New Muslim Cool

June 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Former Drug Dealer Struggles to Transform Himself and His Community Through His Faith and His Music

Produced in Association with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB) And the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)

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“New Muslim Cool transcends race, ethnicity, class and religion. Like hip-hop culture, the film is all about irrepressible social transformation and empowerment.” – Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Hip-Hop Summit Action Network

New Muslim Cool is Islam as you have never seen it. It is also hip-hop as you have probably never heard it. This new film, which opens the 22nd season of P.O.V., PBS’s award-winning nonfiction film series, gives audiences an insider’s view of a little-known cultural fusion between Muslims and street beats that has been developing since the very beginnings of hip-hop culture. The result is a surprising challenge to stereotypes of both Muslims and urban youth in America that encourages viewers to look critically at the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West.

Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s New Muslim Cool has its national broadcast premiere on P.O.V. on Tuesday, June 23, 2009, at 10 p.m. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, P.O.V. received a 2007 Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking. The 2009 season of P.O.V. continues each Tuesday at 10 p.m. through Sept. 22, with two specials in November and January. 

New Muslim Cool is more than another hybrid hip-hop story. It’s also the story of a man coming of age, facing his deepest questions about his faith, trying to keep his family safe and learning how to hold himself accountable. A decade ago, Hamza, born Jason, was a drug dealer on America’s mean streets. The child of Puerto Rican parents, he had two recurring, competing dreams at night: in one he was in prison by age 21, and in the other he was dead. New Muslim Cool is the story of how, as Hamza laughingly puts it, “both [dreams] came true,” albeit in unpredictable ways.

Indeed, when Hamza was 21, he was hanging out with friends and getting high when a chance encounter with an “old sheikh” transformed his life. The death he experienced was “a death of all my past, the negative,” he says. He gave up drugs and the street life and converted to Islam. He then went further, becoming active in forming a community of Latino and African-American Muslims, many of whom, like Hamza, were former street hustlers and drug dealers. The community ultimately moved from Massachusetts to Pittsburgh, Pa., with Hamza bringing along his son and, after the breakup of his first marriage, his daughter.

As part of their efforts to build a community that would reconcile their heritage with their new faith, Hamza and his brother, Sulaiman, formed the rap group Mujahideen Team (M-Team). M-Team strives to use knowledge gained in the streets to put Islam’s religious message into a familiar context. Ultimately, Hamza would bring that message to prisons, fulfilling his other dream in a way he had never imagined.

Early on in the film, Hamza and Sulaiman joke about the exotic hybridization their faith and community embody. “See, we don’t speak full Arabic,” says Hamza, “but we know Arabic Spanglish Ebonics.” The two men’s conversion has largely bewildered their family, who raised them as Roman Catholics. The family’s initial upset has been tempered by gratitude that the brothers’ new faith has gotten them off drugs and away from other dangerous pursuits. Yet the family also feels some discomfort over the tough lyrics Hamza and Sulaiman use as M-Team.

With their unflinchingly critical words and intense stage performance – complete with flaming machetes – Hamza and Sulaiman attempt to carve out a place for themselves in the tradition of protest poetry, up from the rawest roots of hip-hop. Within the Muslim hip-hop world, they are recognized as heirs to the tradition of artists like the Last Poets and Public Enemy, freely criticizing the government and many elements of modern society. But their music also draws scrutiny and eventually complicates Hamza’s life, even as he begins to grow and embrace a softer way of expressing himself.

The struggle to make his community thrive, raise his kids, build a new marriage and, paradoxically, deal with an FBI investigation of his group’s new mosque in Pittsburgh, Pa., all serve to deepen Hamza’s study of and thinking about Islam and the plight of the poor and imprisoned in America.

Hamza begins to reach out to prisoners, using his faith and struggles to inspire them. His work also leads him into surprising alliances with ministries of other religions that, like his own, seek to build a road to redemption from the nation’s jails.

Says director/producer Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, “New Muslim Cool came out of my long-standing interest in the power of pop music and culture to create social change and a deep feeling that we urgently need to look for common ground as our world grows increasingly diverse and interconnected. This is a story about who we all are as a country, making choices about our deepest values in tough times and continually redefining what it means to be American.”

New Muslim Cool is a production of Specific Pictures in association with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB) and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).

About the Filmmaker:

Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, Producer/Director

Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s works explore the connection between the personal and the socio-political, and frequently feature Latino themes and Spanish-language content. Her documentary credits include “Paulina,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast by the Sundance Channel; the Emmy-winning “Home Front,” a co-production with KQED-TV San Francisco; “Immigration Calculations”; “Ramadan Primetime”; and, most recently, “Special Circumstances,” which will air nationally on PBS as part of the Voces series in 2009. She is a recipient of the James D. Phelan Art Award for her body of work.

She has produced short stories for the public television series “California Connected” and “Keeping Kids Healthy” and co-produced Sophia Constantinou’s history of Cyprus, “Divided Loyalties” for the Sundance Channel. Jennifer also worked as an associate and co-producer with Lourdes Portillo on Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena (P.O.V. 1999) and Señorita Extraviada (P.O.V. 2002), two award-winning documentaries that had their national broadcast premieres on PBS.

Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, Jennifer has worked throughout the United States, in Latin America and in Europe. She is a native Californian of Irish and Mexican heritage and was raised in Los Angeles and Vermont. 

11-27

Muslims Among Highest-Achieving American Women

April 24, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

Muslims Among Highest-Achieving American Women
Courtesy Donna Gehrke-White, Miami Herald
April 17, 2006
She should be one of those red-white-and-blue success stories: An immigrant, she worked her way through med school and now directs the laboratories of two Florida hospitals. She passed her career drive on to her daughters: One just graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing; the other is an investigator for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.
This feminist vision of a successful family, though, has a flaw: Shahida Shakir and her daughters, Sadia and Sofia, are Muslim.
They’re supposed to be downtrodden. Or so that’s what most Americans think.
In a Washington Post/ABC poll last month, nearly half of Americans admitted that they have a negative view of Islam. In a poll conducted for the Council of American-Islamic Relations, most people also said that they would feel better about the religion if they thought Islam treated women better.
The evidence is in our own back yard: While researching my book, “The Face Behind the Veil: The Extraordinary Lives of Muslim Women in America,” I found Muslims are among the most achieving women in the United States. They are doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, social workers and artists.
Indeed, we should be exporting the success story to the rest of the world.
I found Muslim women achieving from coast to coast. They are leading worldwide humanitarian groups in Washington, presiding over juvenile court in Baltimore, delivering babies in Los Angeles, teaching in Miami and helping the homeless in Las Vegas.
Just like other American women, the Muslimah — or Muslim women—have made startling progress in the workplace in the last 30 years. In fact, except for the recent refugees, Muslim women are among the most educated in the United States. Most of the 50 women profiled in the book have at least college degrees. And they are far from the stereotype of the secluded Muslim woman. One ran for county office in northern Virginia while a University of Louisville professor crusades against “honor killings” of Third World women suspected of adultery or premarital sex.
Another risked her life to help women under the thumb of Afghanistan’s oppressive Taliban.
These women should reassure many Americans in these anxious times. They are intensely achieving — as well as patriotic. After all, they have as much to lose as any other Americans if our economic and political systems come under attack.
Since 1990, the United States has welcomed more than 300,000 Muslim refugees fleeing war and persecution. They have come from 77 nations.
Unlike the poor North Africans who went to Europe for a better life, our Muslim poor have been given more opportunities to better themselves, and have become part of the American fabric. The Arizona Community Refugee Center in a Phoenix suburb, for example, teaches many women to read and write for the first time. The center also provides programs for their children.
The great majority of these new refugees insist that their children study hard. Batool Shamil is an Iraqi Shiite single mom working two jobs in Phoenix. She demands A-studded report cards from her teenage son and daughter.
“I am working so hard,” she told me. “My dream is for my children to go to college.”
In Erie, Pa., Senada Alihodzic, a refugee from the Bosnian violence, is just as determined that her two sons and daughter will go to college.
“They can have a better life here,” she said.
Meanwhile, more American mosques are making an effort to ensure women are treated equally. In northern Virginia, Cathy Drake, an
American-born, home-schooling mom, told me that she would not have converted to Islam had she not felt comfortable.
Does more work need to be done? Yes, judging from several Muslim women who have come up to me while on a recent book tour to complain about their own mosque’s inadequacies. But Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, promises that change is coming.
“I believe,” she said, “the struggle is now out in the open and that it will get better soon.” –
Donna Gehrke-White is a features writer for the Miami Heral and the author of “The Face Behind the Veil: The Extraordinary Lives of Muslim Women in America” (Citadel). Write to her in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit 48226 or oped@freepress.com.