“Talent, like love, is only useful in its expenditure.” This quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. was brought to light on 23 January, when the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) brought its signature arts and culture event, Community Café, to New York City. Ibrahim Abdul Matin quoted King to provide context for the evening, in which IMAN blessed an audience of 1,500 at the legendary Apollo Theater with an unforgettable night of performances.
A living symbol of the Harlem Renaissance, a period when African American culture especially blossomed, the Apollo Theater was the perfect place for a historic evening that will prove pivotal in the Muslim American experience. "Bringing IMAN to the Apollo is a reminder to the Muslim American community of its roots in the African American community," said Amir Al-Islam, IMAN Chairman of the Board and Distinguished Lecturer of African American History at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York. IMAN is currently based in Chicago and plans to expand to New York City in 2010. It has a community-based, action-oriented mission and organises the Community Café, which promotes social change through the arts.
All those in attendance were aware of their connection to the city and to one another–through a shared history. Performers and hosts reminded us of the giants whose shoulders we stand on, often citing the legacies of the African American Muslim human rights activist Malcolm X and the Prophet Muhammad.
According to Asad Jafri, IMAN Director of Arts and Culture, "IMAN is committed to promoting arts and culture in the Muslim community, alongside service and advocacy.”
Deeply rooted in the prophetic tradition of service and social justice, the organisation pushes all those involved to take action to better their communities. A prominent theme of this New York City special edition of the Community Café was connectedness–that what happens in Brooklyn affects what happens in Harlem.
And, more broadly, what happens in Haiti affects what happens in New York City–and vice versa.
In light of the recent earthquake, Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York opened the night with Qur'anic verses that reminded us of the importance of patience in the face of calamity. IMAN teamed up with Islamic Relief and raised over $13,000 to support victims of the earthquake. In addition to the funds raised, IMAN Executive Director Rami Nashashibi encouraged the audience to strengthen the effort to grant Haitian asylum seekers Temporary Protective Status, a temporary immigration status granted to foreign nationals who cannot return home because of a crisis in the home country.
A man of many talents, the comedian Aasif Mandvi performed a dramatic reading that took the audience along on his journey back to his childhood in Bradford, England, home to a large South Asian immigrant community. Many who had followed Mandvi’s successes over the years, most notably in his current role as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show were able to place his life in context. He spoke poignantly of the history of his hometown and the bigotry he and his working class family often faced as minorities while living there.
The ReMINDers, a husband and wife hip-hop duo, sang “Black Roses”, an ode to their children, reminding the audience of its responsibility to posterity, effectively linking their present to their future. Liza Garza performed her spoken word poetry with her child clinging to her back, demonstrating that very link. The rapper Amir Suleiman and Danish pop group Outlandish were among the other artists that graced the famous Apollo stage.
Fittingly, the night ended with Grammy nominated hip-hop artist Mos Def performing his hit song “Umi Says”. Echoing his classic lyrics, he encouraged the audience to “shine your light on the world,” adding, “I want Haiti to be free.” Mos Def had performed this song many times before, but his words rang through the Apollo with a higher sense of purpose and urgency on this particular night.
That high sense of purpose defines the Muslim American community today, and the Apollo was home to its powerful expression. Those who attended Community Café walked away with a heightened sense of pride and empowerment that is sure to permeate the greater Muslim community and New York City at large. The audience was treated to a celebration of American Islam, in all its diversity.
And it was beautiful.
* Abed Z. Bhuyan, a graduate of Georgetown University, is currently a high school teacher in New York City with Teach for America. This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek's On Faith and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).