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Opa-locka and the Real Muslim World PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
April 2018

The fantasy Orientalism reignites a conversation about Muslim culture

EArtFeature_1ven by Florida standards, the small city of Opa-locka in northwest Miami-Dade is a bizarre enclave. Opa-locka stands out among the state’s municipalities for being notoriously corrupt and with high crime rates and poverty levels to accompany that distinction. And that’s not even considering its unique origins.

Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss decided, for some strange reason, to found a city in 1926 based on the Middle Eastern folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights, famously known for the long evenings that Scheherazade spun tales for the sultan to keep herself alive, including the tales of Aladdin and his magical lamp, and the seven voyages of Sinbad, among many others. The result was a city filled with a version of Moorish architecture (20 buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and street names such as Ali Baba Avenue.

But like Disneyland, it was a re-creation based on a fantasy -- there was no actual Arab, Muslim, or Moorish population living there. The imagery and names came from the folk tales. In 2018, that fascination with what is now a passé style called Orientalism is why MDC Live Arts decided to culminate its groundbreaking season of performances, “Ojala/Inshalla: Wishes from the Muslim World,” in Opa-locka.

The April program, which involves a two-week residency with students and an all-female hip-hop performance, is called Hip Hoppa Locka.

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This series is almost as unique as Opa-locka. While Islamophobia has grown increasingly extreme, really since 9/11 -- an issue that MDC Live Arts wanted to address -- there is also a specific Miami connection. Southern Spain was for centuries known as al-Andalus, part of the Muslim world, and also known for its North African Moorish influences, a time that influenced language, culture, and architecture all over Spain and the Hispanic world. Hence the title of the season: Ojala, the Spanish for “I wish,” is derived from the Arabic Inshallah, meaning “god willing.”

MDC Live Arts wanted to highlight the diversity of cultural expression that comes out of the vast Muslim world. “The issues the series tackles unfortunately aren’t new,” says MDC Live Arts executive director Kathryn Garcia. “Muslim and Arab cultures have been misrepresented in American media going back to the Orientalist fantasies stemming from the tales of Arabian Nights -- visible in our own Opa-locka.”

In more recent times, she continues, “that romanticism has given way to new stereotypes -- the fundamentalist terrorist and the oppressed woman. So what we are trying to do with this series is to [expand] people’s notions of Muslim and Arab identity -- including, of course, that they are not even always one and the same.

“We are doing that by searching for the things that unify us, be that [in] language like ojalá, finding yourself as an immigrant in a new culture, or even an art form like hip-hop, while also celebrating the rich cultural diversity present among us.”

To start the season, MDC brought in a Pakistani jazz ensemble, which mixed styles from South Asian musical traditions with Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck. During Art Basel, “Gardens Speak” moved into disturbing ground, with a performance from Beirut-based Tania El Khoury, who asked the audience to listen to histories of people buried in the ground, in the gardens/graves of Syria. Frenchman Hervé Koubi, while searching his Algerian roots as a choreographer, made his Miami première with his all-male troupe of dancers from North Africa that combined martial arts movements, contemporary dance, and Sufi music in an unforgettable show.

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And now it’s the women’s time. As the pinnacle of “Ojala/Inshallah,” three female Muslim hip-hop artists will participate this month in a two-week residency in Opa-locka, working with students at the Arts Academy of Excellence (this program is in partnership with the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation), and culminating in a performance on April 21.

Muslim. Women. Hip-hop. “We wanted to focus on marginalized populations,” says Jennifer Person, managing producer at MDC Live who helped organize Hip Hoppa Locka. “We wanted to look at [where] women were disempowered.” Not only in a Muslim society, but in a worldwide one.

Garcia zeroed in on three international Muslim artists immersed in hip-hop culture -- Amirah Sachett, Aja Black, and Cita Sadeli “Chelove” -- to lead this ambitious month. Sachett is a hip-hop dancer and choreographer, while Black is more focused on spoken word, and Chelove is a graffiti artist. They will be engaging not only with the young Opa-locka students, but also visiting various MDC campuses and after-school programs, such as GirlFit; presenting pop-up performances; and leading master classes.

“I had heard of this incredible b-girl, Amirah Sackett, and knew I wanted her to be part of this project because she epitomizes its spirit as an empowered female who is both fiercely Muslim and fiercely hip-hop,” explains Garcia about this choice of the artists. Along with MC Aja Black and muralist Cita Sadeli Chelove, she says, “I don’t think we could have wished for a more powerful group of women to lead this work we are about to embark upon in Opa-locka.”

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And then something else happened during the curating of the April program, according to Person: Parkland. After 17 students and staff were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, MDC knew it had to relate to this snowballing issue involving students and guns and violence. As Person points out, Opa-locka has a depressingly high rate of gun violence, one that students did not need to be reminded of because of Parkland.

So on April 20, the same day designated as a national walkout for schools across the country, the Hip Hoppa Locka student residents will make their own stamp, “a walkout that can also be a creative process,” says Person, something that can be a positive, multi-disciplinary expression while still acknowledging the impact of gun violence.

Maybe it’s not so strange that many worlds collide in 2018, in a series such as “Ojala/Inshalla.” How are Muslims viewed in the United States today, as diverse as they are, coming from Indonesia, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco, Paris, and Miami? How are women making their voices heard, #MeToo? How are young people taking the streets with #NeverAgain?

 

Hip Hoppa Locka, a celebration of female hip-hop Muslim innovators, starting at 4:00 p.m. on April 21, at the Arc, 675 Ali Baba Ave., Opa-locka, mdclivearts.org, 305-237-3010.

 

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