Guled Muse explains to me that as a Somali immigrant to the United States, hip-hop music was his window to understanding not only Black people, but what was going on in the inner cities. “[It was also] helping me understand my own psychology and my own emotions,” Muse said. Muse believed hip-hop was able to translate the state of the world and help process emotions.
What came of that understanding was the Khamsa Project, spotlighting Black, Muslim, immigrant and refugee artists’ creative expression for processing their grief. “Khamsa” is the Arabic word for five, which was fitting for the five stages of grief.
Khamsa Project has three components: an art exhibit, an EP album and a podcast. “This is something that we were able to do on a grassroots level with limited resources,” Abbas Mohamed, poet and executive director of Gathering All Muslim Artists (GAMA), told Oakland Voices. Mohamed co-founded GAMA in 2016 to support and empower artists in the global Muslim community.
“I wanted to develop a project where it went beyond music,” Muse said. “So what I wanted to do was curate a project where the music was meshing, an emotion or being correlated with spirituality.”
The initial spark for Khamsa began with creating “Khamsa,” an EP album. The five song EP album features Black male artists taking the listener on a sonic journey through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
The art exhibition, which ran September 23rd through October 15 at Aggregate Space Gallery in West Oakland, was used to bring community members together to support each other as events were occurring within their community from the losses due to COVID-19 to protests in Iran.
Then, while planning Khamsa, organizers were faced with an act of violence against members within the Oakland Muslim community. Mohamed explains a second event was in collaboration with the Muslim Writers Collective, and was a fundraiser after an artist’s uncle was shot in September leaving a mosque.
The funds provided support to local community programs. “Ultimately authenticity of art comes from when you’re speaking from your own personal experiences,” Mohamed said. “When our artists were experiencing these different traumatic events, while we were planning Khamsa and after we had launched Khamsa, we had chosen that moment to respond to that moment in time,” Mohamed said.
For the exhibition, Muse explained he wanted to go beyond conventional Islamic art with displays from members of the Black, Muslim, immigrant and refugee community who had never been featured in a gallery prior.
Muse, lead director for Khamsa, envisioned the album project back in 2014 when he was heavily involved with Oakland’s music scene. Over the years, he returned to the concept and it came to fruition while Muse was working as a community leader in San Francisco’s Mission District and in Oakland. By 2016, Muse saw there was a real need to process the emotions around current events in some creative form. “I selected artists [for the EP] that I’ve held to a high esteem – brothers that I felt would challenge themselves to explore their subconscious of these different emotions” Muse said.
tarting off the album with the theme of “denial” is Damien “D. Lee” Lee, in the track “I’m Good.” During the creation of the song, Lee says that while he was excited about being asked to contribute he also struggled to write something in the beginning. “The song kind of revealed itself to me,” Lee said after realizing it’s “really just to acknowledge the stages of grief themselves.”
The four gallery events were a means to do something that was “bound by time,” Mohamed explained. “I think in the industry there’s a lot of different ways people hype up an album before it’s released,” Abbas said. “And then all of that leading up to the release of the album to where the album would now be unbounded by time — streamable, accessible. And so that people can then access that not only locally but around the world.”
Through the discussions with people who attended the art showings, the team found people were responsive to the conversations with the contributing artists. From the feedback, the conversation continued via an Instagram series hosted by Mohamed. The audio from the series became Khamsa the podcast, available on Spotify.
The closing ceremony held in October celebrated the release of EP included a performance from harpist Destiny Muhammad. It was ceremonial event for sharing grief and processing loss as well as acts of violence against Muslim communities around the world. “Using this omni directional multi-level, approach to really get to the heart of the matter and provide this avenue of reflection and this avenue of healing to the community and in as many ways as possible,” Mohamed said.
The hope is that others who shared in this experience are sparked with inspiration to create something similar for their communities.
Mohamed explains he would love for Khamsa Project to be picked up in different cities “and for artists to really take on the mantle of not only people who make pretty things and make pretty sounds,” Mohamed said. “But also take on the mantle of, I’m gonna reflect to the community, the pain that I know we are feeling as a means of healing and guiding towards the betterment of the entire community.”