Cyrus McGoldrick - The Raskol Khan
Cyrus McGoldrick is an American Muslim lyrical artist and community activist of Irani and Irish descent. He's the Civil Rights Manager at the NY chapter of CAIR and is a board member of Getting Out & Staying Out. As an independent world/hip-hop musician he has been performing under the name of the Raskol Khan all over the US.
Cyrus McGoldrick is an American Muslim of Iranian and Irish descent who works at the New York chapter of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is one of the biggest Muslim organizations in the US with 33 offices all across the different states. Their main focus is civil rights advocacy and juridical support of Muslims who’ve encountered hate crimes, discrimination or abuse.
Cyrus’ work as a human-rights activist in fact smoothly mixes with his artistic alter-ego: the Raskol Khan. For several years now he’s been recording and performing his fusion of faith and hip hop for an ever growing fan base both within and outside the US.
Yet even though Islam is the focus of both his work and his music, Cyrus wasn’t raised as a Muslim. “A lot of people think that my Islam comes from my Iranian roots. But no, I took a rather ‘scenic route’.” he told me in the office of CAIR New York at the start of our very amicable conversation. My interest was immediately aroused.
What kind of ‘scenic route’ was that?
I was raised loosely Christian, but my parents weren’t dogmatic about it. In fact, they got married three times: once in city hall, once in a mosque and once in a church, to be sure it certainly counted, I guess (laughs). And in our conversations about spiritual stuff the focus was always on God and service: being good, telling the truth and community service. But I wasn’t into religion when I was young.
In college, however, I started researching more about religion – although at first my interests was more the politics and anthropology of it. And then, when I got into the spiritual side of it as well, the first book that had a real impact on me was the Bhagavad-Gita. For the first time I felt the unity of creation. It all made sense to me and it all started to connect. It didn’t settle me on Hinduism however. I continued searching and even got to a point where I was reading Quran and trying to meditate, and none of it well. But after a while all the pieces started to come together and I simply realized Islam was the religion for me. There wasn’t any special epiphany. I just kind of flowed into Islam and I’ve always been very fulfilled by it.
I’ve read the Bhagavad-Gita numerous times myself and I would say that in many ways it’s a lot more ‘approachable’ than the Quran, at least for a Western public. To read the Quran, I always think, you need quite a lot of theological background to be able to grasp it properly. How come it clicked with you?
When I started learning more about Islam, the first thing my teacher told me to read wasn’t just the Quran, but a biography of the prophet. And he was right to do that, because first we have to trust the sources. While learning more about his life I came to realize why it’s obvious that the revelation indeed came to him. He’s the model of how to live according to the revelation. That’s why my teacher also said that someone who’s losing faith should read the biography of the prophet and not necessarily the Quran. The Quran should be approached with the proper mindset and respect. If I don’t get something out of it, it’s my problem, not the problem of the book.
Becoming a Muslim is one thing but how did an Irish-Iranian young man get into the hip-hop scene?
When I came to New York, trying to adjust and find my way, I started playing music with friends, doing rooftop parties in Brooklyn, got involved with some bands and before I knew it, some people that were light years ahead of me in experience got me to write some lyrics and record them. So there I was, a bit of an anomaly among hip-hop, reggae and calypso musicians. But I felt I became good at it and I got a lot of encouragement. I didn’t take it too seriously at first but when I went traveling through Europe I saw some great music, particularly folk bands, that really got to me and I started wondering what I wanted to be as an artist myself. An artist, to me, should have a kind of a ‘persona’, a style that differentiates the character from himself and I wondered what that could be for me. In the years that followed, the Raskol Khan was born.
So how would you describe that ‘persona’ of the Raskol Khan?
Mainstream hip hop is based on that idea of consumption and waste. It’s about being proud that we can buy the waste, the poison that’s being sold to us. Hip hop once started as an antagonistic and oppositional culture but it got taken up by the mainstream culture and became a part of it and even started selling its materialism as something positive. The Raskol Khan is my way of starting from that point and then undermining it. I wanted to show that I was a victim of it as well and share my learning process. I haven’t always been a nice person. I haven’t always been spiritual. I’ve been a knucklehead too. And the Raskol Khan offers me a way to express my experiences of what I’ve been through because I can use the music as a sort of common ground.
You don’t look like a hip hop artist however. As the Raskol Khan you retain a very Islamic image.
You know, in American Islam we don’t have too many role models outside of religious scholarship. Even the Muslims that do get some fame in the corporate world or the mainstream culture usually don’t look like me or most Muslims. They’re the ones that totally fit in, that pass. They gave up certain parts of their identity in order to succeed in others. And I don’t mean to demonize them, but it seems important to me that we also have some role models that practice Islam and that are proud of the external aspects of our identity. Otherwise every time you see somebody on the news that looks like me, he wasn’t up to much good and that distorts the image. I kind of wanted to reclaim that as well.
Therefore, if I can boil down my music into two things, it’s reclaiming our religion and reclaiming our right to dissent. I’m pretty comfortable in that role and I’m going to stay in it because I realized that every individual is the battleground of everyone else’s rights.
So activism and advocacy is also a part of being the Raskol Khan?
It was in fact a turning point for me to figure out how I could use the Raskol Khan as a platform to get some messages across. Before that, I had ideas to express, but I didn’t like being on stage. My first inclination was to record, throw it online and let people listen to it. I didn’t want to be in the spotlight and draw the attention on me because it felt a bit awkward. But then one day I realized: “In one hand I have a cause I deeply care about and in the other I have a stage and a spotlight… Perhaps I don’t have to talk about myself but I can put the message in the spotlight and let it speak for itself.” So I started seeing it as an educational opportunity both for the audience and myself. That opened up my life.
It’s not all just politics though. It’s more about ethics in the broader sense. I’ve never been able to disconnect faith and activism because, at the end of the day, I think it’s about service and human dignity. If in any way you believe that there’s a law higher than the law of the jungle, than we have something in common. So I’m not going to try to convert anybody. I’d rather have people be a good Christian than a bad Muslim.
Imam Ali, the fourth caliph said: “Every person is either your brother in faith, or your brother in humanity.” A lot of people throw around the word ‘Ummah’ recklessly however. They think it simply means ‘the Muslim community’. That’s a good way to think about it but not the only way. We need to get past the ‘community’ ego a bit because we’re all in this together. The Ummah for me is the greater humanity and that’s what we should be focused on.
In your daily work you do have strong focus on human rights. Is there a lot of need in the US for an organization like CAIR? Do Muslims encounter a lot of violations of their civil rights?
Our work is most certainly needed. To give you an example: the research of some journalists exposed recently a covert surveillance program within our police department. The New York police department keeps files on every Friday sermon of all the mosques in New York and beyond. Sometimes they tape it, sometimes it’s just informants listening and taking notes. Muslims are closely watched in the US, in our schools, businesses, even homes, and anyone saying something a bit ‘different’ might get a visit from the police or the FBI. It should be no surprise then, that a lot of Muslims have internalized the feeling of ‘being watched all the time.’
One of the very strange things in this post 9/11 era is that religious behavior got criminalized. In 2007 the NYPD released a document called ‘Radicalization in the West’, written by some former CIA agents. That document alleges that every Muslim can somehow become a fully mobilized home grown terrorist. And the supposed signs of becoming a terrorist are things like growing a beard, frequenting mosques, going to book-stores and giving up smoking. So in their logic it’s only normal that they put surveillance on all mosques because everybody who’s practicing a religion is a potential threat.
I used to want to say it’s all a misunderstanding, but it’s difficult to still believe it because it’s gone way too far. It’s all part of the war-machine and we have to wake up to it.
We’re a very polarized country at the moment. Everybody used to run to the middle but these days it’s the Tea-party at one end and then a fragmented Left, but that Left is pretty much disconnected from mainstream institutions. So there’s not much media speaking on our behalf or telling the truth as we know it.
In any polarized situation the extremes amplify each other. Is there no rise of extremist ideas on the Muslim side?
Some young people do tend to seek extremes in Islam and other ideologies. But the feeling that the so-called extremists actually feed on is the desire we have to save the world. Everyone is waiting on their letter from Hogwarts that shows them their destiny. They might leave their communities. They might still come to the mosques to pray but they don’t belong to the group anymore, partly because the group can’t handle their energy and partly because the youth see that the imams aren’t addressing the real issues like the injustices done by the government or the world-wide oppression the Muslim community is going through.
So if our spiritual leaders don’t dare to address crucial issues, and want to just wrap themselves in an American flag to appease others, we will lose a lot of good kids. We need to be honest, address the difficult issues and talk about ideas of jihad, what is to be a mujahid, etc. We need to explain how those concepts are realistic, but also above terrorism and have different, authentic meanings. Because if we don’t talk about it, they’ll go and listen to others that aren’t necessarily the right people. If you act as if it the idea of jihad doesn’t exist in Islam, they’ll know you don’t know what you’re talking about and run to internet shaykhs or others to find some answers that might lead them astray.
We don’t need to tell to young kids – like some imams and speakers do – that they shouldn’t be outspoken. There really isn’t any need to water down our religion just to seem nice, because we can be truthful to our religion and outspoken and still find a lot that connects us to people of other faiths. One of those things is, for example, that it’s not only your Islamic duty but also your patriotic duty to uplift society the best you can.
Is that also a message you try to bring through your music?
Sure. When I’m on stage or when I speak I try to bring the message, I’m not here to water it down, I’m not here to tell anyone how they need to dress or that they should be more ‘Western’ – whatever that means. No, I only want to tell them: “you need to be you.” And I see it work. Just recently we had a student come to us after a panel discussion and say: “You know, you’re the first person I met that says it’s OK to be angry.” That made my day because what brought me into Islam was in fact a sense of social justice.
I can understand that very well. I personally think we often forget that there are two types of anger: the egoistic one and the spiritual one. The latter is like Jesus’ anger when he whipped the merchants out of the temple.
Yeah, righteous anger! There simply is no peace without justice, or at least no lasting peace. The Sunni-Shia conflict under Saddam Hussein was pretty peaceful but that was because he was doing the killing. You can enforce peace but then it isn’t real peace.
We always have to remember it’s about love – even when we talk about anger and justice. I don’t tell people not to be angry and upset because frankly, if you’re not angry and upset with certain things happening in the world, then you’re not paying attention. But that kind of anger comes from love, from wanting to protect your loved ones from injustice.