Community Cafe Provides Solace for Muslim Artists
The words of M'reld. Socially conscious poets, singers and rappers perform throughout the night here at the Parkway Ballroom on King Drive. The Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, hosts this standing-room only event. The crowd is mostly Arab and African-American. There's no alcohol. Elders are welcome. Babies cry. People pray on decorative rugs in the lobby.
Asad Jafri is IMAN's art and culture director. We huddle in the back stairway so he can tell me about the mission.
JAFRI: Well, we really felt one, there wasn't a lot of arts and cultural programming going on on the South Side of Chicago period. And there's kind of a void for that and then especially there wasn't one led by Muslims.
The community cafe started out with mostly hip-hop performers but over the last several years it's drawn an array of artists from dancers to painters. The space doesn't have the feel of a nightclub or dating meat-market and that's comforting for this Muslim-centric audience. Some women have their heads covered and some don't.
JAFRI: In the U.S., especially over the last 20-30 years, it's kind of been stifled and there hasn't been a space for young, Muslim artists.
Jafri says this younger generation is also challenging so-called mainstream Muslim culture.
JAFRI: Some people in the Muslim community don't look highly upon the arts…something that's been in our tradition hundreds and hundreds of years. Some people feel within the religious doctrine of Islam, some of the arts are forbidden. There's also this also this stigma, I believe, with some of the immigrant Muslim communities – where the arts are always looked at as something which you do if you can't make it in other professions. So if you can't be a doctor, lawyer or engineer, then you do art.
IMAN creates a family-friendly atmostphere. Parents don't have to worry about covering their children's ears for inappropriate content.
In the crowd with his two sons is a man who drove here all the way from Rockford. Haroon Najam is originally from Pakistan.
NAJAM: We're always looking for art and entertainment that's wholesome and healthy. But also keeps them connected to reality, to their own reality and to the reality of those around them. It's not easy to find. So if you have to drive a couple two or three hours once every two months, it's definitely worth it.
Najam also makes the trip because he sees a need for Muslims from different backgrounds to try and to get to know each other. There's a very diverse group here with believers from several different countries as well as U.S. born.
NAJAM: When it comes to these intra and inter community relationships, has to do with a lack of cultural comfort. The immigrant community, which I belong to, and the indigenous Black American Muslim community, this provides a very unique cultural space where we're able to form this bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood.
Though he lives in Rockford, Najam is now involved in IMAN's education activism on Chicago's South Side that calls for more school funding. It's an urban issue he wasn't aware of until he came here.
While artists may touch on social justice such as against police brutality or fair funding for schools, spirituality is always present at community cafes as with this imam who takes the stage to pray.
Listening to the Imam is Tasleem Jamila Firdausee, an African-American spoken-word artist.
FIRDAUSEE: It's bringing God-conscious, good culture to the community in Chicago. And I love that you have people from every country that you could think of here.
Firdausee doesn't perform this particularly night. She's one of the 400 in the audience clapping, communing and listening to artists coax the audience.
Music Button: Cheb I Sabbah, "Sadats", from the CD La Ghriba, (Six Degrees records) after black muslims