Rhys Sparey


  • Doctor of Philosophy, Music
  • 32

Personal profile

Research interests

Mourning Friends, Mourning Martyrs: A Phenomenology of Digitally Mediated Grief among Shi'a Muslims during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Rhys' PhD project is a cultural history of the Arabian Sea that narrates an important social and political shift by way of the region's recalibration to the digital age, inferred from arts and rituals concerning the mourning period that takes place in commemoration of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali (626-680) during the Hijri month of Muharram among Shi'a Muslims. Case studies include highly produced recitation videos, live-streamed rituals, interactive social media profiles, and call-in talk shows on international television channels. Each of these is rooted in quasi-musical traditions of poetic recitation (e.g., marsiya, nuha), gesture (e.g., ma'tam, zanzeer zani), and dramaturgy (e.g., julus, ta'ziya). Worshipful interactions with these media are ascertained from discourse analysis, ethnography, music analysis, oral history, poetics, and semiotics. This research reveals the formation and function of a digitally mediated majis (assembly of ritual practitioners). This majlis entails intense feelings of sorrow and solidarity which are manifestly real and intercorporeal. Such feelings thereby challenge neurotypical assumptions of digital mediation (and, by association, experiences of asynchronicity, distortion, and loss)--as 'inauthentic', 'simulated', or 'virtual'--and eurocentric presuppositions of concept Religion--as 'faith-based' or 'luddite'. It contrast, Rhys advocates an interdisciplinary, transnational, transmedial, and neurodiverse approach to cultural-historical research and an inclusive ontology of religion and mediation.


#IAMHUSSEINI: Television and Mourning during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Originally written for a workshop on 'Mediating Presence and Distance' hosted by the National University of Singapore and co-sponsored by Yale University, this project contributes to 'CoronAsur', a blog that publishes research pertaining to religion and Covid-19 in Asia, with a view to publishing his script in a special issue of Religion. Scholarship regarding the adjustment of religious observances to the Covid-19 pandemic largely prioritises practitioners adapting worship to constraints on gathering through technological means. This paper responds to arguments made in this scholarship and demonstrates a practice that neither changed much because of the pandemic nor suits the Protestant presuppositions upon which such arguments depend: Muharram, by way of a call-in talk-show called #IAMHUSSEINI. In contrast, Rhys argues that the show capitalised on the availability of a vast new audience by reorienting its aesthetic, away from what may be described as a 'natively digital' aesthetic, towards the expectations of a spatially comprescent ritual.


Theorising Digital Muharram: Royall Records and the Online Nauhah Video.

The rites of mourning in the Hijri month of Muharram present an ontological challenge to the Western academy, established to reflect a rigid division of the arts into isolated experiences of consumption through the Aristotelian senses; e.g., seen visual art or heard music, an exception granted only to the tactility required to produce them. Their disconnectedness persists even with their concurrence in dance and drama, framed often as fusions or combinations. As Frank Korom (1994) and Epsita Halder (2020) have shown, mourning in Muharram extends its ontological rebuff to other strict evangelical partitions: the spiritual inner and religious outer or the sacred and profane, for instance. Although a substantial corpus addresses this arbitrary delineation of existence, the integration of digital culture into the faculties of human perception and creativity has resulted in sensoria and worldviews that remain encumbered by the reductive and exclusionary structuralism implied by dichotomies like “virtual” and “physical” or “simulated” and “real”. This article illuminates a practice that occurs digitally for the commemoration of the martyrs of Karbala: the nauḥah recitation videos of Royall Records, headed by Nadeem Sarwar. It argues that the current vocabulary of digital humanities is unequipped to accurately describe Shi’a piety online and betrays an enduring ignorance of the ontological lessons of Shi’a piety offline. It thereby contributes to a growing literature on ‘relational affordances’ and digital relativism (Willems 2020).


The Kurdish EDM Resistance:

Electronic dance music has been used by Kurmanji-speaking Musicians to express alienation and help unify Kurdistan under a single musical-national representation since the 1990s. Rhys' work on Kurdish electronica deliberates the construction of a religionised Kurdish identity by those whom these musicians oppose. This is realised as Islamophobia in Europe, political Islamism in Turkey, or an alleged aversion to Shi'a Islam in Iran. These constructions manifest as commentaries expressly design to maintain an oppressive status quo by detailing and disseminating contradictory narratives of Kurdish people through various forms of media, from newspapers to documentaries, government decrees, and protest speeches. Through interviews and ethnographies, this research tells of a way of documenting musicians' lives that challenges popular conceptions of an 'authentic' Kurd, a 'real' Muslim, and mass-mediated historical innacuracies that have forcibly amalgamated the two.

Research interests (short)

  • Cultural Studies in Transnational Perspective
  • Music and the Philosophy of Art / Aesthetics.
  • Intermediality and the Philosophy of Technology.
  • Islamic Philosophy and the Philosophy of Religion.
  • The Cultural Heritage of the Arabian Sea.
  • Shi'i Materiality; The Mourning of Muharram.
  • Digital Popular Culture; Islamic Popular Culture.



Rhys is a PhD Candidate in the Music Department at King's College London and a Cultural Historian of digital Islamic art, creative expression,  and material culture. His work is based on extensive fieldwork online and throughout the Arabian Sea area and his doctoral thesis, titled Mourning Friends, Mourning Martyrs: A Phenomenology of Digitally Mediated Grief among Shi'a Muslims during the COVID-19 Pandemic, stresses an interdisciplinary, transnational, transmedial, and neurodivergent approach. This project mobilises discourse analysis, ethnography, music analysis, oral history, poetics, and semiotics in a study of how Shi'i Muslims mourn the martyrs of the Battle of Karbala (61 AH/680 CE) across multiple media, including recitation videos, social media profiles, live-streamed ceremonies, and call-in talk shows. Each is rooted in quasi-musical traditions of poetic recitation (e.g., marsiya, nuha), gesture (e.g., ma'tam, zanjir zani), and dramaturgy (e.g., ta'ziya), et alia. It argues that the formation and function of a digital majlis (assembly of ritual practitioners) entails intense feelings of sorrow and solidarity which are manifestly real and intercorporeal (i.e., between bodies), challenging neurotypical phenomenologies of digital mediation (and, by association, experiences of asynchronicity, distortion, and loss)--as 'inauthentic', 'simulated', 'virtual'--and Eurocentric ontologies of religion--as 'faith', 'immaterial', 'luddite'. In contrast to these idealist models, this dissertation advocates a relational (with context) and materialist view of digital mediation and its affordances, alongside a more inclusive ontology of, among other things, religion.



Rhys' postgraduate research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, with additional support from the Society for Education, Music, and Psychology Research, the Anglo-Omani Society, and the Charlie Bayne Travel Trust. He has also received training from the School of Oriental and African Studies and School of Advanced Study, both colleges of the University of London. He previously read music and anthropology at the University of Southampton, studied educational research at the University of Cambridge, and taught music and sociology at primary and secondary levels in both English and Arabic classroom contexts. His teaching at King's College London extends to the Creative Industries, Digital Humanities, Music, and War Studies departments.



In the 2021-22 academic year, Rhys will teach '5AAVC250: Digital Popular Culture', a second-year undergraduate course that critically engages with such phenomena as news-making, video-making, art, celebrity and micro-celebrity, fashion, and music across the digital domain; '4AAIC002: Media 2.0 - Audiences, Industries and Convergence', a foundational first-year course that gets to grips with social media, fandoms, online audiences, global media cultures and industries and flows, transmedia storytelling, and immersive and experiential media; and '4AAMS164: Issues and Topics in Music 4: Ethnomusicology'. In the past, Rhys taught '5AAVC200: Digital Methods 2: Working with Data', '4AAMS162: Issues and Topics in Music 2', and '4AAMS105: Aural Training'.


Public Engagement:

Rhys is a GTA Fund Project Co-Ordinator. This follows his receipt of an award from the Enhancing Education Fund for the creation of an online resource that bridges the gap between school and university, alongside his colleagues, Susannah Knights and Kristina Arakeylan. This project has recently received further funding from the Race, Equity, and Inclusive Education fund. He also leads the LAHP Practice-Led Research Network with Rim Jasmin Irscheid and works with Water City Music to help widen access to university music education. More recently, he was commisioned by The Intelligence Festival to produce a film with Caroline Gleason-Mercier, documenting community music making among children in South London. As a musician, Rhys performed on piano for the premier of David Owen Norris' 'Mozart Remixed' project at Chawton House and sung for the premier of Michael Finnissy's 'Remembrance Day' alongside the London Sinfonietta and Exaudi at Turner Sims Concert Hall. He also helped to convene 'Access All Senses', an exhibition about disability and enablement in art galleries with a focus on visual impairment for the 2018 Annual Conference of the Association for Art History at the Courtauld Institute.


Conference Papers & Presentations:

  • Sensing Islam Online: Sublimation, Cyclicality, and Atmospheres among Elegists and Mourners on YouTube. G. Caulfield & F. Mure (Chairs), Experiencing Visual Images: Interdisciplinary Approaches, University College London, 2022 (November).
  • Shi'i Publics and Counter-Publics, O. Kadhum (Chair), Materiality, Media, and the Senses: The Dynamic World of Lived Shi'i Islam, Swedish Research Institute Istanbul, 2022 (October).
  • Visual and Material: Mediation of Islam in the Digital Age. E. Habibi (Chair), Insaiyyat, Universitaire de la Manouba, 2022 (September).
  • Accessing Sound: The Nauhah Recitation Video and a Transmedial and Intersemiotic Emotionality. In J. Kosmalska (Chair), Performative and Experiential Translation, King's College London, 2022 (July).
  • Pandemic Pieties: Television and Mourning during the COVID-19 Pandemic. C. Gleason-Mercier (Chair), Music Dept Colloquium. King's College London, 2022 (January).
  • United by Religious Alienation: Commentaries of Kurdistan's EDM Resistance and its Musiciains. G. Danieli (Chair), Memory, Identiity, and the Remediation of Musical Lives. King's College London, 2021 (June).
  • #IAMHUSSEINI: On the Aesthetics of Online Devotional Dissidence. M. Nyman & H. M. Riihimaki (Chairs), Technology and Change in Music Cultures: The 24th Annual Symposium of Music Scholars in Finland. University of Turku, 2021 (May).
  • Music, Media, and Malady in the Month of Muharram. L. Hongxuan (Chair), Religion and the Covid-19 Pandemic: Mediating Presence and Distance. National University of Singapore, 2021 (April).
  • A Project of Mourning without Mourning the Project. P. Ffrench & C. McIlwaine (Chairs), International Fieldwork during a Pandemic: Co-Production and Ethics. King's College London, 2021 (January).
  • Widening Participation in Music: The King's-St. George Project, E. Cavett (Chair), Music Dept Colloquium, King's College London, 2020 (November).
  • Access All Senses, C. Platt (Chair), Association for Art History, Courtauld Institute London, 2018 (April).

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities

Education/Academic qualification

Music Research, Doctor of Philosophy, King's College London

Sept 2019Dec 2023

Educational Research, Master of Education, University of Cambridge

Sept 2018Jul 2019

Music and Anthropology, Bachelor of Arts, Opera and Class: An Institutional Ethnography on Western Esotericism in Live Multimedia, University of Southampton

Sept 2014Jul 2017


  • BP Islam. Bahaism. Theosophy, etc
  • DS Asia
  • GN Anthropology
  • HM Sociology
  • JQ Political institutions Asia
  • LB1603 Secondary Education. High schools
  • M Music
  • PL Languages and literatures of Eastern Asia, Africa, Oceania


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