Comedian Preacher Moss grew up with jazz, a musical form to which American Muslims have been definitive contributors, and it is John Coltrane’s 1965 devotional masterwork, A Love Supreme that inspired the title of this film. Recorded live in California in 2018, this unique and multi-layered performance is a lot more than a stand-up comedy routine.
By Valerie Grove
Mentored by the late civil activist and comedian Dick Gregory, Preacher Moss has been an educator and comic for over 20 years. He’s worked as a writer for many other comedians and for comedy flagship Saturday Night Live, and has been called the ‘Godfather of Muslim Comedy’. Founder of the ground-breaking project Allah Made Me Funny, the Official Muslim Comedy Tour, Preacher Moss is considered by many to be the trailblazer for present day Muslim comedians like Mo Amer, Hassan Minhaj and Ramy Youssef. He is CEO of Permissible Laughter Media LLC, a Muslim comedy production company, and throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has been producing a daily livestream broadcast, The Shout Out Show.
Earlier this month he devoted episode 245 of The Shout Out Show to John Coltrane. Entitled Black Music Spotlight: John Coltrane, Preacher Moss talks about Coltrane’s life, his legacy and why he should be celebrated. In the process he name-checks many other pivotal African-American jazzmen without whom a lot of other great music couldn’t have happened. However, the show is also very personal. We learn that Preacher Moss didn’t want to be a comedian but a jazz musician and not just any jazz musician: he wanted to be ‘Trane’.
Reflecting on this he says:
“I realised when I got older why I wanted to be a jazz musician, it had a lot to do with connecting to the spirit… the development with John Coltrane was a spiritual journey.”
Preacher Moss talks about John Coltrane’s reality, both as a man and a musician, as he moved towards the realisation of A Love Supreme. He then explains why the album is so inextricably linked to his own faith. For Preacher Moss A Love Supreme or Allah Supreme, is “John Coltrane giving us our first dose of jazz music as religious work.” So as well as being an education about John Coltrane, episode 245 of The Shout Out Show provides another level of context for Love Supreme: An Anatomy of Gratitude which we are also very grateful to have on Alchemiya.
This hour-long film, co-directed by Mustafa Davis and Preacher Moss, is really hard to review. It’s live so it’s a direct experience, meaning that it doesn’t really need reviewing – it just needs viewing. It’s tempting to let it speak for itself by giving away some of the funniest lines, but that also presents problems. These are not just lines – they are an integral part of a narrative unity that, in the manner of all great improvisational jazz, is structured around recurring themes, melodies and phrasing. That said, I can’t really come up with a better introduction to this film than Preacher Moss’s own reflections on what he thought being a comedian meant:
“When I first started doing comedy I thought I’d be rich, famous, divorced, remarried, divorced, rehab, found Jesus and driving an Uber.”
Backed by Tarus Mateen on bass and Leon Alexander Jr. on drums this is special from the outset. It isn’t just a stand-up comedy routine but one with a jazz sensibility and the presence of a community rather than an audience. Preacher Moss gives a straightforward account of what being a Muslim means to him, while forensically and hilariously dissecting the curve of the convert, and the idiosyncrasies of Islam in America itself. And we’re barely 10 minutes in.
These are all themes that recur in various ways throughout the performance, becoming running gags that are both brilliantly observed and perfectly delivered. Another remarkable thing about the performance is its fluidity and the ease with which Preacher Moss can move from hilarity to affirmation to knowledge and back to hilarity. Given that this performance was recorded in 2018, the politics of the Trump presidency are an unavoidable subject. However, the way in which this is first considered is a tour-de-force of personal experience, compassionate social commentary and acceptance in the knowledge that this too shall pass. After just enough serious comic timing for all that to sink in, we are laughing out loud again as Preacher Moss embarks on another story about how the assumptions and ignorance of certain other people can interfere with his everyday Muslim reality in a really irritating way. From there we move seamlessly into some classic, comedy complications of relationships, marriage, mother-in-laws and the dangerously divisive subject of how much spice to use.
It is very, very funny but there is so much more happening here than the comedy. Preacher Moss creates an atmosphere of security and normality that enables not only the laughter but a real sense of relief and relaxation. Tarus Mateen and Leon Alexander Jr. weave in and out of the performance musically, either with the musical refrain from A Love Supreme or providing Preacher Moss with specific accompaniment. This unique combination of music, material and the way in which Preacher Moss involves his audience in the basmala and in a refrain of Allah Supreme makes it also a devotional and unifying experience.
It has not been an easy journey to this venue in Pleasanton, California for him or for anybody in it. Navigating the chaotic and Islamophobic post 9-11 world, having to resist being shamed for his faith, or feeling obliged to defend it or be constantly placating others was challenge enough, without then being expected to account for a death cult called ISIS. There is a subtle reminder of this in his comments about how he began his stand-up shows in 2003 and 2004. After saying he now refers to himself as a Muslim, Muslim comedian he says: “My idea of being a Muslim comedian back in 2003, 2004 was a little different. The idea was that you would come on stage and you would actually let people know that you’re cool with being Muslim.”
It’s been a long road that Preacher Moss understands only too well, and he uses his compassion, his sadness and his joy not to justify anything to others but to help his own community heal through laughter. And music. This film is a joyous, affirmative experience that stays with you in many ways, including bi-smi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm becoming a surprisingly persistent earworm.