Please Be Kind: Alumnus on Music, Islam and the American Dream

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I am a first-generation Pakistani-American trying to establish myself as a jazz musician in this country. This aspiration is a long, uphill battle for anyone of any race. Now, it seems this path is even more arduous for Muslim-Americans, as we have to cope with racial sentiments stirred by our president’s rhetoric and actions. The January 2017 travel ban on Muslims from seven countries, the repeated assertions that Islam hates America, and the conspicuous absence of Muslims in prominent positions all contribute to a climate in which Muslims are starting to wonder whether they are being denied opportunities because of racial discrimination.

Immigrants often have a tough time establishing a foothold in American society. The journey can be even more difficult for musicians who come from immigrant Muslim households, where we must first battle family and cultural values to pursue a path seldom taken. We must then fight for admission to conservatories and music schools that seem to have a place only for those who have grown up taking music lessons and attending music camps. The charmed path is out of reach for immigrants from Third World countries who are usually under tremendous pressure from childhood through college to stick to professions where jobs are secure, and which pay a living wage. Add to this a passion for big band and bebop music and you have a perfect misfit in the family and on the bandstand.

Don’t pile on, Mr. President. The performing arts need diversity as much as our other institutions and, given the opportunity, the handful of Muslims aspiring to a life in music can make as robust a contribution as have immigrants in other walks of life. Jazz is an American creation that was born of and supported by what America truly is — a country of immigrants. These creations are what make America great. Wynton Marsalis once said that jazz “teaches you the very opposite of racism… it teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all.” In my own path, I have learned this to be true. The celestial realm of music is a place where details like age, race, gender, nationality and class simply do not exist.

Mr. President, you have the power to inspire or discourage a climate of inclusiveness. Embrace us: Muslim-Americans just want the same opportunities as their non-Muslim counterparts. When it comes to musicians, we strive to humbly do what music was created to do: lift the human spirit and magically bring together people of different cultures in peace and love. America does not need a travel ban, it needs harmony. Please be kind.

The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Davidson College.

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Usman Salahuddin

Usman Idrees Salahuddin ’06 is a grateful dance accompanist at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. In addition to playing for dancers, he performs with his jazz trio in and around Winston-Salem, N.C. He will be releasing his first CD in the spring.

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