Why I became a jihadist poetry critic

Elisabeth Kendall in Yemen. She owns this photo!

Er, not me, but the woman pictured!

Anyone who’s read my book on national anthems will know that I have a deep (i.e. worrying) fascination with jihadi culture, especially the songs that such groups put out and almost gain the status of ‘national’ anthems. You can read a little about that musical world here.

Well, this week I wrote a piece for the BBC extending that interested. It’s a profile of Elisabeth Kendall, an Oxford academic who’s not just interested in jihadists’ music, but their poetry too. You can read about her insane life and learn just why such work is important here (or if you’re Spanish, here).

The piece has been having very nice things said about it by everyone from Peter Frankopan – author of The Silk Roads – to Rukmini Callimachi, the NYT’s terrorism correspondent. Even Tom Holland, the historian, said he liked it.

All of which is very professionally pleasing, but I’m largely putting it below to try and make you read the bloody piece as this stuff’s vital to how we understand the world. Thanks in advance!

What should London’s anthem be?

If it goes independent, obviously. And who knows post-Brexit?!?

London Calling?

West End Girls?

Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up, Look Sharp?

“Er… What?” I hear you say. Yes, Dizzee would be a strange choice. But he’s mine, and for a good reason, which you can learn by listening to Adrian Lacey’s great London Podcast at his site, via iTunes or here if you’re using Android.

I’ve never been asked the question before, which is surprising given so many cities, at least in the US, have anthems.

Adrian gave me one of the best podcast experiences I’ve had, taking me back to my childhood school in the London suburbs to stand in pouring rain (that wasn’t his fault) and explain where my love of music came from, doing a full, fascinating interview about the book, and even getting me to do a reading.

In the episode, he also goes out on London’s streets to ask people what their anthem would be. And he tells a brilliant story about his (white, lower-middle class, British) parents trying to write Nigeria’s anthem when it became independent.

It’s a real fun and interesting listen. And few podcast presenters go to such efforts, so, seriously, head here to hear it.

Adrian’s done some amazing other podcasts on everything from the Fire of London to Bob Marley’s London home, so check out other episodes if you can. Huge thanks to him if he’s reading.

The importance of the Islamic State’s music – again

Earlier this week, it emerged that the terrorist in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, had searched online for Islamic State songs “on a near-daily basis” in the fortnight before the attacks. They may have played a part in his radicalisation, prosecutors said.

If you want to learn more about them, read my book, or scan the audio guide here. Yes, this is a controversial topic, but it’s an important one, and increasingly so.

Boko Haram’s using the Islamic State’s national anthem

Boko Haram video still

Last year, I wrote this article for The Guardian about the Islamic State’s apparent “national anthem” – the worryingly catchy My Ummah, Dawn Has Appeared.

Some doubted the Islamic State would do something as Western as pick a song to represent itself, but it seems the song’s only grown in stature since that piece was written. Last week, for instance, Boko Haram – the Nigerian terrorist group allied to ISIS – used it to open one of their propaganda videos for the first time, according to the excellent Jihadology website.

Expect it to appear in other parts of the self-styled caliphate soon. Yes, a song that sounds like it was made for yoga classes really has become the soundtrack to modern terrorism. Christ.

The Islamic State’s national anthem – and why you’ll worryingly like it

I recently wrote this article for the Guardian on the Islamic State’s national anthem and how the body’s changing the music of jihad. It was the most interesting article I’ve researched in a while, so hopefully it’s a moderately interesting read.

For those without the time to read 1,500 words, here’s the actual anthem. It’s great… until 2’53 in.

Update: If you want even more on ISIS’ music, I recently spoke to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s brilliant Q radio programme about it. Listen here. They amazingly gave me 15 minutes to prattle on. You have been warned!