be gained at all costs. How we take that long coat of fear and throw it around the shoulders of anyone who doesn’t look like us, or prays to another God. There is something about a dark corner crowded with your people, a song you know, and a night you can bookmark to reminisce on whenever the world is calling for the death of everyone you love.
On the song “Hurt Me Soul” from Lupe Fiasco’s classic 2006 debut album Food and Liquor, Lupe opens the track by muttering Astaghfirullah before the beat drops. Heard frequently in my childhood home, in a literal sense, it means “I seek forgiveness from Allah.” But what I always found interesting was how often it was used to express shame. To say I shouldn’t have to do these things, but I don’t know how else to survive.
I imagine Lupe Fiasco, a Muslim making a living performing live music, understands this the way that I do. The shame that exists because of what we have to do in order to remain alive, be seen as human. I consider this while the smoke clears, and we watch young Muslims today do what we always watch young Muslims do in these situations. They plead with the world to be spared. They work tirelessly to show their humanity, show us all the acts of good they have done. They tell the world that they are not like the ones who have killed, as if the world itself, awash with blood, deserves this explanation from the innocent. When I see this now, it breaks my heart. In part, because I recall doing this myself, in the early 2000’s, to anyone who would listen. But in part because I know that these are young people in the world, thrashing against what many of us did in our youth, while also coming to terms with their new life as a target. There is shame in this, absolutely. Though I’m not sure that the burden of it belongs on Muslims around the world.
Yet, here, I still write about the living while so many continue to die. I write about music while bodies are prepared for burial. I write about fear from the safety of my apartment, and someone may call it brave. Me, a man who no longer bows to anything five times a day, who had pork just yesterday, who only speaks light Arabic when visiting his family, still writing about how I wish for Muslims, especially young Muslims, to be safe. To have a haven, a place where they can find each other and say I see you. I’m still here.
Then again, as we’ve come to understand so often, it isn’t only music. I know that there are still awkward, anxious black and brown kids, Muslim kids from all backgrounds, who look for places where they can be themselves, songs that they can hear their experiences in, a world they can dance into and imagine themselves free. Who are still learning that everything can be weaponized, from their bodies to the spaces that they believed to be theirs, and I still hope for them. I think of them today and always. I hope that they can still slide the music they love past their parents and vanish into an album good enough that it makes them forget about everything outside. I hope they always have a place where they are not outcasts for two hours when the house lights go down. I hope they have somewhere to be unafraid and un-feared, like I did.
Through the bombs and the burials, the threats and the anger, I hope they find each other in a room where a song that they know all of the words to crawls up the walls and rattles the lights above their heads. I hope they can still sneak out of their homes. I hope they can still spend their textbook money on live shows that their parents would disapprove of.
This, too, is survival. Astaghfirullah.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet and writer from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, is forthcoming from Button Poetry in winter 2016.