"Verily, There Is Only One Hip-Hop Umma:" Islam, Cultural Protest and Urban Marginality*
Some say I'm too deep, I'm in too deep to sleep Through me, Muhammad will forever speak Greet brothers with handshakes in ghetto landscapes Where a man is determined by how much a man makes... "The 6th Sense"
Ethnomusicologists have long acknowledged the influence of Islam and Arabic music on the blues, and historians have also examined the imprint of the Ahmadiyah movement on the jazz culture of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in Chicago.1 Less explored, however, is the influence of Islam—Sunni, Nation of Islam and Five Percenter—and Arab culture on hip-hop in the US and in Europe. Since the emergence of hip-hop in the South Bronx in the early 1980s, Islamic themes and Arabic terms increasingly thread its colorful fabric. Many American listeners and critics alike are befuddled by the "Islamic" allusions (particularly of the Five Percenter type) and Arabic riffs in rap music. For instance, few critics realized that Jay Z's 2000 chart-topping hit "Big Pimpin" was vertebraed by a lush, rolling bassline from the late Egyptian singer Abdelhalim Hafez's song 'Khosara.' One music journalist described the cut as "Bollywood-wigged NOLA bounce stutter-stepping," while another spoke of "Z dropping Big Willie rhymes over a swaying, South-Seas flavored groove that's a happy musical marriage of Brooklyn and Bali."2
To understand the emergence of “Islamic hip-hop”—as a musical subgenre and cultural movement—one must understand the rise of Islam in American (and European) inner cities in the past three decades, as the product of immigration and racial politics, deindustrialization and state withdrawal, and the interwoven cultural forces of black nationalism, Islamism and hip-hop that appeal strongly to disenfanchised minority youth.3 A number of African-American cultural forms, including jazz and hip-hop, which fuse and syncretize different cultural and religious traditions, have arisen in economically depressed and fragile urban areas. Just as jazz as a cultural form has been linked by scholars to Jim Crow segregation, and rhythm and blues to the civil rights movement, the neo-liberalism, urban blight and nihilism, which gave rise to the underclass and produced rap, also gave birth to Islamic hip hop.
Islam in the Hood
Oh you a Muslim now, no more dope game Heard you might be comin’ home, just got bail Wanna go to the Mosque, don't wanna chase tail It seems I lost my little homie he's a changed man Hit the pen and now no sinnin’ is the game plan I Ain’t Mad At Cha
In the wretched social and economic conditions of the inner city, and in the face of government apathy, Muslim organizations operating in the ghetto and prisons deliver materially. As in much of the Islamic world, where the state fails to provide basic services and security, Muslim organizations appear, funding community centers, patrolling the streets and organizing people. As the state withdrew and capital fled from the city in the Reagan-Bush era, social institutions and welfare agencies disappeared, leaving an urban wasteland. Churches have long been the sole institutions in the ghetto, but Islamic institutions have been growing in African-American neighborhoods for the past two decades. In Central Harlem, Brownsville and East New York—areas deprived of job opportunities—dozens of mosques (Sunni, NOI, Five Percenter and Nuwaubian) have arisen, standing cheek by jowl with dozens of churches that try to provide some order and guidance to these neighborhoods. In the ghettoes of Brooklyn and Chicago's Southside and the barrios of East Harlem and East Los Angeles, where aside from a heavy police presence, there is little evidence of government, Muslim groups provide basic services.
Islam also offers emancipatory identities and cultural options for poor, disempowered minorities disenchanted with Western liberalism. Many blacks and Latinos in American metropolises live in poverty and feel alienated from the country's liberal political and cultural traditions. Repelled by America's permissive consumerist culture, many search for a faith and culture that provides rules and guidelines for life. Often they are drawn to strands of Christianity that endorse patriarchy, "family values" and abstinence. But many young African-Americans, and increasingly Latinos, reject Christianity, which they see as the faith of a guilty and indifferent establishment. Christian America has failed them, and stripped them of their "ethnic honor." Estranged from the US, and in the case of Latinos, from their parents' homelands, many minority youth search for a sense of community and identity, in a quest that has increasingly led them to the other side of the Atlantic, to the Islamic world. Sunni Islam, the heterodox Nation of Islam and quasi-Muslim movements such as the Five Percenters and Nuwaubians allow for a cultural and spiritual escape from the American social order that often entails a wholesale rejection of Western culture and civilization.
By embracing Islam, previously invisible, inaudible and disaffected individuals gain a sense of identity and belonging to what they perceive as an organized, militant and glorious civilization that the West takes very seriously. One Chicano ex-convict tried to explain the allure of Islam for Latino inmates, and why Mexican-Americans sympathize with Palestinians:
The old Latin American revolutionaries converted to atheism, but the new faux revolutionary Latino American prisoner can just as easily convert to Islam....There reside in the Latino consciousness at least three historical grudges, three conflicting selves: the Muslim Moor, the Catholic Spanish and the indigenous Indian.... [For the Mexican inmates] the Palestinians had their homeland stolen and were oppressed in much the same way as Mexicans.4
The increasing presence of Islam in urban America is obviously having political effects, as groups like the Nation of Islam organize and mobilize voters, but also cultural repercussions as Islamic culture interacts and blends with urban—mostly African-American, but also Latino—cultural forms.
Hallal on the Reel
The street life is the only life I know I live by the code style it's made PLO Iranian thoughts and cover like an Arabian Grab a nigga on the spot and put a 9 to his cranium.
-- Method Man, "PLO Style"
"Now that Arabs are the new niggers, will Arab culture become the rage?" asked a columnist for The Black World Today some weeks after September 11. Arab culture has not become the rage, but if Rastafarianism and Bob Marley's Third Worldist reggae anthems provided the music and culture of choice for marginalized minority youth two decades ago, in the 1990s Islamic hip-hop emerged as the language of disaffected youth throughout the West.
Arabic, Islamic or quasi-Islamic motifs increasingly flavor the multicultural affair that is hip-hop, such that for many inner city and suburban youth, rap videos and lyrics provide a regular and intimate exposure to Islam. Self-proclaimed Muslim rap artists proudly announce their faith and include "Islamic" messages of social justice in their lyrics. Followers of Sunni Islam (“al-Islam” in hip-hop parlance), such as Q-Tip (Fareed Kamal) and Mos Def, are among the most highly acclaimed hip-hop artists, lauded as representatives of hip-hop's school of "Afro-humanism" and positivity. Mos Def, in an interview with Beliefnet, described his mission as a Muslim artist:
It's about speaking out against oppression wherever you can. If that's gonna be in Bosnia or Kosovo or Chechnya or places where Muslims are being persecuted; or if it's gonna be in Sierra Leone or Colombia—you know, if people's basic human rights are being abused and violated, then Islam has an interest in speaking out against it, because we're charged to be the leaders of humanity.5
Many "Old School" rap songs are flavored with references to Islam and the Nation of Islam (NOI). As early as 1988, Public Enemy was cautioning that "Farrakhan's a prophet who I think you ought to listen to," and Afrika Bambata, Big Daddy Kane, and Paris all gave kudos to the NOI. Many "Old School" fans will also recall the video of Eric B and Rakim's "Know the Ledge" which featured images of Iranian leader, Khomeini, and of Muslim congregational prayer, as Rakim flowed, "In control of many like Ayatollah Khomeini...I'm at war a lot, like Anwar Sadat."
The fluidity and variegated nature of Islam in urban America is seen in the different "Islams" represented in hip-hop, and most poignantly in the friction between Sunni Muslims and Five Percenters. Today most "Islamic" references in hip-hop are to the belief system of the Five Percent Nation, a splinter group of the NOI founded in 1964 by Clarence 13X. The Five Percent Nation (or "The Nation of Gods and Earths") refashioned the teachings of the NOI, rejecting the notion that Fard was Allah and teaching instead that the black man was God and that his proper name is ALLAH (Arm Leg Leg Arm Head). They taught that 85 percent of the masses are ignorant and will never know the truth; 10 percent of the people know the truth but use it to exploit and manipulate the 85 percenters, but that only 5 percent of humanity know the truth and understand the "true divine nature of the black man who is God or Allah." In Five Percenter theology, Manhattan (particularly Harlem) is known as Mecca, Brooklyn is Medina, Queens is the Desert, the Bronx is Pelan, and New Jersey is the New Jerusalem. Five Percenter beliefs have exerted a great influence on hip-hop argot and street slang. The expressions "word is bond," "break it down," "peace," "whassup G" (meaning God, not gangsta) and "represent" all come from Five Percenter ideology.6
Orthodox Sunni Muslims see Five Percenters as blasphemous heretics who call themselves "Gods." They accuse Five Percenters of shirk, the Arabic word meaning polytheism—the diametrical opposite of the tawhid (unitary nature of God) that defined the Prophet Muhammad's revelation. Since Five Percenters often wear skullcaps and women cover their hair, Sunni Muslims will often greet them with as-salam alaykum (peace be upon you) to which the Five Percenters respond "Peace, God." Five Percenters refer to Sunni Muslims as deluded and "soon to be Muslim." In the "10 percent" Five Percenters include the "white devil" as well as orthodox Muslims "who teach that Allah is a spook."
Busta Rhymes, Wu Tang Clan and Mobb Deep are among the most visible Five Percenter rappers. Their lyrics—replete with numerology, cryptic "Islamic" allusions and at times pejorative references to women and whites (as "white devils" or "cave dwellers")—have aroused great interest and controversy. Journalist and former rapper Adisa Banjoko strongly reprimands Five Percenter rappers for their materialism and ignorance: "In hip-hop a lot of us talk about knowledge and the importance of holding on to it, yet under the surface of hip-hop's ‘success’ runs the thread of ignorance (jahiliyya, the Arabic term referring to the pagan age in Arabia before Islam)." Like "the original jahiliyya age," hip-hop today is plagued by "jahili territorialism and clan affiliation," a "heavy disrespect of women" and a materialism that "borders on jahili idol worship."7 Five Percenter Ibn Dajjal responded angrily to Adisa's criticism: "No amount of fatwas or censorship will ever silence the sounds of the NOI and Five Percent mushrik (idolater) nations. The group will continue to rise in fame with customers coming from all walks of life: black, white and Bedouin. [F]ar from a masterpiece of style, the book (the Quran) is literally riddled with errors and clumsy style which yield little more than a piece of sacred music...Maybe there should be a new hip-hop album entitled `Al-Quran Al- Karim Freestyle' by Method Man and Ghostface Killa!"
Says Adisa, himself a Sunni Muslim: "Both Rakim and Wu Tang Clan did St. Ides commercials. No other Islamic sect in the world accepts drinking alcohol. Yet Brand Nubian are known to smoke weed by the pound and drink like fish.... Poor Righteous Teachers seem to be the only group from the 5% that shuns drugs, alcohol and foul lifestyles.… All the talk about spaceships doesn't help either." Belief in a Mothership of deliverance—a concept anathema to Sunni Islam—figures prominently in both NOI and Five Percenter theology. In his forthcoming book on Islam and hip-hop, The Light from the East, Adisa mentions some quasi-Islamic rappers’ race theology: Five Percenter Shorty of the Lynchmob speaks of how the hair of the original Black people is actually "akin to the hair of their eyebrows"; it got curly when Black people migrated from Arabia to "master nature" in Africa. He also describes a mothership manned by Allah and Elijah Muhammad coming to destroy America. Regarding the mothership, Shorty says: "The Caucasians are starting to see more and more of this ship in different places and different times and what not.… The mothership is the mother of all of them. And on the mothership you have 1500 baby planes, which are being seen all over America too. It's one of the greatest...No, it's THE GREATEST war machine that has ever been built to go against the enemy of God."8
The language of Islamic hip-hop is also used by young Arab-American and South Asian artists to speak truth to power. For example, the Los Angeles-based Pakistani-American based duo, Aman, whose music was featured in the film Scary Movie 3 and the television show, CSI Miami, in their single “Arabian Knights,” rap about being Muslim Robin Hoods fighting for justice in a foreign land:
We the first Paki rappers to step up onto the scene It's Amaar & Siege Don't rhyme for dollars rhyme for rupees My peeps Come from the streets Like 40 thieves From the desert sands blazing I'm used to the heat Flow amazing Only trust my fam no complications A foreign land so I'm patient Stick to the plan I'm robbing you for your riches If you wake up with your jewels missing Arabian Knights paid you a visit
Hip-hop artists of different Muslim backgrounds have eloquently responded to 9/11 and the War on Terror's impact on the ummah. Miss Undastood, a young veiled, African-American lyricist, raps on her CD Dunya or Deen (Life or Faith) about war, love, the challenges of being a young Muslim woman in America, and the power of faith. Thus the chorus from one of her tracks is: “Say it loud – Hope you got yourself a Quran/Don’t tell me what you heard from a man.” In early 2002, Brooklyn-based Palestinian-American brothers, the Hammer Bros, "originally from the Holy Land living in the belly of the Beast, trying to rise on feet of Yeast," released their pro-intifada cut, "Free Palestine," now regularly blared at pro-Palestinian gatherings in New York. One particularly popular and articulate artist is spoken-word poet Suheir Hammad, the Palestinian-American author of the poetry anthology Born Black, Born Palestinian, on growing up Arab in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Hammad, whose work has been featured in Vibe magazine, appeared on HBO's Def Poetry Show some weeks after September 11th, and delivered a stirring rendition—to a standing ovation—of her poem, "First Writing Since," on being an Arab New Yorker after 9/11, and a Palestinian woman with a brother in the Navy about to be called up for duty:
One more person ask me if I knew the hijackers One more motherfucker ask me what navy my brother is in... Shit is complicated, and I don't know what to think Over there is over here... No poetry in the ashes south of Canal Street.
The culture of hip-hop and the language of Islam are used to express anger at government indifference and US foreign policy, to claim a cultural-poltical space, and to challenge structures of domination. The idiom of Islamic hip-hop is being used to speak “truth to power” by Latinos—a minority that historically has not been connected to Islam—and by minorities in Europe.
Islamic Hip-Hop—With A Latin Twist
Latino Muslims are indelibly altering the New York’s cultural geography. Latino Muslim artists are blending Latino art forms with Arabic and Islamic music and motifs to produce a colorful musical pastiche. Poet Ibrahim Gonzalez's (aka The Mambo Dervish) poetry readings often include conga drums, fiery jazz trumpets, and Sufi chanting. Most of Gonzalez's poems examine the links between Latin identity and Islam, often with pointedly political lyrics which excoriate the US Middle East policy. His "Readings From the Heart" CD includes a cut titled, "We Know What Time It Is":
We see what's coming: more scapegoat, jingoistic doublespeak. Always blaming the oppressed when it comes to violence. It's easy to vilify Arabs, isn't it, Mr. American Policy? After all Arabs do not occupy positions of corporate power in these United States. And the ones you are chummy with oppress their own people anyway, and so you can still sell them arms and weaponry and maintain the status quo and petro-paradise, and still make a killing, er, profit.
Occupied Palestine, Occupied Vieques. Is there some kind of connection here? Puerto Ricans, Palestinians. Our flags even have a similar design... This connection I'm talking about. Can it possibly explain why a Puerto Rican can consciously embrace Islam, consciously embrace Andalusia, turns towards Mecca for the Haj... We know what time it is.
Puerto Ricans are embracing our traditional African, Moorish tinged Andalusian heritage. We have fought in your wars under protest and sometimes have refused and resisted to participate in the horror of your genocide against the world's people, only to go to the federal facilities and do time. But we know what time it is. We're still growing and our women are still giving birth to younger warriors, as you quickly see yourself surrounded by more of us. We hear what time it is. Can't you just feel your own mortality, the temporalness of your crumbling rule... We know what time it is. Do you?9
Bronx-based lyricist Najeelah Nur (aka. Eloquence) fuses English, Spanish, and Arabic to comment on a variety of personal, aesthetic and political matters. In “My Prayer for Peace,” she observes:
Unpopular patriotic American muslim Eyes do not see what our ears hear Bush says that we are not at war with Islam Watching him attack Afghanistan During the Holy Month of Ramadan Claiming we’re doing this as charity To free Muslim women and end gender inequality As ¾ of American households Are run by single-mothers left out in the cold.
Still another fascinating Latino Muslim artist is Shukrey (aka Fable), a Puerto Rican Muslim hip-hop activist, producer and choreographer, whose crew performed in the hip-hop classic film Beat Street. Fable, who organizes dance and DJ competitions, uses Islam to create a positive hip-hop culture, a humanistic hip-hop to counter the crass consumerism and misogyny that pervades much of hip-hop. Fable and a number of other Muslims artists have emphasized the overlap between Islam and hip-hop culture, noting that both cultures appeared in response to the poverty and desolation of the inner city in the 1970s and 1980s; both attempt to give voice and make sense of the pain of urban blight and nihilism.
Fable's story is particularly interesting given that like many inner city youth who embrace Islam, he was initially drawn to the teachings of the Five Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam.10 Urban youth are often exposed to Islam through the Nation of Islam, which offers mentorship and security services in the ghetto, and rehabilitation programs for former convicts.11 (In New York, an organization called Fifth Avenue has appeared with the sole purpose of rehabilitating and reintegrating Latino ex-convicts who embraced Islam in prison.)
Five Percenters have had an enormous influence on black and Latino youth, particularly the “hip-hop generation,” and even spurred similar groups in the Latino community. The Ishmaels are such a group. Similar to the Ansaru Allah, who stand in their robes and turbans in Times Square and Penn Station, preaching their race theology, the Ishmaels, a quasi-Muslim Latino group, put a Latin spin on the Nation of Islam's teachings and stand on 180th/St. Nicholas preaching their "streetology" in Spanish and English, a philosophy which blends Biblical and Koranic teachings with the Nation of Islam's race theology and numerology.
Islam and 'Le Flow' in France
I start thinking how many souls hip-hop has affected How many dead folks this art resurrected How many nations this culture connected... I just want to innovate and stimulate minds Travel the world and penetrate the times Escape through rhythms in search of peace and wisdom Raps are smoke signals letting the streets know I'm with 'em.
Hip-hop has emerged as the idiom for minority youth and urban activism in Europe. For Muslim youth living on the front-line of the “War on Terror”—with the crackdown on immigrants, mass detention and deportation of young Muslim men—and battered by the vagaries of globalization (state withdrawal and welfare cuts), hip-hop offers a chance to express critiques, vent rage, declare solidarity with other marginalized youth (particularly African-American youth confronting similar social ills of poverty, incarceration, family breakdown), and display cultural pride—to show as, DMX says, "who we be."12
If American rap has been criticized for its bling-bling materialism, nihilism and political nonchalance13 French hip-hop is particularly political, offering trenchant social critiques of racism, globalization, and imperialism. Numerous Groups such as Yazid, La Fonky Family, and 3ème Oeil (Third Eye) deal explicitly with the challenges of being Arab and Muslim in the West, and relations between Islam and the West. In their their hit single "Je suis si triste" ("I'm So Sad"), the Marseilles-based rap crew, made up of the Comorian-born Boss One (Mohammed), Jo Popo (Mohammed), and Saïd, offer biting social commentary over an infectious, looping bass-line. Decrying hate crimes against veiled Muslim women in France, condemning police brutality and mass incarceration (with a special shout out to Mumia Abu Jamal), the rappers focus their lyrical fire on Western imperialism—the West's “stranglehold” (la main-mise) on the East.
In addition to verbal release, hip-hop is also used to politically mobilize youth to combat racism, and to promote “Black-Blanc-Beur” (Black, White, Arab) relations, as in the Urban Peace Festivals and spoken word ("les slameurs") poetry events organized by SOS Racisme. Hip-hop, interestingly, is also being used to counter Islamist influence in the banlieues. The Beurette leader, Fadela Amara, who organized the march “Ni putes ni soumises, dans les quartiers” ("Neither whores nor submissive"—responding to how the Muslim community and French society negatively stereotype Arab women)—a march that has now developed into a women's rights organization affiliated with SOS Racisme—often invites Muslim female rappers to educate and spread a feminist message. "Ni putes, ni soumises" aims to mobilize youth "against ghettoes and for equality" but also to counter the Islamist organizations—such as the powerful Union of Islamic Organizations which calls for sharia, and which delivers services in the cités in exchange for veiling. Amara says discrimination, joblessness, and lack of services make many ghetto youth feel "excluded from the French project," and these youth will often return to Islamic traditions, opposing gender mixing and women's education, often assaulting women who do not dress “modestly.”14
French Muslim rappers and R&B singers publicly and collectively came out and condemned the 9/11 attacks, saying terrorists were, in the words of Ideal J, a Franco-Haitian convert to Islam, "dishonoring the faith." Abd Al Malik of the New African Poets, a Congolose convert to Islam noted the importance of rap and Islam to young ghetto-dwellers: "Rap has opened a world to us, empowering us young men, and Islam has allowed us to flourish by teaching us respect for 'the other.' [But] the Taliban are instrumentalizing the religion."15
Attempts by some French Islamists to boycott American products—and market more hallal products like "Mecca Cola"¾are failing since banlieusards remain loyal to American streetwear labels (like Fubu and Phat Farm), often claiming that such clothing are an anti-American, but pro-Black statement. More recently, local banlieue streetwear clothing lines have appeared with names like Bullrot (a combination of Pitbull and Rottweiller) and Adedi (acronym for “Association de differences”), founded by a Moroccan, a Gabonese and a Senegalese to combat racism and extremism and to celebrate difference.16
French commentators often associate hip-hop with Islam, noting that rap, like Islam, often brings rage, pathology and dysfunction. Le Pen's anti-immigrant Front National and the Mouvement National Républicain (a splinter-group of the FN led by Bruno Mégret that broke away form the FN) have historically denounced hip-hop; in March 2001, both parties opposed the use of public funds to finance the first Hip-Hop Dance World Cup in Villepinte, Ile-de-France stating that "Hip hop is a movement belonging to immigrants of African origin installed in France and which constitutes a call to sedition against our institutions."17 More recently, however, the FN has begun to use hip-hop as a way to spread its political message, to “win back” French youth, and counter Arab and American influence in French culture. The white supremacist rap crew Basic Celto, affiliated with the MNR, wants to break "immigrants’ monopoly" over the hip-hop "which diffuses the immigrants complaints," and aims to promote a "national revolutionary" rap with a "Christian identity" and to draw "Français d'origine" away from immigrant influence.18
But the allure of Islam—and Islam-inflected cultures like hip-hop and rai—to French youth continues to grow. Editorials ponder the lure of Islam to young French people; Le Monde even ran a story on how Ramadan is increasingly observed in French schools, even by non-Muslims.19 Commenting on Le Pen's remarks that hip-hop is a dangerous musical genre which originated in the kasbahs of Algeria (!), rapper Boss One (Mohammed) of 3ème Oeuil, said recently: "For le Pen, everything bad—rap, crime, AIDS comes from Algeria or Islam." "The more Bush—and Chirac—attack Islam and say it's bad, the more young people will think it's good, and the more the oppressed (les opprimés) will go to Islam and radical preachers. Especially here in America. Because life is hard in France but we have a social safety net (couverture sociale)," explained the rapper after a recent performance in the Bronx.20
French (and even American) commentators have also blamed hip-hop for bringing violence, crime, AIDS, nihilism, anti-white rage—social ills associated with the American ghetto (read “African-Americans”)¾to France. "They [French Arab youth] intentionally imitate belligerent Afro-American lifestyles, down to ‘in-your-face’ lyrics for booming rap music," moaned one observer.21 Some have pointed to the “African-Americanization” of speech patterns of French youth, noting that the verbal jousting and “dozens-playing” (mother jokes) of French youth is similar to that of "American rappers from black ghettos."22 Indeed, the culture of France's suburban ghettoes is heavily influenced by the trends of the American inner city. The urban argot, street codes of conduct and "honor system" of the French banlieues are strikingly similar to those of the American inner city.23 In January 2000, a law was passed creating a police unit ("Brigade K-9") to monitor the behavior of pitbulls and rottweilers ("chiens d'attaque") in housing projects where, as in the US, such dogs had become very popular during the 1990s among urban youth.24 In France and Belgium, the slurs used against blacks (négres) and Arabs (bougnoles—or in Belgium, makuka, a common slur used by the Belgian police against Moroccan youth which means “white ape”) have become commonly used terms of endearment among Muslim youth, as with “nigger” in the US.25 But clearly, the Muslim-European youth have not learned misogyny and rage from hip-hop or from African-Americans. What hip-hop and the African-American experience have done for minority youth in Europe is given them a cultural vocabulary and historical experience with which to bond and from which to draw elements for local repertoires of resistance.
Mobilizing the “Hip-Hop Ummah”
Hip-hop's changed, ain't a black thing anymore G Young kids in Baghdad showing 2 on 3 Holla West Coast?! Naah, West Bank for life Upside Down, holla for my Moros aight Spit rhymes in Arabic on the same level like Jada You wouldn't know if you should head bang or belly dance playa I'm that type of sand nigga type of Johnny Conchran yaw dig ...Ya stereotype me; I knock you out like Prince Naseem. "El Moro"
If hip-hop in America has, as some have argued, emerged as the successor to the civil rights and black power movements,26 Islamic hip-hop—fusing black nationalism and Islam—has emerged as a particularly powerful subgenre and cultural movement within the hip-hop nation. Not only is Islamic hip-hop offering critiques of racism and imperialism; countervailing trends within it are leading to battles for the soul of the “hip-hop ummah” and for the representation and future of Islam in the West.
The hip-hop movement has a powerful oppositional streak and a "global infrastructure" that have made it both attractive and troubling to political actors. Hip-hop's ability to jangle the hegemonic discourse was recently seen with Jay-Z's "Leave Iraq Alone" verse and Outkast's anti-war hit "Bombs over Baghdad" (denouncing the first Gulf War), which was yanked off the air by MTV and Clear Channel when bombs began raining on Baghdad in 2003.27 When infused with Islamic themes and political allusions, people have found hip-hop particularly unsettling. Hence the outrage over rapper Paris’s recently released Sonic Jihad, the cover of which features an airplane flying toward the White House, and the alleged purging of Arabic terms and references to Hussein from Tupac Shakur’s Better Dayz, though the slain rapper was referring not to the Iraqi dictator, but to Hussein Fatal, a member of his Outlawz posse, which also includes Khadafi, Kastro, Komani and Idi Amin.28
The "Sniper Affair" of 2002, when the Sniper John Muhammad, formerly of the Nation of Islam, sent notes with Five Percenter inscriptions, provoking a media frenzy about “Muslim hate rap” and the alleged anti-Americanism and terrorist-sympathies of groups like Da Lench Mob and Brand Nubian (who scorn whites and call for violence in the name of Allah), triggered a conversation within the Islamic hip-hop community about the direction of Islamic rap. (A similar uproar occurred more recently in the United Kingdom when a hip-hop group named Shaikh Terra and the Soul Salah crew released a video Dirty Kuffar [Dirty Unbelievers], in which they salute Hamas and Hizbullah and praise Osama Bin Laden; the “hate video” drew the attention of Labor MP Andrew Dismore who described the video as “disgust[ing]” and “inexcusable” and launched a police investigation into the radical Muslim group.29) But the conversation in the US was rendered particularly urgent as Muslim hip-hoppers found themselves linked to the “War on Terror,” when, shortly after the arrest of John Muhammad, Niger Innis (chairman of the conservative Congress of Racial Equality) met with Department of Justice officials to express concern over "domestic black Muslims as a national security issue" and to launch a CORE-led campaign to counter Islamic recruitment efforts in the nation's prisons and on college campuses.30
One of the soul-searching questions being asked is: Should Muslim rappers (Sunni, NOI, or Five Percenter) be expected to "represent" Islam positively, and avoid the misogynist and materialistic excesses of mainstream hip-hop artists, or should the aim of Muslim rappers be to "get paid" and gain wide success even if it means "playing with the haram." Of the US-based Muslim hip-hop crews, Native Deen and Sons of Hagar have been praised for their positive political messages and hallal themes. Native Deen, made up of three African-American rappers, who won't perform with mixed dancing or alcohol, have been profiled in the New Yorker and on National Public Radio, and even received praise from the State Department, but have yet to get airtime on mainstream radio stations. Likewise, the Des Moines-based Sons of Hagar, made up of Allahz Sword (Ahmad) and Ramadan Conchus (Abdul)—both Arab-Americans—and Keen Intellect (Kareem) and Musa, the last two who are respectively Irish-American and Korean-American converts to Islam, have also been praised for positive, conscious lyrics. Their poignant single "Insurrection" ("It's the Arab hunting season, and I ain't leavin'/I'm pushin' the conscience button on you people/Where is the reason?"), and religiously-inspired single “Sisterssss” in support of polygamy,31 are popular in the undergound Muslim/Arab hip-hop scene, but they—like Native Deen—have not achieved mainstream exposure.
The Muslim rap crew that is gaining worldwide notoriety for its lyrical dexterity, stylistic appeal and explicitly positive portrayal of Islam ("keepin it hallal") is the Danish-based trio Outlandish (aka Outland Moros). Made up of a Moroccan, a Pakistani, and a Honduran, Outlandish's chart-topping hits include "Guantánamo"—which includes shots of old Havana and references to El Che and Morocco (the chorus: "And I got all my Moros here—Guantánamo"), and "Aicha" (a remake of Khaled's 1995 hit, currently in heavy rotation on MTV Europe and number 4 in Germany), which has been hailed (even by CAIR) as the most positive portrayal of Muslim women in a music video, with shots of pre-prayer ablution and veiled and unveiled Arab, South Asian, and African women.32
American hip-hop commentators note, however, that political, cerebral and “multicultural” rap may be popular in Europe but not in the US market, where if it can't be "blinged" or "sexed up" it will not sell. Hence, the recent dispute between hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and a segment of the African-American Sunni community. Though not a Muslim, Simmons has been active in the American Muslim community frequently declaring his respect for Islam, trying to improve Muslim-Jewish relations by brokering talks between the Nation of Islam and American Jewish organizations.33 He denounced the invasion of Iraq, helped organize Musicians United to Win Without War, and is currently planning a Middle East Youth peace summit.34 But when his OneWorldMagazine ran a cover (December/January 2002/03) with female rapper Li'l Kim wearing a "burka-like garment over her face" and "lingerie from the neck down"—and in the same issue allegedly saying, "Fuck Afghanistan", Najee Ali, director of the LA-based civil rights group Project Islamic Hope, called for an apology to America's Muslims.35 As someone active in brokering truces in the hip-hop world (most recently, following an attempted drive-by on Snoop Dogg), Najee Ali cited his Islamic duty "to the people of hip-hop and humanity," and called on Simmons to apologize for the magazine cover and for the "pornographic female rapper" Foxy Brown, who in her song "Hot Spot"—produced by the Simmons-founded Def Jam—says "MCs wanna eat me but it's Ramadan."
The Li'l Kim incident triggered a discussion over other not-so-hallal trends in Islamic hip-hop, and the way Islamic culture is being incorporated into America's cultural mainstream. The cover of XXL magazine showing rapper Nas (Nasir) holding a glass of cognac and wearing prayer beads (tasbih) around his neck outraged many Muslims. ("Why he imitatin' the kufar with the Hail Mary beads?!" fumed one blogger.) Many Sunni Muslims have also criticized the styles of some female Muslim hip-hoppers of wearing a hijab and then a mid-riff top and low-riding J-Lo jeans. These sartorially adventurous young Muslimaat—known alternatively as “Noochies” (Nubian Hoochies), “Hallal Honeys” and “Bodacious Bints”36—have provoked heated (cyber) debates about freedom of expression, women's modesty, and the future of Islam in America. "Our deen is not meant to be rocked!" says hip-hop journalist Adisa Banjoko, author of the forthcoming The Light From the East, on Islamic influence in hip-hop. "I see these so-called Muslim sistas wearing a hijab and then a boostier, or a hijab with their belly-button sticking out. You don't put on a hijab and try to rock it! Or these brothers wearing Allah tattoos, or big medallions with Allah's name—Allah is not to be bling-blinged!"37
Just as controversial is the vogue for Arabic calligraphy tattoos (henna, but also permanent tattoos) that women—even outside the hip-hop community—have taken to wearing; the words hallal, haram and sharmouta (“whore” in Arabic, but a term of endearment in certain circles these days) are tattooed on shoulders, thighs, or lower backs and worn with bathing suit tops or J-Lo-style “plumber's butt” jeans. Some of these haram trends in Islamic hip-hop are deliberate responses to orthodox or fundamentalist Islamic dress—like the "[Salafi] high-water pants" or the "total hijab" seen in some inner city areas.38 Also troubling to some is the growing popularity of martial arts among urban Muslim youth, who say self-defense skills are necessary against gangsters and violent police. If many Black Muslims in the 1960s were practicing martial arts (syncretic forms, in fact like "Kushite Boxing"), many of today's young male hip-hoppers are learning “Islamic wrestling.” ("The Prophet was a grappler," one enthusiast told the author; "The hadith teaches us to never hit the face of our opponent and that [Islamic] grappling allows you to win over an opponent without punching them and risking brain damage.")
If as Russell Simmons says "the coolest stuff about American culture—be it language, dress or attitude—comes from the underclass. Always has and always will,"39 then as Islam seeps into the American underclass (and as Muslims move to occupy the underclass in Europe), Islamic cultural elements will percolate upwards into the mainstream culture and society. For many American youth, Islamic hip-hop leads to their first encounter with Islam, and often leads them to struggle with issues of race, identity, and Western imperialism. One researcher notes, “If asked about a specific political issue…many hip-hop generationers can easily recall the first time their awareness on that issue was raised by rap music.”40 In Europe, many North African youth are (re)discovering Islam and becoming race conscious through Five Percenter and NOI rap lyrics. For many white hip-hoppers, in fact, conversion to Islam often entails a rejection of whiteness and Western-ness. John Walker Lindh was not the first or last youth to come to Islam via hip-hop and black nationalism, and to embrace Muslim identity and turn his back on "hyper-liberalism," whiteness, and the West. The white rapper Everlast's—formerly Eric Schrody of House of Pain—conversion to Islam was also a way to transcend his "whitey" pedigree; the “colorblindness” of Islam, he says, allows him to visit ghetto neighborhoods he could never enter as a non-Muslim white41—and curiously, Everlast's espousal of Islam is one reason for his “beef” with the white rapper Eminem who accused him of becoming Muslim to deny that he's an "Irish homosexual." One young white Latino explained the link between Islam and his “street credibility” as follows: "In the Bronx, looking like me, you don't get much respect. When I took the shahada, the brothers gave me respect, the white folk got nervous, even the po-lice paid attention."42
Efforts are being made to direct (or mobilize) Islamic hip-hop. In July 2003, "The First Annual Islamic Family Reunion & Muslims in Hip-Hop Conference and Concert" was held in Orlando, Florida, with prominent imams and religious scholars from across the country leading three days of meetings and workshops on Muslim youth, stressing the importance of deen, family, schooling, and organizing. Activities included Islamic Spelling Bees, Islamic Knowledge Competitions, performances by "positive lyricists" like Native Deen, the Sahabas, the Arab Legion, 1199, and the Mujahideen Team, and a recitation by the Dawah Ensemble. The conference also helped businesses network, established Hallal Entertainment Inc., and helped launch the Islamic Crisis Emergency Response System, a Philadelphia-based organization which provides services to needy Muslim and non-Muslim families.43 Islamic hip-hop in the last few years has clearly evolved into a cultural movement. If Islam is the new internationalist ideology, Islamic hip-hop which fuses Islamic themes with hip-hop, the preeminent global youth culture, has emerged as a powerful internationalist subculture for disaffected youth around the world.
*This article is based on research published in Middle East Report issues of Fall 2002 and Winter 2003. I am grateful to MERIP for allowing me to reprint these sections.
1. See Samuel Charters, The Roots of the Blues: African Retentions in the Blues (New York, 1981), p.125, and, for Ahmadiyah influence in jazz, Amina Beverly McCloud, African-American Islam (New York: Routledge, 1995), p.20f.
2. "Pimpin' a classic" Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 484, June 1-7, 2000.
3. I use the phrase “Islamic hip-hop” to describe rap lyrics and art forms that are influenced by or draw on Islamic and quasi-Islamic (e.g. Moorish Science Temple) traditions and cultures; the phrase “Islamic hip-hop” thus refers not only to the lyrics and cultural output of groups such as Native Deen that adhere to Islamic religious orthodoxy, but also to the Islam-inflected art of more heterodox and syncretic groups.
4. Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2002.
5. Hisham Aidi, "Hip-Hop for the Gods," Africana.com, April 31, 2001.
6. For an excellent explication of the Five Percenters' belief system, see Yusuf Nuruddin, "The Five Percenters: A Teenage Nation of Gods and Earths," in Yvone Hadded et al., eds., Muslim Communities in North America (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994), 109-133.
7. Adisa Banjoko, "Hip-Hop and the New Age of Ignorance," FNV Newsletter (June 2001).
8. See Hisham Aidi, "Hip-Hop for the Gods," Africana.com, April 31, 2001.
9. Hisham Aidi, "Islam in the Barrio: New York's Latino Muslims." Paper presented at MESA Conference 2001, San Franscisco.
10. Says Fable on his journey to Islam: "Hip-hop is revolutionary. When it came out in the 1970s, it was not the norm…. When people are in a rough situation, they gravitate towards a spiritual understanding of the world—it helps them get by. That's why many people in the ghetto moved to Islam... The 1970s was an age of gangs. There were outlaw gangs with flying colors—people wanted to belong to something and so many joined the NOI and Five Percenters. The Five Percent were considered cool. I remember in high school they wore kufis with tassels and buttoned their shirts all the way up. I was actually a Five Percenter for a couple of months..." For more on hip-hop culture and Islam, see my "Hip-Hop for the Gods," April 29, 2001 http://www.africana.com.
11. For more on Islam and conversion in prison, see Robert Dannin, “Island in a Sea of Ignorance: Dimensions of the Prison Mosque,” in Barbara Daly Metcalf, ed., Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe (University of California Press, 1996). For the role of the Nation of Islam in prisons, see Joseph L. White & James H. Cones III, Black Man Emerging (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1999).
12. For French gangsta rap as a political reponse to neo-liberalism, see Paul Silverstein, “‘Why Are We Waiting to Start the Fire?’: French Gangsta Rap and the Critique of State Capitalism,” in Black, Blanc, Beur: Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture in the Francophone World (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 2002).
13. See Bakari Kitwana, The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-America (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
14. Le Figaro, June 17 2003; "L'argent de l'Islam en France," L'Express, November 21, 2002.
15. "Les rappeurs Musulmans rejettent la radicalisation de l'Islam," Le Monde, September 27, 2001. In one interview, Q-Tip (Fareed Kamal) of A Tribe Called Quest tried to explain how hip-hop and Islam complement each other spiritually: "Hip-hop deals with words and wordplay. And when you deal with something that is eloquent, you tend to get swept away by it. Hip-hop deals with the lowest form of the part of the ego, the lowest part of the psyche. It deals with more of the animalistic environment of the human being, in the sense that it allows [animalistic actions] to continue. Whereas in al-Islam, it deals with how to suppress it. Islam is about curbing your animalistic way and things of that nature." And then criticizing the Five Percenters, he adds: "With the Five Percent, it may speak about it, but it writes everything off. That you can do anything you want 'cause you're a God..."
16. As the founder of Adedi said, "The media denigrates the banlieue [ghetto], it's even become a political program, and we're trying to break that negative image." "Ces marques 'made in' banlieue," L'Expansion, June 11, 2003.
17. IRR News (Independent Race and Refugee News Network), April 1, 2001; https://www.irr.org.uk/cgi-bin/news/open.pl?id=133
18. http://infosuds.free.fr/082001/enquete_bc.htm. I am grateful to Paul Silverstein for this point.
19. Ottawa Citizen, December 16, 2001.
20. Interview with author, 3ème Oeil and DJ Rebel, The Crotona Park Hip-Hop Film Festival, Bronx, New York.
21. "Young, Male and Angry," Jerusalem Report, May 6 2002.
22. "L'insulte décodée," L'Express March 27 2003 "...joutes verbales ... à la manière des battles des rappeurs américains issus des ghettos noirs."
23. David Lepoutre, Coeur de banlieue: codes, rites et langages (Paris: Coll. Poches, 2001).
24. Le Figaro, June 3, 2000.
25. For more on makuka, 'white ape' as a term of endearment in Belgium, Washington Post, December 27, 2002.
26. See Yusuf Nuruddin, "Has Hip-Hop Replaced the Civil Rights Movement?" Socialism and Democracy (this issue).
27. I'm grateful to Zaheer Ali for this point. Hip-hop artists, it should be noted, have strongly opposed the war, without fear of being Dixie Chick-ed. As Russell Simmons put it, "Rappers don't have to worry about anything. No one likes what they have to say anyway, so they're not afraid to speak up."
28. Interview with Tupac Shakur’s former companion Napoleon (New York, March 22, 2004). Napoleon, a Muslim convert who will be releasing a CD titled “Have Mercy” featuring a collaboration with the Pakistani-American crew The Aman Brothers, speaks about this allegation in an interview with the Tupac fan site HitEmUp.com (April 16, 2003).
29. “Islamic rappers’ message of terror,” The Observer, February 8, 2004.
30. "CORE to discuss terrorists' wooing of blacks," Washington Times, November 13, 2002.
31. When told by one journalist that polygamy is illegal in the US, Ahmad (Allahaz Sword) responded, "A lot of rappers out there talk about pimpin'—is that good?...I'm just talking about part of my religion." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 17, 2003.
32. Outlandish's recent album “Bread & Barrels of Water” includes another track in honor of Muslimaat titled "Fatima's hand" and "Love joint" ("Cleopatra really wanna do this chapter/light skin—she's a Muslim... wears a scarf but I see her beauty with it on or off/don't nobody knows the deal but me and my lord").
33. Simmons has often underlined his repect for Islam and the Nation of Islam in particular. In one interview he said, "I grew up on Farrakhan. Where I grew up, there were dope fiends and black Muslims. If Muslims came by, you stood up straight." Hisham Aidi, "'Building A New America': A Conversation with Russell Simmons," Africana.com February 3, 2002. In his voter registration drives, Simmons has worked with Louis Farrakhan, and former House representatives Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard – both ousted from office for their pro-Palestinian remarks – which has led some to accuse Simmons of anti-Semitism. See “Hip-hop Hypocrisy,” Jerusalem Post, March 16, 2004.
34. "Beyond DEFinition," Newsweek, July 28, 2003.
35. See oneworldmagazine.org for the cover with Lil Kim.
36. In the Muslim hip-hop community, the word akh (brother) is often used to denote young man, and bint (girl) to refer to young woman; some women find bint offensive saying ukht (sister) is the respectable and appropriate counterpart to akh.
37. Communication with author, August 4, 2003.
38. Among male Muslim hip-hoppers, equally provocative are black T-shirts worn by some Shiite youth, which read in crimson: "Everyday Is Ashura, Everyday is Karbala."
39. Cited in John H. McWhorter, "How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back," City Journal, Summer 2003.
40. Bakari Kitwana, “The Hip-Hop Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Souls Vol. 5 No. 1 Winter 2003, p.55.
41. See interview in thetruereligion.org, "Everlast: Taking Islam One Day at a Time" (July 12, 1999).
42. “Converts” Focus Group, June 16 2003, Columbia University MSNY Project.
43. Sister Kalima A-Quddus, "Verily This Is a Single Ummah (Brotherhood)," MuslimsInHipHop Newsletter, August 7, 2003.