Growing up in a Jamaican household, if anyone had told me that when I was older I would be a Muslim, I would have laughed. Witnessing Islam in urban Britain, it felt so Asian, so male and so backward.
So now when people ask me and my hip-hop group, Poetic Pilgrimage, what made us convert to Islam, to some degree I understand the thought process. I also understand that for some there is a dichotomy between being a female rapper and being Muslim. Whether it is the idea of the East meeting the West, or the perception of women in hip-hop being overtly sexualised, in comparison to a religion where the perception is the women are overtly oppressed and desexualised – either way, it gives some insight as to why Poetic Pilgrimage is viewed as something strange.
Sukina (my band member) and I often joke about performing for new audiences and how it takes about three songs before they get over the shock of hijabis running across the stage, telling them to throw their peace signs up.
Journey of self evaluation
For us, it has been a journey of self evaluation and experimentation, however, we have now come to a point where all of our identities are happily reconciled. After all, we are British born Jamaican women, and Islam does not ask us to forsake our culture, rather it is a belief system, and a tool we use to refine our character.
The reaction to Poetic Pilgrimage is extremely polarised: courageous, oppressed, fresh, blasphemous, eclectic, brainwashed, arrogant are just some of the words that have been used to describe us.
When we explain why we converted to Islam there is at first the assumption that the men in our family force us to cover; the next natural assumption is that we converted for a man and it is at his request that we cover. Why else would two women of Jamaican heritage choose to wrap themselves in so much cloth when the hijab has now become a symbol shrouded by politics.
What is even more unfortunate is that in some circumstances there is an element of racism hidden under the cloak of righteousness or even Islam. Some people are silent to the fact that there are Muslim cultural expressions, and musical traditions all around the world, there is not a “Muslim” country that doesn’t have a musical heritage, yet when it comes to people of the African diaspora, our music is deemed as something innately deviant and wrong.
We are not here to try to convince others of the acceptability of women performing, nor are we here to convince 'feminists' that we are liberated. We are practising Muslims...
The fresh breeze of diversity and difference is sometimes muted by people’s culturally biased interpretation. Poetic Pilgrimage is no exception and our work has been removed from mix tapes, we’ve been kicked off tours, and generally accused of leading the heedless to the gates of hell by Muslim promoters, and largely other Muslim women.
A balancing act
We had to become thick-skinned very early in our career. Coming from a Caribbean culture, we are used to being celebrated for being women, and now in some circles we are celebrated and in others we are condemned, by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
It really is a balancing act, but an act that has allowed us to renew our intention on a regular basis and our reason for existing as a group as well as our contribution to the genre of hip-hop.
We are not here to try to convince others of the acceptability of women performing, nor are we here to convince “feminists” that we are liberated. We are practising Muslims and the traditional scholarship that we follow allow us to be hip-hop hijabis.
While I am not convinced our story is one that is unique, it is a story rarely told. Al Jazeera English is regularly in the habit of telling such stories like ours, shedding light on those whose voices are seldom heard.
This is the reason why films like Hip-Hop Hijabis and Al Jazeera English are so essential; it casts a spotlight on real people beyond the stereotypes. In our case it shows the daily struggle that black Muslim women in the arts face and the tightrope that we walk in trying to manage our identity – as both proud western Muslims and as music makers.
Muneera Williams is one half of the hip-hop duo Poetic Pilgrimage.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.