Last year, I completed an important pilgrimage.
In November-December of 2013, I traveled to Portland, then to Spokane, and finally back to Seattle to see, to hear, and to experience (a la Hendrix, of course) the music of my favorite rock band: Pearl Jam. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen the band. The last time I heard the group in a live setting was in 2003. Those were very different times. But revisiting the band after a decade was as refreshing as it was profound. It reminded me of the power of rock and roll as an American musical tradition to inspire and renew.
The highlight of the journey was undoubtedly the three hours of music the band played each night. Indeed, all three hours on all three nights truly enlivened my soul. In every city, the band was electrifying. Their performances were energetic, motivated, and at times, transcendent. Whether playing early classics like “Alive” or contemporary ballads like “Sirens,” the quintet was as passionate and moving as they were in the 1990s—and then some. The music flowed effortlessly through the mass of bodies while filling every crevice of the arena. The music rocked and rolled, beautifully.
But what struck me most about the shows wasn’t what happened in the arenas, although that was certainly amazing. Rather, it was my experience after. Walking out the arena doors each night, I felt an indescribable sense of renewal. My spirit felt cleansed and ready to take on the realities of the world around me. More importantly, I felt a deep connection with something that transcended the material dimensions of each show. Something “bigger” was a part of the experience. The music, the joy, and the crowds all constituted an ineffable power that defied the idea of rock and roll as “just music.” Something profound happened.
I should say that Pearl Jam is not unique in the American musical tradition. Throughout my own life, there have been plenty of artists who have moved me in important ways. But Pearl Jam has always held a special place in my trajectory. And I’m focusing, for now, on their contribution because I think they provide a compelling example of the spiritual worth of music. The feelings I experienced on those three nights of Pearl Jam’s tour were not unique to me and, I think, they’re useful for considering some of the depth of music and the significance of the musical experience.
Someone may be wondering why, of all topics, I’ve chosen music. With ISIS conquering Iraq, with US drones bombing innocent Muslims throughout the world, with the NSA violating our most basic rights to privacy, why should we think about Pearl Jam? My only answer is this: it matters to me. And it matters because too many of my spiritual brethren have excluded experiences like mine from the realm of spiritual life. For years, I’ve heard many of my fellow Muslims describe music in almost exclusively negative terms. “Music is haram,” is one of the most common phrasings of the anti-music activist. “It’s too Western,” “corrupt,” or “dangerous” are others. Even for those who listen to music, I’ve seen the discomfort and unease talking about their musical interests. I myself have felt that way. It’s as if music must be proudly disparaged or apologetically excused in the life of the American Muslim. If there is a space for the musical lives of Muslims, it appears to be shrinking under the weight of an inexplicable shame. Thus in this short essay, I want to take my Pearl Jam experience, and others, to offer a defense of the meaning and importance of the American musical tradition in the life of one American Muslim.
Before offering my defense, however, I should begin with the offense. Years of discussions have brought me to the conclusion that there are two basic attacks on music in the American context. The first is what I’ll call the combustion stance, which suggests that music is sinful. I call this the “combustion” stance because music is treated as a sort of flammable object: touch it for too long and your soul is set on fire. Specifically, hell’s fire. The combustion folks don’t treat all music the same. They’ll allow for what amounts to acappella boy bands with a kind of drum here and there (anashid). But any mention of the electric guitar and you’ll get a Quranic passage or hadith smeared in your face (regardless of their actual relevance). Anything in the American musical tradition is basically forbidden, sinful, and an Amtrak ticket to hell.
The second position is what I’ll call the distraction approach. According to this view, the problem with music isn’t that it’s sinful, although some music may be. The issue, instead, is that it distracts the believer from God. Implicit within this approach is that many, if not most, kinds of music are basically secular or “non-Godly.” That is, while music may not be inherently sinful, it’s certainly not of, or relating to, God. Thus the Muslim is encouraged to leave music behind and pursue some of the established practices of worship that are surely better than a night at the symphony.
Both positions have their appeal. For starters, it’s hard to deny that some music (and I’m speaking about the American musical tradition) does participate in what we may call spiritually unhealthy themes. Glorification of excess, narcissism, sexual degradation, and even racism are all part of the fabric of some American music (even then, however, it’s not a simple story). Second, some of the primary ways we access music is linked to visual displays that accentuate the above-mentioned ills. Many music videos, for example, are wickedly sexist and participate in the cultural denigration of women and men in a variety of ways. Third, many within the musical communities of America are anything but interested in a spiritual experience. I’ve been to countless shows where some of the crowd decides to take their inspiration to nefarious lengths. I distinctly remember the sexist macho punks who kept a young female crowd-surfer above the crowd for far too long. Throughout her “surf,” some sleazy men found an opportunity to do more than keep her on the wave. A final point might be that music has been turned into a fashionable commodity that makes the experience something like wearing the latest jeans: a fleeting excursion into coolness.
There’s more I could add to the list but these points alone make the two positions above quite appealing. The problem with them is that they are at best reductive and at worst deceptive. Music is anything but one thing. And, my own experiences prove that music can be a profound source of meaningful inspiration and positive change. Indeed, my accepting Islam is in no small part due to music. So let me offer a brief journey into some of my personal experiences and argue that Pearl Jam and the music of many American artists can be an important source for the spiritual lives of Muslims. More importantly, I want to argue that the “music shaming” in our community is more hurtful than many of us think.
I wasn’t born in a “musical family.” Neither my mother nor father played any instruments and, while they did have an impressive collection of vinyl, I think my brother and I did most of the spinning in the house. Yet my family was musical. As a Cuban family living in the exilic space of Miami, music was an important part of our cultural lives. But the part it played was grounded in the collective experience of family celebrations and the spontaneous sounds of my bongo-smacking uncle. I can still recall the massive parties held on “Nochebuena,” for example. The house would be packed and the music blasting. Dominoes shuffled, children played, and the music jammed—eternally. Those are wonderful memories for me. They were times of familial and cultural affirmation. They were also an expression of body and spirit that could only be articulated in rhythm.
But what if music is “haram” or a “distraction?” What sense could I make of those beautiful moments of family unity and happiness—those very Cuban moments of our cultural lives? Can God be so easily expelled from such experiences? Should I look back with the righteous condescension of a Muslim who “knows better now?” Or, should I continue that tradition and allow my children to see and feel the beauty of a Cuban culture expressed in the rhythm and sounds of a musical heritage situated at the historical intersection of Afro-Spanish hybridity?
Cuban parties weren’t the only context for my musical upbringing. Born and raised in Miami, my brother and I picked up the habit of buying the latest rap tapes of the time at an early age. While hipsters today seek out cassette tapes for “throwback” purposes, my brother and I developed the weekly tradition of getting the latest rap cassettes at the local record shops because CDs weren’t around yet. By the time I was in middle school, he and I had amassed a rap collection that earned us some notoriety in the neighborhood. On our block, we were known for our exhaustive rap catalog that included early rap legends like Doug E. Fresh and the (then) latest work by Brand Nubian.
Without falling into a nostalgic narrative of my rap days in Miami, I want to stress that this musical exploration of the American rap tradition was critical for me in ways I couldn’t possibly understand at the time. By listening to the lyrics of Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and Paris, my brother and I were nurturing a perspective that we could never access from our lives in the suburbs. Growing up in a middle-class Latino neighborhood, we didn’t know much about the Miami ghettos or the experience of urban black America first-hand (although we did have our own encounters with anti-Cuban bigotry). Yet through the lyrics of American rap artists, we learned our first lessons about police brutality and racism in black communities. We also learned about slavery, segregation, and the power of blackness in ways that challenged the degrading stereotypes of American popular culture. These were important messages that eventually led us to our first “Muslim” experience: the Nation of Islam. I can’t imagine that my brother would have ever taken me to the mosque had he not first heard about Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan on the magnetic tapes of our most precious rap cassettes. Indeed, those tapes exposed us to the word “Islam” for the first time. More than that, they taught us that Islam could be something empowering, a force for change and resistance to the oppression of American racism—in effect, the basis of a new life in a difficult world. While I’ll never be able to say what might have happened if I didn’t listen to rap music, I can say for certain what did happen: I gained a critical consciousness through the power of musical expression and developed an unshakable respect for the artistry and rhythms of an essentially American musical tradition.
Although my affection for rap never waned, my high school daze (yes, “daze”) transformed my musical experience forever. Initially, this happened through my exposure to the “classic” rock canon, specifically through the psychedelic sounds of (British) Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors (among others). But not long after my induction into the neo-hippy ethos of classic rock, the 1990’s “alternative” explosion began. Bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and Soundgarden broke into the mainstream through the televised airwaves of MTV (when it used to play videos). Neck deep in high school, I was one of many teens swept up by a new revolution in music. And, like many teens, my life was soon entangled with the evolving expressions of a new generation of artists who were young and spirited but struggling to find meaning.
My first exposure to Pearl Jam came in the form of a plastic container carrying their premier album, Ten. The impact of that album was immediate: I was enthralled by the intensity, passion, and arrangements of the music and lyrics all at once. Ten was, and remains, a timeless fabric of rock and roll woven aggressively and aesthetically from the threads of a historical but no less universal source. Or, at least for me it was. Take a song like Jeremy, for example. Although written from the specifics of a particular event—a news story about a boy who shot himself in front of his English class, the song nevertheless speaks to themes of alienation, neglect, bullying, and self-inflicted violence. Or take the song Oceans as another example. While the lyrics express Eddie Vedder’s reverence for surfing, they nonetheless transcend the simple description of an oceanic sport. The power of Pearl Jam’s music, however, wasn’t confined to one album: their second, third, and fourth albums all came with a similar yet evolved power. Indeed, every album the band has produced continues to express deep spiritual, political, ethical, etc. themes and resonances that reach deep into my soul. Simply put, for over two decades, each album has been a musical companion that has accompanied me through life’s unpredictable turns offering both solace and inspiration. Whether on matters of love (Black, Nothingman, Hail Hail), death (Light Years, Can’t Keep, Just Breath, Sirens), faith (Given to Fly, I Am Mine, Sometimes, Faithful), oppression and inequality (WMA, Green Disease, ½ Full), war (Insignificance, World Wide Suicide), or memory (Present Tense, I God Id), Pearl Jam has reached into the profundity of human experience and provided an effable articulation.
The reach of their music is only amplified (both literally and metaphorically) in the lived context of a live performance. My first Pearl Jam show was in 1996. Since then, I’ve seen/heard the band about eight times. The most recent shows were in 2013 and were mentioned in the beginning of this essay. Without recounting the experience of each show (not that I could anyway), suffice it to say that the live musical experience among thousands of fellow listeners was and continues to be euphoric and inspirational. Indeed, as I suggested at the start of this essay, in 2013, Pearl Jam continues to reveal the infinite beauty of what God has placed within the souls of the human being. And whereas some see and experience music as divisive, for me, it remains a source of deep connection.
So what can we make of this summary glance at my musical life? Whatever conclusions one can draw, and I’m sure there are many, one that I’d like to emphasize is this: the readiness with which some American Muslims seem to dismiss music’s relevance, or to denounce its power, should be reconsidered and abandoned. Indeed, these Muslims might do well to take the time to listen. If not to music itself, which I am not suggesting everyone should, then at least to those who do. What you might learn, as I hope I have showed, is that the American musical tradition can be, and has been, an important part of many Muslim Americans’ cultural, political, and spiritual lives. From the works of John Coltrane (A Love Supreme, for example, is transcendent) to those of Bob Dylan (who can ignore the force of A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall), music is anything but a simple enactment of the profane; on the contrary, it often sits on the plateau of the sacred offering the timeless melodies of the human spirit and the divine presence.