MINDBLOWERS: Sukina Talks Resistance
When I was younger, I wanted to change the world. I literally wanted to change the world, and I felt that music was my tool, my ammunition and my opportunity to create and instigate change.
As I got older, I learnt that a ‘world’ is less of a location and more of a perspective, a point of view, an experience and a concept that we create and we inhabit: a world, in my opinion, is personal. Some elements of our world can be imposed upon us, but how we experience the world is based on us. We can all inhabit the same city but still our worlds will be completely different: women who work on the streets, the homeless, refugees, expats, migrants, and the elderly for example all contribute to what gives this city its identity. They are all the city itself but their worlds differ vastly. The way we were raised, the way we think, the things that we have seen, the things that have happened to us and subsequently the way we curate and live our lives is our world.
I started to understand that to change someone’s perspective is to change their worldview and to change someone’s worldview has the potential of changing someone’s world – or at least this is where change begins.
In June 2005, I was reading the autobiography of Malcolm X, a powerful yet controversial African American leader and a spokesperson for the rights of oppressed Black people in America. I was at university at the time doing a course on Black Radicalism. Although I had read about his life before and was very familiar with his story, reading about his journey to Mecca and his embrace of Islam at that point in my life resonated with me in a very real way. I was not looking for faith, I was already quite spiritual and content with the life I was leading, but I couldn't dismiss the way I was feeling, so I listened to my heart and followed it and found myself reciting an oath, a key that opened the doors of Islam to me.
I was now a Muslim woman and I chose to observe a code of modesty that included wearing a headscarf, not because I had to but because I wanted to; because it felt right to me and was very similar to the attire I remembered from my Rastafarian upbringing and similar to the dress code of the women in my family. Three weeks later, the 7/7 bombings happened in London and in one instant, my world changed.
I went from being a cool, quirky, arty black girl with long dreadlocks to being treated like a suspect overnight. People no longer made eye contact with me or smiled at me on the streets – I was visibly invisible. I was treated like a nobody. I was walking the same streets, taking the same route to work, living in the same city but my world had changed. Every single day, Islam was mentioned negatively in the news, casting fear into the hearts of the people in my city. A woman in a headscarf was a visible manifestation of their fears. Suddenly, I was not like my fellow Londoners: I was different, I was the other, I was foreign, I was the enemy within.
I never really experienced racism growing up. Small micro-aggressions here and there, but nothing life-shattering. As a daughter of Jamaican migrants, I was raised with a very strong sense of self, identity and consciousness of what it meant to be a young black woman in Europe. However, after converting to Islam I started to experience what my parents had gone through a whole generation before. People would shout abuse out to me on the streets: “Wives of bin laden” “Go back to your own country, you fucking Taliban bastards.” Someone threw a lit cigarette at me from a car window, made comments about the rags on my head, threw food at me out of a moving car and my house had an arson attack on it. The police said it was definitely intentional, and my neighbour didn't say it directly, but I could tell by the look in his eyes that he blamed his Muslim neighbour for the reason his house was also damaged by fire. In an instant, the same city that gave me me was the same city that was taking so much away from me. The world was changing.
Now let me introduce another element into this story: hip hop. I fell in love with hip hop at the age of 16. I'm talking about the kind of hip hop that educated, inspired, empowered and amazed me. I'm talking about ghetto prophets, poor righteous teachers and those who used their words to be the CNN for black people, marginalised people – they were the voice of our people and they commanded the stories that we told to ourselves about ourselves. I’m talking about the type of hip hop where people would spend all night playing beats, rapping and free-styling, immersed in the beats, in love with the art form and enjoying the power our words had to navigate our reality. This is the hip hop I knew and fell in love with. Hip hop raised me into the woman I am today, gave me confidence, gave me strength, gave me courage and gave me the ability to breathe power into words.
There are few things in life more empowering than being one of the only females in a room full of tall, hot, sweaty, testosterone-filled young men all hungry for a moment on the microphone and you pushing your way to the front, grabbing the mic for the first time and using your 16 bars (which is more or less one minute) to speak your truth over a beat and in my case to challenge the rapper who went up before, who was speaking about women in a derogatory way. The power I gained from being a daughter of hip hop did not leave me when I became a Muslim, neither did my passion for using the mic to speak my dreams into the atmosphere.
I had formed a group with my best friend, called Poetic Pilgrimage, before we became Muslims. We made hip hop and wrote spoken word poetry because we had to; because it was part of our disposition and our purpose; because without the means to express ourselves was like being without the means to breathe; because sometimes our hearts would overflow with verse and we had no choice but to share it. Hip hop was never a commercial concept for us, we didn't think about it from a business perspective – all we knew was that we had to do this.
And we definitely didn't think about the repercussions or the backlash that would come from being two Muslim women wearing headscarves, using hip hop to speak our truth. The Muslim community in Britain were in for a big shock when we arrived on the scene! Our experience was like two wings of a bird; one wing loved us, loved our voices, our presence and our message. Many Muslim women felt represented through us and Muslim youth felt acknowledged. In the context of post 7/7 when the media and government’s gaze was on the Muslim community, organisations were now able to present a different picture of British Muslims in the form of us: we were young, we were women, we were Jamaican, we were ‘urban,’ we were like a diversity picnic all in one. We were invited across the country, and in many cases, we were the first women ever to perform on some of these platforms.
But there was also the backlash, the other wing. The more conservative and fundamental members of the community abhorred what we were doing, saw the mixing of Islam and hip hop as sacrilegious and as a disrespect to the religion, to the culture and also as a pollutant to the youth. We were regarded as immoral, immodest (even though we were fully covered) and deviant. We were written about online and spoken about on Islamic television. We were seen as a problem: utilising the music of the infidel within an Islamic context was unacceptable. We would perform and people would shout out ‘Haraam’ which means forbidden in Arabic; we would perform and men would walk out of the room. Promoters would be asked not to invite us to perform, or suggest we perform sitting on a chair, or behind a curtain.
As we got more popular, the death threats came, the online abuse and private messages warning us to stop what we are doing now or else face an eternity in hell. Once again, my world was changing. The world of music and performance that had been a big part of my life was spinning, and it was heavy. But we didn’t stop, we continued through the pain, the rejection and the tears. When I left the UK and performed in the USA for the first time, I realised how much the weight of what we were experiencing in the UK was sitting upon my shoulders. I was aware of how it was affecting my art and my confidence as a performer. I felt a lack of true freedom in my art and witnessed how much I was censoring myself. It was emotional to witness this within myself but the first step is to identify the problem. The next step is change.
So, when I heard the theme ‘Resistance’ in my art, I thought resistance to me is simply showing up, continuing to perform in the face of so much rejection and hostility, being afraid that you will either be performing to music lovers who hate Muslims or Muslims who hate music and those who despise you without even knowing you. Performing despite the anxiety attacks, the fear of reading hateful comments about us on the internet and the fear of rejection.
Resistance to me is generating a world full of self-belief, self-reliance and purpose in our art that was impenetrable, that was more powerful than us. Some would call us arrogant. Maybe they thought we were deluded in our self-certainty, but in hindsight I knew that without this conviction we would have stopped many years ago, like many of our peers who couldn't handle the heat of criticism, judgment and isolation from many members of our faith community. We were walking between two worlds, treading a thin line between two realities: the world of music, art, creativity and the world of our newfound faith, devotion and spirituality, and we had no choice but to find the balance.
We developed a steel middle finger pointing upwards for all the haters who tried to silence us and dim our purpose, and we proceeded to carve our own way in the creative industry. We organised our own events, created our own stages, recorded music and released CDs independently, building our own fan base along the way. Our world was changing, so we had to become agents of change or else be swallowed alive. We changed our own world and the world around us began to change too: the things that made us different became the things that made us unique, interesting and a perspective that was refreshing. We were no longer odd, we were niche; we were no longer a gimmick, we were credible artists.
For me, resistance isn't about the fight: resistance is about change. I know that, as Poetic Pilgrimage, we have changed many people’s worlds because we have challenged their perspectives and stereotypes about Muslim women, about Muslims in general. For most people, we are the first Jamaican Muslims they have ever met. Sometimes it’s confusing to people; for most it is confronting, and an opportunity if they choose to really check themselves and question their own prejudice.
The first time we performed abroad, was in Norway for the African History Week. We were terrified, but we performed well and we were well-received. There was a famous Afro-Peruvian singer in the audience who told the organiser that she cried when we were on stage, she didn't understand what we were saying, but she found it beautiful and she realised that she had so many negative stereotypes and prejudices about Muslim women and seeing us up there brought her face to face with herself. In a way, that is what art is about – to confront, to challenge, to make you feel and hopefully make you change your world.
To sum up, resistance in my art and practice is showing up as my most authentic self and daring to fulfill my creative mission with passion and purpose. Resistance is being present in places I am not expected to be and standing firm even when it seems as though everything in my path is a deterrent. Resistance is knowing that what makes me different is what makes me significant and there is no shame in being the alternative. Resistance is the fire that ignites my art and gives me the audacity to never give up.
Image: © Jean Cosyn