Nicknamed “America’s Funniest Muslim” by CNN, Azhar Usman has attracted attention and praise for his work as a comedian. Yesterday, he spoke with WKND about how he found himself in comedy and the trials and tribulations that have resulted.
Q: What do you think of your nickname “America’s Funniest Muslim”?
A: I think it’s ridiculous. It’s a function of the way the media works — often, the way something gets framed takes on a life of its own. As an artist, it’s a dangerous thing [to] have to play the game. An affiliate of CNN, CNN Turk, put out this hourlong bit of stand-up and called it “America’s Funniest Muslim.” To me it was like, yeah I’ll use it for marketing purposes, but I don’t really believe that.
Dave Chappelle is a Muslim, and in my book, he’s not only one of the funniest people on Earth but certainly America’s funniest Muslim. I take it as a compliment from CNN, but at the same time I don’t take it very seriously. It creates an unnecessary amount of pressure. I guess the good news is that I use it as motivation.
Q: What was your background in comedy?
A: I’ve always been a fan of stand-up, but never in a million years imagined that I’d have a career in [it]. I was a lawyer before and dot-com entrepreneur before that.
In law school, I got the bug to do stand-up. I didn’t have the courage to go [onstage], but I watched stand-up [open] mics. I graduated and moved to Minneapolis [to practice] law. Coming back home [to Chicago] and getting married — it was a lot of life changes, and I was working on my dot-com startup. We sold that business in April 2001, but by that time everything had slowed down and I finally had time for myself. I went to a bookstore and found a book on stand-up comedy. I got serious about it, and I finally hit an open mic in 2001.
I can’t say what changed inside me, but it was a time for new things in my life. I was newly married, out of law school, just wrapped up a dot-com startup. With my life in flux, it felt like the perfect opportunity to do something I hadn’t done in years.
Once you get that involved, [comedy] is a very addictive art form. I never looked back. I used to go to this summer camp as a kid since I was like 12 or 13, and I went there for five or six summers straight. We’d have a campfire every night, and my friends and I would come up with these sketches. I always had this comedic performer side to my personality.
Q: How do you fold in issues facing Muslim Americans, such as Islamophobia, to your comedy routine?
A: As far as the content and material, I’ve been wrestling with this a lot. On the one hand I resent feeling boxed in, like I have to be the Muslim guy. Because of the way stand-up and comedy work, clearly there’s a gaping hole in American pop culture; there’s a voice that’s completely absent, and it’s a voice that is so necessary because there’s so much discourse about Muslims and Islam.
So on one hand, I resent it because why can’t I just be a comic? On the other hand, it’s what I want to talk about. That’s a big part of my life and who I am and my experience. I kind of wrestle with my ambivalent feelings with having to wear that costume or superhero outfit and [meet people’s expectations]. On the other hand, I don’t mind because I want to talk about it. In following work, there’s always going be more latitude to explore more facets of my identity that don’t have to do with religion and identity politics.
Q: Do you think starting out being known as the “Muslim comic” will make your future more restrictive in that people will expect that from you?
A: Yes and no. So much of crafting one’s own persona is really up to the artist to frame that [identity], and I’m trying to play that role now for however long I feel comfortable doing that. I’m perfectly aware that at a certain time it’s a matter of pivoting in the right way. There are plenty of examples of people in entertainment who can be pigeonholed for something but over time if it’s meant to be and their stand-up is mainstream funny, there’s always a chance to pivot and do a crossover move. I believe a Muslim American comedian can transition and find a larger audience.
Q: As a Muslim American, what are your thoughts on today’s political climate and rhetoric towards minority groups?
A: I think the Trump-inspired hysteria — I wouldn’t even call it Trump-inspired — I’d say he’s a megaphone for hysteria that already exists in our culture. So much of it is politics of fear; American politics has been driven by politics of fear for long time. Muslims are just the flavor of the month. In World War II it was the Japanese, and Black Americans have had more than their fair sure of fearmongering and hysteria. Today, there are almost two Americas. Obama had that famous line “There is no Red America there is no Blue America there is only the United States of America.” That’s a good sound bite, but it belies reality, given that the two most talked-about candidates are Trump and Sanders that represent two completely different Americas.
I have a section in my show where I talk about suffering from a condition called double consciousness; Dubois coined it that Black people are being pulled in two different directions, one that loves America and the other that hates it. America itself suffers from a double consciousness; you can’t be the empire and at the same time stand for the little guy. There’s a fundamental lack of integrity, dissonance and discord. It’s a conflict of interest. The U.S. is the empire on the planet today; it’s the most powerful nation on earth. Despite all the rhetoric of BRIC nations, the fact is that all their currencies are pegged against the U.S. dollar. So when you’re the empire and simultaneously want to talk about caring for human rights and civil rights, it doesn’t compute — that fundamental conflict of interest that puts power over everything else often leads to strange and irreconcilable paradoxes.
I’d say that Muslims right now and the culture of fear around Muslims today is an example of one of those paradoxes coming out; there are so many Americans who are liberal, open-minded and understand that Islam isn’t evil-teaching, and that those that practice it preach mercy and understanding and peace. Those that are caught up in fearmongering and say the Quran is violent book. How do you resolve the paradox? I’m not holding my breath that we’re going to be solving that in my lifetime, since same rhetoric has been going on since Civil Rights movement. We celebrate Black history month and everyone rallies around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, but Black teenagers are being shot in the streets.
America has shown time and time again that it does not have the solution or the answer to address pervasive racism, really ubiquitous white supremacy and white privilege that is baked into every institution in the U.S. It’s a type of structural racism built in everywhere, and access to power in the U.S. is a function of access to housing, education and economic opportunity. As long as there are structural limits, so long as that playing field is not level there is pervasive bias and racism. I’m raising four children and raising them in an America that I believe won’t be able to resolve the tension between Islam and tensions around Muslims crafting their own space. I’m not holding my breath.
Q: What are your thoughts on the presence (or lack thereof) of Muslim Americans in American creative fields?
A: I think it’s a function of community maturity. By the way, people often say “the American Muslim community,” but I don’t believe there is such a community. It’s really communities. Large slices of those communities are sophisticated professionals, and they work in industries like medicine and even law, engineering, computer science, business and so on. Large sections of American Muslims tend to gravitate towards those fields, which are generally seen as much more stable professions.
Working in the creative fields — such as being an artist, performer, comedian, writer, director, actor, what have you — those tend to be far less stable professions and tend to have far less well-defined career paths. You can’t go to college for a degree in comedy and then have a job waiting for you. That’s just not how it works. It has more to do with the risk-averseness of the young communities than with any type of inherent cultural attribute.
Further, there are more and more American Muslims entering creative fields, particularly in the entertainment industry. That is definitely an upward trajectory, and I expect there’s going to be more and more. There’s only a matter of time before representation in creative fields begins to mirror the actual percentages. We’ll definitely see greater representation in creative industries.
Q: What were barriers that you faced as an American Muslim in comedy?
A: There are not many barriers I’ve felt or experienced that were explicit. No one told me I couldn’t do stand-up or couldn’t do comedy just because I’m an American Muslim. No one discouraged me or prevented me or created any sort of impediment. Perhaps the barriers were more structural in nature — for instance, the lack of representation of American Muslims in acting or creative fields. If I’m trying to get into [TV or film] acting, there are just not a lot of parts for people like me — people who act like me, talk like me, people who look like me and have my background and my experience.
The type of comedy that I do and am trying to do — highly politically charged and politically astute stand-up from an American Muslim perspective — is not a path that has been paved. It’s not that there is a barrier per se, but there’s really no road map as to how do it.
The bigger challenge is really the interior barrier: the self-doubt, insecurity, feeling that maybe my experience is too far off the beaten path and people will [not find it] accessible or relatable. Those internal doubts and battles that I think every artist faces on some level — those are more significant barriers that I’ve faced and tried to overcome in my career.