As a young African-American Muslim who can have hour-long conversations about movies and television shows, I always bring up representation. I have never seen anyone that looked like me in a humanized manner on the screens, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have hope. I was privileged to meet and interview Amatullah’Muhyi Ali (or Muhyi for short) Ali on her upcoming musical film “Undefined.”
“Undefined” is about the story of a young and Black, Muslim woman who is finding herself through a challenging society. It is loosely based on Ali’s life. I like to call it “Black Muslim Girl Magic in a movie” and I never thought I’d say that! It hasn’t even been out yet, but that’s an excellent sign. This project is also Ali’s thesis film project as a part of earning college credit.
Muslim Girl: Why did you decide to make a film like this?
Amatullah’Muhyi Ali: When people write, they kind of write their characters based on themselves, and then just put them in a whole new world. I felt that my characters were underrepresented, and I grew up in an African-American family. Since my dad converted to Islam from a very Christian background, coming in and joining Islam and having [his] family circle that I am a part of was a whole other world.
As African-American Muslims, I just feel like nobody knows who we are. Anytime I speak my name or somebody asks me, “Hey, you’re name is Muhyi! Wow, that sounds different. What are you?” — I’m like, “Well, my name is Arabic and I’m Muslim.” They continue, “Yeah, but what are you? Where’s your family from?” and I’m like, “I’m Black.” And they keep asking, “No really though, where are you from?” and I have to respond, “Do you not know African-American history?” Because it’s quite a story!
Anytime someone hears “Islam,” they think of something foreign, and to be African-American — it’s not foreign. It’s reclaiming your identity within this country. Islam is a worldly religion. There are people around the world who practice it. To only identify it with being Middle Eastern, it’s like, do people like me not exist? I have a whole family and a group of people that I think needs to be represented. It’s something I live with every day and one of my characters is someone to relate to as an extreme minority. I’m not the only one experiencing this, so I thought this film would bring us together and open anyone’s eyes to another form of the American experience which is through an African-American female. I feel we could unify. People fear the unknown and I want to let them know about it.
So, “Undefined” is a musical. Why did you decide to do a musical?
I’ve produced five other short films and directed two of them. These are eight-page narratives at 10 minutes maximum. I’ve always been into musical theater and performing. When I was younger, I wanted to be a scientist, but I felt connected through the arts. My dad is an African drum instructor and he has his own program where he takes West African arts and brings them to America. I grew up in an “arts family,” where the only language we speak is music.
Psycho-acoustics does something to you. I love musicals and the idea of film was my background because I worked in that field for my major. So, we have pushing a narrative along through music and it’s like I can give words and you can understand what’s going on, but I give you the music you understand on a whole other level. A more spiritual level. It’s something you can’t touch.
I reached out to my really good friend who was touring with this group while I was in England. I told him my idea for the film and gave him the lyrics. I’ve never made music before. I write poetry, but there’s a rhythm to poetry. He made sense of it in musical terms and we made a couple of drafts and he killed it! It’s really hard to direct music, since I’m not a musician, but he was awesome and understanding. It’s a beautiful connection that I don’t think you can get by just writing it down. It’s just something you feel.
I was nervous that people wouldn’t have liked my film or understood it. My dad was like, “The truth is undeniable. When the truth exists, all falsehood vanishes.” So even if it’s not their truth, it is a truth. People will understand it as a truth. As long as it’s genuine in art, it’s a story a lot of people can connect to. The music on top of that is just… whoa!
When you’re combining two genres, it’s really a game changer. For example, “Hamilton the Musical” is a historical story — but it’s a musical with rap music, which is really fascinating!
Yeah, I love “Hamilton!” Lin-Manuel [Miranda] is beyond talented! In my freshman year, I wrote this rap about Brown vs. Board of Education, and it was over Eminem’s “‘Til I Collapse.” My dad recorded it with his studio and it was so funny! And then when Lin-Manuel Miranda came out with “Hamilton,” I was clearly on the right path! We’re up to something right now!
But this genre for this film has jazz and neo-soul because the whole idea is that the grandmother is old school. She’s like, “Represent your Islam! Just do it! Be out there! Black power!” Jazz is the root of it all. African-Americans created their own genre of music like folk music. I wanted jazz to represent the grandmother as being the root in understanding everything. Then, neo-soul is contrived from jazz and hip-hop. It has all the elements of jazz, but in the film it has to be represented in a faster time along with a social media aspect as well.
Another interesting connection I made with “Undefined” and “Hamilton” is the timing of both projects. We live in a time now where Trump is president and minorities need to band together and be more understood. “Hamilton” has a song called “Yorktown,” which features the lyric line “Immigrants, we get the job done,” and your musical film puts an African-American Muslim woman in the spotlight.
Yeah, I think that’s really important. I think that all of the racial tension from the recent presidential election was going to happen eventually. The reason that people are hiding things is because they are stuck in their ways and their understanding of reality and what it should be. But they only have this very general and broad big idea of what reality is. So with my story, it’s zoomed into another person’s reality and I think the reason that there’s so much hate in the world is because people don’t understand what’s happening or they don’t put themselves in other people’s shoes.
That’s a conversation for another day, but I strongly believe that if we were more open-minded and considered the other perspective, there would be less hate and more understanding and we can come to a better conclusion. I just watched “Hidden Figures,” and it was just so good!
Yeah! Right? I saw it twice and it was so good!
I couldn’t believe it! I was in the theater and I was like, “Fox did this?” I was watching it and the character of Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, was ignored as all the “colored” women were kept in a room. If they were only given a little leeway or people considered their perspective, it would open up this entire world.
We advanced because we took these other people’s perspectives. They don’t see the world the way this person sees it. So if we continued to bring everyone together, I really think that we can advance. I don’t know what that advancement is because I’m not there yet. I mean, Allah knows all and I think that coming together, we can get up there.
You are studying film. Why did you decide to be a film major?
Everyone used to call me shy when I was younger, but it’s funny because I went into performing. It’s not that I was even shy or introverted. I just like to observe. I like to be in the background and see how people react and come together. I would always have a camera in my hand. I would always carry those old-school camcorders. When I was in fifth grade, we had these “mini courses” that were two weeks long and I took a silent film course. I was like, “Oh my goodness! I can create an entire world and people understand it,” and there’s rules in terms of editing and moving the film and I was like, “Oh my God! This is crazy!”
I’m from New Jersey and people aren’t really fond of the arts. I started a film class in my first year of high school and it was awesome! I took an “Introduction to Film and Television” course and I was like “Whoa! It’s two different worlds!” Then our program was cut along with other arts programs. We lost the dance program, the film program, etc. So I was just in high school doing math and sciences. I was still involved in my school’s performing arts productions like the spring musical. We were cut to only one musical or play a year, as opposed to a spring musical and a fall play, which really hurt us.
Arts are so good! Like, the connections you make are so spiritual and untouchable! It’s not finite. With math and sciences, one plus one will always equal two and chemistry will put creations together which is very beautiful, but is very concrete. With art, it’s abstract and there’s room for improvement and imagination. I think that when you’re dealing with concrete stuff, you don’t have that imagination, so you can’t advance as quickly. You need the arts to compliment the concrete math and sciences. It can expand your mind more. It’s like one plus one will equal two, but to what? Like you have the units!
I’m actually the first in my family to go to college. So when I got to college, I knew that I wanted to go for art. I feel like with the public library being blessed with all this information and the Internet. I feel like if I ever wanted to learn something, I could find it. But to master an art, that’s something that takes time and you have to work really hard with that. So I could get all the concrete knowledge that I have in school and then take it and expand as I get out into the world, inshaAllah.
I went to film school and I hated my first year so much! It was all this experimental stuff and I was like, “Do I not understand things? Am I supposed to be here?” It was strange because there wasn’t anyone I could really talk to about that. No one else in my family went to college and I’m sitting here stressing over things like financial aid and all of these college-related things. Everyone’s just like, “You gotta do it!” and I’m like, “Okay!”
Working with film, I made a lot of friends. It was nice working with people that really believe in the same things as you, and you can express it. It’s one thing to believe in something, but get other people to believe is so beautiful. That’s what I think the media is. You’re able to show your belief and give it to people. Even though they may interpret it in a certain type of way, you’re still able to give it to them and I think that’s a gift. My cousin is studying to become a doctor. If I could come in and intercept the media and show that I’m like a “media doctor.” I’m helping in a whole other way like my cousin. She’s helping with sickness and physical stuff. But the spiritual stuff can’t be ignored. You can’t just leave that out to anyone. Film is a big deal and a big medium. People are taking in so much information. It affects you spiritually, and I think I deserve to help people that way.
In our society and in our culture, we are taught that you have to be a doctor or be a lawyer. We’re taught, “Don’t find yourself in a creative manner.” I’m not too cool with it because in college, you’re supposed to find yourself. It’s okay to take a creative outlet. It’s okay to major in something creative.
If you don’t have a creative outlet, you’re dying on the inside! Your spirit is not living if you’re not able to express it because you can’t express your spirit in numbers. My dad was awesome! I live with him and he just made sure that no matter what, I was able to express. He’s spiritual, but he’s also concrete. He tells me, “Make sure you make your money.” You can be spiritual and be happy, but you can’t be spiritual and hungry. That’s not an option.
He was very sure that I got that concrete understanding of the world, but also expressed my spirituality and understood what could happen with it. I’m very grateful that my family has been so supportive in me going to school to be an artist. If you look online, people respond to art students with: “When are you going to get a real job?” I don’t know. This is real and my family believes in me. It’s like I won half the battle already and I’m very grateful for that.
What advice do you have to anyone including Muslim women who want to pursue film and the creative industry?
Everyone says this whenever they want to give advice, but you really can’t give up. My dad came into my room one time and told me that there will be times when you’re sitting and you do not think you can do it. You just have to keep pushing no matter what. Life will throw so many things at you. If you believe in something so strongly and it’s true and it’s righteous and you’re on the right path, there’s going to be a lot of people in your way who try to stop you. You just can’t get off that path because if you do then what else can you do? What’s your point?
I’m very grateful to be here in this life and be existing the way I am. It’s really hard, especially being African-American and having all the racial tension. I just watched this documentary called “13th” and oh my gosh, that tore me up! There was stuff that I grew up learning and ugh, this system is messed up. To see it all build up and have a brother and a beautiful nephew and to have a family, seeing them go outside is and knowing how people see them tore me up really badly!
I was like, “How am I going to do this? Nobody wants this!” There are so many things in your way. But I can’t stop. I know what’s righteous and I strongly believe that we can come together on the same path and progress. Women have stuff to offer. Muslims have stuff to offer. African-Americans have something to offer. Resilience is key. No matter what, stay resilient and keep on your path. Also, you have so many blessings and other people who are on the same path as you. You’re all coming together. It’s not like you’re alone in this fight. That’s what I want “Undefined” to say. Wherever you are, I made this film and you’re not the only one watching it. My character exists and I exist.
What do you think the future of “Undefined” is, and what do you think your film career looks like?
First off, I need to graduate. That’s one thing. In terms of film, I definitely want to stay on the independent film track. Hollywood is a whole other piece, and I don’t want to start there yet. I definitely want to keep creating art for the love of art and the respect of the craft and the love of its power and what it could do for the community. I definitely want to keep opening people’s eyes. I feel like independent films, even though they are low-budget, they have a lot to offer. My film, “Undefined,” is very low-budget and I’m still accepting donations for it.
My community is so good about helping me out. My budget is $3,000, which is like nothing. Films are considered “low-budget” when they are at $110 million or below. But I can work with $3,000 and my community has been awesome. I have a GoFundMe page and a Facebook page which I have been updating regarding Muslim women who do righteous things.
I think this story is really important — that you can walk into a place and people know who you are already by wearing your hijab. It’s not something you should hide. One of my character’s grandmother’s lines in her song is something like “Black, I still can claim. I pray five times each day!” She’s expressing to her granddaughter, “I’m still just as Black. You don’t have to choose between being Black and being Muslim.” Another line she says is, “Wear this hijab with pride. No need to hide.” Wearing hijab is seen as “hiding,” you don’t need to hide within society or your Islam.
With this film, hopefully it will be released by late 2017. August is the latest. I want to possibly keep pushing and making stories like this specifically. I do think the African-American Muslim community is one that is underrepresented in media. This community is so affluent and so beautiful. There’s so much pride in being African-American and a Muslim and a woman.
There is so much that comes with that and I think that a lot more people need to know about it. So, I flirted with the idea of turning this film into a feature, but right now it’s a half-hour long. Maybe I’ll write a whole other story with it, but I definitely want to continue writing music. I’ve never felt so good when I was getting my music back and having it put together. That was unreal! It felt good to be confirmed that you’re on the right path because it’s something you can’t touch. You can’t just get a diploma and that’s it. You have to feel it. That’s what I want to do with my career. I want to keep writing music and stay on the independent film track. When I went to England, I was studying screenwriting, and I definitely want to keep writing scripts in general and work towards being a director and everyone seeing me.