By Albert Carter from Hip Hop University with contributions from Carolina Muslims staff and Naeem Muhammad of Native Deen
In this article we do not seek to answer the question of whether or not music is a permissible form of entertainment for Muslims. We encourage readers to seek out educated views on each of the major opinions regarding music. What we wish to address here is the factual presence of Muslims and Muslim influence in Rap and Hip-Hop and why that presence is so much greater than in any other genre of music.
Rappers have been sprinkling their lyrics with references to Islam and Muslims for nearly 40 years, some Hip-Hop artists like Wylcef Jean do it because of friends and influences who are Muslim while others like RZA do so because of affiliation with deviant sects of Islam; still others like Native Deen, Brother Ali and The Narcicyst do so because they are devout Muslims and have a desire to convey the message of Islam through an art form that they feel is close to their hearts. Why are Muslims so attracted to this form of music?
First, it’s important to examine the roots of Hip-Hop as it grew out of the Bronx section of New York City in the mid to late 1970s. The major trigger for the emergence of Hip-Hop is due to the NY City schools cutting music programs for inner city schools; this directly led to an emergence of rapping poetry lyrics over percussion beats instead of playing instruments as was the norm in the R&B era. With the creative outlet of instruments being taken away from the kids, they took to beatboxing (creating percussion sounds with the mouth) and using makeshift drums. As the new form of music rapidly evolved, the lyrical styles became more percussive and rhythmic so that the human voice took the place of strings or horns while the drum beat remained at the core.\
At this same time, major events were occurring in the African-American community and three of these were directly linked to the history of Muslim Americans. The first was the mass exodus of people from Nation of Islam to the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Mohamed who reinforced the teachings of Qur’an and Sunnah and sought to guide people to Sunnah Islam. This led to the reformation and restructuring of the Nation of Islam which is the second major event. The third major event directly relevant to New York City is the establishment of Masjid Al-Taqwa by Imam Siraj Wahaj. Another relevant factor is that throughout the civil rights movement, many Afro-Centric religions imitating Islam enjoyed resurgence.
The Nation of Islam (NOI), who communicated messages of social fairness, knowledge of self and a sense of community pride during the time in which hip-hop was founded. This kind of message fused with a group of African American Muslim poets called The Last Poets who formed in the late 1960s and have been cited to have the earliest influences on hip-hop. Members of The Last Poets were greatly influenced by the Islamic religion as indicated by their hard hitting lyrics, open-minded perspective and Afro-centric musical style. In a time period that was filled with racial inequality and injustice, any lyrics which dealt with harsh realities that African-American communities faced and expressed a collective response gained a great following. Especially important were those lyrical responses that appeared to be founded in religions which had become part of the African-American identity. Because of the core message of injustice, the form of Hip Hop has become attractive to any group of people who are marginalized or oppressed in some way by society at large.
Naeem Muhammad from the group Native Deen relates “One more thing that makes it easier for Muslims to get into hip-hop because for Muslim families who have a problem with instrumentation, [is that] the very bare bones basics of hip-hop music, the kids didn’t have instruments. … for a Muslim kid whose family might not be into it and saying ‘oh music is haraam or singing is haraam.’ These rappers aren’t singing. Most of them don’t have instruments and they just keep together with guys beat boxing and making a beat on the desk or with his mouth and just saying words.” Naeem went on to explain that since rap and hip-hop is, at its core, poetry; that Muslims gravitate to it since poetic competitions were popular among the companions of Muhammad (SAWS) and some say that it was even encouraged.
The art form has gotten a negative rap (pun intended) from various popular media outlets due to its explicit lyrics, however there are a number of hip-hop artists that seek to teach through hip-hop both from a spiritual and an educational standpoint. Famous artist Mos Def said in an interview “You’re not gonna get through life without being worshipful or devoted to something, you’re either devoted to your job, or to your desires. So the best way to spend your life is to try to be devoted to prayer, to Allah. If Islam’s sole interest is the welfare of mankind, then Islam is the strongest advocate of human rights anywhere on Earth, Islam has taught me to bless words directed to the public; that gives them spiritual wings. And Insha’ Allah, God will accept my efforts.”
For many people, it is hard to rationalize the message of Islam being sent out through a medium that is associated with violent lyrics, foul language, references to drugs, alcohol and illicit sex. However, it is worth mentioning that while Islam is perfect, Muslims are not and many of the references in hip-hop are directly relating to that reality and talking to the imperfect being. In an article entitled “Islam and Hip Hop” from July 2009 published on Suhaib Webb’s site; Ahmad James stated “I don’t make Islamic Hip-Hop, or Muslim Hip Hop and I have never marketed my music as such. I am a Muslim and I make Hip-Hop. Because I am a practicing Muslim I talk about my religion, or more often my relationship with Allah, in most of my songs. If Muslims relate great, but I focus my music toward two groups: one is the non-Muslim hip-hopper I once was. The other is the Muslim who is not in the mosque and who is instead listening to Hip-Hop.”
Naeem explains “We didn’t want some kids to be left out of the conversation. When you talk about Native Deen, you are talking about messages like Stand Alone or My Faith My Voice because for us it was about the message, it wasn’t a debate on whether to use instruments or not. We really didn’t hold these arguments or subscribed to those like other people had.” In order to encompass the major opinions regarding music, Native Deen released music with voice only, voice with drums added and with full instrumentation so that everyone could enjoy the message.
Can Hip-Hop fully evolve into Hip-Haqq as many have been attempting to do? This is uncertain, since Muslims are imperfect, there is no way to say that something Muslims create will ever be perfect; but with artists seeking with the best of intentions, to give strong messages that will help Muslims better themselves, there certainly is hope that Hip-Hop can be more guidance than distraction for the youth.
Hip-Hop University is a Charlotte, NC based non-profit organization that provides educational and mentoring services to youths in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. For more information on the Hip-Hop University please visit www.hiphopuniversity.net
Native Deen’s background, lyrics and CDs can be found at www.nativedeen.com
Naeem Muhammad released a solo album this year entitled “I Love When You Use Your Words” information about Naeem’s music can be found at www.naeemusic.com