Daesh Lives on…. in Trap Music?
In the last month, Daesh has lost significant territory, especially the city of Raqqa, one of its Syrian strongholds. While Daesh may have lost most of its territory, it remains present, even prominent in the symbolic realm. This piece explores how ISIS and jihadi themes made their way into a subgenre of new music, and what that means for the future.
Social media platforms have become staging grounds for recruiting, radicalization and planning of attacks. Sitting at the intersection of these known elements of radicalization one finds pop culture. Could elements of pop culture be manipulated and weaponized to lure potential recruits toward ISIS/ Daesh? While explicit recruiting videos for Daesh are banned from Youtube and Daesh members/ supporters are kicked off Twitter, a series of music videos and mixes loosely called “ISIS trap” or “Arab trap” on Youtube garners millions of views. Youtube does indeed remove “ISIS trap” videos sometimes, and several of the videos I found for this blog were removed before I could publish. That said, many other such “ISIS trap” videos remain. What is this musical sub-genre, exactly?
The Transformation of Trap Music
Before attempting to explain what’s going on in “ISIS trap,” we’ll unpack trap music more broadly. “Trap” apparently originated out of southern hip-hop in the USA and grew to be embraced by DJs. In the process, trap became something more than a sub genre of rap when Djs began mixing trap with house beats. A trap website, runthetrap.com, described it as such:
Like other music genres, trap has larger mainstream acts like Yellow Claw and underground variants as well. This genre of music, at least its electronic variant, is less than a decade old. The term “trap” itself is slang that came out of Atlanta in the 1990s to refer to a place where drugs are made. Artists like T.I., Outkast, Goodie Mob, and others all referenced the term in their lyrics. If readers are curious, here is a good take from several years ago on the original trap music from the southern USA. One example is T.I.’s “Trap Muzik”:
Clearly, trap music has continued developing and the more recent electronic variants strongly embraced elements of electronic dance music (EDM). In doing so, they moved away from trap’s southern roots. The important take away here is that through processes of globalization, musical elements of southern hip-hop from the USA fused with elements of EDM, especially popular in western Europe but not exclusively so. As you may already be thinking, western Europe has produced its fair share of ISIS jihadis as well. But is that the answer? What about other potential answers?
Trap Music, the War on Terror, and Daesh
A different answer is that “ISIS trap” has very little to do with ISIS/ Daesh, but rather with the rapidly growing genre of EDM most broadly. In real life, i.e. not on Youtube, EDM is associated with huge music festivals, pounding beats; all-night raves, drugs, sex and revelry. All of these things are prima facie activities Daesh labels as vice.
While claiming to return to a pristine age of Islam, Daesh exists and has fed off the modern, globalized world. Jihadis have come from dozens of countries, traversing the globe not for EDM festivals but to join the caliphate ISIS established temporarily. The group’s propaganda comes in many linguistic flavors, appealing to different groups and drawing on very different contexts (think Caribbean Muslims from Trinidad and Tobago vis-à-vis Chechen ones). Read this way, globalization carries over (directly?) to trap mixes and videos one finds on youtube with millions of views.
I can’t remember exactly when I first came across “ISIS trap” but it was more than a year ago. A series of mixes on youtube put out by a group called “Arab trappers” caught my attention. The first video from this account was uploaded to Youtube in July 2015. The background is adorned with a fixed image of a jihadi and a logo in the center and awkward, mis-written Arabic text in the middle (they fixed the Arabic in later editions). The Arabic text itself is الشهادة, meaning the sworn statement Muslims make that there is only one god and Muhammad is his messenger. The black and white logo, drawing on the stark colors in the Daesh flag, bumps up and down to the beat while the song plays.
One of the most interesting aspects of these videos is the way they use a vernacular that incorporates terms from Islam into popular slang. I screenshotted one popular comment and included it here. The author called the song “Halal (permissible) AF (as fuck)”.
The videos and the samples they use clearly have salient influences of the war on terror. Trap and other kinds of EDM refer to a buildup in the song followed by a pronounced reintroduction of the beat as “the drop.” It is not uncommon to hear DJs refer to this as “when the beat drops.” In what certainly seems to be sarcastic style, this subgenre of ISIS trap or Arab trap commonly equates this part of the song with dropping a bomb. It is hard, but not impossible, to imagine this being entertaining to anyone who has suffered at the hand of terrorism or who has been painfully profiled in the war on terror.
ISIS stylistic elements in these trap mixes are often, but not always, accompanied by exaggerated sarcasm. In one video, a hip-hop figure with Osama Bin Laden’s face and clothes dances to the beat for comedic effect. In a different video, a kalashnikov graphic bounces to the beats in the music. The use of these elements blurs the line between irony and genuine support. This potential answer to our question, i.e. that support for Daesh is not a factor in the popularity of “ISIS trap” immediately begs a new question: what difference does it make if irony or support underlies the creation of the music?
The Not-So Supportive Daesh Supporters?
Thus a different potential answer is that nearly all of the listeners are not Daesh supporters. The comments sections of “ISIS trap” videos on youtube have become active fora for jokes and politics alike and offer a window into the views of those listening to the music. Frequently, someone has a comment about how those watching the video are now on a US government watchlist. Rarely do we see comments in support of ISIS.
More than a handful of comments on the public youtube videos point out that the samples in the mixes themselves come from non-Arab cultures. Those making the mixes don’t seem fazed; in a weird parallel to orientalism, a broad mix of non-western cultures is thrown together, as are images of veiled women with seductive eyes. These vague “oriental” symbols align with a hodgepodge of musical influences in the mixes themselves. One can also find “Turkish Trap” and “Indian Trap” among other variants.
While many of the comments are of a juvenile nature like one comes to expect on Youtube, a video called “Best Arabic trap mix 2016” became the site of an interesting debate. In the comments under the video, a Muslim user apparently criticized the person who made and uploaded the mix for including a Quranic verse in the mix, insisting that doing so was not acceptable and insulting to Islam. The artist removed the original mix with the offending Quranic sample and reloaded an edited version. The screenshot below shows a sample of the comment thread:
The artist here was willing to remove the Quranic verse but does not say anything about being a Muslim. S/he wrote “I respect Arabia” which conflates Islam and a geographic region of the world, one the person does not seem to be from. Interestingly, multiple users commented requesting that the original mix with the Quranic verse be made available to them again. Others argue that the artist should not give in to Islamic sensitivities on the issue. We see the willingness to adopt Islamic elements for purely sonic entertainment, not theological purposes.
One mix, called “Sufi Arab Trap Music” has a long repeating sample of someone chanting “la illa ila allah” meaning that there is no God but God, a statement of monotheism. We saw this same theme above in different form in the word الشهادة bumping to the beat. The rhythm of the track rides up and down, strung along by a sitar hook which plays throughout the mix. One of the comments on that video supports the sonic thesis above:
Could it be that is all there is to it? That listeners are not bothered by ISIS/jihadi themes or Islamic ones for that matter, and merely like the music? Why then, do artists add ISIS/ jihad symbols and elements if they are merely extraneous? Youtube has begun treating these videos/mixes as terrorist content that violates its terms, and removed more than a dozen videos uploaded to the “Arab Trappers” channel. This is what the channel looks like if one visits it now:
Similarly, a Soundcloud account for Arab Trappers has been shut down:
One video remains on the Arab Trappers account. It had been relatively ignored compared to the others, as it only had 118 total views. The mix plays over an image of a smoking 9/11 tower, with the phrase “Allahu akbar” coming on the 8 count of the beat before a new bar begins. In the comments section, several users lamented the fact that Arab Trappers’ videos had been taken down. The last comment, even through the broken English, seems to resonate not merely with ISIS trap, but with the way supporters view the group more broadly:
A Conclusion…For Now
Having laid out the potential answers to the question asked at the beginning, i.e. what is going on with the subgenre of “ISIS trap” and “jihadi trap,” all of the proposed answers have more than a grain of truth. At the same time, none of the potential explanations clearly answers the question on its own. Globalization clearly facilitated the growth and transformation of trap music just as it has helped draw more than a hundred nationalities of jihadis with very different backgrounds to join Daesh. Yet neither of those answers explains how ISIS symbols and phrases made their way into trap music.
There is significant conceptual blending in the genre of “ISIS trap.” Mixes labeled “Jihad trap” sound largely identical to ones labeled “Arab trap” and they all have significant influences from non-Arab cultures like India and Turkey to name a few. Combined with the jokes in the videos and comments below them, we see a large segment of the fan base are not Muslims, let alone Daesh supporters. Yet somehow, through a blurring of symbolic fields with aesthetic and sonic ones, these themes and terms previously only used by jihadis slipped into popular culture on the underbelly of irony. This is what I argue is really of importance here- the entrance of jihadi discourse into popular culture. It must be mentioned again that many of the videos found in searches for this report had more than 1M views. Calling this subgenre “mainstream” is a stretch but it has clearly reached a level of popularity that sustains the genre and draws in new artists.
Returning to the beginning, what role, if any, does this music play in radicalizing potential jihadis? The answer is vague and inconclusive. We cannot know exactly how all of the listeners to the music feel about Daesh, but there are indeed some comments denouncing the group. Media scholar Brian Hughes pointed out to me that including jihadi themes and bomb sound effects through irony allows the perpetuation of the symbols of ISIS. While they may insult and joke about Daesh, the images nonetheless proliferate. He saw similar patterns in how Nazi themes maintained themselves on the edges of popular culture, often put forth in gest. He articulated clearly what I had been seeing in these media but struggled to put my finger on: “ISIS Trap” is the perpetuation of jihadi symbols through irony and sarcasm.
We need not rely on the resurgence of Nazi ideas in 2017 to see that Daesh is far from eradicated. Huge gains have been made in defeating Daesh militarily in Syria and Iraq but those have been pyrrhic victories. Years of rebuilding must follow and there is no guaranteeing that Daesh will not make a resurgence. The dynamics that determine if/when Daesh makes a resurgence won’t begin on youtube or in “ISIS trap” videos, but the allure of the ISIS symbols has found a place it can seemingly rest comfortably for some time. If/when Daesh does make a comeback, those same symbols will have well-established histories to draw on, and will likely be recognizable to potential jihadis, just as no one needs an explanation of a swastika or its predominant meaning anymore.
Huge thanks to Brian Hughes, Sean Widlake, and Andrew Boyko for their help and comments!