Jihadi Rap: Understanding the Subculture

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If you hadn't heard of Jihadi rap -- also known as Jihad rap -- before, the naming of  L Jinny, aka Abdel-Majed Abdel-Bary, as a possible suspect behind the brutal execution of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and English aid worker David Haines in Syria has shone the spotlight on the little-known music subculture.

Former British Rapper Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary Under Investigation for James Foley Beheading

To claim that all or even a significant percentage of Western-raised jihadists -- believed to be up to 500 British citizens and over 100 Americans, according to the State Department -- are hip-hop fans would be a massive falsehood. They all come from different backgrounds, and the act of listening to music is, after all, forbidden under the strictest interpretations of Islam. However, that hasn't stopped a small but significant minority of extremist sympathizers and jihadists from embracing hip-hop culture, most commonly the politicized rhetoric of gangsta rap, to promote and disseminate their message via the Internet and social media.

"Jihadi rap existed before the Syria conflict, but the influx of the westerners into jihadist groups means that it's getting a lot more prominent now and involves a lot more people," Professor Peter Neumann from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, Kings College London, tells Billboard. 

"The key to understanding this is the idea of counterculture," he explains. "[People] often start engaging in hip-hop as a form of protest and rebellion against a situation where they feel they are marginalized in society, and that, of course, is exactly the same sort of feeling that the jihadists are also exploiting. They are trying to recruit people who are feeling lost. Who are feeling marginalized. Who feel that society doesn’t accept them. So this rebellion combined with a lack of acceptance is perhaps something that both of these movements -- at a grassroots level, not at a Jay Z-type level -- do have in common.

"What could possibly be more offensive to society than joining a group of people that is essentially against society as a whole and that declares all of society to be impure?" adds Neumann.

One of the best known so-called Jihadi rappers is Daphne, Alabama, native Omar Hammami, who was a member of Somalia's al-Qaida-linked militant group and featured on the FBI's most wanted list with a $5 million reward for his capture. Hammami, also known as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, came to prominence via a series of YouTube videos, MP3 uploads and Twitter posts that featured him calling for war on the West. "Attack America now, martyrdom or victory," he sings (poorly) on the a cappella "Make Jihad With Me." The similarly hushed "Blow by Blow" sees Hammami sing "mortar by mortar, shell by shell, only gonna stop when I send them to hell." He is believed to have been killed last year in southern Somalia during an ambush by rival Islamist militants.

Equally infamous is rapper-turned-jihadist Denis Mamadou Cuspert, who released a string of hip-hop albums in his native Germany under the name Deso Dogg prior to converting to Islam and adopting the moniker Abou Maleeq, later becoming Abu Talha Al-Almani. Following his conversion to Islam, Al-Almani denounced his music career and fought with YouTube to get his music videos taken offline. He also appeared in a series of propaganda videos for extremist Islamist groups that saw the onetime gangsta rapper praise Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar and promote a pro-Jihad message. Abu Talha Al-Almani was reported to have been killed in a Syrian airstrike last year, although his death has not been confirmed. 

Like Deso Dogg, London-raised L Jinny, aka Abdel-Majed Abdel-Bary, also rejected his rap past upon conversion to Islam, although several of his music videos can still be accessed online. One of these, "The Beginning," features Abdel-Bary -- introduced as L Jinn in the video -- spitting rhymes over the xx's "Intro" and sees him rapping about his father, the Islamic extremist Adel Abdul Bary, currently detained by the U.S. government under terrorism charges. "I swear the day they came and took my dad, I could have killed a cop or two," raps the jihadist, who earlier this year posted a picture of himself holding the severed head of a Syrian regime soldier captioned "Chillin’ with my other homie, or what's left of him."

Another Islamist extremist with past links to hip-hop is Anas El Abboubi, an Italian-Moroccan who in 2012 was profiled on MTV Italy in the film The Rhythm of Allah: The Story of MC Khalifh, which documents his transformation from aspiring street rapper to jihadist. He is believed to have been killed fighting in Syria.

By far the best known jihadi rap song, however, is "Dirty Kuffar" by Sheikh Terra feat. Soul Salah Crew, which even has its own Wikipedia page. Built around a clicking ragga-style rhythm, the 2004 track, which is understood to have been posted on a radical Islamic website based in the U.K., sees its masked protagonist (presumably Sheikh Terra) call out Presidents Reagan and Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as "dirty kuffar" (non-believers).

"There are many, many different reasons why people are drawn to these sort of [extremist] groups," says Raffaello Pantucci, whose book We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen documents the rise of radical extremism in the U.K. "It tends to be about individual motivation and dissatisfaction as much as the group's rhetoric, but clearly one thing that does draw people to them is that these groups do tap into that feeling of anti-establishmentarianism that you often find amongst younger people."

The consequence of extremist groups such as the Islamic State attracting disenfranchised and politicized youths from countries like the U.S. and U.K. is that certain elements of popular western culture inevitably cross over, including music. The fact that rap and hip-hop are popular forms of social protest music -- not to mention relatively easy to self-produce and distribute online with just a laptop -- means that rap in its rawest, most basic form has become, insofar as it has one, the unofficial soundtrack to militant extremist Islam.

"Of course, it is completely contradictionary," states Neumann, who, like Pantucci, does not believe that Abdel-Majed Abdel-Bary is the Islamic State executioner known as Jihadi John. "As much as these guys who go into IS saying that they want to return the world to a seventh-century state, they are actually creatures of their own society and their own cultures. They cannot stop using the Internet and they cannot bring themselves to stop expressing themselves in 21st-century western forms of expression, which, of course, hip-hop and rap are.”

Neumann continues: "They probably know that it is not consistent with the very purist standards of their religion, but they cannot stop themselves because they are not only digital natives, but, in some cases, hip-hop natives, and this is the culture that they've grown up with. You have a fusion here of a seemingly medieval archaic type of purist religion with very modern elements, and the result is something quite new and unique. It's a kind of form of gangsta rap, only for jihadists."