Allah at the Apollo: Islamic Cultural Renaissance Finds Roots at Harlem’s Apollo Theater
Originally published on January 26, 2010 for The Defenders Online, a publication of the NAACP LDF
By Grace Aneiza Ali
On Saturday, January 23, an amazingly talented line-up of Muslim artists performed for a sold-out crowd at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem. Hosted by the Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN), the event, one of the first of its kind, showcased the rich cultural legacy and growing artistic renaissance among Muslims in the United States and around the world.
The international ensemble of performers included headliners Mos Def (the hip hop artist and actor), Aaasif Mandvi (a comedian and correspondent for The Daily Show), Outlandish (a Danish hip hop group), Amir Sulaiman and Liza Garza (HBO Def Jam poets), and Azhar Usman (a comedian), among others. They used the Apollo stage to showcase their talent and to plead for the audience’s support of the worldwide Haitian relief effort.
The breadth and range of these artists underscore the talent within the entire Muslim Diaspora. They were not going to fit nicely into any one category. What was clear from the first to the last performance was that this was an evening of innovative collaborations among musicians and artists focused on exploring the diversity of Muslim cultural production here in the United States and globally. Their performances spanned the genres of hip hop, R&B, spoken word, opera, theatre, and dance; nothing was off limits. The result: a beautifully complicated and expansive presentation of Muslim art and culture.
The evening began reverently with a poignant recitation from the Quran by Imam Shamsi Ali, the Spiritual Leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. This spiritual note set the tone for performances that not only entertained the Apollo audience, but also enlightened, uplifted, and inspired. In one of the earlier performances, traditional African drummers supplied the background beats for Def Jam poets Amir Sulaiman and Liza Garza. “Freedom?” they asked, “all this torture and destruction for freedom?” Theirs was a collaboration linking the African Muslim with the African-American Muslim and merging the traditional with the urban.
A powerful operatic rendition of Time to Say Goodbye by the classically trained Sumayya Ali and Zeshan Bagewadi stunned the audience and resulted in the longest standing ovation for the evening. Co-host Azhar Usman (co-founder of Allah Made Me Funny–The Official Muslim Comedy Tour) would later offer his definition of the Muslim music landscape. “Muslims are opera singers too,” he proudly noted.
When the Women of Progress Theatre took the stage, they reminded the audience that the personal is political. “I am a stranger in this land,” they sang acapella style, alluding to a sense of alienation felt among Muslim women. While nations such as France move closer to banning Muslim women from wearing niqabs and burqas, the Women of Progress Theatre asserted that some of the compromises made in the name of progress are open to question.
Perhaps second to the performances themselves, the most impressive aspect of the show was the global diversity represented on stage. The Reminders, a husband and wife duo (Big Samir and Aja Black) fusing reggae and soul with socially conscious lyrics spoken in French and English, said it was important for them to be part of the event because they’d never seen a collection of Muslim artists come together like this before. “Most of the time we see Muslims portrayed in a negative way,” said Big Samir, who was born in Brussels and raised in Zaire. “Tonight we get to experience the artistic contributions of Muslims on an international scale, which we don’t see often.”
The Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), the event’s host, seeks to use arts and culture to improve the image of Muslims in America— one reason they chose the Apollo Theatre, a historic venue of racial inclusion and progress, to launch their inaugural effort. “Islam is part of America,” said Saafir Rabb, one of organization’s participants. “And so it makes sense for us to be here at the Apollo, a landmark of American culture and a premiere institution in the Harlem Renaissance.”
IMAN’s presence at the Apollo served as a poignant reminder of the historical partnership between Muslim Americans and African Americans. Recognizing that Harlem has been both a literal and symbolic home for the Muslim community, IMAN paid tribute during the evening to the late civil rights pioneer and entrepreneur Percy Sutton. The organization’s leaders acknowledged the ways in which the long-time Harlem resident was sensitive to the needs of the Islamic community, often reaching out to build bridges between the Apollo and Harlem’s Muslim residents.
Each artist that stood on the Apollo stage invoked the urgency for all communities, not only the Muslim community, to do their part in contributing to the earthquake disaster relief and rebuilding of Haiti. IMAN partnered with Islamic Relief to raise $2.5 million towards responding to the disaster and asked the Apollo attendees to take part in its fundraising efforts.
Finally, when Mos Def graced the stage as the evening’s final performer, he reminded the audience of the link between the past and the present. In between sets he remarked in awe, “Wow, I ’m standing on the same stage that James Brown stood on.” With the crowd on its feet, Mos Def dazzled with his socially conscious lyrics and innovative beats. He ended the show with his classic hit, Shine Your Light on the World, altering the words to “shine your light on Haiti.”
The Apollo has a long history of serving as a space where African-American culture was both reaffirmed and advanced. Within this historical dynamic, partnerships were formed between Americans of different backgrounds. The IMAN event clearly demonstrated that the legacy of cultural exchange is still vibrant.