Puerto Rican Muslim leads multicultural music and poetry night

By Justin Jacobs
Jewish Chronicle
October 15, 2010

Hamza Perez is a bold man, but a shy performer.

In fact, the Brooklyn-born Pittsburgher, who had been performing as a rapper in the city, just hung up his lyricist microphone for good — he’d prefer to keep his writing personal. And as for music, well, he told The Chronicle, “If I could do it and have a mask on and no one saw my face, I might be more inclined to perform.”

Consider his poetry reading Thursday night, as part of Harmony4Humanity, a multifaith and multicultural night of poetry and music, a rare opportunity. The event, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and Crossing Limits, is the first in what is to be a monthly series uniting the city’s creative voices by their art, rather than separating them by their differences.

Including 15-year-old poet Tijarey Perez, the University of Pittsburgh’s Jewish a capella group The Vokols, Afro-pop group Dream Job and more, the event is set to “branch out to a younger generation,” said PAJC Development Director Amy Lindsey.

“We’re not only building bridges between religions and races and ethnic groups, but also between age groups,” Lindsey said. “Responses we’ve been getting have been anywhere from 60-year-olds to high school students.”

For Perez, the road to Thursday night’s spotlight has wound through the streets of Brooklyn, Puerto Rico, Massachusetts and even the Allegheny County jail. Perez spent years selling drugs as he grew up before suddenly and unexpectedly converting to Islam and renouncing his old lifestyle.

Fast forward over a decade, and Perez was the subject of “New Muslim Cool,” a documentary that depicted his shift into a life of devotion and service — Perez works in his North Side Pittsburgh community as well as with local inmates and with multifaith organizations to spread a message of unity and peace.

That message as expressed through Perez’ music or poetry, however, isn’t his usual method of delivery. And it’s not just the shyness.

“In Islam, we believe that [performing] can bring diseases of the heart: arrogance, showing off, letting your head get big, loving the limelight,” he said. “My family never saw me perform until they saw the documentary. That was a rule of my house — family can’t see me.”

But the atmosphere Thursday, said Perez, will “allow people to be a little more loose and relaxed. It’s a good way to communicate. Every culture has its own music.”

He’ll read a poem that ruminates on “the creed of what we believe about God,” a theme he said that shares the same concept with Judaism.

Perez said he views Pittsburgh as a “good city that’s open for dialogue” between faiths, but the city doesn’t come without its frustrations.

“There’s a lack of diversity here,” he said. “From a Latino aspect, I’ve never been in a place where I was told to speak English because this is America, except for Pittsburgh.”

These days, Perez has shifted his focus toward home — where he has a wife and six children — as the year of traveling following “New Muslim Cool” was exhausting.

“Many times, different religious leaders do excellent work all around the world, but at home, the situation is all messed up,” said Perez.

His family, his art and his work have allowed Perez to move past his tumultuous, oft-illegal dealings in the past, but that doesn’t mean the past never sneaks up on him. He remembered one recent trip back to Massachusetts with all of his children. The family was eating in a restaurant when, “I looked up and saw two old friends in the window. Their teeth were missing. They looked strung out; it reminded me of where I could’ve ended up. But that part of me,” said Perez, “that part of me is dead.”

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