Islam and hip hop in the United States
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The intersection between Islam and hip hop in the United States has evolved and grown to include socio-political motifs that reflect the turmoil and unrest throughout history. Political and social events have often had a powerful influence on the music industry's focus and what it promotes or criticizes. With increased scrutiny of Islam and Muslims leading to fierce debate and media propagation along with recent policies and political events having directed more and more attention to Islamic influences in the United States.
Within the connection of hip hop and Islam, the ideas of critical race theory (CRT) helps explain ideas prominent in both music and religion. As for background on CRT, Delgado explains that CRT began as a broad coalition of activists and scholars, like professors and lawyers, who were interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. Delgado goes on to explain some pertinent tenants to CRT. The first is how racism is really difficult to address and cure, especially with colorblind tactics used to erase historical oppression. The second tenant revolves around the social and economic domination of whites, especially in the US, and the difficultly for whites to admit to racism due to admitting the benefits have and continue to receive. Lastly, Delgado explains the importance of story-telling, so that the "unique voice of color" is able to express the impact of systematic racism.
These tenants provide the background in the intersectionality of race and Islam regarding CRT. Specifically, there are concepts pertaining to the challenging of whiteness/ideal western values and the ongoing racialization of Blacks and Muslims/Black Muslims.
When thinking about these concepts of challenging whiteness/ideal western values and faith as well as the racialization of Blacks and Muslims, there are two sources we should look to. First, Sawar 2017 and Khabeer 2012, who explain how the concept of whiteness and western ideas has shaped new racism centered on Islam, while still continuing the oppression Blacks in the US have endured, messages that find themselves in the lyrics of rap artists. As a result, Blacks, Muslims, and Black Muslims can relate to the social messages in hip hop, and relate to the struggles that both intertwined communities endure.
The 1980s was a period characterized by changing government and shifting policy. The Reagan Administration's ascension to power ushered in the “tough on crime” era, and with it came discriminatory policy and increased hardship for African-Americans in urban communities. Although he won two presidential elections based on a platform promising economic revival, Reagan's guarantee of revitalization would come at the expense of blacks throughout the nation. While in office, his harsh policies, particularly his War on Drugs, led to significant jumps in incarceration rates of black men. This, coupled with large cuts to social welfare programs, greatly hurt black urban communities, caused great difficulty for black communities, and this struggle was reflected in hip hop. As it diversified to include sub-genres such as gangsta rap and conscientious rap that spoke to the issues facing blacks at this time, hip hop gave African-Americans a medium in which they could speak their truths and claim their voices. Unsurprisingly, prominent hip hop artists turned to Islam, specifically the Five Percent Nation, to seek similar comfort. By converting to Islam, blacks could reclaim their own identities independent of the white man. This was particularly emphasized in the teachings of the Five Percent Nation, in which its pro-black tenets created a religious space in which blacks were not just equal, but superior to whites. In this way, African-Americans could worship a higher power that not only validated, but uplifted their identities.
At the start of the 1980s, American Muslims faced an uptick in hate crimes as a result of the Iran Hostage Crisis, in which Iranian students, involved in the overthrow of the previous Iranian government and the establishment of an Islamic theocratic regime, held 52 Americans hostage for over a year. As the American public watched this crisis unfold, the character of Islam was brought into question. The subsequent discrimination faced by American Muslims reflected the public's association of Islam with the notable anti-American event.
For prominent Muslim hip hop artists like Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, the teachings of the Five Percent Nation were extremely influential. Founded in Harlem in the 1960s, the Five-Percent Nation was created by Clarence13X, a former member of the Nation of Islam (NOI) who is referred to as Allah the Father by 5-Percenters, as a group of individuals comprising the five percent of the population aware of the truth and committed to enlightening the public. The movement recognized blacks as the original inhabitants of this Earth and emphasized that they should reclaim their dominance and recognize their superiority as a race. Adherents emphasize this constantly, referring to their fellow black men as Gods and black women as Earths — hence establishing the organization's other name as the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE). Despite drawing heavily from Islam, the Five-Percent Nation is not classified as a religion. This is evident in its belief that God, rather than being separate from man as is traditionally thought in Islam, is a human, specifically a black man. Instead, the Five-Percent Nation is considered a way of life. Tenets are outlined in the Supreme Mathematics and the Supreme Alphabet, a set of principles established by Allah the Father. These guides state that 5-Percenters can interpret numbers and letters as spiritual messages from Allah.
Rakim, considered to be one of the greatest lyricists of all time, was one of the earliest hip hop artists to incorporate references to Islam into their work. Formerly a member of the NOI, Rakim later became a 5-Percenter, adopting the name Rakim Allah.
In his song “My Melody,” with Eric B., Rakim references the Supreme Mathematics and the Supreme Alphabet.
“I drop science like a scientist/My melodies in code”
In this verse, he references how Gods and Earths will often refer to themselves as scientists in their quest for knowledge and proof. He then describes how 5-Percenters view numbers and letters as code for spiritual messages from Allah.
Rakim mentions his faith again in his song “The 18th Letter.”
“From the mind which is one of Allah's best designs/And mines'll stand the test of time, when I rhyme”
The song itself is full of references to both his faith and his rap prowess, but these verses specifically directly express this. By stating that his mind is one of Allah's best designs, Rakim is both expressing his faith and flexing his rap skills.
Big Daddy Kane was also a 5-Percenter, having been introduced to the movement in high school. In his song “Just Rhymin’ with Biz,” he states that the ‘Kane’ in his name stands for King Asiatic, Nobody's Equal, an allusion to the Five Percent Nation's belief that the Original Man was an Asiatic black man. His other works are also rife with references to Islam and other Five Percent Nation teachings. For example, the final verse of Big Daddy Kane's 1988 hit “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’” explicitly conveys his connection to Islam.
“Hold up the peace sign, as salaam alaikum!”
This Arabic phrase, meaning “peace be upon you,” is commonly used among Muslims as a salutation. Moreover, it is used frequently in the Nation of Islam and by 5-Percenters.
Later, his 1989 song “Mortal Combat,” a diss track aimed at Kool Moe Dee, referenced the Supreme Mathematics.
“Beginning to end, from Knowledge to Born”
According to the Supreme Mathematics, Knowledge corresponds to the number one, and Born is represented by the number nine. This then indicates that Big Daddy Kane was cleverly repeating the beginning phrase, “beginning to end,” using 5-Percenter terminology. He then references Islam at the end of the song, with the phrase:
“I say peace to the Nation of Islam.”
As mentioned previously, wishing others peace is a common way to say hello and goodbye. With this line, Big Daddy Kane is closing the song with a declaration of his faith.
Lakim Shabazz was an MC during the 1980s who derived his name from the Tribe of Shabazz, which, according to the Nation of Islam, was an ancient black nation that settled in Central Africa to test their endurance and amass resilience. It is alleged that all people, excluding whites, descend from the Tribe of Shabazz. From the inclusion of this in his name — and the song he created explaining this entitled “The Lost Tribe of Shabazz”, it is evident that Lakim Shabazz was significantly influenced by Islam, specifically the teachings of the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation. His raps also reflect these beliefs, perhaps most obviously in the song “Black is Back.” A pro-black anthem, the song encourages African-Americans to recognize their greatness and fight for societal dominance. Shabazz encourages turning to the teachings of the Nation of Islam for empowerment in guidance, as is emphasized in the following verses:
“This rhyme was designed for The Final Call”
Here, Lakim Shabazz references the Nation of Islam's official newspaper, The Final Call. Created in 1979 by Minister Louis Farrakhan, The Final Call aims to share unbiased information with all people, not just followers of the Nation of Islam. By stating that this rhyme was created for The Final Call, Shabazz is stating that his words are the truth, as described by the teachings of the Nation of Islam.
Shabazz later discusses his appreciation for Minister Farrakhan, the current leader of the Nation of Islam.
“Peace unleashed upon Minister Farrakhan/For preachin’ and teachin’ the truth”
In these verses, Shabazz thanks Louis Farrakhan for his work by unleashing peace unto him. Farrakhan worked extensively to return the Nation of Islam to its traditional state, eliminating many of the changes instated by Warith Deen Mohammed to make the NOI's teachings more similar to traditional Islam.
Afrika Islam was a prominent hip hop producer during the 1980s. He trained extensively under Afrika Bambaataa, known as the Godfather of Hip Hop, for numerous years before embarking on his individual career. Like his mentor, Afrika Islam worked heavily with the Zulu Nation, an organization originally developed to use hip hop to stop violence and spread peace. As time passed, the Zulu Nation drew increasingly heavily from the Nation of Islam's teachings, sharing the organization's principles with its members. Afrika Islam hosted a radio show, Zulu Beats, to spread these messages to the public on a wide-reaching platform. Through this, he could work with the Zulu Nation to serve the Nation of Islam, as the songs he produced with well-known rappers like Ice-T did not explicitly do this.
The 1990s defined the Hip-Hop industry and shaped into what it is today. It included the second half of the "Golden Age" of hip-hop, a time when hip-hop became mainstream and was loved by many for its quality, its diversity, and its newly broad influence. During this time, much of hip-hop music became quite politically charged, afro-centric, and militant in nature. In the 1990s, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was praised by artists like Public Enemy while albums by Wu Tang Clan and Busta Rhymes referenced 5 Percent Nation. References to Islam in Hip-Hop music became explicit in the 1990s, and they were almost always characterized by a pairing with a quest for political and social justice.
One of the most influential 90's rappers was Busta Rhymes who in 1990 formed the group Leaders of the New School before later starting his own solo career with the hit single Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check. He was a New York Jamaican, born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island where he met Public Enemy and Rakim, with whom he formed his group and signed a deal with Elektra Records at age 17.
Leaders of the New School officially started in 1991 with their debut album Future Without a Past...; however, they only were able to release one more album T.I.M.E., before breaking up in 1994.
In 2007, Busta decided to release his religious beliefs to the press, stating, “I try to really understand every aspect of the most high. For me, the most high is Allah. All praises due to Allah, the Lord of all worlds, the greatest, the beneficent, the merciful… I live my life by Islam.” 
His song Arab Money, released in 2009, got a lot of negative push-back from the Muslim community for its lyrics about making money in off of oil in Arab countries. He later remixed the song to include lyrics from the Qur'an, which only further offended Muslims who did not believe that verses from the Qur'an should appear in song lyrics, however this decision certainly allowed his music to gain more attention among Muslims.
It is rumored that his exposure to Islam came from his exposure to the Nation of Gods and Earths at age 13 or 14, however it is not certain whether he is a member or if he is affiliated with the 5 percenters.
Ice Cube represented the West Coast rap music movement. He was born in Los Angeles where he started a group called C.I.A with a friend and eventually started collaborating with Dr. Dre, with whom he later joined Eazy-E’s Compton-based group called Niggaz With Attitude (N.W.A.), for which his most noteworthy role was lyricist, starting with his writing of the complete lyrics to the song Straight Outta Compton in 1988.
He later started his solo debut as AmeriKKA’s Most Wanted, where he started to tackle social issues like poverty, racism, and drug addiction, along with general critiques to American society. He started acting in 1991 and has appeared in many films since then.
In the early 1990s, Ice Cube converted to Islam, and when asked about his faith he stated, “I mean, what I call myself is a natural Muslim, because it’s just me and God.”
Dante Smith was born in Brooklyn as well and named himself “Most Definitive,” or Mos Def. He formed a group with his siblings called Urban Thermo Dynamics and then ventured on his own, becoming part of a Hip-hop music group with Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest called “Native Tongues.” Later he began to work alongside Talib Kweli, and his music took a sociopolitical turn.
Sociopolitical hip-hop gained a lot of attention in the late 1990s, and in 1999 Mos Def came out with his solo debut album Black on Both Sides. The first words spoken on this album, “Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem" translate to "In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.”
He is known as the first Hip-hop artist to articulate a clear Muslim message in his music. He learned about Islam from his father who was a member of Nation of Islam, and he became a part of the community of Imam Warithdeen Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of Nation of Islam. "I got my first exposure to Islam when I was 13," he said. "My dad taught me how to make wudhu [the ritual ablution Muslims perform before prayer]."
At 19 he took the Muslim declaration of faith, shahada, and Islam became the cornerstone of his life. "You're not gonna get through life without being worshipful or devoted to something," he said. "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."
“It's about speaking out against oppression wherever you can," he continues. "If that's gonna be in Bosnia or Kosovo or Chechnya or places where Muslims are being persecuted; or if it's gonna be in Sierra Leone or Colombia--you know, if people's basic human rights are being abused and violated, then Islam has an interest in speaking out against it, because we're charged to be the leaders of humanity."
Jonathan Davis (Q-Tip) was born in Harlem in 1970, and at age 20 in 1990 he converted to Islam and changed his name to Kamaal Ibn John Fareed. Before converting he had been agnostic. ”I read the Qur’an and it appealed to me,” he said. “It really breathed [spirituality] back into me… For me it’s really a cushion. It’s cool. I’m cool with it.”
He grew up in Queens where he went to school with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife Dawg, and Jarobi White with whom he formed the group A Tribe Called Quest, and their debut album People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was released in 1990. Kamaal released his debut solo album in 1999.
Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Ali Shaheed Muhammad started his career along with Q-Tip in A Tribe Called Quest, later expanding into becoming a DJ and producer and later started his solo career in 2004 with his debut LP Shaheedulah and Stereotypes.
“With regards to Islam, it definitely — I mean, I walk a different walk than probably a lot of different people in the industry. I'm not saying it like I'm better. I'm in no way any better or a saint, but there's — people can depend on me. They have. They do. And they call me the voice of reason. And I suppose that my faith has something to do with that.” 
“It can rip an artist apart, because then you're under the ridicule of, "Aren't you Muslim? Don't you believe in this? What you're doing goes against" — and it's just like, "Yeah, I already know everything you're saying to me." I don't know if anyone else gets that sort of scrutiny so I do understand why people keep it to themselves.”
At the very end of the 20th Century, some sectors of American society seemed paralyzed with a fear of mass computer shutdowns or with others predicting the second coming of Christ. On the other hand, most Americans were energized by the new millennium and an optimism that an interconnected and globalized world led by the U.S. had conquered the forces that led to the great world wars of the 20th Century. Despite the positive expectations of the new millennium, the Huffington Post reports the 2000s as the Lost Decade at least politically due to the impact of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The attacks on the World Trade Center led to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which a majority of Americans would now say were ill-advised and the main contributor to the continued rise of terrorism by groups claiming allegiance to Islam. With George Bush in the Oval Office at the time, America faced fierce criticism regarding the conflicts in the Middle East that spilled into criticisms of domestic policies, economic policies and served to divide American politics such that little forward momentum was ignited. The U.S. lost its self-confidence during the first decade of the 2000’s while also becoming increasingly worried about the growing ranks of terrorists.
The popular culture industry was gravely influenced by the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. While this tragedy brought many people together under the umbrella of patriotism, it was common to hear expressions of rage targeted at practicing Muslims and the people who fit the stereotype of a Muslim. The Guardian reported that one hundred and fifty songs were banned that contained “lyrically questionable” verses deemed insensitive to Muslims. For example, country music star, Toby Keith, sold around 340,000 copies of the song “Unleashed” following the week of 9/11 which contained lyrics referring to the “American way”, and 85 million dollars went into the production of the terrorist themed movie, Collateral Damage. That same movie, however, was postponed for five months due to sensitivity issues relating to its content. Moreover, 26 references to the attacks were made during the 2002 Oscars. The attacks created a dialogue to be explored across television, film, and music and gave celebrities a platform to redefine Muslim identity, push a separatist dialogue, or continue with their normal routine.
After the 2001 attacks there were correlations between how frequently bin Laden, Osama, Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda were used. The most drastic increase in usage was Bin Laden. Nevertheless, it is important to note that references to Islam in general were declining before the terrorists’ attacks. Another graph demonstrates the exact time when the shift to references to Christianity began to dominate the industry.
Vocativ explains this shift away from Islam references as generational and geographic shifts. Older, non-prolific rappers were more open with their faith and they grew up in a time were a Muslim identity was not as targeted and identified as evil. Moreover, according to the ABC News/Washington Post poll of Americans favorable opinion of the Islamic Faith was not only low one month after the attacks at 47%, but the percentage decreased by the end of the decade to 37%. This negative view towards the Islamic faith in this decade clearly contributed to the popularity and availability of Islamic references when compared to Christianity. It was the less explicit demonstrations of Islam that continued to be mainstream. Vocativ simply expresses, “Jesus is much easier to sell than Muhammad”.
Muslim hip-hop/rap artists that emerged in the 21st century can be divided into three distinct groups: Those who promoted the faith, those who conformed to the mainstream, and those who promoted a separatist dialogue. On the one hand, Native Deen, Freeway and Beanie Sigel rap similar messages in order to flip the script and image of America's generally skewed view of the Islamic tradition at the time. While on the other hand, rappers such as Akon and Busta Rhymes, fly under the radar. Additionally, there was also an emergence of “Jihadi Rap” that speaks to the tension between racial groups. Nevertheless, underpinning each artist or group is an artfully expressed version of the Muslim faith that challenges the boundaries of conservative ideas and reveals an intersectionality between potentially clashing identities.
Freeway, Native Deen, and Beanie Sigel promote the faith and integration within their lyrics and messages of their music. Freeways converted to Islam when he was 14 years old. He says, “[Islam], it’s my core, it’s my soul, it’s my everything. He recognizes the conflicting values within the Muslim community, especially those whom believe that making music is haram. Nevertheless, he concedes that this is how he chooses to express himself and acknowledges the various paths of Muslim identity. Native Deen is a rap group that consists of three African-American, Muslim men named Joshua Salaam, Naeem Muhammad, and Abdul-Malik Ahmad. They formed this Hip-Hop/Rap group in order to spread what they believe as the “uplifting message of Islam”. All three men were raised Muslim and have carried that identity into all facets of their life. They pride themselves on creating a cultural bridge and have an international as well as American fan base. In 2005, under the Bush administration, Native Deen was invited to do a goodwill tour to promote a positive and encouraging dialogue around Islam. While they did not want to become puppets of the faith, they ultimately participated in the tour in order to spread a message of tolerance and faith. And finally Beanie Sigel; He is most known for his music but is also an actor. He converted to Islam early in his life and came to the faith through his knowledge of the Five Percent Nation. He often references and alludes to his faith within his lyrics, but recognizes conflicting values within their communities.
The 2000s are also chockfull with artists who are Muslim, but that identity is not on the forefront of their brand and image as hip-hop/rap artists. For example, Busta Rhymes and Akon navigate their music and spiritual endeavors separately. For lack of better words, these artists are a “low-key Muslims”. Akon grew up in Senegal and was raised as a Muslim, while Busta Rhymes affiliates with the Five Percent Nation. The Muslim community has criticized each artist because their careers are not considered to be “halal” (permissible). While Akon is more vocal about his religion, both artists are not widely known for incorporating their religious leanings within their lyrics. Additionally, Busta Rhymes was criticized for his insensitivity and lack of understanding of the Arab and Muslim identity. His song Arab Money, released in 2009, got a lot of negative pushback from the Muslim community for its lyrics about making money in off of oil in Arab countries. He later remixed the song to include lyrics from the Qur'an, which only further offended Muslims who did not believe that verses from the Qur'an should appear in song lyrics, however this decision certainly allowed his music to gain more attention among Muslims. Moreover, This song, featured below, was banned in the United Arab Emirates.
Finally, the third category Jihadi Rap can be categorized as a type of rap that promotes a separatist, anti-American dialogue. Three prominent Jihadi hip-hop/rap artists are the Sons of Hagar, Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, and Dirty Kuffar. Their songs call out former United States Presidents and address radical Islamic sentiments. Jihadi rap is an inconsistent mix of conservative values presented in a new age counter-conservative manner. Their lyrics epitomize the struggle or Jihad that young Muslims face with a society that promotes equality and freedom of religion but frequently restricts and often openly condemns Islam. Many deem jihadi rap as dangerous, however another way to think about jihadi rap is similar to the emergence of “classic hip-hop/gangsta rap”. Jihadi rap seeks to align the marginalized communities through a unifying message.
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