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The powerful coalescence of art, activism and scholarship

14 June 2022
Meet our SSSHARC Fellow: MarkLeVine
SSSHARC International fellow, Professor Mark LeVine speaks about Heavy Metal Islam, activism and his approach to Indigenous scholarship.
Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. He is a visiting international fellow at the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC).

What are you working on during your fellowship with SSSHARC?

I'm here to work on several projects and to create new projects with my academic host, Lucia Sorbera who sponsored me to be here and who has done really interesting and groundbreaking work on Egyptian feminism and the relationship between literature, activism, and oral histories in the Arab world. A central component behind my being here is that I believe the future of humanistic and even social science research lies with understanding and falling in step with Indigenous scholarship. I think Indigenous Australian scholars have been at the forefront of creating a new way of thinking about research. Traditional methods of knowledge extraction are no longer viable. For me, it's very important to work with Indigenous communities collaboratively. This involves understanding how one can give to these communities before taking from them.

In my own way, I’m trying to understand the networks that already exist between indigenous scholars and practitioners globally. And to understand how non-Indigenous scholars can be part of those networks in a way that makes sense. Maybe they don't want us to be part of it. Maybe they do, who knows, but until you engage it's impossible to find out.

You’re a historian of the Middle East but increasingly you are drawn to contemporary issues. Can you tell us about that?

What I do is history of the present. The world is at a turning point, and it seems to be turning in the very wrong direction. Part of the reason policymakers and people who define public culture get it so wrong is that they have no historical sense. It's a deliberate erasure of history because history is very inconvenient. That is because history almost always reminds you that what you're doing is not cool, is going to backfire, and is going to wind up hurting a lot of people.

As historians our job now, more than ever, is to relentlessly point that out. And that's where we take our historical understanding to look at the present day and put a deeper lens on it.  Our job as historians is not just to witness the past but to witness the present for the future. That’s what we have to do, that's why we have to work on the present.

You are possibly most well-known for your book Heavy Metal Islam (2008). How did you get started in that space?

Music is my passion. I've been working on music in Africa and the Arab world for almost 30 years now. As a historian, what I noticed was that very few people were writing about music from the perspective of issues of social and political conflict. Music genres like heavy metal and hip-hop extreme, what I call extreme youth music, is really a prism or a lens to see things about societies that you wouldn't see if you were looking at other forms of music or cultural production.

Do you think there's something inherent in the genres of heavy metal and hip hop that lend themselves to this kind of critical expression more, say, than traditional forms?

I think traditional music has always been very political. Then there is pop music, which has generally not been political since it is highly commercialised, so presents as a form without political relevance. Now you have political music involving hybrids of traditional and more intense forms of modern hip hop or metal or rock or funk music. There's this mixture of traditional and extreme forms today, which can generate politically and aesthetically powerful music.

For me, the most important music is music from subcultures, groups of people - usually young people - who exist outside the norms homogenied culture. It's usually people at the margins, or beyond the margins, who are producing the kinds of music I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is what does it take for a subculture to become a true counterculture? What does it take for subcultures to start, not just critiquing society or wanting to escape from it or trying to express themselves against it, but to then go on to articulate an alternative understanding of what society could be? It is at that point that you’re directly challenging authority.

How do you see the connection between art and activism?

I think art has a crucial role as an incubator for new ways of thinking. Art is a conduit that  carries knowledge from into the regular into everyone else. In this sense, what we do as artists is no different to activism. Having artists, activists, and scholars together, all focusing on the same goal creates art that has political power. It sends a strong message and is the most powerful thing you can possibly do.

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