To understand what an accomplishment Netflix’s buzzy new series Mois, you must first recognize that it wasn’t all that long ago where the idea of humanizing Palestinian content of any sort in Western media was seen as verboten. And the stories of refugees were relegated to exploited tragedies instead of humanized depictions. Notably, in 2018, professor and author Marc Lamont Hill was fired from his CNN contract for delivering remarks at the United Nations where encouraged nations to protest Israel until there is “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” a (seemingly innocuous) statement that sparked furor from multiple groups accusing Hill of promoting hate and anti-Semitism. Fast forward four years, and not only is a Palestinian story gracing the screens of everyone with a Netflix subscription, but it is also framed within a love letter to Black Houston culture and the community that shaped Palestinian-American comedian,star and creator Mohammed Amer. Mo is a sharp and humorous story that leans into the farce of the American dream as much as it examines the tragedy of American imperialism, with twists and turns more thrilling and unexpected than a ride at the Houston Funplex.
This story originally published on August 12, 2020 in WSJ. Mag
Ask Yara Shahidi how she self-identifies and she will reply that she is not an activist but “a creative and socially engaged human.” The 20-year-old polymath has been in the entertainment industry since first appearing in TV commercials at the age of 6, and she made her big-screen debut alongside Eddie Murphy in the 2009 comedy Imagine That. Since then, starring roles on Kenya Barris’s series black-ish and grown-ish—playing cool older sister Zoey Johnson—have placed her among the vanguard of young Hollywood. Shahidi has also been a brand ambassador for Chanel and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and was featured in several ad campaigns for Coach. For her young fans, she’s served as a voice on social justice in the arts and more. Her personal social media channels put her politics into practice: One day, she’s leading a back-and-forth with her fans about the works of James Baldwin via Instagram, and the next, creating a TikTok urging teens to register to vote. She’s also currently enrolled as a full-time student at Harvard University.
Now the actress, alongside her mother, Keri Shahidi, aims to take her reformist energy behind the camera. The two Shahidis are the co-presidents of the newly formed 7th Sun Productions, part of a overall deal with ABC Studios, announced last month. Her mother is an actress herself, and her father, Afshin Shahidi, is a cinematographer who was formerly Prince’s personal photographer. Shahidi views this new endeavor as one for her whole family, and she says that “the goal at the end of the day is to make powerful media but to also push the door wide open.”
The day of WSJ.’s conversation with Shahidi happens to be the one-year anniversary of her idol Toni Morrison’s death. “Toni Morrison set the foundation for these conversations,” she says, referring to the Nobel Prize winner’s efforts to prioritize Black life and stories. “Pushing back on the sentiments of Blackness having to be universalized in a way that isn’t expected of a Pride and Prejudice,” says Shahidi. “Those worlds did not have us in mind when they were being created.” Indebted gratitude, as Shahidi calls it, is a guiding principle of hers as she looks to Morrison and Baldwin for guidance on how to stay authentic to her artistic passions.
For the past few years, Shahidi headed a youth vote initiative called Eighteen x 18 and worked alongside progressive news site NowThis. They hosted an in-person summit for youth activists in 2018 with over 120 young activists in attendance. For the 2020 election, she and the initiative, now going by WeVoteNext, are working to provide accurate candidate information to first-time voters.
Here, in her own words, Shahidi explains the formation of 7th Sun Productions, imagining new worlds in media and her voting initiatives.
It took months to find a name for 7th Sun. We wanted to make sure that the first touchpoint with us was very clear as to what we represented. Funny enough, I was in conversation with [philosopher and public intellectual] Dr. Cornel West, and he was talking about W.E.B. Du Bois. Having read The Souls of Black Folk, I noted that Du Bois says that the Black person is the seventh son, s-o-n. We’d wanted to find a way to use that but also subvert it, to degender it, which was how we arrived at seventh sun, s-u-n.
I’ve always viewed our family as being all-around creative. It was never a conversation of Well, I really want to do this and them saying no. It was Dream bigger and dream more. Production has been a field that our family has been passionate about for years. As an actor, I find it’s exciting because for once, the stories we get to tell are in no way confined by roles that I can play. It’s not about servicing me as an actor—to be like, Let’s create the dream role for me. As a storyteller, I have more freedom than ever because our company is either telling stories that are authentic to us, or we have the ability to partner with people and tell stories pertaining to other communities. That’s been the most exciting part about it; it really expands creative potential.
At 20, I’m working on honoring all of my desires, honoring what I’m passionate about. The lesson that my mother taught me at a really young age is the fact that my voice belongs in these spaces. At the same time, I feel like I’ve been unintentionally trained to be an amenable person. Being amenable has oftentimes been weaponized against [Black artists], because we operate in the binary of either you’re amenable or you’re aggressive. As we create things that haven’t been seen before, we’re also saying, OK, let’s redefine the concept of risk when you’re bringing in a young writer of color or a young writer of any [race, sexuality, gender, etc.].
The art of storytelling is something that I still admire in every form, whether it’s Barry Jenkins or Issa Rae—and the fact that we’ve seen Issa go from YouTube to her own show to her own label to owning her own coffee shop speaks to the depth of vision. The first season of [Rae’s HBO show] Insecure came with a soundtrack featuring a ton of incredible Black artists. I remember watching Donald Glover in season one of [Atlanta, his show on FX]. It was the episode that was like a fake C-Span episode, with fake commercials. It was so genre-bending. What it affirmed to me is that we have the opportunity to train our audience. That episode was just a reminder that Black artists get to lead the way as creatives and trust that we are in a world of smart consumers, and that they’re either gonna get it or they’re gonna move on to a show that they do resonate with.
Many creators inspire me, especially young ones, like [20-year-old] Phillip Youmans, who did [the 2019 critically acclaimed drama] Burning Cane. I feel like we’re really seeing the uptick in incredibly young filmmakers because Hollywood is becoming more accessible in terms of the ability to produce and distribute content. But we know that the digital space, especially for Black and brown creators, is extremely divisive. When you put content out into the world [on social media], based on those terms and agreements that we all clickthrough, the content isn’t ours. It ends up being co-opted, and it ends up being taken and not credited.
The way that I’m trying to use my platform has been: How can I be a conduit for voter education as a young person who’s similarly developing my opinion in the world? One thing that most of my generation knows is that policy is personal. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen it more clearly than ever.
In times when it’s hard to figure out what my purpose is, I often turn back and think about how many of our great leaders had to watch their peers die. They knew the stakes of the work they were doing, and they were doing it for a future that wasn’t guaranteed. They were doing it for a future that they couldn’t imagine. Congressman John Lewis being 17 when he started civil action,19 when he became a civil-rights leader, in his 20s when he was speaking at the March on Washington—he knew that he was risking his life. It’s remiss to say that we don’t reap the benefits of their progress every day. Their work had to be driven in a deep sense of hope. The most radical leaders are the most hopeful, because that radicalism stems from a deep belief that some sort of change, extreme change, is possible.
I constantly am trying to figure out—what is my role, how can I be of service to the best of my abilities? It’s something that I’m tweaking and refining daily. It’s a thrilling time to be in media right now. We’re actively talking about the fact that it has to be restructured to prioritize new voices. And with that comes the opportunity to—in the kindest way possible—burn down the traditional infrastructure that has kept us out for so long and present something completely new.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This piece was originally published for The Atlantic on June 11, 2020
In Season 1 of Ramy, audiences are introduced to Ramy Hassan—the character loosely based on the show’s creator, Ramy Youssef—and his Egyptian American family in northern Jersey. With a formidable mix of surrealism and humor, Youssef explores the complexities of being a religious Millennial man, namely through navigating the difficulties that young Muslims face coming of age post-9/11. Season 2 is anchored in Ramy’s wish to find purpose and direction in his spirituality, but his obsessive need to present a righteous version of himself only sabotages his effort at redemption.
The show is preoccupied with the idea that ritual for ritual’s sake—without deeper consideration of context or circumstances and without disposition of the ego—can often reveal one’s truest, ugliest self. Ramy has returned from a sojourn in Cairo more aimless and prurient than ever before. Back in the States, he engages in gluttony and lewdness (through the haze of a porn-filled laptop screen), and isolates himself in shame. He admits, “I feel like I have this hole inside of me, this emptiness, and I’m always trying to fill it with something.” But once he finally musters up the resolve to return to his mosque after a hiatus, his imam (played by Alok Tewari) meets him with reproach: “Read the last three surahs of the Quran every night,” he says. “It will help keep the shaitan away.” (Shaitan, in Islam, are evil spirits that tempt humans into sinful behavior; their commander, Iblis, is known in Christian texts as Lucifer.)Despondent, Ramy finds his way to the local Sufi center, led by the charismatic Sheikh Ali (Mahershala Ali). Enamored by Ali’s presence and steadiness, Ramy convinces himself that his absolution will come under the approval of the sheikh’s watchful eye.
What ensues is an empty religious performance by Ramy.Desperate to prove that he can ascend to the levels of perfection he associates with the sheikh, Ramy adheres to a rigidity that his loved ones find disconcerting, imposing stringent standards not just on himself, but also on the people around him. When Ramy attends the strip-club bachelor party his friends throw for him, he admonishes one of them, Ahmed, about the optics of the occasion. But Ahmed retorts, “Do you know how many times I’ve watched you do crazy things? Slowly waiting, praying that you’d do the right thing? I never judged you! I just prayed for you.”Ramy’s understanding of discipline is misguided, and his overcompensation and ego leave no room for the inevitability of human error, creating a built-in tension in the show.
Similar to Kanye West and his self-righteous Sunday Service performances, Ramy has understood only the trimmings of deliverance and religion, and has done so in the most self-serving ways possible. For instance, when he wants to encourage a new revert’s adoption into the Sufi center, Ramy fails to disclose that the man was a U.S. soldier in Iraq—responsible for the torture and deaths of Arab and Muslim innocents—and that he has crippling PTSD. As a result, the man is involved in a fatal incident at the Sufi center, for which Ramy is indirectly responsible. In another episode, Ramy translates his adoration of Sheikh Ali into a delusion of romantic love for his daughter. He pursues a relationship with her and then sabotages their imminent nuptials by engaging in infidelity under the guise of religiously sanctioned polygamy—a practice reserved for those who have both the resources and mutually agreed-upon consent.
Ramy’s family members also learn the cruel irony of empty performance. In contrast to Ramy’s capitulations to what he thinks is religious surveillance, his mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), capitulates to a literal agent of surveillance—the United States federal government—in the journey to obtain her citizenship. She studiously reviews her notes for her final exam and absorbs American vernacular. But when she incurs an infraction at her job driving for Lyft that could potentially flag her final background check, she collapses into a panic.
In an effort to determine the complainant, Maysa engages in a frenzied review of her recent passengers, ultimately assuming that a nonbinary customer named Sophia (whom she had misgendered) was the culprit. Unraveled and distraught, Maysa confronts them at a bar, and tries to appeal to their common marginalization as members of two different targeted communities. Maysa’s self-serving plea comes amid her own prejudice—in a previous conversation with her daughter about Sophia, Maysa casually asks, “Allah created him as a man, no?” But in order to protect herself,Maysa exhibits a remarkable inversion of power and imposes the same surveillance tactics on Sophia that she herself fears.
Perhaps the most tragic story within Ramy’s family is that of his uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli)—a boorish, bombastic man who revels in uncompromising bigotry and cartoonish toxic masculinity. The show ultimately reveals that his behavior belies his hidden queer identity; Naseem allows himself to indulge in his sexuality in a few furtive moments, only to then again reclaim his external presentation. He struggles with what kind of Muslim he is supposed to be and what kind of man he is expected to be, which amounts to tremendous overcorrection at the expense of himself and everyone around him.
The last three chapters of the Quran, Surah Al-Ikhlas (“Sincerity”), Surah Al-Falaq (“Dawn”), and Surah Al-Naas (“Mankind”), are commonly invoked in Islam as protection against malevolent surveillance—jinns, shaitan, or the evil eye. The ritualistic performance of these invocations reasserts fealty to God’s will. At the beginning of the season, Ramy dismisses the advice from his imam to invoke these rites, noting that he’s “trying to find God, but it’s not there.” But Sheikh Ali informs him, “If someone only gotthe rules and rituals, they might think Islam is tough and bitter … but there’s an inside, a juicy flesh, a divine intimacy, a spiritual experience. The rind without the flesh is bitter and useless.”
Ramy’s Achilles’ heel is his inability to grasp the journey of restitution via non-egotistical means, and he exercises self-imposed discipline without empathy. Just like his uncle and mother, Ramy is crippled by the perception of the absolute binary of haram and halal—what’s forbidden and what’s permitted—applying its maxims without consideration of the impact they may have on others. It’s a contextual failure that absolves a person of the responsibility of care in pursuit of moral righteousness.
Most Abrahamic religions are peppered with tales of the fallibility of human character: the person you want to be versus the person you are. In Season 2, most of Ramy’s characters are going through this journey; not just in front of God, but in front of their own communities. In trying their hardest to present themselves as the people they want to be, they consistently harm those around them—exposing the worst of who they are in dangerous bursts. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Ramy offers a look into where the road obsessed with perceptions will lead.
When Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” was released in 2004, the song was praised for boldly bringing discussions of faith into hip-hop. Fifteen years later, Mr. West’s contemporaries continue to speak of its impact. In the first episode of “Hip-Hop: The Songs That Shook America,” an AMC docu-series that premiered Sunday, the singer-songwriter John Legend said, “Kanye made it O.K. to talk about your faith in songs that weren’t Christian songs.”
It is this persistent reverie and good will for “Jesus Walks” that Mr. West has banked on since starting Sunday Service, a series of obliquely religious pop-up gatherings featuring a gospel choir (usually wearing attire from the rapper’s clothing line Yeezy) this year.
The set lists fluctuate from week to week. But the linchpin of the productions, which segue from traditional songs of mercy and salvation to bolder reconfigurations of modern secular hits, is in that subversive single from his debut album, “The College Dropout” — the artist jubilantly recites the final verse of the song, flexing his cadence in lock step with the choir.
On an invitation-only basis (or in the case of Coachella last April, the price of a steep festival ticket), the select few present at these gatherings get to rub shoulders with the likes of ASAP Rocky, Chance the Rapper, Brad Pitt and other high-profile entertainers while partaking of the “exclusive” experience. The events serve as a transparent attempt of Mr. West to fundamentally regroup himself within the context of religion after an extended run of willfully courting salacious controversy, whether it be for an unsolicited dressing down of Taylor Swift, his wearing of a MAGA hat or a contentious TMZ appearance in which he claimed that slavery was a “choice.”
But the endeavor reads like a blatantly self-serving appropriation of black faith traditions, and the Sunday Service performances are in fact little more than concerts trading in aimless aphorisms and the cult of Mr. West’s personality — so much so that it has become a running joke that he’s running an actual cult. Black Christians have expressed skepticism about his intentions, and the rapper’s past comments about how he views the relationship between hip-hop and church provide reason for their concern.
“Hip-hop is a religion to a certain extent, and the rappers are the preachers, the music is the scriptures, you know?” Mr. West says in an archival clip resurfaced in the docu-series. “It’s just like church, because you go to a concert, you raise your hands in the air, you sing songs and you definitely pay some money. It’s just like church.”
The description of Sunday Service provided by his wife, Kim Kardashian West, during an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” doesn’t help: “There’s no praying, there’s no sermon. There’s no word. It’s just music, and it’s just a feeling.”
The reduction of the black faith tradition to “just music” is precisely what has become of a similar profit-making endeavor for some black places of worship. For nearly 30 years there have been Sunday church service tours of Harlem landmarks such as Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (New York City’s oldest black church) and Abyssinian Baptist Church, with foot traffic accelerating at the turn of the century. Tourists pay concert ticket prices to enter into a hallowed spiritual ground for a glimpse of a famed choir, as opposed to consuming a spiritual service and grasping the significance of the churches’ histories. Gospel is reduced to a commodity, as opposed to a legacy.
That tension was said to be evident in Mr. West’s grandstanding performance at the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral church last month, which occurred during a confusing promotion for what is supposed to be his forthcoming album, “Jesus Is King.” (The album was slated for release Sept. 27, but has yet to be made commercially available — although a complementary documentary of the same name is to open in IMAX theaters Oct. 25.)
The early, more conventional musical invocations of praise and faith from the choir gave way to a freestyle performance, as Mr. West claimed to be a rapper “with a purpose, not just for surface.” The choir, filling in the first few pews of the church as opposed to the traditional positioning on the stage platforms, reacted exuberantly, dancing, jumping and engaging in unison while the churchgoers — several of whom reportedly walked out — looked on.
These performances have helped grant Mr. West a certain grace that, it should be noted, has not been afforded to artists who have been maligned for similar sins of a smaller scale, such as Chrisette Michele, a singer with gospel roots who in 2017 was widely criticized for performing at President Trump’s inauguration. Clips of Sunday Service have been circulated online with enthusiasm and proclamations as though he were breaking new ground in music.
But a mash-up of a gospel song with an R&B song — Ginuwine’s romantic slow-jam “So Anxious,” for one — is hardly novel. (Kirk Franklin and other gospel artists have been remixing secular songs in church for years.) Likewise, with “Jesus Walks,” Mr. West was just one of several rappers — including M.C. Hammer, Diddy and DMX before him — to usher in a cycle of faith exploration in mainstream hip-hop, as Billboard’s Naima Cochrane and others have pointed out.
Even if “Jesus Walks” isn’t as wholly original as his peers would have you believe, there remains a power in the song’s origins that seems to have been lost today. The Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir, led by its founder, James Allen, recorded “Walk With Me,” an arrangement of a gospel hymn, in 1997. In “The Songs That Shook America,” a choir member says that they were singing for their lives as they originally performed the song.
It’s a distinct call of faith and conviction, the essence of which Mr. West, at his best, distilled into the hook of “Jesus Walks” in 2004, which samples “Walk With Me”: “God show me the way, because the Devil’s trying to break me down.”
When viewing clips of Mr. West’s performance of the song during Sunday Service halls, however, it registers as a facsimile of the sentiment and legacy it once represented, a mere interlude for conveying nondescript “God is love” statements or defensive, egotistic rants. During his recent service in Salt Lake City, he railed against those who have criticized him for his friendly relationship with President Trump and the Republican Party: “I ain’t never made a decision only based off my color. That’s a form of slavery, mental slavery.”
Iconoclasm, even at its most crude execution, typically runs afoul of the conventions of religion. If “Jesus Walks” is a song that he created to focus on the sins of man, as his co-writer Rhymefest (born Che Smith) has stated, his first reckoning should be with the paradox of spreading the farce of original thought as dictated through the filter of the church of Kanye West.
On May 8, the 2019 issue of Sport Illustrated’s Annual Swimsuit Edition will hit newsstands everywhere, featuring a watershed moment— the first Muslim hijabi, a Black Somali-American woman, to be featured as a model, clad in illuminating burkinis in Watamu Beach, a day’s travel from the Kakuma refugee camp where she spent the earliest years of her life.
In the announcement of Halima Aden’s upcoming photos, editor MJ Day emphasized how SI Swimsuit reflected the progressiveness of the fashion industry and society at large:
“We both know that women are so often perceived to be one way or one thing based on how they look or what they wear. Whether you feel your most beautiful and confident in a burkini or a bikini, YOU ARE WORTHY.”
It’s a curious statement, considering that it frames the discussion around litigating the attractiveness of being fully covered as opposed to the inherent Islamophobia that can come with being visibly present in hijab or burkini. It also comes less than a month after fellow Somali hijabi and Minnesota resident Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who herself lobbied to allow hijabs in Congress, came under direct fire from the president of the United States, who used his Twitter account to spread a doctored video implying that Rep. Omar was dismissive of the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers to a following of over 60 million accounts, directly leading to an increase in death threats made against her.
Therein lies the walking balancing act that has played out in the public sphere: fashion brands as high end as Gucci and Versace to the Gap and H&M have made a recent and large pivot to embrace modest culture in U.S. markets, and to significant returns — the positive impact of the inclusion of a long-ignored demographic comes with access to a rapidly increasing portion of spending power in an industry where brick and mortar revenue is under threat, to the tune of $170 billion. But while that representation is happening, the climate for Muslims in America remains stagnant, with Muslims still subject to surveillance, proposed travel bans and various forms of tacit Islamophobia enmeshed in American social norms.
This dialogue is not new to the industry — Sports Illustrated faced similar discourse when Ashley Graham received the Swimsuit Edition cover in 2016, raising the debate as to the goals and objectives of plus-size inclusion in the fashion industry and how it fit into body-positivity movements and helped tackle fatphobia as a whole. A term that University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong coined, racial capitalism speaks to the overall trend of corporations commodifying identity to attain social and economic value, which can ultimately lead to feelings of exploitation absent feeling like there is any space to express their own agency.
From Aden’s perspective, she has been hands on with trying to ensure that all of her campaigns go hand in hand with highlighting the issues she champions, which is, as she told writer Najma Sharif for a profile in Paper Magazine, “encourag[ing] girls to dream big.” That objective has carried through to her Sports Illustrated shoot, with this statement she gave to BET exclusively:
“Being featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue will have such a great impact on women and young girls who have never seen someone who look like them represented in the public eye. SI Swimsuit has been at the forefront of changing the narrative and conversation on social issues and preconceived notions. I’m hoping this specific feature will open doors up for my Somali community, Muslim community, refugee community and any other community that can relate to being different.
“This feature is proving that a fully covered hijab-wearing model can confidently stand alongside a beautiful woman in a revealing bikini and together they can celebrate one another, cheer each other on, and champion each other’s successes. It’s also putting the burkini on the map, which is imperative for young Muslim girls.”
I’m happy to see Halima book the jobs that she wants and what that might mean for other Muslim women and people who have never seen a girl in a burkini before. It still makes me question the motives of these brands that are suddenly so interested in their representation stats in 2019.
Ultimately, can the impact of representation supersede the corporatization of identity? Perhaps not completely, but at the very least it should maximize its impact by allowing the hijabis selected to champion their respective brands as free of a platform as possible to speak on the areas specific to their identity, beyond fashion representation, without censorship, until rhetoric around these campaigns will have reached beyond the notches of having accomplished all of these firsts.
While a brand can send out a congratulatory statement about them recognizing their first hijabi for her undeniable skill and talent as a model, a Muslim woman may be trying to wear that same burkini someplace far away from the glaring lights of a photographers’ lens — and in today’s society, that is still a much more precarious choice than it should have any business being.
This article contains spoilers throughout Season 1 of Ramy.Hulu’s new series Ramy depicts a fictionalized version of the life of its star and co-creator, Ramy Youssef (named Ramy Hassan on the show), a Millennial Egyptian American from a robust North Jersey Muslim community. Along with the co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, Youssef explores the complexities of being a religious man from an immigrant family with wry humor and a dash of surrealism. Continue reading →
In Islamic theology, there is the concept of the Jinn—beings born of a “smokeless” fire in another dimension, beyond human but with the same frailties; neither inherently good nor bad, with a fiendish streak that is documented not just in the Holy Quran but in Hadith, and just as capable of salvation or damnation as the rest of us. Of the five kinds of Jinn—Marid, Effrit, Ghoul, Sila, Vetala—the Sila are considered to be one of the rarest, typified by a seductive feminine energy and shapeshifting capability. Continue reading →
When I was a child, my mom would tell me stories about Ramadan in our homeland of Comoros. Some parts weren’t the most idyllic—the idea of fasting under mosquito nets without air conditioning that close to the equator is not my concept of pleasant by any stretch of the imagination.
The one part that I always envied, however, was the sense of community enshrouded in each story. The collective participation in the holy month made the air crackle just a little differently, and you could feel the nuance in every vignette. Continue reading →
On March 18, Stephon Clark’s life was brutally taken by police officers in his grandmother’s backyard. Body-cam footage shows police, who were responding to a report of break-ins in the neighborhood, opening fire seconds after one of the officers yells, “gun!” All that was found on Clark’s lifeless body, however, was an iPhone.