ISIS pop is a real (and terrifying) genre – meet the documentarians investigating it, and other very modern musical issues

It sounds like a kind of male, French Enya – plush, ambient a capella tunes that could be the isolated vocal from a major Parisian boyband. But then you translate the lyrics and realise this is no ‘Get Lucky’.

Yes, Charlie Hebdo is dead, he mocked the prophets/Indeed we will kill without remorse those coming to provoke us/Why are you looking for a fight? You reap what you sow/For those with loaded weapons, it’s time to revolt…We need to strike France, it’s time for it to be humiliated, we want to see suffering and death by the thousand…

This is ‘On Va Pas Se Laisser Abattre’ (We Will Not Let Ourselves Be Beaten Down), a song produced by followers of ISIS that emerged online in March 2015, eight months before the Paris terror attacks. It’s one of around 70 nasheeds – a form of traditional Arabic chant that bypasses the strict Islamic State ban on music to such a degree that even Osama Bin Laden once had a nasheed group – written and released by ISIS in the past few years in a variety of languages, designed to radicalise fans and encourage terrorist acts. There are even trap and electro remixes by acts called things like ISIStep online to attract western audiences. 

The song was the launch pad of an investigation into the music of ISIS by New York Times writer Alex Marshall – his story forms the first edition of a new series of the podcast Pitch, released this week by Audible.

“It’s important to go after stories that challenge modern views on culture wherever they may be, and dig deeper into exposing those sort of narrow views of what music in culture can be,” says Pitch host Whitney Jones. “We were interested in the idea of people and organisations in society controlling the music that people were listening to and Alex Marshall, a reporter on the New York Times emailed us about ISIS music productions. He was researching national anthems used around the world and came across one that ISIS use as propaganda and we had him go report that story.” 

What’s the background of ISIS pop?

Whitney Jones: “It’s like if someone took your favourite genre of music and changed it to manipulate and use people. Starting with the Muslim brotherhood in the ’70s they saw that it was quite effective in winning people over to their point of view, and so ISIS picked up on that in the last few years. What ISIS do is different, they put music out in a number of different languages – some of the best sounding songs, the catchy songs, are in French. They are the product of two brothers and the story generally looks at recruiting people and how these two brothers came to be ISIS songwriters.” 

Have ISIS picked up on music’s ability to unite people? How much of an influence have these songs had on potential recruits?

“It’s not like people listen to one song and are like ‘great, I’m going to join ISIS and go shoot up a music studio’. That’s not how it works, but it is part of the process of radicalisation that can occur and as music listeners it’s important to know that this is going on. They understand the power that music has to tie people together. As part of a larger propaganda scheme it is a factor in motivating radicalism and that’s not true for just ISIS, there’s a lot of groups that are bound together by music.” 

‘The Music Of ISIS’ is one of nine episodes in the new series of Pitch, alongside investigations into how politicians use and manipulate music and profiles on Gwenno’s Welsh language records and blacklisted 50s jazz musician Hazel Scott. What’s the theory behind the series?

“The whole idea behind Pitch was to look at the ways that music shaped individuals and also society,” says Whitney, “so this series is quite diverse in the topics that it covers but is driven by looking at ways music gets into our lives and the power it has to change us. There was one that I personally reported that was the story about a blacklisted jazz musician in the United States – Hazel Scott was the first black woman in the US to have a nationally syndicated television show in the 1950s, she was married to a US congress man at the time, she was touring all over the country and the world, but after she appears in front of the House Un-American Activitees Committee her career basically stopped and she disappears from the US music scene. It’s a good example of the power that a blacklist can have and the power of government interference over culture and music and I thought that was an important story to tell.”

You also helmed the episode on music being used by politicians, what did you discover?

“It opens by talking about US politicians and their mismatched habits – the policies which they advocate in their political life versus what they listen to or what their musical taste are. That sparked the question of what do artist think of that – if you put out a song that is political and you have people taking it the exact opposite way, or you have people making it out to say something that you’re not saying.” 

Is it fair, say, for Johnny Marr to ban David Cameron from liking The Smiths?

“Thats the individual’s decision, you can say who you want who you don’t want using your music, certainly after Reagan in 1984 there’s a history of musicians saying to politicians ‘can you not use my songs on the campaign trail’. If I was a musician and had written a song and somebody was using it to sell policies I could see someone not wanting that to happen.” 

There’s an episode about people filming gigs on their phones, and the new etiquette of gig-going – what did you decide was acceptable gigging behaviour?

“Every six months there’s a musician who makes a statement saying ‘put your phones away’ or some video that goes viral of a musician calling out a fan for having a phone up at their show. I started to get tired of this discussion of ‘is this okay, is this not okay?’. So I tried to go into the cultural history in the US of how we came to establish what was okay in public spaces and what was not – I went back into the split that culturally began happening in the 19th century, at the time of the first wave of immigration in the US around the time of the civil war, so all these divisions were happening in society and that reflects itself in the way that the elite in society adopt opera and classical music as high society art and separate that from everyone else. So there’s this other class – specifically the white middle class – where everybody is sitting in the dark and not interacting with anybody else, and those are largely the values that have persisted ‘til today. I wanted to put that in context of this larger movement – whose values are being represented and why that’s the case. Maybe there are some rules that we can do without to allow people to enjoy shows. I wouldn’t say that anything goes, I’m not calling for a return to the 19th century concert experiences – those venues were quite segregated and they were times where no one was paying attention to the show and you couldn’t hear anything. There were riots at some shows. A lot of what was happening culturally in the 19th century was not positive but I do think we can make space for differences in experience then we currently do.”

Pitch