How Muslim Culture Inspired Hip-Hop
By: Nick Santangelo
“We’re here to have fun, right?!” Religion Associate Professor Zain Abdullah asked a boisterous crowd of hundreds of Temple University students gathered in the Howard Gittis Student Center Sunday. They were there to learn about Islam’s influence on hip-hop and watch a handful of Muslim rappers and poets perform live. The students came ready to have a good time, but that didn’t stop those on stage from pumping them up even more.
With a little help from DJ Reezy, Africology and African American Studies Assistant Professor Aaron Smith hosted, making sure there was never a dull moment. Known as “The Rapping Professor,” Dr. Smith promised the crowd that he was “a professional at hyping people up,” and he didn’t disappoint, drawing applause and laughter throughout the event. Despite working for the College of Liberal Arts and holding four Temple degrees, Dr. Smith even made some lighthearted jokes about his alma mater and employer. “What other school do you know that built a library across from a library? That’s how smart we are!” he exclaimed to the amusement of most everyone present.
Dr. Smith did get serious for one moment, though, warning students against the dangers of staying within echo chambers “where everyone you talk to thinks the same as you.” With that, he introduced University of California-Irvine Professor Sohail Daulatzai who was there to enlighten everyone as to the connection between Islam and hip-hop.
Moderating things, Dr. Abdullah asked the most pertinent question on everyone’s mind: “What is this connection between Islam and hip-hop? It seems like a wrong connection. Explain that.”
Dr. Daulatzai allowed that the connection must seem strange indeed to those unfamiliar with it. After all, he said, so much of hip-hop is about bling and excess and materialism. Islam, meanwhile, is a religion steeped in tradition to the point of seeming to some outsiders to not permit its practitioners to have any fun at all. And yet, there is a very obvious connection in the religion’s holiest book.
“The Quran is a book of poetry,” explained Dr. Daulatzai. “It rhymes. It literally rhymes.”
But hip-hop was developed by African Americans in U.S. cities during the 1970s. And while Islam is a global religion, it’s mostly associated with Africa and Asia. How did these two things from very separate corners of the world connect? Dr. Daulatzai looked all the way back to the slave trade for the answer, explaining that 40 percent of slaves brought over to the U.S. from Africa were Muslim. Further, hip-hop has grown so much over the past five decades that the music is created and listened to around the world, making artists feel like global citizens.
Speaking of citizens, Dr. Daulatzai dedicated much of his stage time to one in particular. He was a man who “spoke truth to power” and “had command of the microphone.” He was a man who wanted the U.S. to be judged internationally by the United Nations and other bodies for its treatment of African Americans and for its many military actions, particularly the Vietnam War. He was Malcolm X, and Dr. Daulatzai holds him in very high regard.
“To me, he’s maybe the most important man to come out of this land we call America,” the professor said to cheers.
Dr. Abdullah asked Dr. Daulatzai why he thought Malcolm X was more important than Martin Luther King Jr.
“Malcolm was saying we can’t confine ourselves to being Americans,” he responded.
Through his actions and beliefs, Malcolm X inspired musicians for years to come. In fact, he’s still inspiring them today. Dr. Daulatzai played a clip from the 2009 Mos Def track Supermagic. Mos Def, a Muslim whose real name is Yasiin Bey, opens that track with a portion of a Malcolm X speech in which he talks about abuses of power and the need for people of all colors to resist and push for change.
Long before Mos Def dropped Supermagic, Malcolm’s influence on music actually started with jazz. Later, when hip-hop was born, early artists sampled jazz music and took cues from it in drawing inspiration from Malcolm X. Then, during what Dr. Daulatzai called “the golden age” of rap (about 1985 to 1995), Malcolm’s religion was everywhere in music.
“Islam became a counter-institution. It changed the way people saw themselves,” said the professor. As an example, he mentioned how black Muslims like Malcolm X changed their names so they would no longer be forever branded by their families’ former slave owners. For emphasis, Dr. Daulatzai pointed out that most people probably take for granted that basketball megastar LeBron James bears the last name of his ancestors’ owner.
At this point, the first poet came up onto the stage to deliver a poem about violence against black Muslims. “We have become conditioned to turn our backs as black Muslim bodies hit the ground,” said Husnaa Hashim. She added that people often say they’d treat blacks differently if they only spoke differently, dressed differently, acted differently. But she just wants them “to stop shooting us” and believes “systematic change to our minds and places of worship” is the way to make that happen.
There’s an obvious connection between hip-hop and poetry, but Dr. Daulatzai wanted the audience to see more specific examples of Muslim culture and Malcolm X directly influencing music. He played a few YouTube clips and showed a series of album covers from major recording artists like Jurassic 5, Gangstarr and Philadelphia’s own Beanie Siegel. Each of them are either Muslim or were inspired in some way by the culture and showed it in their art, explained the professor.
Miss undastood came up on stage to provide a live example. With her was daughter Little Understanding. Mom brings her to some shows and tells club owners she’s in her “group,” partly to save on childcare costs and partly for a chance to bond with her daughter. The group sampled Biz Markie’s 1989 classic Just a Friend. The mother-daughter duo played off the song’s “You, you got what I need, but you say he’s just a friend” lyrics, subverting them with “Oh baby, love is all we need, but you think I’m just your friend.” They also incorporated their religion directly into the song: “They say God turned his back on us—he didn’t | We turned our back on him.”
West Philly rapper Jakk Frost also performed for the crowd. His first song, Breathless, came from feeling “tired of a lot of living on the streets and dealing with [his] family.” In the song, he rapped about needing to get away from dealing drugs and being “just happy for the basics” in life, like having “the breath in [his] lungs.” In his second song, Frost addressed a need for Muslim men to stop being so preoccupied with women, violence and materialism in hip-hop and instead focus more on their religion.
The thing about studying religion, is that religion is where arts and politics and society come together.
Struggles such as these and others Muslims and blacks face may continue, but another poet spoke of the need to not give up. Ndeen Al-Barqawi shared poetry about the blood and tears that have been shed in Palestine for over 70 years. She hopes to one day be able to return to Palestine and build a playground. She also spoke of her feelings after the 2016 presidential election and how her mother, upset with the results, wanted to give up. But Al-Barqawi reminded her mother that she never gives up. That’s just not something she does. She realized her daughter was right. She had to continue her struggle.
Why Religion Matters
Earlier in the day, Religion Professor Mark Leuchter had told the audience about the importance of learning more about religion and how many of the world’s problems can be addressed through better understanding religion. “The thing about studying religion,” he said, “is that religion is where arts and politics and society come together.” He believes it is the most “major force in society” over the last two or three decades.
On Sunday, College of Liberal Arts students discovered just how true that is.