The Magnetism of Rap Music Among Muslims

By Yahsmin Mayaan Binti BoBo – special guest blog for elan

The words ‘rhythm and poetry’ form the acronym for RAP, which defined the musical genre emerging from hip-hop culture in the seventies. Academics agree that hip-hop culture as a whole was birthed in the South Bronx, New York during a period of cultural and artistic exchange and innovation among Caribbean and African American youth. Also among its foundational aesthetics are turntabalism (DJing), dancing (Bboying) and graffiti writing. Following the disco frenzy, Rap music swelled as a commodity in the American marketplace that enabled its popularity, propelling it to global proportions.

Songwriting in rap music became, quite naturally and organically, an authoritative expression for urban youth in America. Its novelty never wore thin. It is still a means of storytelling and even education. Very much likened to the griot or village storyteller of West Africa, Rap signifies a powerful transmission of narratives that are poetically sociological in nature, uncovering the dynamics of racial, political, economic and gender relations. Sometimes its message seems conflicting, sometimes it is clear. Naysayers of the genre did (and do) exist though. Try as they might, right wing politicians and conservative critics couldn’t halt its impetus during the eighties.

It was unstoppable.

The lyricism itself can be vocalized impromptu, known as freestyling, or it can be scribed creatively through songwriting. Either way, the art of performance is incumbent upon the lyricist, better known as the MC. If the lyricist is ambitious enough, a valiant step into the world of recording arts is critical to his or her survival.

Earlier on, there was continuous interfacing of groups like the Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths (5 percenters) on the east coast with the hip-hop generation. References to some form or understanding of the religion of Islam became the norm in rap’s earliest lyrics. Terminology and vernacular were shaped by teachings from Islam itself, as well as these alternative groups and theology.

For some, it was a casual trend. But for others, it was a very real identity.

If you’re anything like me, this had an impact in your personal life and in your budding belief system. My first exposure to Islam was through such lyricism, provocative and audacious music. I admired the MC’s who shared a perspective on religion and history in a different context than what I was taught in my traditional classroom and state-mandated curriculum. It hastened a natural curiosity about the Arabic language because I heard the greetings, phrases and salutations used so often. And like many impressionable youth, identifying with the counterculture was fresh and exciting.

Regional influences were magnified as time passed within Rap music and hip-hop culture bespoke cultural norms, interests, and lifestyles in different parts of the country. Black consciousness and Islam’s influence subsided (but didn’t disappear) after the Golden Age until Muslim artists emerged on the scene with a voice all their own. Icons like Rakim and Poor Righteous Teachers shifted as sources of pseudo-Islamic knowledge to mainstream counterparts like Mos Def, Paris and groups like Jurassic 5 who were, quite frankly, more capable to represent Islam.  Thematically, these recording artists weren’t writing purely religious lyrics but spiritual cues and cultural markers sustained.

Some of these cultural markers saturate popular culture.

Neither Jill Scott nor Erykah Badu is Muslim, but both women were obviously influenced by Islam and referenced it in wardrobe and words, headwraps and hooks. Jill’s constant orientation to Qur’anic verse and brothers with Arabic names indicates not just her distinct Philly identity, but a comfortable familiarity with our religion and people. Likewise, Erykah’s headwrap styles and fashions strengthened the conviction of many young Muslim women in their efforts to maintain modesty. Erykah made it popular and fashionable to be covered, even if her own clothing decisions were temporary.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest rocked a kufi on a full time basis while Philly phenom, Freeway helped to popularize the “sunnah beard”.  Now the fullness of facial hair isn’t something to be shunned, but grown proudly and groomed in certain styles.

Muslim recording artists swam the current and remained in stroke with the mainstream while production technology became more accessible to independent artists at the turn of the millennium. When Spoken Word and Slam Poetry were heavily trending, it facilitated the transition of lyricists wanting to break into the recording arts as well. The lines between recording arts and performing arts blurred, however, no one seemed to mind. The marriage between Spoken Word and Rap music kept it all in the family.

Coupled with digital marketing, technological innovations allowed for proper promotion, exposure and the awesome potential for sustainability in what used to be, a pretty cutthroat business. With the advent of social networking and viral media that enabled individuals to upload their own music and videos, hip-hop hopefuls began to populate cyberspace.  Some even made money.

We were downloading a new culture conceived among Muslim youth.

Neatly tucked in the niche market was an Oakland-based label, Remarkable Current, founded by Anas “BeLikeMuhammad” Canon. After a trial run with the group Asahabu Taqwa, Canon signed several artists to RC, all of whom Muslim, with talents outstretching competitive indie labels. They’ve toured the countryside, Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Some of the artists have appeared in recent documentaries like New Muslim Cool, directed by Jennifer M. Taylor.

Just as conservatives and critics endeavored to weaken Rap’s potency in the eighties, Muslim artists are increasingly subjected to the same disapproval for slightly different reasons. Leaders, scholars, zealots and self-made experts in the blogosphere push an agenda and force an ultimatum for not only artists but their audience as well. Whether this condemnation is local or far across the waters, it is no less polarizing. Filmmaker Mustafa Davis explores the cultural paradox for Muslim youth as he documented the practitioners of lyricism, dancing, djing and graffiti writing in his film Deen Tight coined after Tyson’s hit song on his first solo album.

Sometimes controversy can color our careers.

One cast member in Deen Tight is former Outlawz recording artist, Napoleon, now regarded as Mutah Beale. Beale abandoned the production and performance of music once accepting an opinion in Islam that prohibits him from that kind of work. On the opposite end of the limelight is artist Akon who publicly proclaims his Islam with no need to defend decisions as a professional in the music industry. While he makes a lot of money doing so, he’s also made a lot of commotion in the industry. Akon admitted to having three wives during an interview with Angie Martinez which led to a reality television offer. Though it never materialized, it certainly ruffled feathers.

And speaking of material, Busta Rhymes, a newer convert to Islam released a song titled “A-rab Money” in 2008. Busta endured criticism that the song was racially suggestive and later apologized. Nonetheless, controversial lyrics bring attention to other artists like NYOIL and Ishues not for their negativity, but for their satire. Both artists have produced thought provoking music that screams racial justice and social consciousness and it seems brutal honesty pays off. Though both men are considered indie artists, they now have international offers extended to perform their music.

Artists like Akon and Busta Rhymes lead seemingly uncomplicated careers in the music industry because the lyrical content is generally agreeable to industry executives and producers. On the other hand, artists like Brother Ali and OneBeLo have succeeded in bold and uncompromising songwriting while still landing record deals with smaller, less mainstream labels. Their appeal is just as great, if not better, but compromising their message and endorsing a persona that isn’t really their own, is not something they’ll settle for. As Jersey artist Hasan Salaam articulates it, he won’t change his Arabic stage name or censor his outrage on tender issues just to sign a contract.

Instead of dwelling on the dilemma of music and morality, organizations like Inner City Muslim Action Network take a progressive position. IMAN hosts a Community Cafe in both metropolitan areas of Chicago and New York several times a year, with a massive street festival planned for June of this year. Their objective is to provide an alternative environment for Muslims who seek entertainment and to support the artists in their performances.

The promoting of Muslim Rap artists hasn’t been strictly in our own hands. We have a swelling amount of cohorts in that department. Producers and hip-hop enthusiasts Ben Herson (Nomadic Wax) and Magee McIlvaine (Sol Productions) have films that focus on African artists and both gentlemen promote events where Muslim artists like Omar Offendum, Narcycist, and The ReMinders perform.

In this pluralistic business arrangement, it isn’t fame these professionals seek, it is simply to make, and share, good music.



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