It is not well known in American mainstream culture, but some of the most famous African-American musicians are Muslim. They include numerous hip-hop stars such as Ice Cube, Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, and T-Pain. The close link between Islam and hip-hop and thus American culture was one of the themes I explored during the fieldwork for my book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010). My interviews with two remarkable Muslim rappers in Buffalo, New York, gave me the opportunity to learn about Islam and Hip-Hop and its relationship with American identity.
I was invited to speak at the Friday prayers at the Masjid Nu’Man, an African-American mosque, and afterwards I found myself talking to two young brothers who were professional rappers. The Habeeb brothers were polite, amiable, and of imposing height, reaching almost 7-feet each. The older brother was named Arleym, known as Alkebulaun, and the younger Quadir Lateef. The Imam of the mosque told me that the brothers were the most regular congregants attending Friday prayers and two of the most devout.
After receiving a scholarship to Howard University in Washington DC to play basketball, Quadir became a lyrical poet and Hip-Hop artist. In 2007, he performed on ABC World News, in a tribute to Black History Month and went on to work with the renowned Disc Jockey Green Lantern. He was mentored by the well-known rapper DMX and is now signed to DMX’s Ruff Ryders label. Arleym, a successful business entrepreneur, focuses on “giving back” to the community through educational initiatives to ensure that children with few opportunities have good role models and programs to help them grow and achieve.
As I began interviewing the Habeeb brothers, I asked the older brother what his name meant because I thought I heard the word alim, which means scholar in in Arabic. He said his name was derived from alim, but “they kind of messed it up, because during that period of time they didn’t really know the Arabic correctly so they spelled it A-r-l-e-y-m.” Arleym and Quadir were fifth-generation Muslims, “which is unique for African Americans,” said Arlyem. “Alhamdulillah, our family has a long Islamic tradition”.
When I asked Quadir about American identity, he exhibited a flash of anger, which would appear intermittently throughout his conversation. Quadir said, “It wasn’t a choice for us to be here.”
“As an African American,” he went on to say,” I feel slighted being descended from slaves, that our identity has been stolen and replaced with just an ‘X’ for slave. A lot of African Americans’ last names—Jenkins, Jacksons, Smith—should be African names. . . . We don’t have Dashikis, Grambobas, Grababas. We don’ thave that, so American identity for us as being younger African American swill be more likely close to hip-hop. I dress hip-hop because that’s all I know—that’s it.”
Asked to define “hip-hop,” he described a music form with easy rhymes interspersed with profound truths about life and death, pain and sorrow.
When I asked Quadir about American identity, he exhibited a flash of anger, which would appear intermittently throughout his conversation. Quadir said, “It wasn’t a choice for us to be here”
But the pain and sorrow did not take the form of an elegy or mournful poem. Hip-hop had vitality and energy that linked it to Islam. Quadir began to sway with the rhythm of his own beat and voice as he demonstrated how Quranic verses he has translated loosely are adapted to hip-hop. “Oh help me, help me find a way,” Quadir sang to God, “to take the pain away every day I struggle with.”
I asked Quadir if the white population of the US had ever sincerely recognised and made amends for the horrors of slavery. He answered that they had not: “Americans need to recognise our suffering. You know what? If I hit your car, I recognise I hit it then—’zoom, bye.’ Or I make an attempt to ease your pain and say, ‘Hey, let me fix this.’ This has not been done.” He raised the question of reparations for slavery, asking if victims of the Holocaust could be compensated, why not those whose ancestors had been brought over as slaves.
Quadir also felt that Christianity had damaged the psyche of his community: “Noah in the Bible said to his grandson, ‘You will be cursed black. ’Then you show a picture of Jesus, alay-salaam, and he’s white, blond hair, blue-eyed. That’s psychological slavery.” Even so, Quadir did not feel antagonistic toward Christians, emphasising that Islam teaches that “a good Christian is a good Muslim, and a good Muslimis a good Christian because they believe. But African Americans came to Christianity as slaves and were taught that the Bible says you will be cursed.”
I was curious to know what the brothers made of the American origin story of the Mayflower, the ship that carried the English settlers to Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century, and Plymouth Rock, the rock they supposedly landed on.
Quadir cited the famous quote of Malcolm X, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us,” and said, “We celebrate Christopher Columbus who killed a lot of people, put smallpox in blankets, infected so many hundreds of Native Americans and raped and pillaged.”
Arleym said, “You talk about the Mayflower, and you know the ship we came on was the Amistad.” He recited a poem he had written:
“We were led into the bowels of the ship,
The smell of bowel movement and piss,
Just a whiff could leave you nauseous from this,
Lost to the gift of sunlight, just like a solar eclipse,
Some swollen from hits, bruised from the stroke of the whips,
All ‘cause of my skin and the size of my lips,
I’m eyeing my missus, she’s getting dragged to the top of the ship,
She got raped, beat, and then killed, and she was fed to the fish.
I’m fed up with this.”
The enormity of human suffering expressed in Arleym’s hip-hop poem silenced us. It explained in part why Arleym could not relate to the Mayflower and the English Pilgrims celebrated by white America. However, he could relate to the Amistad, a slave ship that has been the subject of books and a 1997 film.
Arleym nevertheless expressed optimism about the future. He cited the presidency of Barack Obama and said, “I see the potential for America to be amazing…Little children in the urban cities will be able to say, ‘You know what? I want to go to Harvard.’” He then became agitated, remembering four young men who had been killed before his very eyes in the past two years, the reality of life for too many. Islam, he kept repeating, had saved his life.
Quadir, in an interview with America’s Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 2016, summed up his mission and philosophy. He wants to “spread a message of peace and righteousness.” “I just want to break the mold,” he continued,” I want [the people] to take away the essence of thinking. To become thinkers…To become proactive, not reactive. We have to really watch ourselves and watch our steps, especially people of color in America. When I’m speaking on [issues], I’m speaking on it to alert the people, ‘cause hip-hop always was the voice of the community.”
The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity
Published in Daily Times, September 8th 2018.