Famed music producer and DJ Sam Spiegel might just be facing his greatest challenge ever. Sure, he has been able to coax such big names as Kanye West, David Byrne, Chuck D, and Tom Waits, to name just a few, into taking part in his projects. He has also collaborated with a litany of musical acts from Maroon 5 to Iggy Pop and worked with his brother, director Spike Jonze, on short films and commercials.
But now Spiegel is attempting his greatest feat ever: trying to define Islam and Muslims in an accurate light. How does he plan to do that? Well, by way of the song “Jihad Love Squad,” released last week by his band N.A.S.A., which features the rapper KRS-One.
Now anytime you put the word “jihad” in the title of anything, you know you’re going to stir up attention. (It’s just a matter time until Donald Trump uses “jihad.”) However, I’m not sure if Spiegel fully grasps what he might be in for. Although he recently got a taste of it when his management company of over five years informed me him that if he released “Jihad Love Song,” it would no longer represent Spiegel because his managers believed it would hurt his career and even possibly result in violence against him. (His management company did in fact drop him, at least for now.)
What is particularly compelling about Spiegel is that he doesn’t have any skin in the game. He isn’t Muslim; he was born Jewish and is very secular. But as he explained, he felt the need to do something to “change the story that the media and certain politicians have been telling us about Islam,” adding, “I think the U.S. media has tendency to be Islamophobic and paint Muslims in a one-dimensional, negative light.”
So why start with trying to redefine the word jihad? Spiegel shared a story about a Muslim friend who before 9/11 wore a ring that featured the word “jihad” on it. But after that tragic day, his friend removed the ring for a fear of a backlash.
It appears that experience had been percolating with Spiegel because it is with this word that he has taken his stand. “Jihad is a word that’s really been hijacked and stigmatized by extremists,” Spiegel explained.
Spiegel tries to correct the misunderstanding of the word within the first minutes of the music video for “Jihad Love Squad” with a title card that reads: “Jihad: The spiritual struggle within oneself between good and evil.”
Now just so it’s clear, there is a jihad within Islam that means a holy war. But to most Muslims, the concept of jihad is part of the everyday struggle to the best person you can be. That is why Spiegel’s friend wore a ring bearing that word and why I know Muslims with the first name “Jihad.” (I can’t even imagine how tough that name is at the airport?!)
Spiegel, who was born in New York but is now based in Los Angeles, increasingly became concerned over how the song, and especially the video, would be received by both the Muslim community and the Muslim haters as the released date approached.
He fully gets that the anti-Muslim bigots could target him. After all in 2013 when the Council on American-Islamic Relations spearheaded a campaign to redefine the word “jihad” with a series of ads, it was met with outrage by the queen of anti-Muslim bigotry, Pam Geller. She even spent money to put up ads to define jihad in the most negative light possible in hopes of stoking the flames of hate against Muslims.
On the flip side, Spiegel is keenly aware that some Muslims may watch the video and believe that he’s not deconstructing a negative stereotype about Muslims, but perpetuating it. And to be honest, some will likely see it as that. I showed the video to a cross section of Muslims and some did voice concerns that the video could be misunderstood.
The music video, which Spiegel directed, was beautifully shot in India. It opens with a woman greeting customers at a restaurant. She then goes into a backroom, straps on what appears to be a suicide vest, covers herself in a full burka and heads out in to the street. She soon walks into a schoolyard where young kids playing see her and freeze in apparent fear. As the tension builds, she presses the button to activate the vest.
But as you can imagine, there’s a twist. Instead of an explosion of material that can kill, it releases different colored powders, the type used in the Hindu festival of colors known as “Holi.” Spiegel explained that the powder represents the woman spreading love, not death.
Sure, he could have made a less provocative video or not used the word “jihad,” but Spiegel’s goal is to get attention to start a conversation on the issue. And he’s 100 percent correct. In today’s climate, good-natured, feel-good attempts at defining minorities in an accurate light are generally ignored by our sensationalism-obsessed media. But the media will cover controversy because that sells.
So far Spiegel says that the response to the video (except for his former manager) has been positive. “Not even one negative comment on YouTube yet, which is a shocker!,” he remarked to me on Saturday. But the song has only been out for a few days, so the better known it gets, the more likely we will see the anti-Muslim bigots descend upon it. There’s simply no escaping that, as I can attest to first hand.
Spiegel, along with his bandmate DJ Zegnon in N.A.S.A., and KRS-One’s jihad to redefine the word “jihad” is truly inspiring. Here’s hoping that good wins out over evil in this struggle.