Web Cover Story: Worship & Tribute–Christianity Isn’t The Only Religion To Embrace Punk

March 8, 2010
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Story: Ryan Wasoba

From the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” to Green Day’s “Jesus Of Suburbia” and far beyond, punk rock has always been intertwined with religion and politics. However, Christianity is far from the only religion with a presence in punk. As today’s music scene reflects an ever-expanding sociopolitical climate, bands with roots in Muslim, Hare Krishna and Jewish heritage have emerged unafraid to champion their religious beliefs–although none of this is anything new.

The Muslim punk movement can be traced as far back as 1979, when Asian punk outfit Alien Kulture formed in the U.K. with a focus on racism and issues prevalent in the lives of its Pakistani Muslim members. Muslim punk received renewed interest in 2003 when author Michael Muhammad Knight published his underground novel, The Taqwacores, depicting a fictional progressive Muslim punk scene in Buffalo, New York. Referred to as “The Catcher In The Rye for young Muslims” by Islamic Studies professor Carl W. Ernst, the book inspired an entire generation of Islamic American youth facing confusion in a post-9/11 America to take the concepts and build the Taqwacore genre into reality. But just with Christian punk bands, the message isn’t necessarily preaching-it’s about opening a dialogue.

“I don’t think I’m trying to make Muslim music,” says Pakistani-American Omar Waqar, frontman of Washington, D.C., punk band, Sarmust. “I want to make music that is intellectual, philosophical, and asks questions but doesn’t tell people what to think. I don’t want my music to say, ‘This is who God is.’ I want it to say, ‘Let’s talk about who God is and we’ll all be smarter afterwards.'”

Unlike bands like Underoath and Relient K who infuse secular-sounding music with their underlying Christian messages, Taqwacore bands often color their religious influence through the use of traditional Eastern instruments like sitar and harmonies pulled from their heritage. As a result, Sarmust and seminal Taqwacore bands like Boston’s the Kominas (who wrote the genre’s first true anthem, “Suicide Bomb The Gap”) and Vote Hezbollah from San Antonio, Texas, may not sound like traditional punk bands. “Punk rock, as a movement, came and went and is over,” says Waqar. “But we’re all people influenced by this amazing, prolific thing. We’re stepchildren and descendents of that movement.”

According to Waqar, Taqwacore bands relate to punk’s reactionary qualities, particularly in the current political climate. “The media portrays Muslims in one way–as angry, violent people,” he says. “Those of us who aren’t like that are finally coming out and making this music as our way of saying, ‘We’re not like that! We’re different! Pay attention to this!’” As of late, people are paying more attention to the Muslim punk movement, thanks in part to, The Taqwacores, a movie based on Knight’s book that became an official selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

But Taqwacore bands are far from the only purveyors of Eastern religion making noise in the underground scene. Musician Gaura Vani sees direct ties between punk rock and his spiritual life as a Hare Krishna. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was a strong contingency of Krishna kids in the straight-edge movement,” he says. “Some of that faded and hardcore became more secularized, but the passion for spiritual music stayed alive.” Vani, who leads Krishna band Gaura Vani & As Kindred Spirits, channeled his passion into helping to co-found Mantralogy, a Krishna imprint of Equal Vision Records that opened its doors this past July. Although EV is now home to the likes of Chiodos and Pierce The Veil, it was actually founded by Youth Of Today/Shelter vocalist Ray Cappo as a label for Krishna releases. Mantralogy will showcase “kirtan,” the 5,000 year-old practice of repeating sacred Hindu chants. “I love secular music,” says Vani. “But sometimes I feel like I’m listening to something that comes from the head and not the heart.”

To some, however, the religious aspect of non-Christian punk bands is an incidental reflection of heritage that naturally surfaces when opening up for a song. Temim Fruchter drums and sings for New York post-punk group the Shondes, a Jewish quartet who achieved notoriety for their song, “I Watched The Temple Fall,” a song that Fruchter describes as about Jews working in solidarity with Palestinians. “[That] isn’t a popular viewpoint,” she says. “But it’s a very specific angle on this topic and it’s important for us, as Jews, to portray that through our art.”

While fans of Christian punk may feel hesitant or even uncomfortable when confronted with music representing other religions, Fruchter says that her band–and many like them–aren’t trying to convert anyone. “We’re not a religious band in any sort of expansion or conversion sense like Christian bands might be,” she says. “[Our religion] is a significant part of who we are as people who care about where we come from, but [spreading our religion] is not our mission.” Waqar says that a full appreciation of his Taqwacore band’s message and music lends itself to the open-minded.

“People tend to react first and think later,” he says. “It’s a matter of taste. Some people don’t like being challenged spiritually, and some do.” In many ways, embracing differences and providing venues of communication have been the cornerstone of punk since its earliest incarnations, and Vani says that taking a step back and opening up minds is the first and most vital step towards embracing non-Christian religious punk. “[Our music] shouldn’t alienate people, but I’m sure it does,” he says. “I hope through sharing our music and telling the stories and symbolism behind it, we actually build bridges.” alt

Written by Ryan Wasoba