I make dua for that lady/ That one day I'mma pray salat with that lady/ Cause wallah I'm going crazy/ Inshallah I'mma be that one for that lady. So goes the chorus on “Muslim Queen,” a rework of Fetty Wap’s infectious “Trap Queen” that extols the virtues of dating a Muslim girl.
It’s a recent offering from Ottawa, Canada based online stars Deen Squad, aka Jae Deen and Karter Zaher. The duo’s self-described “Halal Remixes” flip the script on mainstream rap tracks, turning them into opportunities for endless references to Islam as a nod to a demographic of rap-loving young Muslims. Back in May, they dropped “Friday”—a play on iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” that’s racked up over five million views on YouTube—in which they discuss J’ummah (Friday prayers), the pains of the masjid (mosque) being packed, and their aversion to drinking.
Despite the slapstick-style presentation of “Muslim Queen” et al, the politics of Deen Squad don’t go unnoticed. By riffing on Fetty Wap—an artist who has swiftly become part of the fabric of rap this year—they underscore that young Muslims should be normalized in popular culture. Moreover, it speaks volumes that two young Muslims felt the need to be funny in order to try and rewrite the narrative of aggressive Islamophobia across western media. Deen Squad uses parody as a way into deconstructing the one-dimensional view that young Muslims are experiencing across western culture. From the fear-mongering about radicalization in the UK, to the structured attack against Islam in the US, demonization has become a way of life.
Just yesterday, the UK prime minister David Cameron's championing of "British values" during a speech in which he detailed a five-year plan to tackle extremism in Britain sent a clear message: that young Muslims would be scrutinized to new levels to ensure they are not "radical" in the eyes of the law. Meanwhile, the recent tragedy at the hands of a gunman in Chattanooga, Tennessee has given many leading voices in the US free reign to lay blame on the entire Muslim community for violence. If Bill O'Reilly comments criticizing Obama's "tentative" approach to extremism didn't sicken you, then then this bizarre quote from Donald Trump should do the job: "It's going to get worse in our country and we better start fighting a lot tougher than we're fighting right now... We have to start maybe being not so politically correct."
Meanwhile in Canada, where Zaher and Deen reside, the Senate security and defense committee in Canada has recently released a report proposing that the government train and certify imams to reduce radicalization. The central thing that we are supposed to take away from all this rhetoric is that the Muslim community is a ticking time bomb that we should fear. The "increased and predictable threat of terrorism" type statements that are regularly released by both UK and US governments mean that young Muslims have to work harder than ever to shrug off prejudice.
“Muslims are not all radical and sometimes using humor to say that is effective.”—JAE DEEN
Whatever your take on it, Deen Squad’s cheesy, comic parodies are certainly another way into thinking about the universal Muslim experience. For Zaher, a Middle Eastern Muslim born in Canada, and Deen, a Ghanaian Muslim convert now based in Ottawa, provide a good example of plurality. Their message is clear: being rooted in hip-hop, R&B and rap culture is just as important to their identity as going to mosque on a Friday. While it might be easy to write them off as a novelty, their online fame has given Deen and Zaher a launchpad for their own music careers—and the two have more in their sights than comedy videos, including a mixtape due to drop later this year. The FADER caught up with the duo to talk making music when you come from an immigrant community, Drake appreciation, and slaughtering beats the halal way.
What is the meaning behind the name Deen Squad?
JAE DEEN: We wanted to have a name that would represent us. “Squad” is the most popular term when you’re referring to people nowadays so it made sense. No-one says “crew” anymore, or “team” or “clique,” which was the word five years ago. When people hear the word “deen,” they immediately know it’s associated with Islam. In Arabic, “deen” means religion/lifestyle, so we’re just saying this is the lifestyle, this is the squad.
Why did you choose to cover “Trap Queen”?
KARTER ZAHER: “Trap Queen” is one of the biggest tracks right now, so we thought it would make sense to do a Halal Remix. It’s showing that Muslim females have a lot of honor and we respect them—they’re queens. We wanted to show another narrative for young Muslim guys, which shows the value we put on a Muslim female.
Is parody an effective tool for you to react against Islamophobia?
DEEN: We do the music because it’s a manifestation of who we are—we like rap, and we’re being comfortable with our identity. Muslims are not all radical and sometimes using humor to say that is effective.
ZAHER: There are examples of extremism in the US. It happens in the UK, it happens here. We just do the best to show the media that Muslims are not about what the media portrays us to be. We’re trying to show people an image of happiness. We made it sound funny—when we’re at mosque on a Friday, sometimes it really is packed! Rap is about saying what you know.
What has the response been?
ZAHER: It was very good, a lot of people loved it, the hate is very minimal. When people are negative we just keep it moving. The negative comments are because of the fact there's a mosque in the background [of the video] and some Muslims think this is haram, or don’t approve of [rap] because they believe the prophet wouldn’t listen to it. What they fail to understand is that the message that we’re portraying is connecting people. It's an alternative for youth like us.
Is it more difficult for your parents to understand what you do when you come from an immigrant community?
ZAHER: Yes. Honestly, my family at first weren’t the most supportive of what we were trying to do, but now they’re proud. Arab parents don’t want their sons to make music, they want them to become doctors and lawyers—the usual stuff. So obviously at first they were like, "We want you to become a lawyer."
Do you get recognized in the street?
ZAHER: Yeah, we do.
DEEN: We got interviewed by the BBC and when I showed my mum the interview, she was going crazy; parents love that stuff. She’s heard people talking about me on the bus and has been with me when I’ve been recognized. It’s pretty funny.
What did you grow up listening to?
ZAHER: R&B and hip hop. 50 Cent, Eminem, Drake, and Lil Wayne—all of our music is influenced by those sounds. My sisters always listen to Arabic music in the house.
You just did a "Know Yourself" remix on Soundcloud. Are you big Drake fans?
DEEN: We listen to a lot of Drake—he is honestly one of our biggest inspirations. Anytime there's an example of what we wanna do in out career, we’re like, ‘"Would Drake do this?" Like the WWJD bracelets. He put Toronto on the map.
ZAHER: I’m pretty sure Drake is aware of us, because we have close friends who are close to him. One of the rumors was that he actually heard "Friday." I really hope that he loved it, that would be amazing.
Were you listening to rap during Ramadan? Or did you put music on hold for the month?
ZAHER: Myself personally, I don’t listen to music while I'm fasting. Not because it's something that’s haram and we want to give it up but because Ramadan is specifically about spiritual empowerment and spiritual betterment, so Muslims use this time to become close to God. Every night we have long extended prayers and you don’t want to do anything that will distract focus from building your relationship with God. We don’t release any music during Ramadan. So we need to wait until next month for the next video.
DEEN: After Ramadan we have a mixtape coming out in August—it’s going to drop randomly.
Has it been important to reach people outside as well as inside your community?
ZAHER: For us, our main audience are mainly young Muslims, so we knew they would get us. But yeah, I get asked questions a lot by non-Muslims. I don’t mind explaining it to them—I guess they must be googling a lot. It’s cool to be reaching all kinds of people. When we’re asked about why we called it the "Halal Remix," I just say, "because we slaughter beats in the halal way.”