Early in the documentary New Muslim Cool, a New York radio DJ calls Hamza and Suliman Perez, the brothers performing as the rap duo the M-Team, "America's worst nightmare." He's joking about the sound and image presented by a couple of Puerto Rican rappers who have converted to Islam.
Director Jennifer Maytorena Taylor follows Hamza, born Jason Perez. At the age of 21, he underwent a spiritual rebirth, converted to Islam and renounced drug dealing and other aspects of his life that he felt were holding him back. The film catches up with him years later as he moves to Pittsburgh, opens a mosque, gets married, works as a drug rehabilitation counselor and continues to record and perform with his brother. He takes it all in stride, cooking a halal meal and explaining "We know Arabic Spanglish ebonics."
It's a complicated multicultural intersection, as Perez explains his faith and introduces his Catholic Puerto Rican family to his wife and her African-American Muslim family. Perez goes into housing projects and discusses the societal oppression of minorities, and he goes into jails to counsel prisoners about addiction, crime and finding a spiritual path — addressing both Christians and Muslims. And he and Suliman hand out CDs, proselytizing as they go, and perform in alcohol-free venues, preaching a socially conscious message while eschewing the swagger and materialism of much rap music.
But in the wake of 9/11 and passage of the Patriot Act, his profile becomes too noticeable. A surveillance camera is mounted across the street from the mosque. Police later raid it for unexplained reasons. In spite of the approval of immediate supervisors, his clearance to work in the prisons is revoked without explanation.
His quest for an explanation probes whether people are presumed innocent or guilty based on the law, ethnicity or religion. Perez defies classification into any single stereotype, and yet seems to accrue the worst suspicions of all of them — as a rapper, a Muslim or a former drug dealer. It's an intriguing look at how richly complicated a person or community can be, versus the political rhetoric used to describe ethnic groups or aspects of a culture as isolated entities. Tickets $7 general admission, $6 students/seniors, $5 Zeitgeist members. — Will Coviello
Through June 20
New Muslim Cool
6 p.m. Tue.-Sun.
Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 827-5858; www.zeitgeistinc.net