Does Supporting ‘Happy British Muslims’ and Pharrell Williams Promote Rape Culture?

Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke performing “Blurred Lines”

By Mustafa Ghani

“Every speech manifests whilst upon it is the shroud of the heart whence it came forth.” — Sīdī Ibn ‘Aṭā-Allāh, al-Ḥikam

I appreciate the motivating sentiments of the “Happy British Muslims” (HBM) video and deeply respect the people featured in it. The creators, from what I understand, simply wanted to showcase that Muslims do not fit the stock stereotypes promoted in the media, but rather are diverse, dynamic and, of course, happy. I think such goals are very commendable. But I do find it odd that British Muslims should sing and dance to the “Happy”-ness of a man who glorifies rape.

Pharrell Williams, the songwriter and performer of the “Happy” song, was also one of the main singers of the controversial “Blurred Lines” song that came out last summer. The extremely demeaning “Blurred Lines” video, featuring Pharrell and his boys dancing around three naked models in compromising positions, included such lyrical disgraces as “tried to domesticate you / But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature,” “You the hottest bitch in this place,” and other abominations that do not deserve mention.

As many have pointed out, the rhetoric of the song bears an uncanny resemblance to the rhetoric of rape — the song has even been called a “rape anthem”. A powerful photo essay (also here) makes this very clear by juxtaposing lines from the song with the actual justifications of rapists as reported by survivors of sexual assault.

Regretfully, Pharrell has not apologized for his participation in the video; on the contrary, he has sought to defend it. (See also Madeleine Davies’s analysis of his comments.) Amongst his bizarre justifications include the fact that the piece was “written and shot by a female director, who’s a feminist.” (Is rape is unobjectionable if condoned by a feminist?) He claims the video is no more sexist than a museum wherein “a lot of the statues have their boobs out.

Of course, Pharrell adds that respects women; he recognizes that they could “kill off our species” just by “decid[ing] not to have babies.” At the end of the day, he’s just “a fun guy” who won’t shy from “mak[ing] another song where girls’ behinds are everywhere.”

Back to the HBM video: Is it not then at least questionable that Muslims have chosen to jump on the bandwagon of the many “Happy” parody videos that have been popping up of late? If the fantasy of sexual exploitation that Pharrell champions in “Blurred Lines” is what makes him “Happy,” I want nothing to do with it. This problem is reminiscent of the distasteful use of Jay-Z’s “Somewhere in America” song, with the line “Twerk, Miley, twerk”, as background to the Mipsterz video. (See also this open letter to Abbas Rattani, one of the creators of the video.)

“Happy” – Video by The Honesty Policy

I understand that efforts like HBM are essential for effective PR; indeed, the video has been mentioned positively in the Huffington Post and elsewhere. Some commentators have also noted that such efforts allow us to reach out to the young and disaffected in creative ways. But are there not lots of clever PR strategies we can adopt without compromising our moral compass or succumbing to the collective amnesia that defines our culture?

Part of our cultural imperative, surely, is to call our people back to good sense. I think it is extremely problematic that we (Muslims or otherwise) celebrate the predatory hedonism exemplified by men like Pharrell — God guide us and him! Are we really sending a dignified, wholesome and uplifting message to Muslim and non-Muslim communities by promoting the work of someone with very questionable judgment?

This is not just abstract philosophizing; these questions have real impact in how we as Muslims engage our broader societies. These questions are particularly relevant in the immediate wake of British Muslim Abu Eesa Niamatullah’s appalling and disgraceful ‘jokes’ about rape and International Women’s Day, which understandably provoked a vigorous outcry and even calls for his resignation from scholars and community leaders.

Are we not running a double standard by promoting people like Pharrell, who, unlike Abu Eesa, has not even offered a lackluster apology for his disgraceful comments? Where are the calls to boycott Pharrell, whose prior actions and words were at least as egregious as Abu Eesa’s, if not much more? Why do we give Pharrell the pass when we (rightly) take Abu Eesa to task?

Usama Canon, founder of the Ta’leef Collective and a tireless community activist who works closely with disaffected Muslims, makes important comments about how Muslims in the West must effect a calculated integration into their society. In part, this entails that we not just be “passive objects” of a received culture, but rather that we take a critical and active approach in appropriating culture that is truly uplifting and authentic.

We do not blindly imitate everything that is in vogue around us, especially if it is demeaning. Posing the hypothetical scenario of Muslims who want to make an Islamic version of the twerk, ostensibly for the purpose of fostering a relevant American Muslim culture, Cannon comments, “No, we don’t want to be like them: … people that are doing things that are not respecting American culture. They’re not respecting humanity. They’re not respecting basic human dignity.”

We have to hold ourselves to higher standards. Who we are and what we represent as a community is at stake.

Mustafa Ghani is a student based in Edmonton, Canada. He recently completed an undergraduate degree in history and has been informally studying the Islamic sciences for the past few years.

  • sx

    This is probably a comment you expect to receive but I seriously think you have looked too much into it. I participated in the video and have never heard Blurred Lines before. The same goes with a few of the people also filmed in the city we are both in (some had never even heard of Pharrell). The video is not about him, it is not even about the song. It is about Muslims coming together and displaying our humanity — be that for the outside world or internally among Muslims. Constant (and often abstract) scrutiny from within and outside really eats at that sense of humanness.

    Likening it to Abu Eesa is also disingenuous. If the Happy song itself contained some rape apologia then I think your argument would stand. But as of now, I think you are looking for agendas that are not even present.

    • leo messi

      Actually, the biggest problem I have with this is the fact that a person like Pharrell sang the song. Blurred lines, I believe was the most offensive music video I have ever seen. Pharell is probably laughing right now thinking last year I had naked girls dance for me, this year I have muslims dance for me.

      • Yusuf.

        Or he might ditch the old “sex sells” for “positivity sells”. Just a thought. The problem is we don’t possess positive thinking.

        • leo messi

          did u see his new video AFTER Happy, its called Marilyn Monroe. its not about postive thinking, its about thinking smart vs being naive

      • badtooth

        what were you watching that you saw such a thing? probably best to throw out your tele and computers. best get off the grid. sin everywhere.
        now i gotta check out this blurred lines. never heard of it.

    • RockyMissouri

      I just want to say thank you…!! That video lifts my heart…

    • Jekyll

      So you could have taken any song, right ? How about Pour some sugar on me by Leppard ?

      • Muslim Comments

        Oh, I love that song!

        • Jekyll

          No you don’t

  • Samirah Johnstone

    I’ve said this elsewhere and I’ll say it here. I don’t condone things that Pharrell has done in the past. Frankly, outside of his music for the Despicable Me movies (Happy was from Despicable Me 2), I don’t listen to him at all. (Personally I prefer someone like Macklemore to Pharrell or just about any other rapper.)

    But belaboring the point about his past works doesn’t do us a lot of good. To be honest, the video in question has helped me immeasurably because many of my friends are non-Muslims. I deal with hatred and fear every day as I live in a place infected so strongly with Tea Party supporters that hate everything Islam stands for as the media portrays it.

    What that video did though…it broke down walls. It shocked people here that Muslims could be so “normal” as they are. Despite the fact that I’m white…most people here can’t believe there are actually white Muslims. But the video showed something that existed for me when I came to Islam. It showed the diversity of Islam. And that is our strength, if we use it right. We just need something to break the extremists’ hold on being the spokespeople for Islam. Which this allows.

    • RockyMissouri

      I’m not familiar with that singer.. I’ve never listened to his music..but when my daughter sent me that video: I played it over and over.. !! Those faces are wonderful… They exude happiness! That video is a treasure…..

      We may not know each other, but I can see we have much in common….and I respect that. Totally. I will defend their right to be who they are.

  • Mirza Ahmed

    I love this article, THANK YOU.

  • Raoul Code-name Rachel

    It’s nice to see the positive response to the above video, contrasted with the sometimes furious reaction I got mainly for suggesting, in this video I uploaded, that a Muslim woman might actually listen to hip-hop:

    • badtooth

      not a big fan of hip-hop myself, but you should be allowed to listen to whatever you like. but that video seemed a bit creepy. the audio made you sound like a staker.

  • Yusuf.

    Please do enlighten us with other PR strategies that you have in mind. Or the last positivity out of the media regarding Muslims?

    Following your logic do you suggest I rip up my British passport due to the ill nature of British colonial past?

    Objectification, Twerking or suggestive twerking is demeaning. Smiling, clapping, or swaying is an expression of joy. These traits aren’t western my Prophet taught me to be joyful and accepting of others.

  • asd

    “Does Supporting ‘Happy British Muslims’ and Pharrell Williams Promote Rape Culture? ” yes, just as a random youtube grand dad doing a moonwalk for his grand kids on video supports pedophilia

  • badtooth

    seems to me they should have contacted cat stevens and seen if he would let them do peace train?

    not very dancy though. bobby macfarens ‘don’t worry, be happy’? REM’s ‘shiny happy people’? guess that’s not what the kids are listening to. too dated. they probably picked the best song. did they even pay this guy?

  • lovediversity lovetheworld

    This is not only a Muslim issue. It’s good to call Pharrell out on his integrity in terms of responsibility as a leader in popular culture and raise the problem of objectifying women and promoting violence in the music/film industry.