Interview with Jennifer Maytorena Taylor: Producer of New Muslim Cool
THE ISLAMIC MONTHLY: What sparked the idea of making this documentary?
JENNIFER TAYLOR: The documentary evolved from a project I was working on at the San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED, where I’ve worked on and off as a producer for a long time.
It was a couple of years after 9/11 and we were doing some joint TV and radio projects about youth in the San Francisco Bay Area from different religious and cultural backgrounds. In the course of my research, I found a flier about a Muslim hip-hop and poetry slam event. It piqued my curiosity and I got in touch with the organizers of the event.
Ultimately, these event organizers were not the same people who appeared in the film, but they did lead me to the film’s main characters.
This documentary had been in evolution for quite a while and changed a lot over time. Why is that and how did it evolve over time? What goal were you trying to achieve by making this documentary?
When I started work on the film, I initially envisioned it as a sort of anthropological film about American Muslim youth culture and its part in the global movement of hip-hop.
In the initial research, I had discovered a very diverse community of young people from both convert (or “revert,” as many people prefer to say) and born-Muslim backgrounds. And as I got to know this community more, I realized that mass media depictions of Muslims were failing to accurately or authentically reflect the full, multi-dimensional human reality of young American Muslim’s lives.
Of course, there were, and still are, the very pejorative images, but there were also a number of positive images made in response that were, by necessity, so positive that they seemed flat.
So as my team, which included many young American Muslims as co-producers and advisors, and I continued our early work on the film, we decided to move away from the “survey” or anthropological approach about the whole community in favor of a more character- driven story with universal elements.
How did you find Hamza? What attracted you to his story?
My team and I interviewed Hamza and his brother Suliman in the first days of filming when we were interviewing several artists. They were really funny, articulate, relaxed, and somewhat different off-stage from their intense on-stage personae as the hip-hop duo M-Team.
So we asked Hamza and Suliman if we could visit them for some filming in Pittsburgh, where they were both working, to build a community of young African-American Muslims. And the story unfolded there.
Hamza Perez is a rapper, former drug dealer, and Puerto Rican. He is not your stereotypical Muslim. Is overturning cultural stereotypes as important to the film as the drama of Hamza’s life?
I named my production company Specific Pictures because I think close-up examinations of the specific reveal the universal. For me, the important thing with every film I make is to try to reflect as authentically as possible the reality of the people in the film with details big and small and a sense of humanity.
I think that is the way to tell a story that will resonate as much as possible with people no matter their age, culture, or religion. So you hopefully get not just a good story, but also one that really pushes past stereotypes and assumptions.
It took several years to make this documentary. During that time, you met many Muslim hip-hop artists. Can you describe the Muslim hip-hop scene?
I think the main thing I would say is there is a diverse youth culture among American Muslims with many expressions and manifestations and hip-hop, along with many other pop forms, is a part of that diversity of expression.
What surprised you most while making this documentary?
At the beginning of this project when we were thinking this would be a film about hip-hop culture and American Muslims, I’m not sure any of us – the crew or the people featured in the film – anticipated how deeply we would end up exploring the elemental processes that make us human: the search for some form of faith, for goodness, for ways to maintain hope, find forgiveness, and fall in love.
New Muslim Cool was shown on PBS nationwide. What kind of feedback did you get from viewers?
Reaction to the film has been overwhelmingly positive in the US and around the world as we’ve shown it in many countries. Audiences really connect with Hamza and his family as people first, even in places with less religious diversity than the US.
Where is Hamza now? What is his news?
Hamza and Suliman are both in Pittsburgh with happy families, very involved in their kids’ lives, and continue to do their community work. Their mom, Gladys, moved to Pittsburgh last year and has become very good friends with Carol, the Jewish poetry editor Hamza meets in the film.
Hamza continues to do a lot of inter-faith work and he travels quite a bit with the film as it continues to screen around the world. He often speaks on academic panels and teaches classes at universities, community centers, and correctional facilities with an emphasis on youth development, community leadership, and inter-faith learning.
Are there any other docs in the pipeline?
I’m currently working on a collaborative documentary project with an amazing group of teenagers at an alternative high school in South Central Los Angeles for kids whose lives have been affected by street life and the penal system.
Souheila Al-Jadda is a Peabody award-winning producer and journalist. She produced the Who Speaks for Islam? series on Link TV. She is the Senior Editor for The Islamic Monthly.
For more information about the film, video clips, music samples, and interactive features, go to www.pbs.org/pov/ newmuslimcool Jennifer Maytorena Taylor is the Producer of the award-winning documentary, New Muslim Cool, about a Puerto Rican-American Muslim Rapper, Hamza Perez. The documentary follows Perez as he navigates life in the post 9/11 world and comes of age as an artist, community leader, and family man.