“You scared to be yourself, cause you in a trance
Feel free, hear the music and dance
If you cared what they think, why wear what they wear, just for you
Dumb niggaz with long beards like they Arabs or Jews or from Israel,
Bismillah al-rahman, al-rahim (In the name of Gad, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful)
Islam’s a beautiful thing.
And Christian and Rastafari, helps us to bring
peace against the darkness, which is unGodly
So what’s the Black man’s true religion, who should we follow?
Use your own intuition, you are tomorrow.”
~Nasir Jones a.k.a Nas, “Black Zombie”
“Now we was once two niggaz of the same kind
Quick to holla at a hoochie (a girl) with the same line
You was just a little smaller but you still roller
Got stretched to Y.A. and hit the hood swoll (he got built)
Member when you had a jheri curl (type of hair style), didn’t quite learn
On the block, wit’cha glock (gun), trippin’ off sherm (tobacco and weed laced with PCP)
Collect calls to the tilt (house), sayin how ya changed –
Oh you’z a Muslim now! – no more dope game
Heard you might be comin home, just got bail
Wanna go to the mosque, don’t wanna chase tail (a woman’s backside)
It seems I lost my little homie (friend), he’s a changed man
Hit the pen and now no sinnin’ is the game plan
When I talk about money, all you see is the struggle
When I tell you I’m livin’ large, you tell me it’s trouble.”
~Tupac Shakur, “I Ain’t Mad At Cha”
“All over the world hearts pound with the rhythm
Fear not of men because men must die
Mind over matter and soul before flesh
Angels hold a pen, keep a record in time
which is passin’ and runnin’ like a caravan trader
The world is overrun with the wealthy and the wicked
But God is sufficient in disposin’ of affairs
Gunmen and stockholders try to merit my fear
But God is sufficient over plans they prepared.”
~Mos Def, “Fear Not of Man”
“My Mobb pits is like dime bricks
Satisfaction, guaranteed real shit
Rapper Noyd, we meet you at the top kid
And once we all on top, ain’t no stoppin’ it
I’m headstrong, at peace with myself like Islam.”
~Mobb Deep, “Still Shinin”
“Light over the city bright
I take flight on a magic carpet, visually scanning this metropolis
Graffiti and Philly guts, stupid cats, and silly sluts
Move makers, straight fakers, and the pick pocket
People setting their ways, too late for them to stop it
Sheikh with the scar cheek
Navigate through city streets
New Jerusalem days, Mecca nights
Wrap like a turban tight
Some are tall – for those who wanna spar.”
~Shabaam Sahdeeq , “Arabian Nights”
I can remember being a child back in the early-mid 1990s and hearing hip-hop songs with references to Islam and Muslims. (In truth, the 80s hip-hop was where it as at, but I missed that period by almost a decade. Still early 90s hip-hop had references to Islam as well). At the time, of course, I didn’t know what those references meant – I didn’t know exactly what they were referring to – but the lyrics of those songs – the poetry (and profanity :D) embedded in every stanza and in every verse – nevertheless rolled off my young tongue in an effort to emulate their eloquence and rhythm, their “flow,” something, which, I think, is lacking this insipid modern hip-hop. I repeated the English-accented Arabic I heard in those songs without so much of a second thought, as did every other hip-hop aficionado during those days, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Back then, no one questioned the references to Islam: no one said they were un-American, no one doubted their authenticity as Americans, no one said the artists were trying to take over America with the bogey-man Shari’ah law, no one said they didn’t belong here, no one told Nasir Jones (I think he’s a 5%er but makes lots of references to Islam) or Mos Def (a Muslim) or Q-Tip (a Muslim) or Jurassic 5 (I think most, if not all, the group is Muslim) to go back home, to “go back where you came from.” Hip-hop was part of the American social fabric, sired in the ghettos, slums, and trailer parks by the poor and disenfranchised as a way to communicate their narratives to the world, to explain their paradoxical existence in the so-called “Land of Opportunity.”It came from the same places that they did, the proverbial anuses of American society. They gave themselves voices when the powers that be in this country wouldn’t give them one, and the voice had a distinctly Muslim flavor to it.
That same voice resonated with me, despite its repletion of Arabic words. The stories in those songs were my stories: anecdotes about growing fatherless in the hood, tireless mothers, the ubiquitous presence of drugs, gang violence, wanton sexual aberrations, poor public schools, racism, police brutality, etc. They rapped about God but in a real sense, relative to the realities in the hood, not as an academic abstraction. In most cases, the Arabic phrases just seem to fit in with the messages and the narratives themselves. I knew, even back then, that God was behind those accented words; I just didn’t know what they meant. Subhan’Allah, it’s almost if the artists were giving dawah (inviting, proselytizing but without the negative connotations), inculcating us, albeit subconsciously, with the message of Islam.
And really, if that’s actually the case, who better suited for the task than an ill (cool) MC with mad flow? When Allah wants a people to be guided, He’ll send the message through a medium which the people can understand and relate to. I highly doubt most of us hood dwellers would have been receptive to “traditional” approaches by “traditional” Immigrant Muslims. I can’t image, back in those days, a “traditional” Immigrant Muslim, an Arab or a Desi, giving dawah through rapping and succeeding at it anyway. (The attempt would be hilarious though 🙂 ). I mean really, consider this: the first time I ever heard Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim or Allah or Qur’an was in a rap song – not from a conservative, bearded sheikh from over seas or a hijabi or a niqabi or even from a recitation of the Qur’an itself but from a rap song. In fact, were I betting man (gambling is forbidden in Islam), I would say hip-hop introduced a significant number of people in the 80s and 90s to Muslim terminology. Just think about that for a moment and let it marinate. I swear by Allah there’s a lesson to be found in the experience of Black Americans, the analogous Ansar (“helpers,” refers to the natives of Medina) of this country that I feel my Immigrant brothers and sisters, the analogous Muhajirun (“people who makes a pilgrimage,” those who made the pilgrimage from Mecca to Medina with the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم) aren’t understanding and capitalizing on.
Some years down the road, al-hamdu’ilah, I became Muslim, and I now have scant knowledge of Arabic and Islam. Those same hip-hop songs shuffle on my iPod and I can’t but help to smile when I hear the references to Islam. Though their methods were not beyond criticism (charges of misogyny, stuff like that), these people from the slums and ghettos helped forge a place in this country for Islam. For me, it’s a bitter shame that the influence of Islam hip-hop culture in America isn’t as recognized as it should be. For better or worse, the hip-hop artists, despite music supposedly being haram (forbidden) in some schools of jurisprudence, were the ones who reached the urban youth with their lyrics, and yet this is seldom mentioned in traditional Muslim circles. I’m sometimes tempted to think that history will never fully acknowledge the contribution of Blacks to Islam in this country, as if Islam just arrived with (most of) the Arabs and the Desis in 60s and 70s, but my conversations with Muslims, Immigrant and Indigenous alike, pushes this temptation to the way side. People know and are beginning to understand, especially those in my generation. Maybe it’s not too late for the Muhajirun to learn from the Ansar. Allahu’Alim.
Hopefully, I won’t run into trouble in saying this, but I’ve always concerned Allah to be the best of Artists, having brought existence into being, and, in the case of the Qur’an, the best of Poets. To be sure, to be real sure, the Qur’an is NOT a book of poetry; it is a book of ayat (signs), of hidayah (guidance), of hikma (wisdom), of nur (light) and of so much more. Moreover, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم was NOT an MC, though he certainly had some skills of his own.
The melody of the Qur’an, it’s rhythm and sick rhyming patterns, it’s fluidity, it’s poetry, is truly something fans of hip-hop should admire. Even for those of us illiterate in Arabic, like myself, it is impossible not to be flabbergasted by the “flow” of the Qur’an. I mean, fo real, my Lord’s got mad “flow!” His is, quite literally, divine.