Beats and Beliefs

Going along with the theme of music which has been popping up all over TLH recently, I came across a documentary from the Asian Network discussing (what the presenter calls) the arrival of a new music scene in which religion is playing a large role in the work of British Asian artists. Now, “religious” music in this innovative sense may not be new to those of us who have been exposed to this type of music before, however as the documentary suggests, religion-focused music is becoming more mainstream and accepted (which, as will be discussed, can be a both positive and negative thing). There still exists the contradictory acceptance of religious music, however, with music promoting Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim values being viewed as conventional and any type of Christian pop/rock music seen as too radical. The question asked throughout the documentary is why is religious music “cool” for British Asians?

The argument is that an increasing number of youth are not attending Gurdwaras (or Mosques or Temples) and this type of music is much more accessible to this generation because of the medium in which the message is disseminated. Outlandish and Tigerstyle, two groups discussed in the documentary as promoting religious and political values through their music, are making music which is “real and more conscious” and by doing so, keeping the teachings of the religion alive. While we’re all familiar with Tigerstyle, Outlandish is a hip-hop group based in Denmark whose music includes themes about Islam and contemporary issues facing young Muslims in the west. For too long now, music within the Indian community has been lacking substance. While mixing religion with music is a challenge in secular communities in which these artists exist, there is an obvious desire for it too.

On the other hand, the documentary asks whether this type of music is further segregating British (or American or Canadian) Asians? The post 9/11 British Asian identity has largely been disintegrated into a British Sikh, British Muslim, and British Hindu identity. Is promoting religion-specific music going to augment this segregation? Are these artists such as Tigerstyle and Outlandish isolating listeners who may not be Sikh or Muslim? Or is this type of music somehow uniting us? Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for example, used Sufi music to cross boundaries amongst religious lines. His music is seen as uplifting and inspiring to people of all religions.

As the documentary says, it just so happens that a lot of great music right now also happens to be religious music. Is religious-focused music segregating?

Before I leave, here is a favorite Outlandish song of mine called Aicha. Enjoy…

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10 Responses to “Beats and Beliefs”

  1. Jodha says:

    Dang! Thanks for introducing us to Outlandish! Great track Sundari!

  2. Jodha says:

    Dang! Thanks for introducing us to Outlandish! Great track Sundari!

  3. sizzle says:

    Interesting post. I had not been aware of any movement to create or modernize south-Asian religious music outside of some bhangra tracks and music made by white Sikhs…music I wouldn’t really classify as “cool” but as “neat,” neat enough for a single listen. I have not seen the documentary, but I have a couple reactions which it may have already raised and explored. [post writing thought – if you make it though this massive comment, I commend you.]

    My first reaction deals with exploring the Christian rock movement and scene (different from hymns or more mellow modern-style spiritual rock that’s been around for decades). I know there are varying views on Christian rock, and I must admit, I find the scene and subculture perplexing. Not to detract from the apparent religious fulfillment that many people seem to derive from the music, but the idea of rocking out at a concert or free time to hard guitar riffs and drum lines interspersed with religious message is odd. Maybe this has to do with Sikh culture and faith, where religious music (shabads and ragas) is calming and evokes a sense of serenity rather than excitement. That said, many cultures, of course, have very different musical traditions – southern Baptist churches involve boisterous singing and celebration, many Black and Catholic Indian services are especially frenzied, whereas traditional Catholic mass or Presbyterian services are conservative and quiet, and most Muslim and Hindu services involve chanting or recitation of scripture.

    So maybe the difference and distinction is that the Christian rock/pop today did not evolve as musical tradition, but was designed and introduced relatively recently to reach the young, religiously uninvolved generation to which it would most appeal. And this design and plan was incredibly successful from a marketing perspective. Some of the best selling music today is classified as Christian rock; new CD's by top Christian rock bands, are bought up in huge numbers by kids. It is pushed by churches (especially mega-churches), Christian organizations and by parents who want to give their kids “clean” music or to help mold them into better Christians. This history, then, has bearing on exactly how the music is perceived and potential segregation – whether it is viewed as proselytizing or genuinely good music.

    Without diving into the actual religiosity of the music, I’d say that it is very segregating. From a personal standpoint, in high school and in college, I ran into any number of people who were members of Young Life or Campus Crusade who frequently listened to Christian rock. Indeed, a few of them exclusively listened to Christian music and rock. In their social group and among their peers, it was the acceptable and even cool music, the same way others might bond over hip-hop or the newest Radiohead. Thus, it helped bring kids together via commonality. Whether the music was the causation of these bonds and connections is an interesting question that I cannot venture to answer. Certainly it gives kids something to relate over since music is a huge, cool way people self-identify and bond. So, the role that that music plays in the young religious Christian demographic today cannot be denied – it helped cause the massive growth in membership of Christian organizations, and plays a large role in allowing young, active Christians enjoy something together, to bond over, and help take pride in their identity, all the while supposedly introducing Christian values. After all, even if the lyrics do not explicitly preach, many of them have to do with ignoring temptation and sin, achieving salvation, redemption, the constant battle with satan, etc., etc. [Amusing side note: a bunch of Christian rock groups have groupies, party like regular rock stars and it’s all kept on big time DL…also, most of the people I’ve met who are big fans aren’t really any better when it comes to “sin” than anyone else….but, that is a discussion for another time.] Without commenting on the quality of the music and lyrics, I'd say that this history and lyrics is telling of why mostly Christians listen to Christian rock.

    Not being too familiar with Outlandish (outside of that video) or Tigerstyle, I imagine that their style and the style of similar groups has evolved more in the tradition of hip-hop – as an outlet to express views and experiences, albeit views and experiences involving predominantly religious and cultural identity. That is a massive distinction from Christian rock. It also probably explains why it is perceived as “cool” – people can relate to it outside of constantly being reminded of religiosity. Religion and cultural identity serves as the basis of the views and experiences just as race served the similar purpose in the origins of hip hop.

    That said, such music will be segregating to an extent because, as you described in your post, some of it is still religious in nature. How and why hip-hop exploded among white youth is the $60,000 question and the answers are complex – the timing and message was just right to pick up on general senses of outrage and injustice, it was a means by which people could rebel and relate, it introduced actual, sweet dance music to the masses, it was accompanied by actual sweet dance (break-dancing?! sweet). Most significantly, though, is that hip-hop was inherently secular. Considering religion is often the most polarizing force in the general community, and the degree of religiosity is polarizing within a community, anytime anything is inherently religious, some people will automatically reject it. The extent of “preaching” would likely be the key – if the music is preaching religious values in the way that most Christian rock bands do, it will attract a smaller base and be somewhat segregating. If the music is relating experiences and is merely religious by virtue of being clean, then it will appeal to far more people, and even people who do not subscribe to that particular faith.

    The other thought I had upon reading this post relates to the role of such music, especially as it pertains to Sikhs. Shabads and ragas are incredibly beautiful, and as I mentioned before, have an incredible calming and serene effect on listeners. A personal anecdote: over the last year, two groups of friends have traveled to India, and they both visited major gurudwaras – the Harminder Sahib and the big gurudwara in Delhi, Bangla Sahib. It was incredible to hear their reactions. First, they were impressed by the architecture, cleanliness, and hospitality – something that immediately separated gurudwaras from other temples/mosques. But, most tellingly, they were struck by the beauty of the music. They all, without exception, made a point to comment to me that they felt incredibly serene and warmed even though they had no idea what it meant. One friend in particular, a professed atheist, mentioned that he meant to check out the Golden Temple for an hour and ended up sitting there for 3 hours during the evening ragas and returned the next dawn, and that those hours were the closest he’d ever come to a religious experience. He even went so far to say that he’d then spent an hour on the internet researching Sikhi and joked with our other friends about converting [He’s back to being an ardent atheist.] I mention this because it is a sad state of affairs when music that is so inspiring to those outside of the community is wholly ignored by so many within our community. Yes, the message of the music is not clear without translation – personally, I can barely understand Punjabi anymore let alone Gurmukhi, and don’t listen to kirtan too often anymore. That said, it is, in many ways, irreplaceable and evokes a deep reaction in many listeners.

    Thus, as these different musical genres within our community evolve and grow, I hope this new music does not seek to replace, or does not cause to be replaced by listeners, Shabads, kirtan, and traditional ragas. Perhaps I’m jumping way ahead and completely off base, but, I can visualize traditional music being replaced by new “cooler,” more accessible variants, and slowly eroded as generations age and progress. Styles embodied by Tigerstyle and Outlandish, segregating or not, are great to embolden a sense of identity, help young people relate, create a sense of community disseminate message and promote Sikh values just as Christian rock and hip-hop did for their respective listeners and target audiences. But, in the end, gurbani via shabads, ragas, and kirtan are the essence of Sikhi, and in many ways, the true Sikh music.

    Wow, I just wrote a lot….if you made it this far…thanks. I may be way off base on any number of issues and have any number of disagreeable points…but, maybe it will prompt some good dialogue.

  4. Mewa Singh says:

    Sizzle

    A few quick observations:

    Maybe this has to do with Sikh culture and faith, where religious music (shabads and ragas) is calming and evokes a sense of serenity rather than excitement.

    Dhadi Jatha (that very musical form that Tigerstyle employs and re-makes) is very much suppose to fill one with josh and excitement.

    hip-hop was inherently secular.

    I am not sure, if this is really the case. If you are talking about 'rebellious' forms of hip-hop (and there are many genres in hip-hop, even in the so-called "golden age"), then the Muslim and NOI element has always had a prominent role. Kanye's "Jesus Walks" was a tremendous track that was not 'inherently secular' and points to the great cross-religious power such music can also have.

  5. sizzle says:

    Interesting post. I had not been aware of any movement to create or modernize south-Asian religious music outside of some bhangra tracks and music made by white Sikhsmusic I wouldnt really classify as cool but as neat, neat enough for a single listen. I have not seen the documentary, but I have a couple reactions which it may have already raised and explored. [post writing thought – if you make it though this massive comment, I commend you.]

    My first reaction deals with exploring the Christian rock movement and scene (different from hymns or more mellow modern-style spiritual rock thats been around for decades). I know there are varying views on Christian rock, and I must admit, I find the scene and subculture perplexing. Not to detract from the apparent religious fulfillment that many people seem to derive from the music, but the idea of rocking out at a concert or free time to hard guitar riffs and drum lines interspersed with religious message is odd. Maybe this has to do with Sikh culture and faith, where religious music (shabads and ragas) is calming and evokes a sense of serenity rather than excitement. That said, many cultures, of course, have very different musical traditions – southern Baptist churches involve boisterous singing and celebration, many Black and Catholic Indian services are especially frenzied, whereas traditional Catholic mass or Presbyterian services are conservative and quiet, and most Muslim and Hindu services involve chanting or recitation of scripture.

    So maybe the difference and distinction is that the Christian rock/pop today did not evolve as musical tradition, but was designed and introduced relatively recently to reach the young, religiously uninvolved generation to which it would most appeal. And this design and plan was incredibly successful from a marketing perspective. Some of the best selling music today is classified as Christian rock; new CD’s by top Christian rock bands, are bought up in huge numbers by kids. It is pushed by churches (especially mega-churches), Christian organizations and by parents who want to give their kids clean music or to help mold them into better Christians. This history, then, has bearing on exactly how the music is perceived and potential segregation whether it is viewed as proselytizing or genuinely good music.

    Without diving into the actual religiosity of the music, Id say that it is very segregating. From a personal standpoint, in high school and in college, I ran into any number of people who were members of Young Life or Campus Crusade who frequently listened to Christian rock. Indeed, a few of them exclusively listened to Christian music and rock. In their social group and among their peers, it was the acceptable and even cool music, the same way others might bond over hip-hop or the newest Radiohead. Thus, it helped bring kids together via commonality. Whether the music was the causation of these bonds and connections is an interesting question that I cannot venture to answer. Certainly it gives kids something to relate over since music is a huge, cool way people self-identify and bond. So, the role that that music plays in the young religious Christian demographic today cannot be denied – it helped cause the massive growth in membership of Christian organizations, and plays a large role in allowing young, active Christians enjoy something together, to bond over, and help take pride in their identity, all the while supposedly introducing Christian values. After all, even if the lyrics do not explicitly preach, many of them have to do with ignoring temptation and sin, achieving salvation, redemption, the constant battle with satan, etc., etc. [Amusing side note: a bunch of Christian rock groups have groupies, party like regular rock stars and its all kept on big time DLalso, most of the people Ive met who are big fans arent really any better when it comes to sin than anyone else.but, that is a discussion for another time.] Without commenting on the quality of the music and lyrics, I’d say that this history and lyrics is telling of why mostly Christians listen to Christian rock.

    Not being too familiar with Outlandish (outside of that video) or Tigerstyle, I imagine that their style and the style of similar groups has evolved more in the tradition of hip-hop as an outlet to express views and experiences, albeit views and experiences involving predominantly religious and cultural identity. That is a massive distinction from Christian rock. It also probably explains why it is perceived as cool people can relate to it outside of constantly being reminded of religiosity. Religion and cultural identity serves as the basis of the views and experiences just as race served the similar purpose in the origins of hip hop.

    That said, such music will be segregating to an extent because, as you described in your post, some of it is still religious in nature. How and why hip-hop exploded among white youth is the $60,000 question and the answers are complex the timing and message was just right to pick up on general senses of outrage and injustice, it was a means by which people could rebel and relate, it introduced actual, sweet dance music to the masses, it was accompanied by actual sweet dance (break-dancing?! sweet). Most significantly, though, is that hip-hop was inherently secular. Considering religion is often the most polarizing force in the general community, and the degree of religiosity is polarizing within a community, anytime anything is inherently religious, some people will automatically reject it. The extent of preaching would likely be the key if the music is preaching religious values in the way that most Christian rock bands do, it will attract a smaller base and be somewhat segregating. If the music is relating experiences and is merely religious by virtue of being clean, then it will appeal to far more people, and even people who do not subscribe to that particular faith.

    The other thought I had upon reading this post relates to the role of such music, especially as it pertains to Sikhs. Shabads and ragas are incredibly beautiful, and as I mentioned before, have an incredible calming and serene effect on listeners. A personal anecdote: over the last year, two groups of friends have traveled to India, and they both visited major gurudwaras the Harminder Sahib and the big gurudwara in Delhi, Bangla Sahib. It was incredible to hear their reactions. First, they were impressed by the architecture, cleanliness, and hospitality something that immediately separated gurudwaras from other temples/mosques. But, most tellingly, they were struck by the beauty of the music. They all, without exception, made a point to comment to me that they felt incredibly serene and warmed even though they had no idea what it meant. One friend in particular, a professed atheist, mentioned that he meant to check out the Golden Temple for an hour and ended up sitting there for 3 hours during the evening ragas and returned the next dawn, and that those hours were the closest hed ever come to a religious experience. He even went so far to say that hed then spent an hour on the internet researching Sikhi and joked with our other friends about converting [Hes back to being an ardent atheist.] I mention this because it is a sad state of affairs when music that is so inspiring to those outside of the community is wholly ignored by so many within our community. Yes, the message of the music is not clear without translation personally, I can barely understand Punjabi anymore let alone Gurmukhi, and dont listen to kirtan too often anymore. That said, it is, in many ways, irreplaceable and evokes a deep reaction in many listeners.

    Thus, as these different musical genres within our community evolve and grow, I hope this new music does not seek to replace, or does not cause to be replaced by listeners, Shabads, kirtan, and traditional ragas. Perhaps Im jumping way ahead and completely off base, but, I can visualize traditional music being replaced by new cooler, more accessible variants, and slowly eroded as generations age and progress. Styles embodied by Tigerstyle and Outlandish, segregating or not, are great to embolden a sense of identity, help young people relate, create a sense of community disseminate message and promote Sikh values just as Christian rock and hip-hop did for their respective listeners and target audiences. But, in the end, gurbani via shabads, ragas, and kirtan are the essence of Sikhi, and in many ways, the true Sikh music.

    Wow, I just wrote a lot.if you made it this farthanks. I may be way off base on any number of issues and have any number of disagreeable pointsbut, maybe it will prompt some good dialogue.

  6. Mewa Singh says:

    Sizzle

    A few quick observations:

    Maybe this has to do with Sikh culture and faith, where religious music (shabads and ragas) is calming and evokes a sense of serenity rather than excitement.

    Dhadi Jatha (that very musical form that Tigerstyle employs and re-makes) is very much suppose to fill one with josh and excitement.

    hip-hop was inherently secular.

    I am not sure, if this is really the case. If you are talking about ‘rebellious’ forms of hip-hop (and there are many genres in hip-hop, even in the so-called “golden age”), then the Muslim and NOI element has always had a prominent role. Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” was a tremendous track that was not ‘inherently secular’ and points to the great cross-religious power such music can also have.

  7. Camille says:

    I think there are a few very different distinctions between Christian rock as a phenomena vs. other "religious-mainstream" music. Christian rock was offered as an alternative to mainstream rock and roll, and so there was a dichotomy drawn that one should listen to one and not the other. With other forms of devotional or religiously-themed music, there may be a subculture or delineated audience, but this need not be exclusive. So then, the question of segregation has more to do with marketing and the listening audience's norms than it does with the music (religious or non-religious) itself. For example, take Lifehouse's "Hanging By A Moment" — a mainstream pop hit, Lifehouse also have a very strong Christian rock following (indeed, the "you" in both "Hanging by a Moment" and "Everything" could easily be addressed to Jesus/God), and they play separate concerts with much more overt religious messages.

    Or, let's take something explicitly religious and more indigenous to the S. Asian community and diaspora, the qawwali. A devotional form, the qawwali is widely-listened to, regardless of its origination in the artscape of Islam.

    I think the other issue — re: British desi identity, and its roots in religion –, is based in a very different history and migratory experience than the U.S. I think it has less to do with the culture producing identity, than vice-versa (although I understand this is ultimately dialectical).

  8. Camille says:

    I think there are a few very different distinctions between Christian rock as a phenomena vs. other “religious-mainstream” music. Christian rock was offered as an alternative to mainstream rock and roll, and so there was a dichotomy drawn that one should listen to one and not the other. With other forms of devotional or religiously-themed music, there may be a subculture or delineated audience, but this need not be exclusive. So then, the question of segregation has more to do with marketing and the listening audience’s norms than it does with the music (religious or non-religious) itself. For example, take Lifehouse’s “Hanging By A Moment” — a mainstream pop hit, Lifehouse also have a very strong Christian rock following (indeed, the “you” in both “Hanging by a Moment” and “Everything” could easily be addressed to Jesus/God), and they play separate concerts with much more overt religious messages.

    Or, let’s take something explicitly religious and more indigenous to the S. Asian community and diaspora, the qawwali. A devotional form, the qawwali is widely-listened to, regardless of its origination in the artscape of Islam.

    I think the other issue — re: British desi identity, and its roots in religion –, is based in a very different history and migratory experience than the U.S. I think it has less to do with the culture producing identity, than vice-versa (although I understand this is ultimately dialectical).

  9. Sundari says:

    Sizzle – unfortunately the documentary didn't really explore the Christian rock/pop music scene. I think it would have been an interesting parallel to make. While I am acutely aware of the growing Christian rock/pop music scene here in the US, I was actually quite oblivious to its popularity in the UK. While a lot of the newer South Asian "religious" music uses hip-hop as a medium to disseminate the message, Christian music predominantly uses rock, pop, or country. I think that in itself is a huge difference to how it is accepted in the larger sense.

    Your points about Christian rock music are well taken, but I don't know if Gurdwaras and parents would necessarily promote Immortal Shaheedi albums to their kids the way Christian bands are promoted by Churches and Christian parents. Sikh/Hip-hop music is also political (which is not necessarily separate from the religion) but many within our own community are still struggling with some of the messages that are disseminated by these groups. However, perhaps that's another reason why youth are drawn to it…

  10. Sundari says:

    Sizzle – unfortunately the documentary didn’t really explore the Christian rock/pop music scene. I think it would have been an interesting parallel to make. While I am acutely aware of the growing Christian rock/pop music scene here in the US, I was actually quite oblivious to its popularity in the UK. While a lot of the newer South Asian “religious” music uses hip-hop as a medium to disseminate the message, Christian music predominantly uses rock, pop, or country. I think that in itself is a huge difference to how it is accepted in the larger sense.

    Your points about Christian rock music are well taken, but I don’t know if Gurdwaras and parents would necessarily promote Immortal Shaheedi albums to their kids the way Christian bands are promoted by Churches and Christian parents. Sikh/Hip-hop music is also political (which is not necessarily separate from the religion) but many within our own community are still struggling with some of the messages that are disseminated by these groups. However, perhaps that’s another reason why youth are drawn to it…