Blackpink’s Ice Cream without the sexual overtones? Malaysian bands release Islamic-friendly K-pop covers less likely to upset Muslimsjessie tan
In recent years K-pop has exploded in popularity around the world, but in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where the music has a large fan base, the naughtiest chart-topping hits – full of double entendres and sexy dance moves – have raised Islamic eyebrows.
Such songs have been branded “mind-corrupting”, or budaya kuning – literally “yellow culture” – a catch-all term for most forms of Western culture, including foreign pop and rock music.
Malaysia’s younger generation is obsessed with K-pop. But those who see negative values in the songs and want to switch to more positive K-pop music have few options, says Usamah Kamaruzaman, a sound engineer and spokesman for Kuala Lumpur-based Islamic pop label Tarbiah Sentap Records.
The label, founded by author Ahmad Adnin Bin Roslan, produces a sound known as pop nasyid, an Islamic-oriented a cappella music style embraced by modern urban Muslims who believe that music should not be haram (forbidden).
Its artists have released clean-cut versions of songs by K-pop acts such as Blackpink that are less likely to upset Muslims.
To the groups represented by Tarbiah Sentap – including Rabithah, Aniq Muhai, Areef, Autotune Band and The Truth – pop nasyid is not only an important tool for spreading the word of Islam to a wider public, it also proves that Islam can be adapted to the modern world.
This ideology is in stark contrast with the form of conservative Islam promoted since the 1990s by the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in the state of Kelantan, where public concerts are banned along with traditional Malay folk arts such as wayang kulit (shadow puppet play) and mak yong (a form of Malay theatrical musical) , whose only crime is their animist and Hindu-Buddhist roots that precede the arrival of Islam in the region.
Pop nasyid became popular in Malaysia in the 1990s, when artists such as Raihan, Hijjaz and Brothers started adapting and appropriating Anglo-American styles of modern pop music to Islamic lyrics, releasing successful albums on the local subsidiaries of major labels including Warner and EMI.
But as a Muslim performer, Hakim Sufian of Rabithah is concerned with the worrying direction the global entertainment industry, including K-pop, is headed.
Hakim – whose group has released two records, The Album (2017) and Doacapella (2019), and took part in the 2018 music-based reality TV show Gema Gegar Vaganza – says that various negative elements, such as alcohol, exploitation of women, soft porn and abusive language, are used to influence and persuade audiences to consume pop music.
He believes the catchy tunes make it harder for youngsters to ignore the songs even if they don’t necessarily agree with the lyrics.
Hakim’s thinking is in line with the fight that Malaysia’s most hardcore religious and political fringes have put up against many forms of popular music since the country embraced the Islamisation promoted in the 1980s under fourth prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
There have been bans on local black metal bands, and even much tamer mainstream American pop artists such as The Pussycat Dolls, Gwen Stefani and Beyoncé have had to pay fines or tone down their stage acts in order to perform in Malaysia.
In 2012, Elton John risked being banned by the PAS because of his open homosexuality. The same year, Grammy-award-winning African-American singer Erykah Badu was less fortunate; she was banned from playing in Kuala Lumpur after a photo of the Arabic word for “Allah” she had tattooed on her upper body caused a scandal.
But beyond applying draconian measures, few Malaysian Muslims had offered concrete alternatives to the alleged evils of international pop before Tarbiah Sentap and artists such as Rabithah started producing toned-down cover versions of chart-topping K-pop hits that better suit the religious beliefs of hundreds of thousands of young Muslims.
Rabithah’s latest single Hatiku (My Heart ) is a clean-cut version of Blackpink and Selena Gomez’s racy Ice Cream. If the original plays heavily on sexually charged innuendos, Rabithah’s cover riffs about the band’s unending love and dedication to Allah.
Hatiku reached 300,000 views in two months, while the band’s previous single Bersama Kau (Together With You ), a clean-cut cover of another of Blackpink’s hit songs, Kill this Love , has notched up 443,000 views since debuting on YouTube in April 2019.
Tarbiah Sentap’s artists are not waging a personal war against K-pop. They are open to re-recording “any chart-topping original piece that contains negative values”, Hakim says.
This was the case for Luis Fonsi’s global reggaeton hit Despacito , which was banned from being played on Malaysian national radio in 2017 on the grounds of obscenity. T
arbiah Sentap’s former recording artists The Faith, now disbanded, re-recorded it as Dengarilah , and their Islamic version snared 3 million views on YouTube.
“We make it easier for [Malaysians] to choose more positive entertainment,” Usamah says. “And this huge segment of the audience truly appreciates what we have done.”
Tarbiah Sentap’s work may look blatantly hardline, but its founder and recording artists are far from being religious extremists.
“The recent beheadings committed by Muslims in France are not part of what Islam teaches, and we can never condone such acts carried out by anyone, regardless of what their religion is, [because] terrorism has never been a part of Islam,” Usamah says.
“But any entertainment that promotes negative values, either in the form of lyrics, video clips or the influence it brings, should be banned, even if the artist is a Malaysian.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.