Deen Squad: The Muslim rap duo making waves with their ‘halal remixes’ | The World Weekly
The air is electric as Jae Deen and Karter Zaher are minutes away from taking the stage.
Deen bounds out from behind the curtain first, a wide smile on his lips and a tight grip on the mic, prompting raucous cheers from the audience of children and teens who are pushing up against a white, plastic fence at the front of the stage.
Moments later, Zaher runs out – wearing a white and gold t-shirt, white pants and multicoloured prayer beads around his neck – and waves to the thousands of jubilant fans.
They call themselves Deen Squad and the two rappers are not your typical hip hop outfit.
These two young men from Ottawa write new Islam-inspired lyrics for popular songs and have captivated the Muslim youth in Canada and around the world.
“It’s the first [of] its kind,” Zaher says in an interview before their appearance at Muslim Fest on Sunday, an annual cultural event in Mississauga, a city with large Muslim and Arab populations just west of Toronto.
“It’s Islamic hip hop. Because mainstream hip hop is associated with violence, drugs, sex, nudity … the fact that we take these songs and we’re giving it a Muslim vibe, like an Islamic twist, people are a little shocked about it,” he told Middle East Eye.
They call their songs “halal remixes” and have transformed Fetty Wap’s Trap Queen intoMuslim Queen, and OMI’s 2015 summer anthem Cheerleader into Believer. Both tracks now feature lyrics about finding a devout Muslim wife.
In Muslim Man, remixed over Jidenna’s Classic Man, the duo tackle Islamophobia, singing the chorus: “I’m a Muslim man - No, I’m not a terrorist.”
Their song ‘Muslim Man’ was released just a few days before the Paris attacks of November 2015, and immediately resonated with young Muslim communities living in the West.
Shot in downtown Toronto’s Dundas Square, the video was released a few days before the attacks in Paris in November last year and it struck a chord: it has received nearly four million views on YouTube to date.
In Mecca, a remix of Fetty Wap’s My Way, the rappers express their wish to get to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam to which millions of Muslims from around the world make a pilgrimage (Hajj) every year.
Zaher raps on the track: “When I was young, man I was dumb - Committing a lot of these sins - So I go to Hajj - So now it’s just time to repent.”
While the rappers hope their music will inspire Muslim youth to be proud of their religion and be more devout, they also want to show another side of Islam to non-belivers.
“We want to really put an end to Islamophobia," Zaher says. "So our message isn’t really just for the Muslims. It’s a message for the masses, for the entire world, for human beings in general.”
Jae Deen admits they have faced some criticism for blending religious themes with hip hop beats; some have even suggested that the songs might be haram (forbidden).
Deen Squad are not the first Muslim rap/hip-hop artists (Akon, Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip) to reach international recognition. Nor are they without controversy. Islamophobic hate mail and spammers aside, they’ve frequently come under fire from Muslim women and feminists. Saffiya Mohammed, writing in the Tempest, argues that instead of using their platform to normalise a modern, inclusive Islam and underscore the unjust systems oppressing all minorities, they’re simply perpetuating the misogynistic attitudes rife in most societies. Detractors posit that lyrics like “mama in the kitchen”, “asked her dad for her hand” (Muslim Queen) and “have our wives in Jannah” (Halal Panda) merely relay the notions that women’s place is domestic, their life choices belong to their paternal figures, and they exist to complete male fulfilment.
“Obviously music in our [Islamic] tradition, it’s a very contested subject. So you have people who say it’s forbidden to listen to. Then we have people who say you can listen to it as long as it is morally upright, and that’s the scholarly opinion that we listen to,” Deen explains.
But Zaher says it is all about the intention behind the music.
“We want our brothers and sisters to coexist together. We want the Christians and the Jews and the Muslims to understand each other, because the media portrays otherwise, and people think otherwise about our religion,” he says.
Representing Muslim youth
Zaher (real first name: Kodor) whose family is of Lebanese background, and Deen (real name: Joshua Asare), a Ghanian-Canadian who converted to Islam at age 15, were both born and raised in Ottawa, the Canadian capital.
They met in January 2015, in a class at Carleton University on India’s Bollywood film industry. They had been making music separately, were aware of each other's work, and decided to collaborate.
They first called themselves “Salaat Squad” (Prayer Squad) and recorded rough remixes on their phones which they would then post online. The positive response was almost immediate, Deen says.
They’ve used a medium which is really appealing to the youth, when most of the time books of Islamic teaching are very chunky and not that easy to digest. To see two young muslims trying to spread a good image and a positive message about Islam, I really do like that.” - Mehdi, 18-year old student
“We wrote the raps in like five minutes, you know, and they’d get a million views in two days. We’re university students, imagine,” Deen remembers. “We would just snap our fingers and just freestyle over beats. We’d do it in school, literally,” Karter adds.
As their early videos gained in popularity, the devout rappers settled on the name Deen Squad - deen means religion in Arabic.
Their audience at the Muslim Fest was mostly kids, teenagers and young adults, many of whom knew every word of every track and rapped along with them. When the duo were not performing, they were hanging out in a VIP area, where fans tried to catch a glimpse of them or snatch a photo.
“We come from Ottawa right, and not much happens in Ottawa, so the fact that we put our mosque in our video, it gets all of the kids in our city going, ‘Yo! They put Ottawa mosque on the map! They’re representing us!’” Deen says.
“We are proud Canadians and we are Muslims at the same time,” he adds. “We pray, we’re happy, we go to the mosque, we have a good time, we smile at everybody and they all love us. That’s the message that we try to bring out.”
What is up next for Deen Squad? Recording more original songs, maybe an album, travelling to meet their fans, and educating more people about Islam.
“The key to success is just to have fun with what you’re doing… We always say that to each other, let’s just go on stage and have fun,” Zaher says.
“We still can’t believe it’s been a year and look how much we’ve accomplished,” Deen adds. “It’s crazy. God [has] truly blessed us.”