Michael Mumisa finds out about the religion of UK Hip Hop
When one of my students who knew that I was doing research on the rise of Islamic Hip Hop in the UK and Africa slipped two CDs - "Poetic Pilgrimage" and "Blind Alphabetz" - under my door with the message "I thought you would be interested in this", I thought it must be a mistake. Why would anyone want me to have a look at a CD of alphabets designed for the blind or a CD collection of poetry? Not that I have anything against poetry; in fact, literature is one of my areas of interest. Still, I did not realise that these - along with M2M (also known as "Mecca2Medina"), Masika, Eslam Jawaad, Miss Undastood, and others - were the names of two of some of the best known underground Hip Hop acts in the whole of Europe. I was also to discover that members of the group Poetic Pilgrimage had recently converted to Islam and were now using their musical and poetic skills to "present a positive and progressive image of Islam in the West and to fight against racism, extremism, injustices, and ignorance", as they later told me. When I did find out, I spent the following weeks meeting and discussing with some of the most talented, intelligent and creative UK Hip Hop artists and musicians I have ever had the privilege of coming across. And they were all Muslims. I knew before starting my journey that Islam has always been the official religion of Hip Hop and that a large number of some of the best known Hip Hop artists today such as Mos Def, Common, The Roots, Hoodlum and Hidden Force, Prophets of the City, Reddy D, to mention just a few, are practising Muslims. What came as something of a surprise was the fast rate of conversion to Islam among young Hip Hop and Rap artists on the UK scene.
So I decided to delve deeper into the young artists' lives, their dreams, the challenges they face, their views on life and music, and their reasons for converting to Islam. For example, I wanted to know how rap singers such as Poetic Pilgrimage, who had spent a good part of their as yet short lives studying ways to "demonise Islam and Muslims", as they told me during our interview, could be transformed to "the defenders of our Deen Islam" (lyrics from one of their songs). What role is the groundbreaking and internationally renowned Hip Hop group Mecca2Medina playing in the development and rise of Islamic Hip Hop? I met Muneera and Sakina, of Poetic Pilgrimage, for an interview in Bristol, and my first impression of them concentrated on how they shatter the anecdotal stereotype of the young modern Rap artist as someone obsessed with material life and unconcerned with social, political or spiritual matters. Instead of heavy gold chains on their necks they wore hand-crafted wooden Sufi prayer beads, and their heads were covered in fashionable headscarves according to Islamic requirements. "We try to make hijab appear the coolest thing in the world to our young fans," they told me. "We have received a number of emails from a lot of young girls in the UK, USA, and Canada telling us that they did not like putting on hijab until they listened to our Rap music about hijab and the way we Rap about it. We tell them in our music that hijab is cool and they should not be ashamed of it." It was clear that I was talking to very intelligent and dedicated young ladies. Muneera holds a degree in Creative Media Practice and Sakina one in English Literature and Caribbean Studies - both went to leading British universities. This could explain their virtuosity at experimenting with language and words in their music. And it makes the story of their journey to Islam all the more remarkable.
Muneera Rashida was born Tanya Williams to Caribbean Christian parents in Bristol, where she met her best friend (Sakina) then Yeshimebet, born to a Rastafarian family and hence named after the mother of Emperor Haile Selassie, who is believed to be God incarnate by followers of the Rastafarian movement. The two Rap artists met during a high school music talent show and developed a very close bond. They became interested in music from an early stage and Muneera worked briefly as a Radio DJ on a local station while Sakina performed and wrote music with a group called "Brown Sugar". Their first encounter with Islam was through an organisation called Nuwaubian which at that time was extremely anti-Islamic. "We were taught and trained regularly how to debate against Islam and Muslims. We would sometimes go on radio to speak against Islam. We hated Islam - astaghfirullah," they recounted. "We then left the organisation after discovering that a lot of lies were being told but we still hated Islam. We rebelled against all religions, against society, and we became anti-establishment. We studied a number of philosophies and decided that we would form our own philosophy called "pilgrimage" which would draw from the various philosophies we were studying." Things started to change when Sakina, who was studying for her degree, was asked by her professor to write an essay on either Malcom X or Assata Shakur for the Black Radicalism module. She decided to work on Assata Shakur the famous female activist from the 1970s. However, the biography of Assata Shakur she picked up from the library had pages missing and she was forced to switch to Malcom X after all.
"Reading the biography of Malcom X changed everything and challenged my prejudiced views about Islam and Muslims. It was the use of phrases such as 'Allahu Akbar' and other Islamic terminologies by Malcom X in his biography which affected me the most. Here was a powerful and proud human being who was still willing to humble himself in front of God by declaring that it is God who is the greatest and not human beings or oppressive political systems." The transformation that was taking place in Sakina was not initially welcome to her best friend. "Sakina kept coming to my room every night troubling me every time she read a page from Malcom X or other Islamic books. She would always say 'Hey G! This Islam religion is beautiful, we should try to study it with an open mind!' The problem is that I did not want Islam to be right - astaghfirullah." Ironically it was a book by the Moroccan feminist Fatema Mernissi that convinced the two Pilgrims of Islam. "We had to find ourselves first before we could discover Islam, otherwise it would never work. We started reading books on women in Islam, spirituality, and other themes of great interest to us. We knew that Mernissi's writing was very critical of Islam but her line of argument made a lot of sense to us. The Prophet was this wonderful father and romantic husband who treated women with great love and respect, how then would he bring about a religion that oppresses women? It was then that we fell in Love with Islam and the Prophet. We knew then that all the negative aspects we had first associated with Islam had nothing to do with the Prophet or the Qur'an." It was then that the two Pilgrims decided to convert, using their music to teach people the faith. One of their poems "Pilgrims Love the Prophet" - on their 2006 album of the same title - has always driven audiences to tears whenever they perform it. It is a poem that vividly describes their long journey through the desert searching for the Prophet. Some of their best Islamic Rap songs, all of which can be listened to for free on www.myspace.com/poeticpilgrimage, are "Hitchhiking to Heaven", "Definition of a Pilgrim", and "Modern Day Marys" (dedicated to Muslim women) - an effective cross of creativity and spirituality.
For two people who come from a background where they were taught to "battle against religion", as they put it, I wanted to know the challenges they were now facing as Muslim Rap artists. "The greatest challenge for us was submitting to Allah. Saying that we are slaves of Allah was a big thing for us because we had spent our lives rebelling and refusing to be slaves to anyone. Alhamdulillah, Allah liberated us and it is daily salah which has kept us strong on this new path, otherwise it would be difficult." Poetic Pilgrimage has been working closely with Mecca2Medina and other leading UK and US Muslim Rap artists and they have appeared on Mecca2Medina's latest definitive UK Hip Hop album titled "Truthseekers" which features top artists Blind Alphabetz, Miss Undastood, Masika, Hasan Salaam, The Jamat, and others. Mecca2Medina are considered the pioneers and godfathers of Islamic Hip Hop in the UK. They are probably one of the most successful Islamic Hip Hop and Raggea groups around with a string of groundbreaking albums behind them. Their independent record label Dawa Media has produced music by Miss Undastood, Poetic Pilgrimage, and others. From one to the other, therefore, I first met with the members of Mecca2Medina in my office in Birmingham and then in Rakin Fetuga's house in London, where they spoke of their lives and the group's philosophy. Mecca2Medina was formed by Rakin following the advice of his Islamic studies teacher who suggested that Rakin should use his Rap skills to form a Hip Hop group that would focus on Islam in the British context. Up until then, he had been a member of the famous 1980s band "Cash Crew" - one of the most successful Hip Hop acts in the UK music scene. He was then joined by fellow students Abdul Karim Talib, Dawud Saifullah, and Ismaeel Yasin - all converts to Islam and veterans of the 1980s Hip Hop movement. "It was important for us to discuss in our music our personal experiences as British born converts to Islam," Rakin explains. "Importantly," he goes on, "we wanted to be able to explain these teachings to non-Muslims in a way that would make it easy for them to understand our religion as well as re-emphasising these same teachings to our Muslim brothers and sisters." The group was recently invited by the British Council to perform in northern Nigeria - not their first overseas venture and likely to be as successful as others.
Perhaps the greatest challenge all the musicians and artists I spoke to are facing is how to convince some Muslims that what they are doing is allowed in Islam. While the Shaykhs of Al-Azhar and the majority of classical Islamic scholars and jurists have always agreed that listening to music, attending musical gatherings, and studying music of all genres and instruments is allowed as long as it is not accompanied with immoral and sinful acts or used as a pretext to incite people towards haram (prohibited) behaviour, and as long as it does not preoccupy a person enough to prevent him or her from observing the obligatory acts of worship (al-wajibat), there has always been those who choose to adopt a narrow and rigid interpretation of Islam. As Sakina of Poetic Pilgrimage explained, "It is important that we highlight the way that Hip Hop and Rap music is viewed by some Muslims. There are Muslims who believe that if you are a Muslim and you Rap then you are imitating the Kuffar (infidels). This means that they equate Black culture with the Kuffar. However, if it is music about "ya habibi habibi," somehow that is accepted and accommodated as part of the Muslim culture. Black culture is very popular among the youth of the world at the moment. It has always been a culture of the voiceless and the oppressed who have nowhere to go and that is why you find that Palestinian youngsters are resorting to Hip Hop and Rap to tell their stories. The views that some people have against Hip Hop are motivated by racism and not Islamic teachings." With that, the rise of Islamic Hip Hop should be celebrated and not condemned as it is providing young Muslims in the world with a voice and a way of navigating their Islamic identities in the 21st century. It is also giving them a sense of social responsibility as evident from the themes that their music deal with and the various projects they have been involved in. As Muneera described her work, "If we see Palestinian women and children suffering under oppression we feel their pain, if we see African-American victims of Katrina we feel their pain, if we see smiling children in Soweto, we feel their happiness."
The writer is a visiting lecturer at the University of Birmingham, UK