A Night at the Community Cafe
This past Friday, after months of the mantra "We'll go some other time," my wife and I finally went to an event that we've been missing for far too long: The Inner-city Muslim Action Network's (IMAN) Community Cafe. Before I say more, lemme say that In Sha Allah we'll be back - it was a blast.
We drove to the spot - The Spoken Word Cafe at the corner of 47th and King Drive - the location of which I feel we have been trained to fear by endless dramatic talking heads on local newscasts. What we found was an area that thankfully has begun to see some of the redevelopment that has been unstintingly slathered upon the North Side for many years. The city has declared 47th street East of King the "Blues District," officially made so by blue silhouettes of singers and musicians posted high on lampposts that eerily glow at night, as if to evoke dead perfomers.
We joined about a hundred others in the cafe, sitting amid the many college-age women wearing hijab, African-American hip-hop fans, and curious others. We didn't feel old or out of place - that is, until we realized that this was the first time we had seen any live performance of music whatsoever since we had had children. That fact is almost as embarrassing as the fact that we've already gone to dinner theater...
I'm not a music critic, with my knowledge of music frozen in the alternative 90's, but the performances were good. A local African-American Shaykh recited Qur'an to start, after which Capital D (lawyer by day, hip hop artist by night, active Muslim all the time) introduced the acts. The performances were split between hip hop and poetry reading, with a lot of open mike. For the most part, the open mikes were good although not always agreeable - the adorable 80-year old 'original rapper' set off groans among women near me when he called for polygamy, while a young 'madrasa student' made me cringe with her castigations of America (which provided a bizarre contrast to the Arab-American woman who earlier on stage staked her identity as American). The 'human beatbox' teens from the Northern Suburbs provided good comic relief, if only because they brought back so many memories of "Police Academy" movies with Robert Winslow.
The lead performers were Aquil Charlton and D Steele, Alia Bilal, and One.be.lo. Aquil and D Steele were a good intro - Aquil doesn't have the deep baritone that many rappers use to push their performances; his voice has a more intimate quality that relies on the lyrics it conveys. Thankfully, the lyrics were a good accompaniment.
Alia Bilal is a teenager graduating from the Universal School (whose father, I swear, is on my son's "Adam's World" videotape as a guest of the Muslim puppet) who performed original poetry. While I found her focus - the conflict of being Muslim in a secular culture - less interesting (at my age, I've already been there), her words were lifted by the intensity of her recitation and emotion. She burned with a controlled determination that would hint at the potential of explosion, and that made for engaging contact.
One.be.lo was the final act, and he raised the roof (am I allowed to say that?). A native of Suburban Detroit, his lyrics were powerful, his delivery crisp, his voice deep. He took us to places that most of us only visit in stereotyped TV shows or our most lurid fears, and he did so with an honesty that reassured you that you weren't being fed a line.
The evening ended at 10:30, almost too soon for me, which is the first time in a long time that I've felt that when going out. I left feeling, more than anything, proud to be supporting IMAN. Their efforts to better their community (I mean local, not religious) are imbued with a sincerity and an originality which I still feel are sorely lacking from most Muslim institutions. God Willing, we'll be back for more.