How Green Day helped a Muslim girl cope with racism in America

A young girl finds solace and the language to express anger in "American Idiot".

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Complex Original

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I was 9 years old, shopping at a grocery store with my mother in Los Angeles, when I heard an old man tell her to go back home. “Go back to your country,” he told her, his voice crackling with unprovoked rage. “Your people don’t belong here.”

While rounding the corner of the aisle, I saw my mother wipe away tears as he walked away. It was the first time I ever saw her crying. I remember feeling a kind of anger I couldn’t yet articulate—one that was animated by a sense of sadness and fear. It was an anger that had metastasized throughout my body, and I didn’t know what to do with it.

This is one of the few memories I have from the days and weeks after Sept. 11. I don’t remember much from the actual day, except that I was eating cereal while watching the tragedy unfold on TV. Since then, I’ve grown distrustful of my other recollections from that time. Did my mind fabricate the memory of a news anchor suggesting that the U.S. government round up Muslims and Arabs in camps, like those that once held Japanese-Americans? Did I go to school the next day telling my classmates that my parents knew Osama bin Laden, that a man who looked like him regularly came to our house for tea? Did I really hear over the car radio, two years later, about the United States’ invasion of Iraq?

I was 11 years old when American bombs fell over Baghdad, and my only real, vivid memory of that time is of attending detention for being late to class during my first week of middle school. As I surveyed my peers, many pierced and tattooed, I knew I stood out. My denim maxi skirt, long-sleeved shirt and hijab marked me as outsider; this kind of different could prove fatal to my social life at a new school, so I had to make an ally. The friendliest face belonged to a girl whose slight body was swimming in large Green Day t-shirt. In my desperation, I falsely told her I knew what Green Day was, and that I was a big fan. She invited me to have lunch with her the next day to discuss their new album.

My sonic tastes at the time were poorly formed, nourished only by a pop-music diet of Britney Spears and ‘N Sync. I was primed, then, to enjoy the pop-punk sounds of Green Day without much difficulty. That night, I illegally downloaded American Idiot over the file-sharing service LimeWire, and played the album from start to finish, listening closely to the lyrics. For the first time, I recognized my rage in singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics and voice; it manifested itself as a musical missive.

At 11 years old, American Idiot provided the only explanation that I could understand, delivered in a package of teen angst and righteous anger.

Listening to American Idiot now, the songs often feel clichéd in their politics, heavy-handed in their sermonizing, and simple in their comprehension of justice. But the 2004 album arrived during headier times. Dixie Chicks CDs were being burned in bonfires across the U.S. because lead singer Natalie Maines told London concertgoers that the group opposed the Iraq War. Meanwhile, demonstrators took to the streets to protest the American invasion.

You could feel the anger in the air. But in the Muslim-American community, there was fear, too. Our homes were searched. Our neighbors stopped talking to us. For the first time, our local mosque hired a security guard. Having experienced an onslaught of Islamophobic epithets and hateful slurs, we realized that any single interaction could suddenly turn into a bloody story for the local newscast. We constantly lived on the verge of violence, an atmosphere that was reflected in the lyrics of American Idiot, which warned of cities burning and trials by fire. The album is about an America that is inching toward total collapse—and it certainly felt that way in 2003. American Idiot is not subtle or nuanced, but that’s because the times we lived in required blunt language and extreme politics.

The album represented, in many ways, my coming of age. It was myJagged Little Pill, my Oops!... I Did It Again. It lent meaning to experiences I once thought were senseless. It provided me with someone to blame—an American president and The System, a nebulous network of politicians, businessmen, and other power-wielding oligarchs.

I finally had something and someone on which to project my anger—“an alien nation/ where everything isn’t meant to be okay,” as Armstrong sings in the title song. I had a “redneck agenda” to rail against and ”propaganda” to discredit. This language, imprecise as it was, was my first political vocabulary. These words would pepper the lines of my essays, poetry, and Xanga blogposts through my high school years. Muslim-Americans who came of age during the War on Terror were forced to not only to occupy spaces as outsiders, but to speak on behalf of a global Muslim community that numbers at more than 1.6 billion. This language wasn’t jargon—it was necessity. We needed it to explain ourselves, to explain our position in America. And while many others found it in the music of Tupac Shakur, or underground rappers like Immortal Technique, or even in the rock anthems of System of a Down, I found it first in American Idiot.

American Idiot was not not just about politics; it was about being a teenager in the early aughts. It was a riotous indictment not just of “The System,” and also of the adults who were running it. At 11, my alienation from and disillusionment with American culture and society was only emotional knowledge. I was incapable of articulating how I felt, or explaining why I felt that way. But music lends coherence to feeling. What is normally difficult to say in everyday language is much easier to sing in verse. Consider how the music of Taylor Swift or One Direction organizes tumultuous teenage emotion into accessible, danceable narratives. And singing along—be it alone in your shower or with friends in the car—can be cathartic.

It didn’t take me long to memorize the words to “Jesus of Suburbia,” a 9-minute-long track that soon became one of my favorites onAmerican Idiot. When Armstrong sang of the United States as a “land of make-believe/ that didn’t believe in me,” I recognized that America through the interactions I had with authority figures in my own life. When he sang, “Everyone is so full of shit/ born and raised by hypocrites,” I sang along, matching him in gusto and fury. “Jesus of Surburbia” was a treatise on youthful rebellion, and in my post-9/11 state, I hungered for rebellion. It was the only answer I had to my deep disappointment with the U.S. What could possibly fix these overwhelming and inescapable problems—other than the type of revolt Green Day was proposing?

Green Day was certainly not the first, nor the last, to make these kinds of statements, but it was among the few bands to find mainstream success. Pop artist Pink would later release 2006’s “Dear Mr. President,” which she claimed she was banned from singing on radio and TV appearances. Conor Oberst contributed “When the President Talks to God” to the genre, while Public Enemy offered “Son of a Bush.” The Beastie Boys, Pearl Jam, Wilco, and many, many others also released anti-Bush music during those years. Dissent had become fashionable.  

Green Day’s notions of revolution were shallow, but their music compelled me to search for other writings, music, and film that expanded on those ideas. American Idiot was my introduction to leftist political critique. It was my prelude to Arundhati Roy’s The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, and even Malcolm X’s autobiography. Throughout high school and college, these texts didn’t just provide me with an education. They provided me with solace. They helped me explain a world that felt, at times, inexplicable and senseless in its violence.

At 11 years old, American Idiot provided the only explanation that I could understand, delivered in a package of teen angst and righteous anger. “The innocent can never last,” croons Armstrong mournfully in “Wake Me Up When September Ends”. Innocence, however, is a strange privilege, one granted to only a select few. Once, while walking to class, a boy tried to pull the scarf off my head. On another day, a lab partner asked me if intended to blow up Disneyland. Throughout my school years, these incidents continued, each one robbing me of my right to innocence. But what American Idiot taught me was that I didn’t need my innocence. All I needed was conviction, and a willingness to riot. 

Tasbeeh Herwees is a journalist and writer living in Los Angeles. She still knows all the words to "American Idiot".

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