In the USA, where an increasing number of African-American musicians are converting to Islam, a Muslim hip hop scene is emerging. The proponents of this style of music consider themselves to be intermediaries between Islam and pop culture. Jonathan Fischer reports
"Slip to bathroom, find an empty classroom/
Don't wanna miss a prayer here at school or even at home/
Man it was a struggle, trying to be a Muslim and staying out of trouble/
The stress seemed double."
From "Hellfire" by Native Deen.
Hip hop and Islam? To the uninitiated, they seem to be irreconcilably opposed, at least when one compares Islamic purity laws to the gangster stories that are so typical of chart hits or the undisguised materialism and half-naked dancers that are a staple feature of hip hop videos.
One should, however, remember that Islam is one of the fastest growing religions among black Americans - there are an estimated two million African-American Muslims - and it would be quite remarkable if there were no contact between the religion and the popular black music style.
After all, hip hop star Kanye West had a hit two years ago with "Jesus Walks". Since then, Christian religious themes have become acceptable, even in hip hop. Yet, how does America react to rap songs praising the Prophet Mohammed and the Koran?
Rappers as Allah's messengers
Even back during the civil rights movement, when Malcolm X popularized the Nation of Islam, many African-Americans converted to Islam. The most prominent convert of that time was the world boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Today, despite their gangsta lyrics, rappers like Scarface, Beanie Sigel, and Ghostface Killah are the most visible ambassadors of Islam.
The majority, however, are politically aware rhymers, ranging from veterans such as RZA, Professor Griff, Sister Souljah, Queen Latifah, and Chuck D to newcomer stars like Common, Lupe Fiasco, and Mos Def.
The latter opened his album Fear Not of Man with a prayer to Allah. "Islam has taught me to bless words directed to the public," says Mos Def. "That gives them spiritual wings. And Insha' Allah, God will accept my efforts."
For the last twenty five years, socially critical rappers such as hip hop godfather Afrika Bambaata, Brand Nubian, and the Poor Righteous Teachers have been openly preaching Islam. Nowadays, expressions of thanks to Allah on rap albums have become the norm. For this reason, many cultural critics have already declared Islam to be the "official hip hop religion". Yet its true influence on the hip hop scene, for the large part, remains unexamined.
Is Islam the driving force behind the social criticism of many devout rappers? And how do hip hop lyrics, which are so often drenched in profanities, square with the religious task?
Hip hop and the Koran: two forms of poetry
"Hip hop and the texts of the Koran are both forms of poetry," says Mos Def, forging a link between his art and beliefs. "Both possess a rhyme pattern and convey essential information in a condensed form."
Tai, a female Muslim spoken word artist from San Francisco, holds the same views. "The traditional law and philosophy books of Islam were written in verse, which were recited by students to the beat of a drum. If you add another beat, it sounds like rap."
Akil, a rapper with the Californian group Jurassic 5, claims that he found religion through music. He became interested in Islam after he had heard hip hop bands liked Public Enemy cite speeches by Malcolm X and verses from the Koran, and, while still in High School, he learned about the Muslim beliefs of many black slaves from Africa.
His colleague AZ quotes the popular hip hop phrase "each one teach one" with reference to the Koran. "Everyone should teach their neighbour. This is why I use my music not to glorify violence and prostitution, but instead to spread knowledge."
Commercially, at least, the trend seems to have paid off. Last year in North America alone, Muslim rap saw sales amounting to around 1.8 billion dollars.
Hip hop oriented splinter groups vs mainstream Islam
There are also rivalries between sects specific to North America, such as the Nation Of Islam and the Nation Of Gods And Earths (also known as the Five Percent Nation), and mainstream Islamic groups. In particular, the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad until his death in 1975 and later revived by Minister Louis Farrakhan, has found much resonance in the hip hop community.
Perhaps this is because the religion, based on a mixture of black pride, a disciplined lifestyle for its adherents, and its mythology of a Jewish-white world conspiracy, functions as a sort of self-help program in African-American social hotspots. Perhaps it is because black Muslims supply a higher spiritual purpose to the often nihilistic aggressiveness of hip hop.
Conservative Islamic religious teachers have expressed scepticism about linking music to a spiritual mission. They point to sections of the Koran, which states that music can confuse the senses.
In contrast, Farrakhan, a former Calypso singer, takes advantage of hip hop's popularity. He not only encourages rappers to act as emissaries of Islam, but also frequently organizes peace conferences between opposing hip hop factions.
Cryptic references to their own religion
In 2001, the leader of the Nation of Islam gave the main speech at the Hip Hop Summit in New York, the annual summit meeting of hip hop activists. He spoke of the global significance of the genre and called upon those rappers present to assume their responsibilities.
"Rap has brought the youth of the world to you," he said. "What are you going to do with your leadership roles?" The churches, mosques, and schools have all failed, he continued, and now the kids were being brought up by hip hop on the street.
In fact, rap lyrics for Nation of Islam adherents like Common and Brand Nubian frequently contain references to their beliefs - except that the non-initiated will hardly understand specific metaphors such as "Yacub's crew" (whites) or "dead niggaz" (non-Muslim blacks).
Frequently condemned by Sunni Muslims as deviationist, the Nation of Islam preaches that whites were created some 6,000 years ago by an evil black scientist known as Yacub.
Music according to the rules of the Koran
Other rappers go far beyond such cryptic references to Islam. The rap trio Native Deen from Washington D.C. states its mission in its name. "Deen" in Arabic means "religion" or "way of life". In songs like Praise Allah Together or Hellfire, the rappers preach Muslim values such as praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, and abstinence from alcohol and violence.
The three young friends take their beliefs so seriously that they only perform in traditional Muslim dress. In adherence to a strict interpretation of the Koran, they also avoid dance movements and wind and stringed instruments. Instead, they are accompanied only by two drums and a synthesizer.
"There's a lot of pressure to fit in when you're a teenager," relates rapper Naeem Muhammed. "And fitting in when you're African-American and Muslim is twice as hard."
It was particularly difficult to disentangle the love of hip hop from its violent and pornographic values and then to reconcile it with a Muslim lifestyle. In addition, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, many Muslims in the United States have been regarded with suspicion.
"I don't try to be preachy"
Some hip hop groups have even gone so far as to change their names in order to avoid being the focus of attacks. "We used to go by the name of Jihad, which means ‘struggle' in Arabic," recounts Amaar Zaheer, one half of the rap duo Mountain View. "But after 9/11 it was misinterpreted to mean ‘holy war', and that's not the message we bring at all. Islam says to keep positive and be a role model, to make a difference. We try to reflect that in our music."
This doesn't mean, however, that openly Islamic rappers such as Mountain View, Jurassic 5, or the white group Everlast have to serve as preachers seeking converts. "I don't try to be preachy, that's not my thing," says Akil from Jurassic 5. "I don't point fingers at other people. Otherwise I'll be pointing four fingers at myself. And if I can detect the faults of other people, it's because I have those faults within myself."
Commercially, socially critical groups such as Jurassic 5 are shut out of the mainstream, and instead rely on an alternative hip hop public, college radio, and word of mouth. Yet, record sales don't mean everything.
According to Naeem Muhammed from Native Deen, "Just the fact that we're a Muslim music hip hop group is reassuring for the kids. It's important that these kids have a positive role model that they can also enjoy in terms of entertainment."
Muhammed and his colleagues hope to fill a gap between Islam and pop culture, and also to put an end to the myth that hip hop goes against the Koran. "What we're saying through our music is about the struggle of being a good Muslim and still being a part of American culture, too. They can take pride in the fact that they are Muslim and that they are American."
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by John Bergeron