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Ben Lee's surprising response to the US travel ban

Source: (Instagram/Ben Lee)

The Australian singer-songwriter is promoting religious tolerance on his latest album - a collection of children's songs about Islam.

When Donald Trump introduced his controversial travel ban, many people felt the need to voice their opinion on it. 

For Ben Lee, that meant writing an album of songs about Islam. But rather than making a political statement about an issue generating fierce debate, the 38-year-old singer-songwriter decided to "refine complex ideas down to their basic ingredients" and write a pop album for kids: 'Ben Lee Sings Songs About Islam for the Whole Family'.

"For me it felt like an important moment to stand up and just point out the beauty of a religion that I saw being demonised and vilified," Lee tells SBS from his home in Los Angeles.

 

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Born and raised in Sydney, Lee moved to the US two decades ago. In recent years, Lee has been on his own spiritual journey, reading, studying and reflecting on the texts and the teachings of the world's major religions.

Raised to follow Judaism, he has since studied with a chi kung master, Nan Lu, at the American Taoist Healing Center; he was introduced to Hinduism with guru Sakthi Narayani Amma; and Lee married actor Ione Skye in a Hindu ceremony eight years ago.

He originally planned to release five children's albums - a Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and a Muslim album - but current events pushed the Muslim album to the fore.

"There were rules [for writing the album], and the rules were about connecting to a theme or a phrase or a prayer from Islam, they were also just about moments of inspiration," Lee says.

"So when I would read something and it would touch me profoundly, something magical happens as a songwriter, and I don't really understand how that works." 

The album, which features song titles like 'Islam Means Surrender', 'Ramadan', and 'La Ilaha Il Allah', mixes the messages of Islam with Lee's signature combination of pop tunes and direct, honest lyrics.

He originally planned to release five children's albums - a Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and a Muslim album - but current events pushed the Muslim album to the fore.

"I think all pop songs have an agenda," he says. "Often that agenda is a corporate agenda, or a materialist agenda when you listen to the radio, or a sexual agenda. So I thought, well what if the agenda here is truly to educate and inspire and open people up?"

Top of Lee's list of people to inspire and educate is his seven-year-old daughter, Goldie, who contributes to all the group vocals on the album (Lee's step-daughter sings on 'The Straight Road' and his niece sings on 'Rain').

 

On 'Happy Heart', Lee sings about suffering self-doubt while playing on the monkey bars, or fearing a monster under the bed. The experiences came out of parenting, but the wisdom in dealing with them came from his studies of religion.

"A lot of the criticism the Koran faces is to do with its war-like language and its strong language about the treatment of the enemy," Lee tells SBS. 

"Now what's interesting is when you read these types of stories or this type of language more poetically or more symbolically, in every religion - in the Bhagavad Ghita, it's also on a battlefield - you kind of start to realise that, 'oh this isn't about a battle with another person, this is about a battle with myself'.

"And to say no and to have strength and to be a warrior, these are spiritual and psychological qualities that we need to develop. So for me that song, 'Happy Heart', really came out of parenting and trying to implement some of those things I've learned."

These days, Lee says he doesn't follow one particular religion, and believes "fundamentalist orthodox participants in any of the religions have really created atheism, because they've just made it seem so awful and wrong". Instead, he considers himself a follower of "the one true religion, which is the religion of the human heart", and hopes to engage others in dialogue and debate.

Even so, he's been shocked by the vitriol he has received to this album on social media.

"There is a certain level of rage that took me by surprise, and perhaps that was naive of me," he says.

"This kids' album - in a sense you couldn't find anything less relevant to most people's lives, or less of a real concern to them. 

"But the amount of a threat that can be felt, simply because it' saying let's consider the good in the traditions of some of our neighbours around the world, that did catch me off-guard. I think it's been a maturing experience, and I think every human needs to have those. But it's also made me more determined that work is needed. We need art that asks people to slow down and to think and to feel and to question."