Let me introduce you to two young women: Tanya Williams and Yashima Douglas. These ladies come all the way from a British town called Bristol. They both grew up in Christian families, which naturally made them join their high school gospel choir.
Can you try to picture them? I must add to this that their ancestry lies in tropical Jamaica. I can see you’re changing your mind about them. The story goes on. The girls met during rehearsals and became friends. They not only found common ground in singing, but also in hip-hop and spoken-word.
In 2002, they decided to make their dream come true: start a hip-hop band. Don’t worry; you aren’t the only one not seeing this coming. They are however extremely talented, and this talent is not something you can easily forget or ignore. They are considered precursors of the British hip-hop scene and they collaborated with different famous artists, such as K’naan, Talib Kweli and Mutabaruka.
Are you starting to get the idea? I can see how I forgot to mention the name of the band. Their stage name is Poetic Pilgrimage. ‘Pilgrimage’, isn’t that a word that just lingers around in your head? It immediately refers to the ladies’ Christian background. Let’s get back in time for a minute. In between performances they managed to enrol at university. Through the years they started practising their spirituality more and more, which left them no longer satisfied of their Christian faith. This is when they turned to Islam. You must be losing your way right now, aren’t you? Three years later, in 2005, they decided to become Muslims. After converting, they changed their names to Muneera Rashida and Sukina Abdul Noor. They also started wearing the veil. Aha! I can see you are completely lost now.
You must be asking yourself a million questions right about now. Women becoming famous in the world of hip-hop? Muslim women? Is that even achievable with a headscarf, a hijab? Poetic Pilgrimage, is that some sort of hadj through hip-hop music? Is this the new and modern Islam? Now you must have no idea how to picture all of this.
Shall I give something away? Try to wipe off all the stereotypes you might have in your mind, and just get to know these young women. There is one thing remarkable about this duo; it is the impossibility to put a label on them.
I spoke to these power ladies about their experience as Britain’s very first female hip-hop duo, their dreams and more.
Let’s start with how it all started. What made you start Poetic Pilgrimage?
Muneera: It all started when we got to know each other in high school. We didn’t know each other well until we both started singing at our school’s choir. We found out we had so much in common and started performing together more frequently.
So your band is basically based on friendship?
Sukina: Yes, our friendship grew more and more and we had some very interesting talks together. At that time we were still figuring out our identity and we wanted to express ourselves. We noticed that the voices of British black women were hardly heard or listened to. Our story did not get so much attention and people were barely interested in politically or historically infused music. Since mainstream media could not represent us, we decided to represent ourselves through Poetic Pilgrimage.
Muneera: Do you know what’s rather funny? People sometimes ask us, “why hip-hop?” As if this were necessarily a choice. It’s not as if one day we woke up and thought, “oh, which one will it be? Hip-hop… Or maybe R&B!” (laughs). This is just our generation’s genre. It’s the genre we are most comfortable with and which captures our stories the best way. Whether you play an instrument or not doesn’t matter, and you don’t need to be a part of any specific social class, hip-hop is for everyone, it doesn’t discriminate.
What about your stage name? Does it represent anything in particular?
Muneera: Many people associate our name to the idea of hadj because we converted to Islam in 2005. This is however not correct, we already chose this name before even considering Islam. As young girls we were always on a spiritual journey. We were always looking for that little something. We went looking for our own identity and that’s how we found God. I can’t remember whether I was so conscious about it when I was younger, but people often say, “if you know yourself, you know God”. While looking for myself, I was consequently looking for God. I am after all a creation of His. Compare this to looking at a painter’s work. If you understand his paintings, you know quite a bit about him, too.
Sukina: Poetic Pilgrimage literally stands for this struggle: the repeated search for answers and knowledge. On the way there, we must take a minute to appreciate the beauty around us. Everyday, the world speaks to us, in a poetic manner.
Has converting to Islam influenced your lives as artists?
Sukina: Before we converted to Islam, we already had a social consciousness, and were spiritually working on that as well. You could clearly see this in our music. Converting did perhaps enable us to focus more on what we wanted to say and for what reason we did it. We did for instance stop swearing in our songs (laughs). Yet I don’t really see a very big change. I do however think it problematic to completely wipe off one’s identity because one becomes Muslim. This can’t be the intention of a religion. Religion is supposed to be supplementary. Islam only came to refine my identity, not change it.
Muneera: I indeed think it gave us more focus. If you think you came to this world for a specific reason, it also reflects in your doing. When we get criticised it gives us an opportunity to rethink and revise our intention.
Famous people, of course, get criticised, how do you cope with criticism?
Sukina: There is a difference in the way we cope with it now, when compared to when we first started. Poetic Pilgrimage has now been around for about ten years, and at first we were so emotionally involved with it that whenever we would receive negative criticism, we would feel attacked on a personal level. Now we don’t feel that way anymore. We had a break for the last three years, which gave us the opportunity to grow as people. Ever since we gained some fame through the documentary Hip Hop Hijabis, criticism started getting a lot worse. This break did teach us why we even started all this, it also made us more objective to critics. We are indeed the founders of Poetic Pilgrimage, but it is no longer just the two of us as individuals. Poetic Pilgrimage also exists on its own.
You get targeted by more than one community. The western community claims you reached this far because you only aim for the Muslim audience; while different Muslim communities don’t even want to come near your work; and the Jamaican community doesn’t make your life easier either…
Muneera: criticism, to be honest, doesn’t really captivate me. Our existence is not meant to make people satisfied. But when criticism is from an Islamic angle, I find it completely unfounded. I simply don’t agree with it. We know the different ideologies inside Islam and we know the important place culture has in our faith. Sukina is now finishing her bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies, while I’m doing a master’s degree in the same field. I have to admit it hurts to hear some of the critics…
Sukina: So when people criticise us, and say things like “this and that is haram”, we think, “who are you to judge us?” Of course this doesn’t mean we think that being closely tied to your creator means you can say or think, “YOLO, only God can judge me”. No, I believe I received this talent for a reason. I have to do something with it, this is why I have been brought to this world. There was a time when weren’t sure if we wanted to keep the name Poetic Pilgrimage. But then we received an opportunity we couldn’t let pass by. Something like that never happens without a reason.
Muneera: It especially hurts when it comes from the Jamaican community and when it’s about our conversion to Islam. What further irritates me is the way we get portrayed in the western media. We know these media have a specific image of what we are. They have an opinion on Islam of course, and on women inside Islam: they have these images of Muslim women being oppressed by Muslim men. We are then portrayed as these female heroes who managed to beat the Muslim “bad guys”. We never get portrayed strictly as artists, but always as a (Muslim) woman. These stereotypes need to be dealt with.
Speaking of stereotypes, there is, in hip-hop culture, this idea of women being inferior and being portrayed as sexual objects, especially coloured women. Hip-hop culture is said to reinforce sexism. To what extent do you agree with this?
Sukina: I think hip-hop and Islam find common ground concerning some misconceptions. The media likes to give us extremes. The women you are talking about are indeed part of the hip-hop industry, and they obviously mean something as well, but that isn’t the hip-hop I know or love. People like Queen Latifah, JoJo and Eve have proven to be the opposite of being oppressed. There have always been different types of women in hip-hop who are in a way or another empowered by the genre. Sexualising women is definitely an existing problem in the hip-hop industry, but it doesn’t only exist in this specific music industry. You can also see this problem in movies and video games, which is why I think this is more of a cultural problem. We see ourselves as “puritans”, meaning we always try to go back to the source. Hip-hop was at first used to convey a message, to express yourself, that’s what’s important to us. Let’s pretend Muneera and I for instance would have been ballet dancers, we would have told these same stories nevertheless. It would ‘ve been a message told through dance steps, but the message would still be the same.
Muneera: I always speak from my own experience in this music industry, and I have never really felt inferior of discriminated. Speaking for myself I actually even feel empowered by hip-hop. Using rhymes and a microphone gives me power to express myself.
Sukina: The problem of sexism does exist and I won’t try to belittle the women who participate to that by saying that what they do isn’t hip-hop. Nicki Minaj is for instance a very talented hip-hop artist. What’s really a shame is that the industry has turned her into a kind of Barbie doll, which keeps her from showing us her true talent. Her lyrical strength is erased and what’s left is only her singing. It’s sad to see she can’t show what she can do as an artist. Not how she looks in a bikini or her pink hair or whether or not she’s had buttocks implants. These women exist and they do represent something, but they don’t represent all of hip-hop.
How do you see Poetic Pilgrimage’s future?
Muneera: Sukina mentioned that Poetic Pilgrimage was so much more than just the two of us. I see it as a form of dialogue. Misconceptions will always remain but the dialogue will go on further; in our music, our behaviour or while on the road.
Sukina: Like Muneera said, we want to make more music. The media likes to focus on us as being women or Muslim women; they hardly ever focus on our music. We just want to be the best MC’s out there. We want to show the world everything we have. We want to keep on exchanging and dialoguing but only using the right knowledge. This is where I also want to point out the importance of education. Other than that, collaborating with other artists, travelling, seeing the world, is what we want. Simply tell a different story.