From Hip Hop to Heavy Metal: A Story of Conversion

I wrote a draft of this post two years ago (March 2015) in my notebook, but only now that I have edited it and posted it online. I have avoided making any substantial changes, so that it remains true as much as possible to my thoughts back then.

Brother Ali

Album cover of Borther Ali’s Mourning in America: Dreaming in Color – one of my first favorite hip hop albums.

Those who know me personally or have read some of my posts here (Oriental(ist) Metal Music or “Is God really Dead?”) know me as a dedicated heavy metal fan. For 15 years, almost half my life, I listened almost exclusively to heavy metal music (along with few hard and progressive rock bands). I have also been a dedicated concert-goer, sometimes travelling to other countries just to attend a metal band I like. Heavy metal was in fact more than just music for me. It was, for most of these 15 years, an identity and an influence on the way I think and behave. I even wrote my MA thesis, back in 2010, about heavy metal in Syria and for a while I was thinking about doing a PhD in this field. As a faithful metalhead I looked down at all other styles of music, especially hip hop, and bragged how heavy metal surpassed it in sophistication, authenticity, anti-commercialism, and fan-dedication. In fact, two months ago, I would not have been able to name 10 hip hop songs, and if you asked my what was your favorite hip hop song, I would have said Gay Fish.

So after all that to turn to hip hop within less than two months came as a surprise to me personally before anyone else. So I have spent the past two weeks reflecting on this “radical” change and trying to understand how come it ever happened and why hip hop and not any other style of music. What has changed in my life or my environment that helped make this transformation? I will try in this post to give some answers to these questions.

Needless to say, hip hop and heavy metal have little to do with each other musically. There are some metal bands which have incorporated rapping in their songs, particularly in the nu metal sub-genre, but they were not among my favorite or often-listened-to bands. To be clear, before I switched to hip hop there was a transitory period of few months during which I listened to a number of musical genres that are closer to metal than hip hop, such as urban blues and industrial music. I believe I somehow jumped from industrial, through electronic music, to trip hop, which is a cross-genre of hip hop and electronic music. While trip hop was the musical gate through which I walked into the world of hip hop, it was rather the lyrics and the politics not the music which took me there.

Gorillaz: One of the most famous trip hop bands, which I happened to see live in Damascus in 2009. I guess some kind of nostalgia made me go back to their music

I believe one of the main factors behind my turning toward hip hop was the series of publicized incidents in 2014 which involved policemen in the United States getting away with the killing of unarmed black men without a single charge brought successfully against them. These killings drew attention to the police brutality in the United States, especially toward minorities, and the culture that defends, if not celebrates, this brutality no matter how unjustified it is.

Of these incidents, the death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York policeman, who put him in a chokehold—a technique banned by Police rules—until he stopped breathing, touched me deeply. There was something intensely tragic about his death. Of course, every death of an innocent person is tragic, and people die everyday in other parts of the world in large numbers and in more horrible ways. But the fact that he was doing something harmless (his so-called crime was selling loose untaxed cigarettes to support his family); that he was avoiding confrontation with the police by any means; that he was pleading “I can’t breath” to the deaf ears of soulless policemen; and that all of that was captured on video made his death hard to bear for many people including me. In Arabic it is said that cutting one’s head is more merciful than cutting his means of living.

Despite the obvious injustice, in December 2014 came the acquittal of his killer, which sparked massive protests across the United States. The acquittal showed that the lives of black people are cheap. It was the answer of the American justice system to pleads by civil-right activists to equip policemen with body cameras to monitor their encounters with people. The message was blunt: the presence of cameras will not deter us from killing you nor will it entail any legal consequences for us.

I remember that after I heard about the incident and saw the protests against the acquittal of the killer, my first reaction was to turn to an old song that I knew about, even though I did not particularly like. It was “Cop Killer” by hardcore-metal band Body Count, which is incidentally a side project of rapper Ice T. The song, from the year 1992, was controversial at the time and was removed from subsequent releases of its album, because it seemed to glorify, as the title suggests, the murder of policemen. Needless to say, listening to this song does not mean I endorse the killing of cops as much as listening to Slayer’s Angel of Death does not mean endorsing the Holocaust. Violent lyrics in metal music are more than normal—in fact, what would count as abnormal in heavy metal is to sing non-violent lyrics—and often function to vent negative emotions off.

These incidents of police brutality evoked my interest in black militant groups, such as the Black Panthers, who advocated self-defense against police brutality and were celebrated in hip hop music:

A song by rapper Paris in celebration of black resistance

Related to the interest in radical black politics that brought me to hip hop was an interest in radical black religious groups, which were also shaped by their struggle against racism and white domination. Among these groups was a relatively obscure, but highly influential as far as hip hop is concerned, offshoot of the Nation of Islam—the black religious group to which Malcolm X and the legendary boxer Muhammad Aly once belonged. The group is called “Five-Percenters” and I knew about it from a book by Michael Muhammad Knight called Journey to the End of Islam that I read few years ago. Back then, it did not arouse my interest, but now something has changed.

These religious movements saw a connection between white racism and “white Christianity”, where not only Jesus, God, and Mary, (the whole Trinity) are depicted as white, but also Christianity itself was used to justify slavery and racism. As a response to this version of Christianity, some black Prophets formulated an alternative mythology, whereby the black man is the center of the universe. Not only did they claim that Jesus and all other major figures in the Bible to be black, but they also claimed that there is no “mystery God” (supernatural God) in the first place and that god simply is the black man. This mythology was formulated using a vocabulary derived from Islam, which was considered to be the original religion of the black man, before being Christianized in the United States. They wanted to get rid of the Christian religion and Christian names given to them by their slave masters, so they found in Islam, which was practiced by some slaves brought to America, a language of resistance, empowerment, and self-assertion.

A Norwegian documentary that talks about the influence of the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters on hip hop

There is no space here to discuss how much such groups are really connected to Islam and whether they can really be considered Muslim. Many Muslims indeed would consider their views to be heretical or at best fanciful. It is obvious that they interpreted Islam in their own way and localized it to their own environment (they black-Americanized it) while making little effort to conform to what religious ulama in Muslim countries would say real Islam is. This is in itself is something worthy of attention and I would like to deal with in a future post, because in a time when literalism, sectarianism, and fanaticism are eating Islam away from within, it is refreshing to see that some people are not leaving it to close-minded fundamentalist ulama to tell them how they should understand Islam.

Another aspect that attracted my attention to hip hop was discovering anti-religious lyrics in some songs. I guess back then I thought that anti-religious lyrics were like a trademark of heavy metal, so I was a bit amused when I heard such lyrics in hip hop. One song that grabbed my attention was “How to Kill God” by Ras Kass and Apollo Brown:

Lyrics:

Yeah, this is how to kill God

Yeah, this is how to kill God

Holocaust, Crusades, Zionism, Jihad

[…]

My freestyles ain’t free

Impossible like one divinity divided into three

Same people that rape and beat ya teach ya

Rabbits lay chocolate eggs on Easter

[…]

“Give ’em religion with no proof

Crucify the facts, I doubt your truth

This is how to kill God

Get 10 commandments, break all 10 laws

Exodus, chapter 20, verse 3

Thou shalt have no other gods before me

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

But worship a white man on the cross, put your faith in it?

I’m not anti-Christ

Not anti-Islamic, anti-Semite

Never

Razzy be like Neo in The Matrix

They made us slaves and changed our names

Now it’s our lineage they tryin’ to claim”

The lyrics may not be as blasphemous and as gruesome as those of black metal, but they are far more politically and socially conscious. Scandinavian black metal bands decrying the “oppression” of Christianity in their countries, which are among the most liberal and secular on Earth, sounds like a first-world problem compared with how Christianity is and has been used to justify racism against African Americans. True, Christians murdered pagan Norse people and forced Christianity upon them, but this was a thousand years ago and now I cannot see how an atheist or neo-pagan person in Sweden, Norway, or Denmark can feel oppressed by Christianity in a way that is remotely comparable to how some black Americans felt in the not-long-distant past (until the 60’s there was racial segregation in the South) and continue to feel today regarding Christianity as practiced and preached by right-wing white Americans.

The Real Holy Place, Boogie Down Production

You might ask: what does racism against black people in the United States have to do with you: a Syrian living in Germany? Well, the answer lies in political changes taking place here around the time my musical interest in hip hop was growing. A movement with the pompous name “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident” (German acronym PEGIDA) emerged in the city of Dresden, in former East Germany, in late 2014 to protest the admission of refugees from the Middle East. The movement extended to Leipzig—the city where I live, which is also in the eastern part of Germany—organizing its first demonstration on the 12th of January 2015 and the second one, which I personally witnessed from the ranks of the anti-demonstrators, on the 21st of January 2015. I do not think it is a coincidence at all that my hip hop playlist in Spotify*—the first tangible evidence of my new interest in hip hop—was created on the following day, the 22nd of January.

Legida_SDZ

PEGIDA demonstration in Leipzig on 21 January 2015 separated by the police from anti-demonstrators in the upper corner, where I was standing close to the front. Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung

Their demonstrations continue till today and usually take place in the city center, which means I can often see them from the window of my office at the University of Leipzig marching and shouting racist slogans against the likes of me. They call themselves “worried citizens” (besorgte Bürger) but among them you see many right-wing hooligans and Neo-Nazis. So I became a bit careful not to run into their demonstrations when I am walking or riding my bike in the city.

Legida_LVZ_20151102

The friendly folks whom you encounter in PEGIDA demonstrations. Note the sign saying “Putin Help Us!” Like in many European countries, Putin is a hero of fascists. Source: Leipziger Volkszeitung

PEGIDA followers claim that they want to protect Germany from Islamization through refugees, but it is not difficult to see that they are motivated by racism and xenophobia. The target may change from one era to another: Jews, Roma, Turks, Africans, Muslims, etc; but at the end of the day they are all Ausländer (“outlanders”, i.e. foreigners). Even if you were born in this country, as long as you did not have an “Aryan blood”, then you are out for these people. Islam happens to be now the easy target, because of its common association with terrorism, but if you threw all Muslims out of Germany and replaced them with, say, Poles, do not think that these people will cease to “worry” about the purity of their land.

The problem is not only with these demonstrators but in the general atmosphere in Germany, especially in parts that once formed the East German communist republic. I have to admit, so far I have not personally experienced outright incidents of racism that are comparable with those experienced by blacks in the States, or even here in Germany. After all, as an academic, my social field is limited and liberal by definition. However, these demonstrations together with heated daily discussions in the media about refugees—and whether they are inherently evil or innocent—change the way you think about yourself and your position in society. You become more “conscious” of anything that may make you look different in relation to the majority, especially your ethnic features, which you cannot change. Now whenever I encounter an unfriendly white German—in the street, in some governmental office, or in the supermarket—I immediately ask myself whether he or she is acting like this because I look or sound foreigner. In the past, I usually thought that these are just grumpy unfriendly people, but now the first thing that jumps to my mind is racism.

This change of “consciousness” and atmosphere regarding ethnicity and otherness in Germany were no doubt one of the things that attracted me to hip hop, which is by definition the music of protest against racism. It speaks about these issues confrontationally far more than heavy metal does, which generally, but not entirely, shuns explicit political lyrics. To be sure, in some countries (like Syria and Iraq) making or just listening metal can be or can count as a political statement. But still this does not necessarily show directly in the lyrics. There is a tendency to go for symbolic, mythological, and fantastical language—the exception are styles influenced by other genres, such as thrash (hardcore punk). Rarely in metal would you hear words like those of Brother Ali in this song (unless we are talking about Rage Against the Machine!):

I do not want this post to be understood as a bashing of metal—a style that I loved for years and I continue to listen to—and naive praise of hip hop—a style about which a lot can be criticized. It is more like about a transformation in my social and political consciousness that was reflected in music. Anyway, I think I have already written too much for a blog post. I cannot say everything here, so I have to stop now.

* Spotify is a great tool for musical exploration. It is, moreover, a good record of the evolution of your musical taste, if you care to create your own playlists. However, it exploits artists financially. This is why purchasing albums from websites such as bandcamp, which pays the artist most of the price of the album, is a good idea!

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