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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 December 2007, 10:46 GMT
Making music with a message
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, London

One of the singers from Blind Alphabetz works with children in the classroom
School-children in multicultural London are being taught about Islam by a new generation of British Muslim hip-hop musicians

They sing about God - not drugs and gang warfare.

"It's a positive message and Islam is a positive way of life," says Mohammad Yahya, the elder of the duo known as Blind Alphabetz.

The group chose their name because they say so many people are blind to the topics they sing about.

Mohammad and Abdul Rahman, are a little nervous about what to expect when they first turn up at Southfields Primary School in West London for a workshop with two classes.

Song of the converted

About one-third of the children in the school are Muslims from a range of backgrounds - mainly Somali, Bangladeshi and Pakistani.

All the children have been learning about Islam in advance of the workshop.

A lot of people hear 'Muslim hip-hop' and they immediately back out - we're not going to touch that - that's evil, it's 'haram'
Tony Ishola, Editor of Platform

The rappers begin by asking the children if they can name any hip-hop artists.

The boys especially talk about Eminem and 50 Cent - musicians associated with a world of street gangs, drugs, sex and violence.

"We became Muslims but some people are born Muslims - we're going to perform a track talking about that," explains Mohammad.

The turn on their ghetto blaster and do a song about their conversion to Islam, controversially setting to music the universal Muslim declaration of faith in Arabic: "There is only one God and Mohammad is his messenger."

"Islam is my world, music is my entertainment," goes one track.

"Free from harm, because I continue to embrace the Koran," says another.

Bitter critics

It is a fusion of Western culture with Muslim spiritual values.

One of the singers from Blind Alphabetz works with children in the classroom
Children are encouraged to write their own hip-hop lyrics

But for some conservative Muslims this verges on blasphemy; they say music is "haram" - or not allowed - in their strict interpretation of Islam.

There are websites where critics complain bitterly that using hip-hop to spread the message of God is akin to doing missionary work from a brothel.

They say this style of music is decadent and corrupt.

"Islam is supposed to be practised now just as it was practised in the Prophet's time," one Muslim woman writes on muslimhiphop.com.

She says compromise is not any good when if means sinning.

"That isn't going to do you any favours when you are burning in hell, is it now?" she asks.

Culture clash

But Tony Ishola, editor of Platform - Britain's main Islamic hip-hop magazine - says it is because groups like Blind Alphabetz are newcomers to Islam that they can leave a lot of cultural baggage behind and create a new British Muslim identity.

"They grew up without the Islamic culture from a different country; their actual upbringing was a western upbringing so a lot of them see nothing wrong with integrating hip-hop with Islam because hip-hop is their culture," he explains.

The majority of British Muslims are of South Asian origin and for them, Tony Ishola says, mixing modern music with religion is more of a clash of cultures at first.

"Their parents, their uncles, their aunties, their grandparents - they see the Western way of life as something negative," he says, adding that they often automatically reject anything to do with that way of life.

"A lot of people hear 'Muslim hip-hop' and they immediately back out: 'We're not going to touch that - that's evil, it's 'haram', it's people singing'," he says.

"But when they actually listen to the lyrics, meet the people and talk to them, they see there is a positive message and what they're saying is not against Islam."

Rhyme and reason

Blind Alphabetz try to get the children to work together in teams to compose their own rhymes, preferably about God.

They hope to show the Muslim kids in the class that you can be cool and true to your religion at the same time.

"If they think this medium is hip and in fashion you've got to give them an alternative," says Yahya, the group's publicist.

"If you give them the bland hip-hop which is the 50 Cent - 'I've got a nice Ferrari, Porsche, I sell drugs, I get a load of girls, I don't care, I'll shoot you in the head hip-hop' - you'll get a society of young adolescents willing to murder, steal, rob, rape, pillage, sell drugs and destroy society," he predicts.

The headmaster of Southfield Primary School, Charles Morrison, seems pleased with the experiment.

"The children had these notions that were perhaps placed in them by the media - this fear of Islam - and I still think to a certain degree among the population in the school there is a lack of understanding and that generates fear," he believes.

Blind Alphabetz also think the workshop has been a success and they are keen to do it again.

"We'd love to organise a school tour. I think there's a lot of Muslim children in schools and they need to know what their identity is," says Mohammad as he gets ready to go to the mosque to say lunch-time prayers.



SEE ALSO
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Teaching of Islam is 'out-dated'
04 Jun 07 |  Education
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