African American Muslim artists across the nation have taken advantage of the popular medium of hip hop to revolutionise the notion of Islam in the United States in two distinct, but related ways. Popular, more mainstream, artists like Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def present a message of Islam through subtle references to core beliefs or key figures and as a parallel to their perceived duty towards social activism.
These artists use the medium of hip hop to deliver their own personal message of Islam to a generally non-Muslim public that seems to be receiving a highly vilified perspective of the faith in general, and of American practitioners of the faith specifically. Along the same spectrum are artists like Native Deen and Boonaa Mohammed who choose the mediums of hip hop and spoken word to disseminate a message to Muslims in America who face a constant struggle of identity. Their messages generally aim to assist in the development of a balance between the two seemingly divergent ideologies as well as a peaceful approach to all things as a result of association with Islam. Both methodologies use music as a “messaging instrument,” “technology of information and communication,” and a “vehicle of cultural expression.”
To fully appreciate the impact that contemporary Muslim artists have on today’s hip hop culture, we must first step back and place ourselves among the transitioning ethnoscapes of the Sahelian Muslims of Senegambia from the seventeenth through to the nineteenth centuries. Of the 400,000 African slaves brought to the United States, about 24 percent were from an area of West Africa known as Senegambia. Recently, scholars have studied the correlation between early African-influenced music forms and more traditional forms of Muslim musicalities to find that the basis of similarity between the two art forms lies in the concept of melisma, the practice of “attaching several notes to a single lyrical syllable.” The correlation is best understood by placing side by side the Muslim adhan, or call to prayer, and a popular Southern slave song, the Levee Camp Holler.
The music of the slave period eased into the world of blues, jazz, and contemporary hip hop as a continuation of the influence of Islam as an aural and oral faith rooted in the recitation of the Qur’an. By the mid-20th century, we see the intertwining of Islam as a religion and Islam as a form of Black identity. This notion is enforced by the political activism of Malcolm X, who exemplifies a dual form of the concept of jihad. Generally misconstrued, jihad means “struggle”, and of that struggle there are two forms. The first is referred to as jihad bil nafs, an internal struggle within oneself, and the second refers to a struggle in the path of God, jihad fi sabil Allah. Malcolm X’s internal struggle rooted in understanding one’s identity in relation to the rest of creation allowed him to strive towards becoming a more devout Muslim, literally “one who submits to God.” It is this dual jihad that perpetuates the African American Muslim hip hop movement of the past three decades.
Renowned contemporary hip hop artist, Dante Terrell Smith, better known as Mos Def, addresses a number of issues in his opening track to his debut solo album, Black on Both Sides. Perhaps most striking in his song ‘Fear Not of Man,’ is the use of the phrase “Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem” as the opening to what evolves into a message to fear God rather than Man. The phrase Mos Def begins his song with literally means “in the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful.” The phrase is the opening verse to every chapter of the Qur’an. When Mos Def was asked about the motive behind the usage of this phrase as the beginning of his debut album, he responded, “I took my shahada [declaration of faith] four years ago… I had been advised that when you do works that go out to the public… that you should bless them like that… 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 [God-willing], my efforts will be accepted.”
Lupe Fiasco takes this notion of educating his non-Muslim audience to a different level with a song created in response to Kanye West’s Jesus Walks. The very action of rebuttal is in itself a polemic of its own, but the message of Lupe Fiasco’s Muhammad Walks also mentions a list of tenets that Muslims follow, including those that are prescribed by the five pillars. What places Muhammad Walks at parallels with the work of Mos Def is Lupe Fiasco’s use of the phrase “Awootho billahee min ash-shaytaan ir-rajeem, Bismillah ir rahman ir raheem” followed by a recitation of the adhan, or call to prayer. This opening phrase is one which Muslims pronounce prior to the recitation of the Qur’an and can be roughly translated as “Lord, from you I seek refuge from Satan, the accursed; In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful.” The song itself also proclaims a message to non-Muslims to clarify some misconceptions of the faith’s prophetic beliefs.
Another critically acclaimed award-winning performer, Boonaa Mohammed has a series of Islamic-themed poems that he has presented to both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences. Mohammed finds a unique approach to gaining a young audience in his ability to cite popular trends among the generation. While some pieces like Heroes is specifically addressed to a young Muslim audience that seems to have forgotten its Islamic history, other poems speak of topics such as love for the faith, as in For the Love, and the stereotypes associated with Muslims in America today, as in War on Error.
Along this spectrum of contemporary hip hop artists is a band called Native Deen (deen is an Arabic term meaning “faith” or “way”). The Washington D.C. trio of Joshua Salaam, Abdul-Malik Ahmad, and Naeem Muhammad seek to inspire Muslim youth to embrace their faith even when forgetting it or overlooking its tenets may be easier. The group chooses to use only vocals and percussions in their music to please those in their audience who hold a more conservative outlook on the requirements of music according to Islam.
The group advocates for Muslim youth to speak for their Islam before someone else speaks for them in their inspirational work, My Faith, My Voice.
Because it is a medium many youth find a connection with, hip hop music gives African American Muslim artists an outlet to speak against the state of affairs of their respective decades to an eager audience. Until a new genre reaches the popularity of hip hop, I predict its perpetuation as a medium of political, religious, intellectual, and cultural discourse for many years to come. It is hip hop’s ability to maintain an identity of American authenticity that allows it to be both a success and a necessity in allowing African American Muslim artists to successfully speak for their Islam.
Image from: http://www.urbanmediashow.com/
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