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Interview on PRI's "The World"



Ani is a Malaysian-born singer. She now lives -- and makes music -- in Los Angeles. Her album tackles the question of what it means to be a Muslim today. The World's Jason Margolis has our Global Hit.

Ani made her living writing secular music for near 20 years. She did well. She helped blues singer Keb Mo win a Grammy last year. But recently, Ani decided to step up to the microphone herself.

Ani: "As a Muslim, I'm really exasperated and very frustrated with the status of the Muslim community, especially with the violence that's being perpetuated in the name of Islam, and I'm trying to take that back. Trying to redefine what Islam means to me anyway and to a lot of Muslims out there that are not being heard."

Ani's making herself heard through this. She calls it Islamic pop music.

Ani arranged the basic score at home on a synthesizer. Then she brought in musicians to add a fiddle and Oud. The oud is a Middle Eastern string instrument. She called her first album "Ummah Wake Up." Ummah is the Arabic word for community.

"Come my Ummah wake up, our Jihad is long overdue. Let's go Ummah Wake up, coz you and I have much to do. Come on Ummah Wake up our jihad is long overdue...

" That's right, you heard the word jihad.

Ani: “I use the word jihad in the chorus and what I'm trying to do is define what jihad really means (and also to educate the population at large what jihad really means.) And other than us assuming it means this holy war and let's go kill some people. So jihad is really that internal struggle, the struggle to be more Godly in character, for example to be more merciful, more forgiving. And that is our personal jihad as human beings to be a better human being."

That's Ani's personal journey. Here's her geographic one. She's from Malaysia. And she's lived in Germany, India, and Egypt. She now calls LA home. When I met her in her apartment in Los Angeles, she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She's 43. She's got dark hair streaked with blonde. And she never stops smiling. She doesn't look like much of a rabble rouser.

But Ani's music is stirring up controversy. Islamic American leaders are criticizing her songs. They say she's exploiting a negative, and unfair, stereotype of Muslims.

Ani says she's not welcome to play at Islamic centers. Perhaps it's because of message like this. This song is called Bury me. It's about the so-called honor killing of Muslim women.

Ani: “I am Allah's creation. I don't deserve discrimination. Controlling and honor killing, there's no room for that the Koran says.” Ani says in the west, Muslim women might not be killed. But they experience a type of spiritual death.

Ani: "So this song says, fine, you may not bury me at birth, but you mind as well because I'm still being judged by my appearance. I'm being discriminated against because of my gender in education, with honor killing. The general sense is that you know, the boys can go around and do whatever they want and not be responsible for their actions, whereas the girls are trained to be docile, groomed so that when they get married their duty is to please the husband."

Ani's first album also includes a song about the Prophet Mohammed's first wife, Khadijah. She was a successful businesswomen. When Ani started writing Islamic pop songs, she was trying to reach American Muslim kids. But she hopes her songs also speak to adults of all faiths.

Her second album is called "One." Here she moves away from a focus on Islam. Instead she sings about what different religions have in common. For instance, one of the most common words in Jewish and Islamic faiths. “Salaam is peace to you. Shalom is peace to you. There's no difference in the God we pray to the oneness of our God." Ani teamed up with Los Angeles Rabbi Naomi Levy to write this song "Oneness of God."

Ani: "As a Muslim, I was raised that the Jews are my cousins, you know, I wasn't raised to be hateful of Jews. And I think for the most part that's how most Muslims are raised. I think unfortunately because of the politics of Palestine - Israel, that's changed a little bit… So I decided that I needed to do a song to celebrate our two faiths."

Ani plays her music at interfaith events. You won't find her stuff on the shelves at the big music stores. And don't expect to hear her on pop radio stations anytime soon.

Ani: "I don't really know where I fit in because there is no Muslim commercial music scene for me to plug in. And that would be sort of the obvious platform to launch oneself. And if I was going to promote myself as an Islamic pop singer, who is going to promote me? (laughs). You know that's a toughie. Yea."

For The World, I'm Jason Margolis. For more information:

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singer / songwriter / producer / activist

I'm really excited about this new collection of songs in a new genre "Islamic Hymns". I'm co-writing & co-producing it with George Landress with backing vocal arrangement by Michael Mishaw. The music borrows from classical music with lots of choral arrangements. The lyrics is in English and Islamic in content. 

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