Adam Yauch was a Muslim hero

Yauch was about more than his “right to party” – he spoke out against Islamaphobia long before the term was widely used.

Adam Yauch used his celebrity status to speak out against US military action in the Middle East, pointing out that it would only lead to more and more retaliation and that most people there were not terrorists [AP]

Brooklyn, NY – In 1998, the Beastie Boys walked up to the VMA mics in matching utilitarian grey outfits, Ad-Rock sneering at the cameras as if to imply it was about time. Behind him, Mike D and MCA (whose birth name was Adam Yauch) followed in single-file, not particularly cheery, stiff – as if walking to the gallows.

After a brief round of thank you’s from Mike D, Yauch approached the mic in front of the screaming crowd, and assumed a solemn tone. He began, “I think it was a real mistake that the US decided to fire missiles into the Middle East. I think it’s very important that the US look into non-violent means of resolving conflicts.” Applause from the crowd mixed with a few loud heckles. Yauch attempted to calm the crowd and explain what he had meant, knowing full well his message needed to be concise.

A month earlier he was booed at a show in the heartland of the United States for saying the same thing.

“I think that another thing America needs to think about is our racism, racism that comes from the United States towards Muslim people… That’s something that has to stop.

– Adam Yauch, Beastie Boys

It was a sign of things to come. “Hold on, gimme one second here,” he continued. “Those bombings that took place in the Middle East were thought of as retaliation by the terrorists, and if we thought of what we did as retaliation, certainly we’re gonna find more retaliation from people in the Middle East. From terrorists specifically, I should say, because most Middle Eastern people are not terrorists.”

The usual high-energy, party MC self-corrected his choice of words, careful to delineate “terrorists” from innocents. This is a mistake that American media made all the way up to and past 9/11. Fresh out of the compassion-crushing blow of his attempts to save Tibet, he recognised that something is happening to the United States’ heart. He added, “I think that another thing America needs to think about is our racism, racism that comes from the United States towards Muslim people and towards Arabic people. And that’s something that has to stop, and the United States has to start respecting people in the Middle East in order to find a solution to the problem that’s been building up over the years.”

In this speech, Yauch simply asked the audience to listen to themselves and pay attention, almost as if pointing out a deafness that would plague American society for decades.

Life changes

As the magnitude of Adam Yauch’s passing increases, those who gave the Beastie Boys little to no attention wonder what the big deal is. Why should we care about a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who rapped about his “right to party”? Adam might have jumped onto the scene as a scruffy beer-toting punk in ’86, but as time went on we all got to mature with the Beasties. When Adam dropped the heavily musical, slightly trippy “Check Your Head”, we all examined ourselves literally checking our heads, asking, “So whatchya, whatchya ya want?” and questioning our superiors, “So where’d you get your information from, punk? Ya think that you can front when revelation comes?”

The boys redefined themselves outside of the definitions they created as “white” hip-hop artists, releasing entire instrumental funk albums showcasing their musicianship while playing tiny venues in their hometown, specifically the underground of Brooklyn. It was a special day when your local Brooklyn pre-internet friends called each other announcing a secret Beastie show. The two Adams and Mike put on one show for the masses in a large venue and another for us, the Brooklyn kids. Had you ever attended a secret Beastie Boys show in a Brooklyn heavy metal club, you knew the feeling. You would have seen a large smattering of every diaspora packed into a room inches away from their heroes, sweating with the rest of us, delivering lyrical call-and-responses that left you swollen with inspiration until the next year.

Dear New York, I know a lot has changed / Two towers down but you’re still in the game / Home to many rejecting no one / Accepting peoples of all places, wherever they’re from.

– Adam Yauch, Beastie Boys

Adam Yauch emerged in the late 1990s as a Buddhist convert, having closed the first chapter of his life after a life-changing experience with the Dalai Lama. Reborn as an outspoken advocate of the Free Tibet movement, he created the Milarepa Foundation, which brought attention to the cause and led the Beastie Boys into new territory. Tibet became the cause celebre with Adam and the crew. The yearly shows were ambitious with good intentions, and allowed concertgoers to enter a Buddhist temple space near the core of the event. Attendees would be encouraged to find sobriety and peace there alongside real Tibetan monks. It was at these events where we were exposed to passive non-violent resistance and meditation.
And it was these memories that made me, years after the polarisation of 9/11, years after being judged and marginalised as America’s worst enemy because of my religious derivation, years after the Tibetan Freedom Concerts that I imagined the Beastie Boys playing in Kabul. I fantasised of an Afghan Freedom Festival. I still hoped Adam Yauch, my Brooklyn homeboy icon, and his crew would save the world. I hoped the Beastie Boys would save all of the US from the hatred in their hearts spread through covert funding programmes and religious zealots.

Call for healing

I had plenty of reason to believe Yauch would save Muslims and non-Muslims included. He was the first, and so far the only, celebrity pop star to assert anything in the media about the growing racism against Muslims.

Muslim rappers tended to create reactive and retaliatory songs that could only inflame further fear and doubt. Whether the violence-tinged extreme conspiracy rap of Immortal Technique, or Lupe Fiasco’s five-years-too-late lyrical anxiety, I remembered the days of 1998. Misunderstood at the time, Yauch made a national plea for compassion before Islamophobia was even a word. Where was the statements of Rakim, Q-Tip, or Mos Def? What was the holdup?

Our cultural elders, to whom we looked to bridge gaps, left me with spiritually vacant songs bereft of purpose – or worse, reverse hate-mongering tirades against the United States, my homeland. Hip-hop lacked hooks standing up for what is right, instead emphasising spectacles of rhyme over who could name more “secret societies” than the next. Us grown-up Brooklyn kids awaited the secret sauce from our homeboys with frustrated patience. The Beastie Boys call-for-healing album drops on a different world, where anti-war meant you were weak and peace was treason.  

The Beastie Boys album “To the 5 Boroughs” is released with the song “An Open Letter to NYC”. Yauch spits in the last verse, “Dear New York I know a lot has changed / Two towers down but you’re still in the game / Home to many, rejecting no one  /Accepting peoples of all places, wherever they’re from”.

The call for healing amid racial polarisation was clear. Adam was standing up to a disease of hate infecting this country, even though he couldn’t cure his own illness. He passed away at the age of 48 in a world of uprisings, non-violent hunger strikes and continuing Occupy movements. He leaves with Tibet colonised and the Dalai Lama still in exile. He departs a United States sick with hatred of Muslims, which he foresaw before anyone.

We can only hope for a Yauch at every turn: artists focussed on healing rather then aggravation. Before his name stops trending on Twitter and the flood of Adam posts declines, let’s remember Adam Yauch as an artist, an activist, a filmmaker, a father, a friend, a leader, and above all else, a healer.

Adam Yauch was Muslim Americans’ hero, and America’s personal Jewish Gandhi.

Cihan Kaan is a director of music videos and short films. He also writes short stories and has published a book of short stories called Halal Pork and Other Stories (2011 UpSet Press).

Follow him on Twitter: @CihanKaan