Media Appeasement: Shihad’s Jon Toogood on being Muslim…

NZ muslims are eager for more ‘celebrity’ endorsement after the SBW train backfires with his terror-preacher links.

Shihad singer Jon Toogood quietly converted to Islam a few years ago.

As a new father, the singer for our most successful and beloved hard-rock band had a lot to consider before speaking publicly about his conversion.

“I’m quite a private person. When I’m on stage I give it everything and I love that communal experience and I love people, but in my personal life I really value privacy.”

Lawrence Smith
Shihad frontman Jon Toogood will perform at the You Are Us/Aroha Nui benefit concerts for Christchurch in Auckland and the Garden City over the next few days.

After the Christchurch terror attack, Toogood says there’s no room for him to stay on the fence. “This is beyond being what I believe in. This is an attack on humanity.”

Giving it everything on stage is something Toogood and Shihad built their legacy on. Seeing Shihad live is a formidable and unforgettable, almost religious, experience and all of that energy channels through one man.

Two days after the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, Toogood found himself quietly taking part in a community meeting at The Benevolent Society in Doncaster, Melbourne.

Lawrence Smith
Jon Toogood says the Christchurch mosque attacks shook him on three levels: As a Muslim, as a New Zealander and as a human.

“They threw the doors open. Literally, it was hard to squeeze everyone in. I’d never stood in a room like it. There were rabbi, Christians, atheists, Muslims, all different walks of life and everyone was on the same page. What can we do about this?”

Toogood is raising his family in Melbourne. When we speak, he’s grabbing coffee from a “cool hipster place in Coburg” on his way home with halal party pies for his daughter’s first birthday.

“I saw this white, Australian middle-class woman get up and say she didn’t know what to do with the shame she felt. Because the shooter was Australian. She said she didn’t know where to put her shame. She asked what she could do to stop it. It was really powerful.”

Shihad’s members, from left, Phil Knight, Tom Larkin, Jon Toogood and Karl Kippenberger.

When Toogood talks, you listen. Partly because it’s hard to get a word in edgeways, but mostly it’s because of how deeply passionate and serious he is.

Happy to wade into any conversation and find his place in it, he’s somehow more confident in conversation than he is on stage. Deeply empathetic and highly engaging, he is openly emotional.

“I definitely cried on that first day but I was so violently angry. Because of all the s… leading up to it. The re-rise of Pauline Hanson. People walking around saying I’m sick of being ‘politically correct’.

“Let me tell you why we’re politically correct. It’s to stop s… like what happened in Christchurch. Being ‘politically correct’ is a technique to deal with large groups of diverse people living in the same place and it’s about trying to respect each other even if you don’t understand differences. That’s what political correctness is there for.”

Rebekah Parsons-King/Fairfax NZ
Jon Toogood married Dana Salih in Sudan in 2014.

Toogood’s conversion to Islam may be recent, but his social conscience is historical.

Throughout his career, he has attacked invisible systems that bind us. Governments, toxic masculinity, substance abuse, sport and religion. As a lyricist, he’s always been equal parts dreamer, lover and fighter.

“A lot of it is about that hole you’re left with from being inside that materialistic modern society. Where there is no spirituality. We weren’t rich but, pretty much, if we saved up, we could grab whatever we wanted, like most families, and it never made me happy.

“Music is what I discovered to fill the void and, because that was the medium I could speak about that void that I felt – as a middle-class Western guy.”

Middle class by the time they landed in New Zealand, his parents were lower-class immigrants from London. His mother was part Ashkenazi Jew, and they were forced to change their name during the war.

He thinks the experience of persecution for who they were, and extreme poverty, helped his parents develop values of being open-hearted, fair-minded and hardworking. Values they passed on to Toogood.

“My father always taught me to be decent to people. That if I wanted to be treated decently, then that’s what to throw out there. A very working-class sort of mentality. He was a carpenter.

“The sort of guy who would go and fix the neighbour’s house, much to the infuriation of my mother, because meanwhile our house was falling down. He was a very generous man. We were a pretty tight family unit. Very egalitarian.”

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A Wellington High School student, he says his friends basically looked like the United Nations.

“People from everywhere and I didn’t think twice about it. I thought, ‘That’s what New Zealand is’.”

School subjects didn’t really suit him. Painting and music were his only two passions.

“I think I got really lucky early on to have someone like Tom [Larkin], who was as passionate about being in a band. Not just that either – being as good as any other band in the world.”

If Toogood is a divine conduit that channels Shihad’s ferocious energy, then drummer Larkin is its mastermind tactician. Guitarist Phil Knight would be its ambitious technician and beast of bass Karl Kippenberger its reliable, beating heart.

Another pretty tight family unit. Very egalitarian.

“We were all music nerds. We didn’t have parties to go to because we were the metal guys. So we just literally spent all our time in the band room and would rehearse and then we got tight, and then we would rehearse even more.”

That work ethic led to opening for AC/DC, which opened their eyes to what they could be. They worked even harder.

They became better songwriters. Better performers. They became hugely popular in New Zealand, then in Australia.

However, by the time Shihad were ready for America, 9/11 happened and suddenly America wasn’t ready for a band called Shihad. It sounded too close to jihad.

They weighed up their ambitions and changed their name to Pacifier. Neither the name change nor their foray to the US worked particularly well.

They changed their name back in 2004, returning to their roots both geographically and musically. They seemed more free after the experience. As though they had tested their ambitions and found out they didn’t really want what they thought they wanted.

“When you’re younger, you go, ‘Yeah, well, this is what I deserve, get out of my way.’ Then, as you get older, you realise that not everybody gets to do what they are passionate about for a living, and you start to appreciate it a little bit more.”

So four promising, metal-loving lads from Wellington formed a band and called it Shihad (of all possible band names) and became famous, and then 9/11 and Islamophobia happened and they changed their name to try and succeed and then changed it back to try to belong again.

“It is quite bizarre. It is totally bizarre. I don’t think about it too much, otherwise I think I’d do my head in. But it’s pretty strange. It is what it is.

“I happened to meet someone who happened to be the most generous, beautiful human being that I’d ever met and that I fell in love with and she was a Sudanese Muslim.”

He met Dana Salih when she was a student at the New Zealand College of Chiropractic, the daughter of a Sudanese diplomat. They married in Sudan in 2014, by which stage Toogood had made the conversion. They have two children.

“Islam has taught me, it’s not about me. It’s actually about everybody. We’re all connected. Which is something I sort of felt anyway.

“It just so happened I was introduced to it by my best friend, who is now the mother of my two kids. She just happened to be Muslim, and now I just happen to be Muslim too.”

March’s attacks shook him on three levels: as a Muslim, as a New Zealander and as a human.

“I know what it’s like to be in prayer. I know that peace and that focus, that presence. It did run through my head that could have been me and my son. That really frightened me. Beyond that though, just as a human, who wants to live in a world where that happens?”

This week Toogood will take the stage for the Aroha Nui/They Are Us concerts in support of the victims of Christchurch for the reasons he always does.

For the communal experience. For the people. For the humans.

He will channel the divine once more for the city his heart aches for.

“Shihad and Christchurch have got such a huge connection. Christchurch was the first place outside of Wellington that actually embraced us and we have always had that connection.

“It always makes you go, ‘OK, we’re in Christchurch – we better play good’. And we do.”