This post was written by guest contributor Yasmin N. Ali.
The sounds of violin spun around an increasingly frenzied melody of sitar, tabla and the loud, confident vocals of the lead singer. He danced and spun around his band mates, all of whom were jumping to the steady beats pouring from the drummer. The result was electrifying.
That was two years ago, at one of my first concerts. That first wave of real, live music had hit me in the gut. I stayed rooted in one spot and danced at the same time. The sheer ingenuity and force that went into making something so beautiful took my breath away.
One week after that concert I did my first open mic night. Two years and two bands later, I have performed at venues across Chicago and collaborate with a musical project that promotes unity between the Muslim and Jewish populations. My music pays homage to my Pakistani American upbringing by combining influences from both countries – the melodies weave in and out of music that’s reminiscent of jazz, rock and blues. Growing up in a conservative community, this wasn’t the easiest choice to make for me, but the truer I stayed to my art, the better I became as a person and a Muslim.
To say that I’m happy with the life I chose would be an understatement. It still deadens me when I think back to a time when I had begun to believe that I had been silenced for good, and that opportunities and the world were perhaps meant for other people – not for me, not anymore. I had just filed for divorce and was dumbstruck by what had happened. It was a multitude of things that drew me from that torpor, and music was one of them.
Why do I write about this? A life is much like a symphony, or a piece of music composed by elements that are at times our choosing, and at times not. I write this piece in response to those who have killed those voices that need to be heard. If a man can make use of the healing powers of song, then why deny them to a woman? Does she not need to heal?
During my time as an artist, I have become increasingly sensitive to the plights of those who wish to speak through art. I have also become aware of how expressive song and poetry can be to a person who needs a medium and an outlet. After all, what is modern song but an evolution of our more ancient traditions?
According to our own histories, the people of Medinah sang in groups when they welcomed the Prophet (SAW) to their city. Were women not in those crowds? Were they ushered back into their homes and silenced?
I had a show a few weeks ago. On my way to the show I learned about the shooting of Jonyla Watkins, a six month old who had been shot in the south side of Chicago. I could not help but think about what I was about to do, how fortunate I was to live out my life choices when she had been robbed of hers. In my mind, I dedicated the show to her, and my songs to those she would never hear nor sing.
The next day, I received a notification that someone had commented on my picture from the show: “Haraam!” I reported it, and fell into thought.
I could have replied to the comment, but why respond to someone who may not even understand my reasons, let alone my acts? And it certainly wasn’t the first time I had received a comment like that about my art. No, I didn’t respond to him. However, it drove me to examine women in the arts and their perception in our community.
I found in my own community, that women were encouraged to sing Naatein and Ghazalein. I myself had performed at numerous assemblies growing up as a child and loved the art form. I also saw, however, that when I tried to take that art form to another context, I was met with resistance. On my way to the show, it didn’t matter to that person what my intentions were or even that I had a right to have them. I had a right to dedicate my song to a baby who would never sing.
When I spoke to other female musicians about their experiences, they were similar. I had always been encouraged to sing in religious assemblies, but when my art turned to my own life experiences it was deemed as irrelevant. Somehow, engaging with the community around you as a human was not important. The fact that life experiences could also serve as ambassadors to communities around us was not important.
So why did I begin singing? Why do I spend my time engaging in art that is neither practical nor profitable? I do it because I have to. Some are born with a desire to heal, I was born with a love for beauty – beauty everywhere. In the smallest moments, the kindest people and the desire to reciprocate by casting more beauty into a world that couldn’t have enough of it. My song is a prayer for all that is good.
I have to sing for the mother who taught me how to from childhood. Who had the voice of an angel that the world never heard, because she was too busy working to put food on our table.
I have to sing for the times I was so alone that I could not recognize myself, so I sang into empty rooms to make them come alive.
I have to sing for voices that are too afraid still to know what they should do or how. For those who could not live long enough to hear all they wanted to, or say all they wanted to.
I sing because it is my act of courage against the maelstrom of voices out there drowning us out. I sing and I pray, that through me they can say what they wanted to.
It maddens me to know that there are those out there who would seek to silence the good that comes of music. It heals, moves and creates a platform for those stories that are sometimes never heard anywhere else. These platforms serve as places to connect with others on a human level, providing support to those artists who need it the most. The fact that that support is not coming from within our communities is shameful. The support from outside our own communities is plentiful and sincere in most cases, however. As a Muslim artist, my faith is always in my work in form or another, which I’ve found is actually appreciated and encouraged from audiences that are not Muslim. What they connect to and feel is faith, which in its most basic form transcends religion and culture.
As Rana Nazzal touches on in her recent post on Muslimah Media Watch, titled “Visibility: On Muslim Women in Performing Arts,” before feeling any semblance of support, many female artists first experience seclusion and at times community wide disapproval.
So, I fully realize that I may be looked down on for my life choices, but that will never stop me from spreading my stories through my song. To them I say, that God gave me my voice and song for a reason. It was God who spoke to me in a way I understood best when I turned to music two years ago. It is with gratitude, my prayer that I sing every time I take the stage and every time I tap out a new song.
And what is even bigger than that is that I, along with every woman out there, have a right to.
**This article is dedicated to my husband, Tawfiq Farraj, who never doubted me or my art and was my constant supporter, first as a friend, and now for life.