Miss Undastood

A few months ago, my mother gave me the CD of a Muslimah who she saw rapping at a masjid in Philadelphia. The CD is titled Muslimas with Attitude and the artist is Miss Undastood (link to her MySpace page here). She’s still a relatively new rapper who has released a few mixed-track CDs. Listening to Muslimah, as well as some of the tracks from her latest, State of the Ummah Address, I felt frustrated and happy, but mostly frustrated.

Below is one of Miss Undastood’s songs, titled “Best Names”:

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I want to support Muslimahs in hip hop, since there are so few of us there. Miss Undastood isn’t afraid to advertise her Muslim identity and her rap revolves exclusively around Muslims and issues that mostly inner-city Muslims face. Some of the issues that she raps about are issues that affect Muslims of various backgrounds. One track, titled, “What up Muslims” looks at sectarian issues among Muslims. Miss Undastood is scathing in her criticism of sectarian Muslims, with lines like “I’m gonna salaam you even though you say hi” or “It’s no different than gang bangin’”.

She also addresses some gender issues. In “Hijab is the One Thing”, she asserts that “just because I cover don’t mean I’m more righteous. Just because she doesn’t, don’t mean she’s less pious.” She attacks the idea that a woman’s faith is connected to her dress. This is refreshing since all too often, talk of hijab comes down to talk of a woman’s faith or lack thereof. She also shoots down critiques of hijabs. She attacks the French for the ban on hijab with the line “French president says hijab gotta go. Democracy is hyprocrisy”; as well as the idea that hijabis wear the hijab to please their husbands.

In the track “Co-wife”, she critiques men who marry second wives for the “wrong” reasons. She mentions men who marry multiple wives without having any type of employment and who also have their wives rely on the welfare system for substinence. She also criticizes men who marry multiple wives to fulfill their “nafs” (base desires) and who deceive their wives, as well as racism in the marriage process. “How can you have a wife and she [the first wife] not know it? How you lookin’ to get over? You go to Morocco” she says, referring to the practice of some African American Muslim men who marry women from North African nations like Morocco and Algeria because they’re Arab and are lighter than African American women.

In “C.R.E.AM.”, she criticizes the materialism that she sees among some people in the inner city by asking why some people sell drugs to attain material goods and become jealous of “ballers”. These are some of the few instances that Miss Undastood uses her rap as a tool of social criticism for the ummah (Muslim community).

However, much of Miss Undastood’s music does not have this social justice theme. A lot of her music seems dedicated to announcing she is a Muslim, literally. She constantly invokes the fact that she is a Muslim who is different from “disbelievers”, especially Christians. She makes a point of pointing out that she doesn’t believe in Christian beliefs with lyrics like “I still say one God with no son no spouse”.

She constantly invokes how she does various “Muslim” acts, such as having an interest-free checking account, “closing” the ranks during congregational prayer, wearing a black hijab, carrying her Qur’an and collection of forty hadeeth (quotes from Prophet Muhammad), not drinking alcohol or eating a BLT, and more. There’s nothing wrong with these acts, but for me they made for boring listening. I already do these things and listening to someone describe the daily activities of some Muslims can become a rather tedious task. Perhaps she described these things so that non-Muslims can get a glimpse into the lives of some Muslims. This brings me to another point, which is Miss Undastood’s exclusivity.

Listening to her CD, as well as tracks on her page under Crescent Moon Media label, I felt that Miss Undastood had one idea of what Muslims are. All of the Muslimahs that she raps about wear hijab and if they don’t, then they’re simply struggling with wearing it. There’s no sense that not all Muslims agree on what constitute modest dress, no sense that some Muslim woman aren’t struggling with not wearing hijab because they don’t believe that hijab is mandated in the Qur’an.

She never challenges “traditional” interpretations of gender issues such as polygyny. In “CoWife Pt. 2″ she says that polygyny is a “right” that Muslim men have and that women who don’t want their husbands to take on a second wife “don’t want to accept all of Islam” and implies that they don’t “want for their sisters what they want for themselves.” Even without challenging this view, there is no sense of complexity and nuance in her understanding of this issue. There’s no room for different opinions. Even some classical scholars allowed for women to stipulate in their marriage contracts that they didn’t want to have co-wives. So why is it implied that Muslim women who prefer to be in monogamous unions are not complete in their understanding of their faith?

I also found her characterization of non-Muslims to be cringe-worthy at times. In the song “CoWife”, she attacks non-Muslim women who criticize polygyny. She has lyrics like “you’re a mistress, creeping late at night” and “giving your man condoms to sleep with other women”. While a critique of some Western women’s attitudes toward polygyny is warranted, the character attack on non-Muslim women isn’t. The “mistress” line reminded me of a common Muslim defense of polygyny which is that non-Muslims have mistresses but Muslims have wives, so Muslims are better.

Overall, I think Miss Undastood has considerable talent and I think it is awesome that she is working in an industry that has few women and even fewer Muslim women. Hopefully, in the future, her rap will become more inclusive of the experiences of various Muslims and continue to provide valuable social critique.

  • http://www.ammena03.blogspot.com ammena

    interesting, thanks for the commentary sis :) If you want to look into female artists, how about spoken word? Sofia Baig is really good masha’allah. I have her cd and she speaks so nice, and with such passion

  • Habibah

    Misundastood is not everybody’s cup of tea. But, if you like hip-hop, she definitely is. If you want to hear witty commentary on Islam and MUslims in America, especially the urban areas then get her music. If you see her perform, Misundastood can work a crowd like nobody’s business. She has a very comical aire about her expressing it’s ok to say the things many will not say without encouraging thiings that are fundamentally unIslamic and immoral such as adultery like every other song on the radio. She’s very gifted and unapologetic about her take on life. Good Music. Peace and Blessings.

  • Samira

    Assalaamualaikum-

    I’ve seen Miss Undastood perform a few times at the Islamic Heritage Festival in Philly. Her performances are brash and bold. She is both MC and hype woman. She sashays across the stage in her beautiful abaya and hijab. Faith-you are onto something here-she is about declaring herself as a Muslim- and the definition is not as expansive as one may like.

    At the same time this is definitely very hip-hop in the sense that her songs are about that creation of a super self/ego that while extraordinary also trys to take on elements of the real story of a certain type of Muslimah.

    When I have seen her perform I have kind of shaken my head at the bold declarations at the same time that I enjoy the round the way girl attitude that refuses to apologize.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Ammena: we’ve done a piece on Baig before, even though it centers more around interviews with her.

    I agree with Habibah’s view that she’ll highlight things that are considered taboo subjects in the Muslim community, and I think that’s important (and awesome, and brave, and she needs to keep it up). But I would also disagree with the narrow definition of womanhood/Islam she presents.

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    I have to agree with Habibah, Miss Undastood is not for everybody. I never saw her as someone who’s trying to represent every Muslimah out there. I think she’s speaking from a certain vantage point. And as Samira says, [she has that] “round the way girl attitude that refuses to apologize.”

    I guess I have to pose the same question I posed a while ago: Can a Muslimah speak from her own vantage point without having to discuss any and everyone else’s? When I speak about Muslim women I speak from my perspective. I’ll usually mention that Muslims range in their interpretation of the religion but I don’t feel compelled to go into great detail about those divergent viewpoints. When I write poetry or songs I write from my perspective and would never claim to represent ALL Muslimahs- just those who can feel me. Is it possible that Miss Undastood is doing the same?

  • laila

    Clearly Miss Undastood has great musicianship, her sense of hearing and rhythm is on BEAT. When I heard her music there was this strong pulse going through, it’s nice and it expresses her personality and individuality.

    Miss Undastood does and can speak from her own vantage point, but I don’t feel and don’t understand her definition of womanhood and sisterhood in Islam. I guess from HER perspective since I “prefer to be in monogamous union I’m not complete in my understanding of the faith”.

    What’s frustrating for me is that Miss Undastood personal point of view seems to reinforce the stereotypes of Muslims and Muslim women. That we view non-Muslim women to be immoral or lewd “you’re a mistress, creeping late at night” and “giving your man condoms to sleep with other women”. That Muslim women are submissive and should submit and cater to Muslim men, that Muslim men are hyper-sexual chauvinist, marrying 1,2,3,4 women.

    You would think that with all the stereotyping of Muslim Women in the Media portrayed as submissive and the punishments that befall them for not being submissve enough, that other Muslim Women would be a little more cautious not to make us appear that way.

    Again another exclusive perspective of Muslim women put out there.

  • http://www.mappedoutthoughts.wordpress.com mappedoutthoughts

    Wow , to be honest with you I do like islamic hip hop music , but I have never been sure of it as being halal , expecially a woman doing it , have you heard poetic pilgrimage?

  • laila

    @ mapedouttoughts

    “Especially a woman doing it” ???????????????????????????????????????????

    Can you please elaborate on what you mean by her gender? You don’t have to answer this, but I really want to understand!

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ laila, I think mapped is referring to interpretations of Islam that view music as forbidden or that specifically view women’s singing as haram.

    @ mapped: faith’s point here isn’t to debate whether music (or women’s singing voices) is acceptable or not. we’re not up for theological debates, we’re just discussing/critiquing the music itself.

  • Philip

    well she seems to be going for “overt religious type” vs the Lupe Fisco or kareem Salama type of attitude to their religiousness. as for faith’s criticisms about some of the things she talks about, well she is definitely representing a section of the community.

    just a clarification, even the classical scholars that allowed women to put that “marry someone else and im out of here” clause in the marriage contract, didn’t make marriage to more than one wife, haram.

  • samia

    I agree with Laila’s comments. Also why are women trying to make other women feel guilty for choosing monogamous marriages (a trend among converts i noticed)? In my view when you accept to be a co wife you are accepting to having half a man.

  • laila

    @ Fatemeh

    Thank you for clearing that up for me.

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    Leila, I think you have to look at Miss Undastood in a certain context. I see her as a Black, Muslim, convert coming out of the African-American community (she spent time rapping on the streets of Brooklyn and in the hip hop underground world.) I feel like her vantage point, her manner of speaking is borne of the aforementioned experience. When I hear her make comments about lewd behavior on part of “non-Muslim women” I’m thinking about the women I know in the hood (i.e. the poor Black community) who self-righteously balk at the idea of polygamy but share their man with another woman and don’t have the full rights of a wife. Esp. in light of the ‘good Black man shortage.’ (And I do know women who’ve given their men condoms, btw!)

    I also think her perspectives on relationships (men, women and power dynamics) are colored by the African-American experience. What do I mean? I’m thinking about the breakdown of the Black family (many female-headed households), the breakdown of the Black community, issues surrounding Black masculinity, etc. Imagine how some Black women (who have struggled to raise families by themselves, who have seen their men suffer under the yoke of American racism, who have worked and been the provider all of their lives) might feel when they hear that “Islam” says the man is the head of the household, the provider, the protector and maintainer of women, etc. You have to understand that African-American women didn’t always enjoy the privilege of being “taken care of” like other women.

    I am not saying I personally agree with everything Miss Undastood raps about. I’m just trying to contextualize her music. Is her perspective an “exclusive” one? Maybe.

    What I want to know is whether it is possible that we can have multiple voices on the Muslim experience? And if so, does everyone who speaks, writes, raps, sings etc. need to start with a disclaimer that their perspective is just one of many? Or are they obligated to mention the garden variety of perspectives out there?

  • Samira

    @Jamerican

    You are exactly right about where she is coming from. Being raised around the Sunni orthodox community in Philly and Jersey I see these sisters as her biggest fans.

    At her concerts the brothers fall back and the sisters get it poppin’ : )

    Jamerican your final question is the one I’ve been contemplating over and over again. It just seems that there is too much being putting on the shoulders of individual Muslimahs especially in relation to their art and self-expression. Unfortunately, it seems that if a sister is more “conservative” there has to be a whole list of who/what she is excluding. Yet we do not seem to ask the same questions of people who fit into more acceptable patterns of progressive politics. Like Saba Mahmood says we need to question liberalism too : )

    There is nothing wrong with a critique but sometimes it seems like we are looking for a dissertation on the multiplicity of the modern Muslimah rather than a hot track from a girl from BK.

    A lot of the conversation often conflates art with sociology/politics without seeing the context or even the aesthetics of what is innovative about the artist.

    Just my two cents : )

  • Krista

    @ Jamerican: I think your question, “Can a Muslimah speak from her own vantage point without having to discuss any and everyone else’s?”, is really, really key. And I loved Samira’s point that “There is nothing wrong with a critique but sometimes it seems like we are looking for a dissertation on the multiplicity of the modern Muslimah rather than a hot track from a girl from BK.”

    I haven’t heard any of Miss Undastood’s music, so I can’t speak about her specifically… Personally, I do think that there’s something wrong if someone’s lyrics talk about who “Muslim women” are or are judgemental of certain Muslim women (ie, if she’s actually claiming to speak for or to define all Muslim women.) But if she’s speaking about her own experiences, then yeah, I don’t think she should necessarily have to always have the disclaimer of “hey, by the way, these are my experiences, and don’t reflect every single Muslim woman’s ideas.” I haven’t heard her songs to know where she falls in that distinction.

    That’s a question I’ve been struggling with in a different context – just trying to figure out how to identify myself sometimes, and I tend to over analyse and think, okay, what messages am I giving if I do something, what messages am I giving if I don’t, how does this affect how other Muslimahs are seen, etc. And then every so often I stop and realise that that’s not really something I have control over, and maybe I just need to chill out and do what’s best for me, without taking on trying to represent everyone else too! Sigh.

    Samira: You bring up a really important issue with your point that “Unfortunately, it seems that if a sister is more “conservative” there has to be a whole list of who/what she is excluding. Yet we do not seem to ask the same questions of people who fit into more acceptable patterns of progressive politics.”

    I agree with you that we don’t always question the “progressive” images as much as we should, and certainly not as much as we question the “conservative” ones (these are both loaded terms, I don’t really like either one, but you get the idea.) I have spent time with “progressive” people who have been not only really judgemental of the really “conservative” Muslims, but even fairly dismissive of people who practise Islam in a more-or-less traditional way (praying regularly, fasting all through Ramadan, etc., and let’s not even mention what they say about women who wear hijab.) And that makes me *really* uncomfortable, but as you say, those of us who are trying to analyse Muslim representations critically don’t always call these people on their own problematic behaviour. I mean, do what you think is right, and definitely do what you need to do to fight against oppressive practices, but as long as someone else’s practice isn’t affecting you, then it’s really not your place to judge it. And that goes for anyone, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of “conservative” or “progressive” or wherever else!

  • Faith

    Thanks to everyone for the comments!

    @Phillip: Don’t want to get into a theological discussion but I don’t think most sisters who prefer monogamy believe that polygyny is haraam. I don’t. For Muslims who do think that polygyny is no longer valid, they do have a reasoning behind their thinking as well. Although from her lyrics (I could be wrong), it seemed she was attacking all women who have an issue with their husbands taking on additional wives.

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com/ Jamerican Muslimah

    @Samira, you summarized my feelings exactly when you said
    “Unfortunately, it seems that if a sister is more “conservative” there has to be a whole list of who/what she is excluding. Yet we do not seem to ask the same questions of people who fit into more acceptable patterns of progressive politics.” And when you said “sometimes it seems like we are looking for a dissertation on the multiplicity of the modern Muslimah rather than a hot track from a girl from BK.”

    Yep!

  • Krista

    Haha, I like how Jamerican and I picked out exactly the same quotes from what Samira wrote. Clearly those were awesome comments that were well worth repeating, more than once!

  • http://www.mappedoutthoughts.wordpress.com mappedoutthoughts

    oooooooops sorry about that !

  • Sobia

    To answer Jamerican’s question:

    Being a budding social constructionist I think it is important to, at the very least, understand that one’s perspective is just that, one’s perspective, not that of all Muslim women. I have been excluded far too many times from the Muslimah discourse to be fine with someone claiming to speak for me, or someone not specifying their own position.

    Isn’t this the problem we have with non-Muslim, non-POC feminists who claim to speak for all women? Do we not ask them to specify their position and clarify it is their own experience and not that of other women?

    I have for a long time been stating that what I believe is what I believe, mainly because my beliefs do not match those of so-called traditional Muslims. Therefore, people like myself do not have the privilege of speaking for others. There are times when I get defensive about it when, so often, I’m told I’m wrong.

    @Samira:
    “Unfortunately, it seems that if a sister is more “conservative” there has to be a whole list of who/what she is excluding. Yet we do not seem to ask the same questions of people who fit into more acceptable patterns of progressive politics.”

    (I will use the terms progressive and conservative with same trepidation Krista has)

    My experience has been the opposite. It is usually “conservatives” who insist on excluding as they insist on only one way, whereas the “progressives” (not all but in general – I know those judgmental ones too and they are just as narrow minded and irritating and in my view don’t really understand what progressive means) are accepting of more perspectives. However, you have to understand that if “progressives” are not accepting of more conservative views then it is often because of the antagonism they face from “conservatives.” Sometimes I see this as a backlash.

    But you are right – we need to question those “progressives” who are dismissive and unaccepting of other perspectives. I too have heard some ridicule those who place importance on Islam. That is not fair and is just as judgmental as those the progressives claim to dislike. Like I said, it is not progressive at all.

    This is true of larger political picture as well. Conservative ideology is generally narrow, whereas liberal tends to be encompassing.

  • laila

    @ Jamerican

    –I’ll agree to disagree.

    Sobia, I’ve also experienced the same.


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