How One Muslim American Uses Hip-Hop to Heal Wounds
When Cyrus McGoldrick takes the stage, he’s not himself. McGoldrick raps as The Raskol Khan, often with the Freddy Fuego Sextet, an evolving group of musicians based in Harlem. The name Raskol is based on the main character in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. McGoldrick describes the first part of his pseudonym as “a rebellious force in society who’s trying to do the right thing but struggles with his environment and self.” Khan, Arabic for King or Chief, “channels a vestige of an imperial mindset, a long history of conquest,” he says. It is a history McGoldrick hopes to cleanse himself of.
McGoldrick is not famous. He’s not revolutionary. He is a college student, a musician, and a writer. He is also Muslim in America. McGoldrick is part of the first generation of young Muslim Americans to go through their adolescence and early adulthood post-9/11.
“9/11 was the first day of high school,” McGoldrick recalls. McGoldrick says as he sits in his rent-stabilized one bedroom apartment in Morningside Heights, the far upper west reaches of Manhattan. [Full-disclosure: McGoldrick and I first met when we attended high school together.] In the years since Sept. 11, he feels there has been a weakening of the Muslim identity.
When forced to identify in relation to others, “the identity loses its pride in itself,” he says. “The worry is that to be a good Muslim in America you need to not be something, as opposed to what you can be.” McGoldrick wants to serve others and foster a unified Muslim community in America.
The son of an Iranian mother and an American father of Irish descent, McGoldrick was born on January 22, 1988, in Newport, R.I. and raised in Perkasie, Pa. His mother was born and raised in Tehran; she left the country at age 17, just before the Iranian revolution of 1979.
“Some of my family was hunted [at that time],” McGoldrick says. The effect of his family’s escape from oppression is evident in McGoldrick’s personal and spiritual evolution. He was fortunate enough to only experience isolated incidents of discrimination, partly he says, because he “was able to pass for white.”
Though he is now a devout Muslim, McGoldrick was not raised in any particular religion. He went to Sunday school as a child though says his family always had a liberal attitude toward dogmatic religions and he grew up with an eclectic mix of relatives of all religions that gave him “knowledge of others.” McGoldrick eventually chose to devote himself to Islam after moving to New York City in 2005 to study in the Middle Eastern, South Asia, and African Studies Department at Columbia University, where he is a senior and plans to graduate in December. Tantamount to his religion, McGoldrick says community service was always a focus in his life, something his parents taught him to be of vital importance.
Now McGoldrick prays five times a day, eats Halal, and has eliminated alcohol completely from his diet. When he’s out with his friends or playing shows, he only drinks water, a transition he says took time for his peers to get used to.
McGoldrick works several jobs, all of which work to help New York City’s community. He tutors remedial writing and prepares GED students for qualifying exams. McGoldrick also helps with a creative writing camp his parents, both successful writers, founded. His day job is working in the office of his department of study at Columbia University, and he volunteers at the Maydan Institute and the Islamic Center at NYU.
McGoldrick also frequently helps CAIR-NY (Council on American-Islamic Relations) organize events in the city. He recently published an op-ed in NEEM Magazine, an online magazine focused on South-Asian culture, on the Fahad Hashmi case, one of the first instances of an American citizen who plead guilty to terrorism-related charges following Sept. 11.
McGoldrick is not your typical college student by any means, but he’s also not a naïve dreamer, imagining a world of peace. He doesn’t believe that one day every culture will get along, but he does believe that we have the potential for greater acceptance of the Muslim people.
McGoldrick believes a unified and proud Muslim culture would counteract the anti-Muslim sentiment that began after 9/11. Hate crimes between 2003 and 2004 against Muslims rose by 50 percent. Even now, a recent poll conducted by Pew suggests that 38 percent of Americans believe Islam encourages violence. Such anti-Muslim sentiment pervades our lives daily: flawed no fly-lists based on name and not criminal history, a recent rally in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. to oppose the building of a mosque (as well as hysteria over plans to build one near the Ground Zero site), not to mention the constant berating Islam takes in the media.
The shift between coexistence and acceptance to fear and hate is evident. It should not even be a question in our society anymore, but McGoldrick hopes there is a way to restore balance. “Just by being us,” McGoldrick says, “[we could] make Islam a normal part of peoples lives.”
As an example of the disparity between cultures, McGoldrick cites the government’s hallmark definition of “radicalism” as a Muslim person who has an increased faith in Islam, has grown a beard, and become more involved in activism.
McGoldrick recalls frustration with President Barack Obama’s campaign: When Obama was repeatedly branded a Muslim, McGoldrick wished Obama had turned the question around to ask why it would matter if a president were Muslim, instead of simply vehemently denying it.
Unfortunately, McGoldrick had to wait for General Colin Powell appeared on “Meet the Press” to endorse Obama, saying, "Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no.”
The misconception of Islam leaves those in the Muslim community feeling alienated for defining themselves in their own positive terms. McGoldrick is not immune to this feeling—in fact it seems to be the source of both his hope and uncertainty in life.
“Sometimes I feel lost,” he says, pausing to look down at his hands. “I trust that I’ll see good come from this time—sometimes we don’t have time to pause and see where we are.”
He ultimately finds his music, and The Raskol Khan, to be the greatest forum for addressing issues he and Muslim-Americans face today. “Music is part of my ministry,” McGoldrick says. “If I let music just be a distraction, then I’m not doing my best.”
When he raps with the Fuego Sextet, as he often does, he speaks to his personal struggles and the political and social issues that resonate in him the most. After the Israeli Navy raided the largest ship in the Gaza-bound aid flotilla, the Mavi Marmara on May 31, killing at least nine people and wounding dozens of others, the band organized an upcoming show into a memorial.
“Some people didn’t agree [with the message],” he says of the night, “but everyone was into [the music] and got something out of it.”
McGoldrick believes the power of hip-hop lies in the opportunity to reach a more progressive audience who he believes are “automatically more receptive,” considering the genre’s history of confronting political, social, and racial injustice.
And therein lies the purpose of The Raskol Khan: By honestly depicting McGoldrick’s former self, his history, he believes the audience can then see themselves more fully. “Rappers represent themselves as the height of achievement,” he says. “But this character is the beginning.”
Madeleine Dubus is a staff writer for Campus Progress and a writing fellow at The New School.