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- Published on Wednesday, 05 September 2012 06:06
- Category: Artist Profile
Muslim-American: What does that term mean to you? For many, either knowingly or subconsciously, it’s that hyphen that makes the dual identity somewhat problematic. Literally looking like a math equation, Muslim – American looks more Muslim than American, as if calling yourself one automatically sets you up as an either/or, the terminology making you by default identify more with your religion than your nationality.
But what if that hyphen were looked more as a linkage rather than an ethnic or religious categorization? Muslim + American? When you have two identities set up so polemically against each other, is it possible to be both? The answer: yes, and as contentious as the label Muslim + American may sound to those of a certain beverage party in the United States, it’s an identity that progressive Islamic leader and singer-songwriter Ani Zonneveld not only explores but also celebrates in her activism and her music. Her latest album Islamic Hymns – Celebration of Life, was released just last month.
As an active proponent of a woman’s right to lead prayer, GLBT rights and the freedom of expression, Ani, as she is lovingly known by her fans, is no stranger to making waves, especially with music. Born in Malaysia but now living in Los Angeles, she is known within both Muslim and music circles as the first English-language female Islamic pop singer. Her songwriting experience spans almost 20 years, sprinkled with several top awards from Malaysia’s version of the Grammy Association, even a brush with America’s top music award when her collaboration with blues singer Keb Mo’ won him a Grammy in 2005 for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
It’s only been within the second half of her career that Ani began to make a name for herself in spiritual music as well, following the attacks on September 11 and the need she felt to address intolerance both within and against Islam. Her debut album Ummah Wake Up is the first Islamic pop album by a female singer; she followed it with her interfaith album One. In 2004 she helped start the Progressive Muslim Union of North America (PMU), which disbanded two years later after causing a global uproar by staging a female-led prayer service in New York City. Shortly after, she founded Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) in Los Angeles in 2007, a non-profit grassroots organization that focuses on inclusiveness and progressive values through its ten guiding principles: identity, equality, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, universal human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, critical analysis and interpretation of Islamic scriptures and Muslim discourses, compassion and diversity. In its only five years, the organization has grown to include chapters and affiliates in New York, Washington DC, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Ottawa, Toronto and most recently Columbus, Ohio.
Through MPV, Ani has actively edited anthologies on Muslim-Americans dealing with contemporary issues, organized numerous music and arts festivals and performed wedding ceremonies for interfaith and same-sex couples. Readers here may know her best for her exclusive Aslan Media column Ummah Wake Up, which looks at Islam as both culture and religion from a progressive female Muslim perspective.
Now, with her new album of five Islamic hymns, the first musical collection created that is uniquely both American and Muslim, Ani once again uses music to bring herself and her listeners closer to understanding and celebrating what it means to embrace Islamic identity while still calling the United States home. Though hymns are not traditionally part of Islamic prayer services as they are in Jewish and Christian traditions, she created these tracks “to usher in a new set of American-Muslim religious traditions,” acutely written “for everyone to sing, especially at Friday prayers services and on holy days.” She calls its music “a long needed clarion call to those who identify with Western musical styles yet also have an affinity for traditional Islamic roots.” Its lyrics, all in English, are adaptations of the variegated tapestry of Islamic verses, from the Quran, to Prophet Mohammed’s favorite prayer, to famous Muslim poets Rumi and Rabia al Basri, set to melodies that are part-synthesized, part-acoustic, and clearly influenced by Ani’s background and classical music training.
Though labeled as Islamic pop, what makes this collection of Muslim hymns so powerful and transcendent is not so much its focus on religion, but on the greater experience of spirituality. Anyone from any religious background can appreciate, enjoy, even identify with the inclusive messages of love, nature, beauty and faith in a higher calling that guides us through life’s stumbles and triumphs. “In my soul there is a temple, shrine, a mosque, a church that dissolves,” she sings, “that dissolves in God.” For her, as in these songs, spirituality, by Islam or any other name, is not a name that defines you from others, but rather a feeling, or a sensation, that brings you closer to this greater kaleidoscope of how others around you, though in different shades, add to the more universal and intimate understanding of belief through experience.
Like Muslim + American, Ani’s Islamic hymns, more than anything, remind us that our identities will always be greater than the sum of our labels. And that is something to sing about and celebrate.By Safa Samiezade’-Yazd, Aslan Media Arts, Culture and Music Editor
To listen to the hymns included in Ani Zonneveld’s new album Islamic Hymns – Celebration of Life, visit her YouTube page and stay updated through her website and MySpace page. For a limited time, Aslan Media readers can purchase a CD copy for a discounted price at CDbaby. Offer valid from September 3-14.