On March 3, award-winning singer-songwriter Ben Lee released an album that diverged significantly from his earlier work. In his self-explanatory new album “Ben Lee Sings Songs About Islam for the Whole Family,” Lee branches into the world of child-friendly, educational music.
The album is just the beginning of a five-part project. Lee hopes to release an album about five of the major world religions: Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. Raised Jewish, Lee converted to Hinduism as an adult. His hope for this five-album project is that he can inspire more people to see the beauty of various religions’ myths and values.
While Lee says he no longer takes any religion literally, he hopes these albums will help restore appreciation for the spiritual narratives religions provide. Lee told The Guardian that he worries views on religion have become increasingly polarized.
“Either you’re a fundamentalist who takes every word of the text literally, or you hold a liberal atheist view where you believe in no God,” Lee said. “There is a whole other area that I would love to hear us talking about, which is the psychological value of our myths and stories.”
Lee sped up production on his Islam album in response to cultural conversations around Muslims. After the United States enacted a short-lived travel ban that disproportionately targeted Muslim immigrants and refugees, Lee felt compelled to shed a different light on Islam.
“If you look at the US administration, it’s acting out [of] fear, aggression, and intolerance—there is a decision we make about which part of ourselves to voice,” Lee said. “All of this stuff started to happen with the travel ban, and I thought, you know what—now’s the moment. And if you let these moments go past and you don’t stand up, then they slip away.”
All proceeds from the sale of the album will go to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has taken an active role in opposing what they call the “Muslim ban.” Still, Lee asserts that he does not intend for the album to be a “hardcore piece of activism.”
“I’m standing up for ambiguity and poetry,” Lee said.
“Ben Lee Sings Songs About Islam for the Whole Family” contains 9 upbeat, child-friendly songs, each of which covers a different aspect of Muslim faith. In “Astagfirrulah,” Lee sings about the Muslim value of seeking forgiveness:
“Astagfirrulah, astagfirrulah / When I make mistakes, I say I’m sorry / Astagfirrulah / With all of my heart / I’m sorry, astagfirrulah.”
For Lee, aiming the songs at children was a natural choice. As the father of a 7-year-old daughter, Lee told PRI, he knows the power of a short, “digestible” pop song. “I think I’m at the point in my life where you start realizing that any lasting effect that you’re going to have on the human race is going to be through the influence you can make on the next generation,” Lee said.
This set of five albums is not aimed at converting the young, Lee says, but rather changing the way young people think about religion. He said he hopes to “focus on commonalities and on beginning to think mythologically about these cultural narratives—and introduce children to thinking in that way as opposed to thinking literally.”
Although this album marks indie-rocker Lee’s first foray into children’s music, it is not his first time writing music about religious experience. In 2013, Lee collaborated with actress and musician Jessica Chapnik Kahn about their experiences using Ayahuasca, a traditional spiritual medicine known for producing hallucinogenic effects.
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: Ben Lee. Photo by Guido van Nispen, Flickr Creative Commons.