Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2005
Issue No. 750
Features
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hip hop Islam

Hesham Samy Abdel-Alim follows the rise of hip hop as a global phenomenon, paying particular attention to its connection with the concurrent rise of Islam

Click to view caption

Let's take a ride through the streets of San Francisco, California where we're talking to one of the world's most critically-acclaimed hip hop artists, rapper Mos Def. While it may come as a surprise to many, Mos Def is not only a hip hop artist, but he is also a devout Muslim. "When did you come into your Islamic knowledge? I noticed in, 'Fear Not of Man,' you opened up with, ' Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim.' Was that important for the album?" Looking at me directly he says, "I took my shahada four years ago... I had been advised that when you do works that go out to the public -- written works or spoken works -- that you should bless them like that, you know. It makes sense to me. The spiritual level just puts the seal on it. Like I'm making an effort to reach Allah with this. And, Insha' Allah, my efforts will be accepted."

In the early 1970s, long before White American rapper Eminem and Egyptian rap group MTM picked up the mic, hip hop culture began in the streets of Black America in poor, urban neighbourhoods. Hip hop culture -- what was once termed "Black Noise" by scholar Tricia Rose -- has been termed "Global Noise" one decade later by scholar Tony Mitchell. Hip hop culture's presence in countries as diverse as Egypt, Brazil, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Senegal, Algeria, Mexico, Palestine, France, China, Cuba, Colombia, Lebanon and Norway, for example, demonstrates its rise as a dominant force in global youth culture today.

In a post-9/11 world, what we are witnessing is a massive movement of Muslim artists who are networked around the world through the power of hip hop culture, constructing the notion of a hip hop nation through nation- building practices and ideologies. It is not only Mos Def, but it is also rappers like Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Common, Chuck D, Napoleon of the Outlawz, the Rza, members of The Roots, and many others around the world, who have accepted the Islamic faith. Implicit in the shahada is a commitment to a way of life that is governed, regulated, and mediated by the precepts of Islam, where Muslims are taught to "fear not of man", but to fear Allah alone (as Brooklyn rapper Mos Def makes clear above). Despite the fact that Islam has been a normative practice in African American society for centuries since slavery, the full story of African American Muslim Movements remains untold. In particular, despite journalist Harry Allen's description of Islam as hip hop's "official religion", Islam's dynamic presence and central role in the hip hop nation have been largely unexplored. In this exploratory article, I will be raising a number of issues and questions for further exploration in our on-going attempt to gain an understanding of what I call the "Transglobal hip hop umma " within a borderless Islamic nation. That is, Prophet Mohamed of Arabia did not speak of an "Islamic Iraq" or of a "Muslim Senegal"; he imagined a transglobal Muslim community, an umma where citizenship was based on faith rather than on contemporary nation-state distinctions, or rather, on how colonising cartographers cut up the global landscape.

We can begin with general questions like: How much do we know about the relationship between "hip hop" and "Islam"? Do we even see these two communities as compatible? We can further problematise the notion of "Islamic hip hop" by reconsidering what it means to be an "Islamic artist" more generally. And we can delve deeper into the history of the hip hop cultural movement and ask questions like: Given the fact that Islamic civilisation has been at once transnational and connective, how has this transnational connectivity been manifested within the hip hop cultural movement? Further, given the transglobal nature of the hip hop cultural movement, how has this cultural nation without traditional borders served the purposes of spreading Islamic knowledge, values, teachings, ideas and ideals?

Finally we can ask two related questions, as we did at the "American Popular Culture" conference at the American University in Cairo's American Studies Centre (22-23 May). What do scholars of popular culture and international relations make of the role of Islam and hip hop culture in spreading ideas and ideologies that are critical of US government domestic and foreign policy (see the December issue of Mazikka and other issues for discussions about hip hop's anti-Bush, anti-war commentary)? And what does the US government make of this? One scholar, John Baugh of Stanford University and Washington University, once noted that hip hop music may be America's number one cultural export, making it vulnerable to attack and censorship by government forces, or worse, making it vulnerable to co-optation and manipulation by those same forces. Baugh's suggestion underscores the global power of hip hop culture as a mass-based, mass-produced, and mass-mediated counterhegemonic discourse.

Before we can consider the transglobal hip hop ummah, we need to explore the hidden histories of African American Muslim movements in the hip hop nation. My use of "Islam" in this chapter is broadly conceived, encompassing a spectrum of ideologies and schools of thought. I will focus on the three most dominant forms of Islam in the hip hop nation in the US -- the nation of Islam, the nation of gods and earths (or the five per cent nation of Islam), and the Sunni Muslim community. While there are theological and terminological differences between these communities, all view Islam as a transformative force in the lives of its practitioners, and the data reveal similarities among the views of their adherents. For example, a belief in Allah and the revelation of the Qur'an through Prophet Mohamed of Arabia, is a tenet of all Muslim communities. These similarities are revealed through discussions with hip hop artists about the various creative processes involved in their craft.

HIP HOP TEXTS AND THE QUR'ANIC TEXT: STRUCTURAL AND SYMBOLIC SIMILARITIES

As Mecca remains the metaphoric centre of the global Muslim network, the concepts of the Qur'an and its revelation to Prophet Mohamed remain at the core of Muslim beliefs. Members of the hip hop nation who represent these three African American Muslim movements have independently observed that the very means by which the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet -- that is, orally and, in large part, through rhymed prose -- exhibits parallels to the linguistic and literary mode of delivery found in hip hop lyrical production. The African American oral tradition has rarely been interpreted in this way, yet Muslim artists have creatively conceptualised links between their mode of production and their Islamic faith. Through dozens of ethnographic interviews with hip hop artists in the US, it became clear to me that Muslim hip hop artists were making new connections between hip hop lyrical production and the method and means by which Allah revealed the Qur'an to the Prophet.

In a conversation with rapper Mos Def, who represents the Sunni Muslim community, he discusses the reasons why he believes hip hop lyrics can be an effective medium in educational practice. In the midst of his animated description, he draws the bridge between hip hop poetics and the Qur'anic text as forms of poetry, each possessing a rhyme scheme and an ability to transmit "vital information" in a relatively short amount of time. His knowledge of the Qur'an and the Arabic language through which it was revealed are evident.

"I mean, do you know how much information -- vital information -- you could get across in three minutes?! You know, and make it so that... I mean, the Qur'an is like that. The reason that people are able to be hafiz [one who memorises the entire Qur'an through constant repetition and study] is because the entire Qur'an rhymes. [Mos Def begins reciting Islamic verses from the Qur'an] ' Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim. Al-hamdulillahi Rub Al-Alameen.' Like everything... Like, you see what I'm saying? I mean, it's any sura that I could name. ' Qul huwa Allahu Ahad, Allahu As-Samad. Lam yalid wa lam yulad wa lam yakun lahu qufwan ahad.' It's all like that. Like, you don't even notice it. ' Idha jaa nasru Allahi wal fatah. Wa r'ayta an-nas yadkhuluna fi dini Allahi afwaja. Fa sabih bi hamdi rabika wa istaghfirh inahu kana tawaba.' Like, there's a rhyme scheme in all of it. You see what I'm saying? And it holds fast to your memory. And then you start to have a deeper relationship with it on recitation. Like, you know, you learn Surat Al-Ikhlas, right. You learn Al-Fatiha. And you learn it and you recite it. And you learn it and you recite it. Then one day you're reciting it, and you start to understand! You really have a deeper relationship with what you're reciting. ' A'udhu billahi min ash-shaitan al-rajim...' You be like, 'Wow!' You understand what I'm saying? hip hop has the ability to do that -- on a poetic level."

Bay Area rapper JT the Bigga Figga, a registered member of the nation of Islam, also refers to the literary similarities between what young African Americans are doing with language (what I've referred to in my research as hip hop nation language) and the purposeful use of creative language by Allah as a pedagogical tool to reach the hearts and minds of mankind. In a discussion of the relationship between the "language of the streets", and the "language of hip hop", JT draws on his knowledge of the Qur'an and links it to his Bay Area comrade rapper E-40's inventive and metaphorical use of language:

"Like, it's almost like with Allah how he'll describe his prophets as moonlight. He'll describe his word that he speaks in a metaphoric phrasing. Where he'll say the clouds and when they swell up heavy and the water goes back to the earth, distilling back to the earth. The water's heavier than gravity so it distills back to the earth on dry land, producing vegetation and herbs comin up out the ground, you feel me? And results are happening, you feel me? And the disbelievers, how they dry land and the sun's scorching it. He describes the different conditions, you know what I'm saying? And it can be related to nature, you feel me? Nature. And what we see, how we conduct ourselves, can be related to some aspect of nature. And that's kinda like what E-40 does when he takes something and takes a word and apply it, you feel me?"

Whether engaged in conversations about the pedagogical potential of hip hop music, or the inventive and innovative use of language by specific artists within the hip hop nation, these hip hop artists invoke Islamic knowledge to accomplish diverse tasks. In many of my interviews, I heard Islamic knowledge being invoked spontaneously in the flow of conversation (as often occurs in Muslim-Muslim conversations), pointing to the fact that members of the hip hop nation are studying and applying Islam in their everyday lives.

THE AGENTS OF THE TRANSGLOBAL HIP HOP UMMA :

Hip hop music has been an active vehicle for social protest in the US. Its targets have been racism, discrimination, police brutality, miseducation and other social ills. Many of the artists involved in the global manifestations of the hip hop cultural movement resist the multifarious forms of oppression in global societies. When hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa launched the Muslim- influenced Zulu Nation in the US in the 1970s, and expanded the movement globally in places like France in the early 1980s, he was networking to help spread socially and politically conscious ideas and ideals, to build a community of people who would actively resist social, political and economic subordination. Exploring what he refers to as the "transglobal Islamic underground", and writing in particular about England's Fun-Da- Mental and France's IAM, Ted Swedenburg writes: "In both countries Muslims are attempting to construct cultural, social and political spaces for themselves as ethnic groups (of sorts), and are massively involved in anti-racist mobilisations against white supremacy. Hip-hop activism has been an important arena for anti- Islamophobic mobilisation for both French and British Muslims."

My research reveals that not only are these artists studying Islam (as demonstrated by their ability to quote and vividly describe Qur'anic passages) and applying it to their everyday lives, but they are also operationalising Islam, that is, acting upon what they have learned in order to help build a nation. Mos Def does not only rap about issues like consciousness and justice, he lives them. His Islamic consciousness moves him and partner Talib Kweli to rescue Nkiru Bookstore, a Black-owned bookstore in his home community of Brooklyn, from shutting down. It guides him to actively participate in the creation of a hip hop album ( Hip Hop for Respect ) dedicated to obtaining justice for police brutality victims and the immoral murder of Amadou Diallo, a Muslim immigrant from Guinea who was murdered by the NYPD in 1999. Mos paraphrases the Qur'an and expresses his faith in Allah at a public rally against the acquittal of the officers who fired 41 shots at the brother: "To people who seek justice, to the Amadou Diallo family, and to everyone who speaks against oppression, I say, FEAR NOT, Allah is the best of judges."

Similarly, Public Enemy front man, Chuck D's Islamic consciousness moved him from giving live performances in concert halls to giving talks about nation- building in the streets, prisons, and schools of Black communities. It is what moved him to become perhaps the most well-known advocate for "cutting out the middle man" in the hip hop record industry by circumventing major record labels and distributors and building independent labels and engaging in e-commerce. JT the Bigga Figga not only realised that he "had a bigger work to do through this music", but he has also helped to revitalise his local communities of Fillmore and Bay's View/ Hunter's Point through speaking engagements and providing business classes to youth. He did not only actively support and attend the Million Man March and Million Family March, and the many Nation of Islam sponsored hip hop summits since 1997, he has also assembled a group of young Blacks, Latinos, and Pacific Islanders into a national cooperative business venture named Black Wall Street (in commemoration of the US government's bombing of Oklahoma's Black Wall Street in 1934), thereby providing networking opportunities and economic growth to those traditionally excluded from such enterprises. I am currently conducting research to uncover more of these Islamic nation-building activities within the hip hop nation. For example, what do we know about NYC's Egyptian female rapper Mutamassik (meaning "tenacious" in Arabic)? What are her personal struggles, and how has she contributed to nation-building activities through and beyond her music?

INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT: What is the relationship between African American Muslim movements in the hip hop cultural movement and the global Islamic world? What kinds of nation-building activities are occurring when Wu-Tang Clan's Rza visits with his Muslim brethren in Egypt, or when The Sunz of Man meet up with IAM in France? What happens when Palestinian rhymer and graffiti artist Masari writes a graff on the San Francisco city walls reading "Liberate Palestine" then spits these lines on the concrete streets of the US to note that "back in Ramallah, my brothers are straight strugglin":

Those gone souls are in my soul

So now my mission's to be plottin

Let the evil rot in...

And our people live forever, cuz souls are not to be forgotten

What are we to make of the many sons and daughters of Muslim immigrants to the US who have been hiphopitised by this African American cultural movement? Will academic centres like AUC's American Studies Centre begin examining the role that hip hop has played in networking Muslims around the globe from Shaolin to Shubra? These are some issues and questions for future research.

Researchers are needed to study the trilingual (Arabic, Hebrew and English) rappers in Palestine as they rail against what they perceive to be the tyranny of the Israeli state, to explore the struggles of Muslim rappers in Algeria as they wage war on what they believe are corrupt regimes (rappers with African American-inspired names like Ole Dirty Shame, MC Ghosto and Killa Dox), and to examine how Muslim artists in South Africa are critiquing what they perceive as the hypocrisy of their nation's "new democracy". How are these groups networked? How are they communicating with each other and the world? How has the Internet helped network Muslim artists and practitioners in the hip hop cultural movement? How are newsgroups such as Yahoo's "Muslims in hip hop" contributing to nation-building activities within the transglobal hip hop umma ?

FINAL THOUGHTS: As the authors of the forthcoming book, Tha Global Cipha: Hiphopography and the Study of Hip Hop Cultural Practice (H Samy Alim, Samir Meghelli and James G Spady) argue, the hip hop cultural movement needs to be examined with a seriousness of purpose and a methodology that considers the networked nature of Islam in order to reveal the hidden aspects of this highly misunderstood transglobal phenomenon. This is a cultural movement whose practitioners represent arguably some of the most cutting-edge conveyers of contemporary Islam. What will this new knowledge mean for Islamic scholars who teach courses on fiqh, Qur'anic exegesis, Islamic civilisation, or Islam and modernity? Will this new knowledge transform our view about the impact of popular culture, particularly hip hop culture, in constructing an Islam appropriate to the needs of contemporary society? Further, will imams revise their pedagogies in efforts to engage Muslim youth who are living in this postmodern hip hop world?

There will undoubtedly be many changes in the way that hip hop culture is studied in the academy within the next five to ten years. Hip hop culture's global impact has helped to transform public opinion (including the academy) of the artform. Only a decade ago, hip hop culture occupied a shunned pariah status in the academy; today universities like Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley, Duke, and the University of Pennsylvania are offering hip hop courses in departments as diverse as Linguistics, Religious Studies, Philosophy and African American Studies. Hip hop culture is being widely recognised as the most recent instantiation of an African American oral tradition that has "gone global", become syncretised with other world cultures and musics (see Egyptian singer Hakim's Tamenni Alaik which combines French and Spanish- language rap with contemporary Egyptian shaabi music) as new manifestations of hip hop form worldwide, and galvanised an entire generation of youth to become more involved in social and political causes.

Many questions remain for what Islamic scholar Jamilla Kareem calls the "American Umma". Will hip hop culture's profound impact on Muslim immigrants to the US, and their sons and daughters, help to reduce the current divide between the African American Muslim communities and immigrant Muslim communities? Will hip hop culture be the vehicle that helps unite the "American Umma"? Or will the transformative, resistive power of hip hop culture be undercut by its widely gained acceptance and co-optation by some of the very institutions it was created to resist? For now, we will continue to document the nation-building activities that are occurring around a world that is more and more tightly networked by these two seemingly contradictory communities -- Islam and the hip hop nation -- or as we've conceived it here, the transglobal hip hop umma.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 750 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Focus | Economy | Opinion | Culture | Features | Special | Sports | Chronicles | Cartoons | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map