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Customs and Culture >
What is Muslim hip-hop?

Islam is an important part of hip-hop culture in America. While the Taliban banned music and many conservative Muslims look askance at modern Western music, others, especially the younger generation, are major consumers as well as musicians producing and enjoying a broad spectrum of music, including hip-hop.

Islamic influences are pervasive in hip-hop lyrics. In Puff Daddy and the Family's 1997 album No Way Out, the first track opens with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs praying, the adhan (Muslim call to prayer) echoing in the background. Lauren Hill raps “Don't forget about the deen [religion/Islamic way of life], the Sirat-ul-Mustaqim [the Straight Path]” in her 1999 Grammy Award-winning song “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Artists like Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Eve, the Fugees, Erykah Badu, Wyclef Jean, Mos Def, Everlast, and many others also wax poetic on Islamic themes and ideas in songs that have graced the Billboard charts in the last two decades.

Islam first appeared in hip-hop during the 1970s in New York. African Americans (who represent some 35 percent of Muslims in the United States) used it for social criticism and to express their experience in America. Many influential hip-hop musicians of the '70s and '80s referred to the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the Nation of Gods and Earths (an offshoot of NOI) in their lyrics. For instance, a line in the 1996 Fugees song “Fu-gee-la” says, “I'm a true champion, like Farrakhan [leader of NOI] reads his Daily Qur'an, it's a phenomenon, lyrics fast like Ramadan.”

A second wave of Muslim hip-hop artists, emerging in the last twenty years, express their commitment to both America and Islam simultaneously. They may be less well known than some of those mentioned above, but their words provide powerful indictments and calls for social change. Popular artists like the M-Team, Lupe Fiasco, Blakstone, Mecca2Medina, and Poetic Pilgrimage are creating music with halal (permissible) themes and content. Gone are the profanity, sexuality, and praise for material wealth often found in mainstream forms of hip-hop like the music of Run-DMC and Tupac. In their place are lyrics peppered with Quranic verses, Arabic phrases, and the bismillah (the blessing “In the name of God,” used before meals or to give thanks to God), all of which take hip-hop in a more religious direction. In Lupe Fiasco's popular song “Muhammad Walks” (a remake of Kanye West's Grammy Award-winning song “Jesus Walks”), Fiasco raps on the unity between the Abrahamic traditions recorded in the Quran: “Abraham talked, Muhammad talked, and Moses split the sea, Jesus Walk with me … Now how it ought to be, Muhammad talk to me, Jesus walk with me.” Another group, Native Deen, raps about praying to Allah, evoking Quranic language in their song “I Am Near”: “Ya Allah—Samee' li-duana (the One who hears our prayers) … Allahummah (Dear God).”

Muslim hip-hop features many songs condemning materialism and consumerism and encouraging Muslims to seek God and deen (religion) instead of worldly goods. For example, in her song “Best Names,” American Muslim hip-hop artist Miss Undastood raps about the names of God that appear in the Quran: “You should worship Allah alone and not man/ He's our Rahim (the Compassionate) and our Rahman (the Gracious) / Al-Malik (the King) and Al-Salaam (the Peace), the Conqueror/ No one can do what he can/ The Creator and the Designer of the Land.”

Moral conduct is another important theme. In his song “Put Some Clothes On!” California native Kumasi uses images from nature to criticize the immodesty of women living in the West: “You can search in the earth to see that diamonds are covered/ The pearls in the shells of the ocean are covered/ And the gold in the mines are hidden and covered.” Other artists encourage Muslims to unite together as a community, avoiding all divisions. In “Just for You,” the group Born Tragedy says, “Black men talking about Black Supremacy/ None of that belong in the deen/ You know it true to be/ Every race, creed, color/ We all brothers.”

Staying true to the original catalyst for hip-hop, the M-Team from New York tackles social justice: poverty, racism, human rights, freedom for political prisoners, and the devaluing of women. Capital D criticizes the war in Iraq, while Amir Sulaiman denounces the justice system in the United States. The Australian group The Brotherhood raps about the current Islamophobic view of Muslims and being regarded with suspicion in the West post-9/11. In “Why,” they ask: “Why when something blows up on the TV/ People look at me as if it was my family?”

Muslim hip-hop culture is met with some resistance. The diversity of Muslims is clearly evident in their responses to music, from declaring it forbidden (haram) to arguing that it is permissible (halal) if it doesn't violate Islamic principles. Most agree that music with un-Islamic or sensual themes is prohibited, and some question if Muslim hip-hop is an appropriate form for an Islamic message or if the bismillah and shahada (profession of faith) can legitimately be put to hip-hoprhythm. In addition, just as many in the United States criticize the hip-hop lyrics of non-Muslim artists for endorsing substance abuse and gang violence, some Muslims criticize Muslim hip-hop for encouraging Muslim youth to join a jihadi organization. Because Muslim hip-hop is in English, it can provide jihadist organizations with a new recruitment base for their terrorism. For example, the popular group Soldiers of Allah used lyrics that endorsed creating an Islamic state and that divided people into kafir (unbelievers) and Muslims, a theme that Muslim terrorists use to justify violence. Though the group has since disbanded, it is still popular on the Internet and in chat room discussions. However, the majority of Muslim hip-hop renounces terrorism, interpreting jihad as an inner, not an outer, struggle. As Born Tragedy raps in the song “Just for You,” “Gotta fight your inner, before you fight the outside. First you gotta fight to strive for Allah.”

Muslim hip-hop is a global phenomenon that takes messages beyond a local community to the entire world. It serves as a voice of protest for the burgeoning younger generations of Muslims worldwide. In Gaza more than half the population is under twenty, and nearly 40 percent of Pakistan's population is under 15. Historian and musician Mark LeVine vividly describes the popularity of alternative music among Muslims, from Morocco, where hip-hop draws tens of thousands of fans, to Iran, where underground musicians use the Internet for popular social protest.

A prominent element of this music is the artists' opposition to violence, and their use of words as their weapons. Pakistan's famous Salman Ahmad from the band Junoon describes his “Sufi rock” music as his “jihad.” B-Boy of the group G-Town, on the West Bank, says, “Hip-hop for me … is a way to resist. Instead of using guns and stones, maybe words are going to bring me a solution. Or maybe just make me feel better.” Palestinian Ibrehiem Ghoneem says, “The violence never seems to change anything, so maybe people will listen to us this way.” Israeli hip-hop artist Sagol 59 agrees: “With hip-hop you start a dialogue, Jews and Palestinians. You go to the heart of the problem.” Hip-hop artists often elicit empathy rather than anger or fear, as in “Try Not to Cry,” a heartbreaking song for the world's suffering children recorded as a duet with Sami Yusuf by Denmark's Outlandish, a group that describes themselves as deeply religious. Their 2005 album “Closer than Veins” uses a Quranic verse (50:16) to describe that God is closer to us than our jugular veins.

Through the rhyme, rhythm, and rap, Muslim hip-hop helps Muslims to criticize their society, to try to reform it, and to carve out their own place within it as they also describe how Islam has empowered them to live better lives.

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