The XX Factor

Complete with a Hip-hop Jihad Vibe

A guest post from Slate contributor Vanessa Gezari, who writes frequently about Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Others have remarked on the mainstream media’s penchant for lumping together hip hop with all that’s wrong in the world , up to and including radical Islam. But I was reminded of it once again by a breathless CNN report on the latest video from Al-Shabaab, an Islamic group in Somalia, which the network compares to reality TV “complete with a hip-hop jihad vibe.” The video (which you can watch in part here ) is said by al-Qaida watchers to feature Sheikh Abu Mansoor al-Amriki or “the American,” a white, goateed young man who speaks American English, a sort of Adam Gadahn for the Somali music scene, if you buy CNN ’s line. The problem is that al-Amriki looks and sounds a lot like some of the guys I went to school with, white dudes whose rap skills ended where their comfortable middle-class backgrounds began. If he’s a rapper, so am I.

Rap has of course become a favorite protest genre for underclasses everywhere, and the originating impulse of American hip-hop is deftly echoed in its French and Palestinian offshoots (“You don’t listen to our voices, you silence and degrade us,” goes a song by Palestinian group DAM . “We fight for our freedom, but you’ve made that a crime.”) Insurgents often echo this sentiment; the problem is that while the music in the Al-Shabaab video sounds sort of like rap, it sounds a lot more like the often beautiful battle songs and Koranic chants that are sung behind al-Qaida and Taliban videos coming out of Pakistan and Afghanistan, a selection of which can be viewed here . You can hear at least two American-sounding voices singing in the Al-Shabaab video, one of them presumably al-Amriki’s. There’s a bit of something like rap there, but to me the tone is more devotional than angry, much like the Qaida video songs, which are often set hauntingly against a background of explosions and gunfire that resembles a drumbeat. The relationship between Al-Shabaab (which means “The Youth”) and al-Qaida is unclear- CNN calls the Somali group “al-Qaida-backed,” yet the Council on Foreign Relations notes that any institutional connection between the groups is “weak, if it exists at all.” The latest video strengthens the case for that relationship, at least in regard to production and soundtrack selection, but does nothing to link hip-hop to global terrorism. Chanting and choral arrangements are much more in line with al-Qaida’s musical taste.