The Roots, the band accompanying Jimmy Fallon every night on The Tonight Show, are known for their neo-soul infused hip-hop beats and a jazzy, eclectic, approach to their own original music and every song they cover. On their first commercially successful album Things Fall Apart, from the song, "The Spark," the lyrics rhyme:
Dawa, salaat, zakat, Hajj, and du'a. This is the language of Islam. Why is it in a Roots song you ask? Roots leader and co-founder Tariq "Black Thought" Luqman Trotter belongs to The Nation of Gods and Earths (a.k.a. "The Five-Percent Nation") founded by former Nation of Islam member Clarence 13X and a major influence in the hip-hop scene in NYC and beyond. Malik B., who left the group over a decade ago, is a Sunni Muslim.
The Muslim influence in The Roots music is evident, but it is not unique. Hip-hop giants such as Mos Def, Q-Tip, Nas, Wu Tang Clan, and Erik B and Raqim have have all featured rhymes infused with Islamic terms and themes. Some of them are faithful Sunnis, Five-percenters, or members of the Nation. You could add to this list of notable Muslim rap mavens the up-and-coming UK duo, "Poetic Pilgrimage."
Featured in the Al Jazeera documentary "Witness: Hip Hop Hijabis," Muneera Rashida and Sukina Abdul Noor are Poetic Pilgrimage, the UK's first female Muslim hip-hop duo. Featured in this documentary is "their personal, spiritual and physical journey" as they tour diverse communities in the UK and in Morocco. The documentary illustrates how their music, and public performance, is not fully accepted in the Muslim community (some view women performing at all as haram or "sinful"). At the same time, the women are able to ride the ups-and-downs, the beats and drops, to discover new things about their Muslim practice and beliefs, their feminist sensibilities, & their Jamaican roots.
Sukina gave voice to how hip-hop helps her articulate her faith. She said of the music project that her and Muneera share, "[w]e are searching for something that is ours, that is authentically Islam.” The women of Poetic Pilgrimage are not alone on this journey. Mos Def, who reigned over the underground rap scene in the 1990s and is one of the most influential emcees of the last two decades is a devout Sunni Muslim. He repeatedly spits his aqidah (creed) on the tracks he writes and produces.
As point of fact, in the song "Wahid" Mos Def flips the egotism and self-aggrandization ubiquitous in hip-hop to point the finger away from the rap artist who is "the one," to aim the finger skyward and direct the minds of those listening to "the Only One" in the sense of the Muslim declaration of faith -- the shahada (Al-Wahid is one of the 99 names of Allah -- God).
His lyrics, bookended by the adhan -- call to prayer -- go like this:
Mos Def is not alone. Common, rhyming with Cee-Lo in "One Day It'll All Make Sense," sang:
Hip-hop helps many give voice to their faith, Islamic or otherwise. H. Samy Alim in his essay "A New Research Agenda: Exploring the Transglobal Hip Hop Umma," (in Muslim Networks: From Hajj to Hip Hop eds. Miriam Cooke and Bruce B. Lawrence) went so far as to make the point that the “transglobal hip hop umma” functions as a borderless network of Muslim faithful that provides a lyrical embodiment of the oral history and force of Islam in which the metrical and rhapsodical flows parallel the poetic recitation of the Qur'an.
Yet, beyond a shared expressive element hip-hop provides an active vehicle for social protest as part of the "transglobal Islamic underground." Drawing on a history of giving voice to the faith in elegaic prose and poetry, Muslim hip-hop artists now engage in lyrical activism by studying Islam, applying it to their lives, and sharing & spreading their views to build an Islamic "class" consciousness focused on explicitly Islamic notions of piety, justice, and peace. Muneera and Sukina form an active part of this "transglobal Islamic underground" as they seek to combine faith and feminism. Indeed, they attempt to demarcate the boundaries between putting on a show for pleasure and a showcase for pondering the faith. Bemoaning the performance act of the game Muneera exclaimed, "it's not supposed to be entertainment, it's supposed to make you think." For the "hip-hop hijabis" rap music becomes not only a vehicle for their expression of Islam, but also a way to confront, and tackle, the issues pertinent to them as Muslim women: modesty and stagecraft, sexuality and solemnity.
Part of this protestation is by proclaiming their racial and/or ethnic identity alongside their religious character. Whether it be Poetic Pilgrimage expressing their Africanity through Muslim infused tunes or Hamza and Suliman Perez from "New Muslim Cool" embodying their Puerto Rican identity, Islamic faith, and street smarts in fresh-pressed lyrics for youth in Pittsburgh, rap becomes a way for worlds to merge for many Muslim musicians. Attempting to forge an identity as "quadruple minorities" Latino Muslims like Hamza and Suliman Perez use hip-hop as a conduit for the imaginative work of identity construction, crafting a hybrid identity that is local to their city-streets yet connected to the global umma, one that is both Latina/o and Muslim, one that is both soulful in its beats and spiritually infused in its lyrics.
James Samuel Logan wrote for Sightings from the University of Chicago's Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion of how rap is central to the African-American's struggle following #Ferguson and other "terrorizing deaths" of blacks in U.S. city-streets and bayou backwaters. He wrote, "Hip Hop artists offer an important, costly and often unsanitized embrace of Black subaltern 'otherness,' an embrace which cyphers problematically-yet-hopefully toward justice and love in this particular place and circumstance of time." This force of hip-hop is most evident in the burgeoning Muslim rap scene that emerged out of NYC in the 1970s and 80s alongside the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation's materializing influence.
Even so, on the borderland between hip-hop and culture, in the streets of struggle and subaltern dissent there can be tension and bloodshed. In attempting to forge a musical and spiritual fusion of faith and hip-hop heritage there can be conflict.
As Mette Reitzel, the "Hip-Hop Hijabis" filmmaker, reflected, the merging of rap music and Muslim sensibilities is not utopian. She said:
In addition, some wonder whether the expressive, and sometimes profane and/or salacious subject matters and language of hip-hop are conducive to faith-filled utterances. Yet, speaking to critics of the more chauvinistic, secular, and sacrilegious sensibilities found within hip-hop music and culture, Anthony Pinn (teaching RELiX "Religion and Hip Hop Culture") wrote in his essay "Making a World with a Beat:"
The sexism expressed by Saint Paul and other biblical figures and the homophobia that marks both testaments have not resulted in a huge theological backlash requiring the destruction of the Bible as a viable sacred text. The same hermeneutic of multiple meanings may extend to rap lyrics and their creators. This is not to say that that these artists should not be accountable, or should not be critiqued with regard to behavior and opinions. It simply means that we should recognize the often problematic relationship between theological pronouncements and arguments, and practice that plagues the history of religion in and outside hip-hop culture.
Finally, hip hop can serve as a means of rebellion in a negative sense, in the form of what is popularly known as "radicalization." Multiple reports and articles have drawn connections, if only tangential, between rap and the "radicalization" of jihadi activists. Whether rap as recruiting tool or hip-hop serving as a "gateway drug to future terrorism" there are some interlocutors who worry that rap music may serve as a precursor for terrorist violence. Although not proposing that everyone who listens to hip-hop will become "radicalized," commentators fear that rap may create a culture of "grievance" and pushing back against a perceived system of oppression.
Most definitely, there is much left to study in the intersection and remixing of Islam and hip-hop. Whether it be the music of Mos Def, the journey of Poetic Pilgrimage, or the tensions that exist between faith and lurid lyrics this emerging field of research is ripe. Specifically, it is an important gateway to understanding how hip hop is giving voice not only to Muslims, but other faithful as well. Furthermore, it sheds light on how hip hop, and its community, in a sense, provides it's own spirituality and religious community. More than anything, this field of research helps refocus ideas about what it means to be Muslim in the contemporary global scene (i.e. they are not just terrorists and "radicals"). It helps provide a picture of Islam broadly conceived that not only includes hijabs and Hajj, but hip-hop in all its vibrancy as well.
*To learn more, I highly suggest Hisham Aidi's Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture or Anthony Pinn's Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music.