ISSN 2327-3666

September 10, 2012

Who Speaks For Your Islam?: African American Muslims Revolutionize the Message of Hip Hop

IJRC | Archive | Vol. 1 No. 01 (2012) | Articles | LAKHANI

Rice University 
Department of Anthropology 
Department of Religious Studies

The questions about Islam and its practitioners or the desire to learn about the faith was not in as great of a demand in the United States until the post-9/11 era. Suddenly, Islam became the “hot topic”. And as with any topic that gains sudden popularity or criticism, questions were asked, fingers were raised, some went out of their way to understand, others absorbed what they were told, from whoever would tell. Muslims of every background, socio-economic status, profession, sexual orientation, and race stepped forward to speak for their Islam, their understanding of their “submission”. African American Muslims present an interesting case because of the strong and understated history of their presence in the United States since the slave period. From the “Levee Camp Holler” to “My Faith, My Voice”, African American Muslims have and continue to speak for the Islam that they believe in. The message of their music provides not a textbook version of the faith, but a more profound, more personal vignette into the life of “one who submits to the will of God.”

“One billion strong, all year long, 
Prayers to Allah even in Hong Kong 
You can never be wrong if you read the Qur'an 
Cause it's never been changed since day one. 
Others may brag, say that we lag, 
But they don’t know all the power we had 
The power we had, the power we have 
So Muslimeen don't you ever feel sad 
Take many looks, go read their books, 
You'll see all the facts that your friends overlooked, 
So always be proud, you can say it out loud 
I am proud to be down with the Muslim crowd! 
Say : M-U-S-L-I-M I'm so blessed to be with them...” [1] 

Native Deen, a contemporary Muslim hip hop trio from Washington D.C., ends its 2007 album titled Not Afraid to Stand Alone with the song M-U-S-L-I-M, inspiring the group’s predominantly Muslim audience to embrace and reconstruct their identities as American Muslims in a post-9/11 world. Native Deen is, indeed, not alone in influencing the forward-looking consciousness of contemporary hip hop in America. African American Muslim artists across the nation have taken advantage of this popular subcategory of Appadurai’s mediascape [2] to revolutionize the notion of Islam in the United States in two distinct, but related ways. Popular, more mainstream, artists like Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def present a message of Islam through subtle references to core beliefs or key figures and as a parallel to their perceived duty towards social activism. This category of artists is using the medium of hip hop to deliver a certain message, their own personal message, of Islam to a generally non-Muslim public that seems to be receiving a biased and highly vilified perspective of the faith in general and American practitioners of the faith, specifically. Along the same spectrum are artists like Native Deen, Boonaa Mohammed, and Amir Sulaiman, who choose the mediums of hip hop and spoken word to disseminate a message to Muslims in America who face a constant struggle of identity. Their messages generally aim to assist in the development of a balance between the two seemingly divergent ideologies as well as a peaceful approach to all things as a result of association with Islam. The latter of the two goals of this particular subset of artists tends to be directed towards their non-Muslim audiences as a sort of element of surprise catered to the obstruction of previously established stereotypes. Both methodologies use media as “messaging instruments,” “technologies of information and communication,” and “vehicles of cultural expression.” [3]

Although contemporary artists have succeeded thus far in educating non-Muslims in America, which is the goal of the first subcategory, and reminding American Muslims, as attempted by the second artist subgroup, of what they individually perceive to be the message of Islam, it is important to note the journey of artists from decades before that built the platform upon which contemporary African American Muslim hip hop artists may speak for their Islam. It was a long journey from the Levee Camp Holler of early West African slaves to Mos Def’s hit single Fear Not of Man and Native Deen’s My Faith, My Voice. To fully appreciate the impact that contemporary Muslim artists are able to have on the hip hop culture of today, we must first step back and place ourselves among the transitioning ethnoscapes [4] of Sahelian Muslims of Senegambia in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries and tune our ears to the stringed instruments and melisma of the rhythm they brought to what would soon become the United States of America.

Levee Camp Holler 
What most textbooks of American history tend to overlook when speaking of the approximately 400,000 slaves that were transported to this country from Africa is the fact that a vast population of these slaves were actually Muslim. Of these 400,000 African slaves, about 24 percent were from an area of West Africa known as Senegambia, where they adapted to the influences of Sufi Islam in the fifteenth century. It was through this interaction that the inhabitants of West Africa developed melodies of worship comparable to the devotional practices of Sufism, which included the recitation of the Qur’an as well as the act of repeated incantation, or dhikr [5]. The Sahelian Muslims from this area predominantly resided and worked in the American South, where they were far more successful than the more numerous non-Muslims in keeping intact the musical style that they brought with them from West Africa. The reason for this success lies in the Southern ruling that outlawed the use of drums by slaves because of the potential danger of the instrument becoming useful in inciting rebellion against the white master. Luckily for the Sahelians, the drums were not an essential instrument in the creation of their rhythmic melodies. Their use of wind and string instruments was not seen as an initiative that could inspire defiance, giving the Muslims of Sahel the ability to practice their musical heritage with ease. In fact, the majority of Sahelians were able to adapt their techniques to European instruments and even create an instrument that was quickly picked up by and now generally associated with white musicians, the banjo [6].

Recently, scholars like Sylviane Diouf have started studying the correlation between early African-influenced music forms like the blues and more traditional forms of Muslim musicalities. The basis of similarity between the two art forms lies in the concept of melisma, the practice of “attaching several notes to a single lyrical syllable, and wavy intonation, a series of notes that shift from major to minor scale” [7]. Diouf explains this correlation by placing side by side the Muslim adhan, or call to prayer, and a popular Southern slave song, the Levee Camp Holler. She notes that both used “the same ornamental notes, tortuously elongated sounds, pauses, nasal humming, simple melody, and impression of human loneliness” [8].

Beyond instruments and melisma, Muslim influence on American music continued from the era of blues to that of jazz, which grew into the popular culture after World War II. It was also this time when a large number of jazz musicians converted to Islam, some through the Ahmadiyya Movement that began in what is now Pakistan, and soon spread to the United States in the 1920s [9]. Within this genre of artists, we find the exemplary work of John Coltrane, who, “although not Muslim himself, exhibits the impact of Islam in the jazz world on his album A Love Supreme.” In the track titled Acknowledgement, Coltrane samples the phrase “a love supreme” similar to the Sufi form of dhikr, or repeated incantation (literally, remembrance [of God]). Scholar Hussein Rashid recognizes a morphing of this repeated phrase into one with greater Muslim implications, “Allah supreme” [10].

It is obvious by now how the music of the slave period continues into the world of blues, jazz, and now contemporary hip hop as a continuation of the influence of Islam as an aural and oral faith rooted in the recitation of the Qur’an and the idea that ethical listening originates with the heart [11]. By the mid-20th century, we see the intertwining of Islam as a religion and Islam as a form of Black identity rooted in the concept of social consciousness. This particular notion stems from the era of slavery, itself, but is enforced with the political activism of one especially well known African American Muslim who went by the name of Malcolm X, to whom we turn to now in an attempt to understand the continuation of Muslim influence on American music.

Death Certificate 
What makes the figure of Malcolm X so notable during this time is not only his political diatribe against Jim Crow laws in the United States, but his representation of a growing Muslim population in the country through the ideoscape [12] he titled “Nation of Islam” [13]. In this sense, Malcolm X exemplifies a dual form of the concept of jihad. Generally misconstrued as a term used to refer to a sort of “holy war”, jihad actually means “struggle”, and of that struggle there are two forms. The first is referred to as jihad bil nafs, or an internal struggle within oneself, and the second refers to a struggle in the path of God, or jihad fi sabil Allah. Malcolm X’s internal struggle rooted in understanding one’s identity in relation to the rest of creation and the natures of virtue and discipline allowed him to strive towards becoming a more devout Muslim, literally “one who submits to God” [14]. It is this dual jihad that perpetuates the African American Muslim hip hop movement of the past three decades.

Although some of the earliest African American hip hop artists of the 1980s and 90s did not identify themselves as Muslim, like the popular Afrika Bambaataa, there were early artists during this time that did in fact openly proclaim their association with the faith. Among these artists was a group called Poor Righteous Teachers, whose 1990 album Holy Intellect created a song with the same title that refers to the notion of intellect as a blessing, reminding its audience to praise God and listen to the preachings of these teachers:

“Students listen to the lesson I be teaching. 
Learn by Holy Intellect cause it's a blessing. 
Teachers study what is spoken through the speaker. 
Weaker preacher there's no need for manifestin'. 
I'm the star soul controlin' all within the solar. 
Poor... So I'm a righteous teacher from the heart. 
Praise your god. All praises due to Allah.” [15] 

It was the wave of hip hop artists like Poor Righteous Teachers, Last Poets, KRB-One, Ice Cube, and Common that initiated the transition of the genre from songs concentrated on the fleeting material world of cars, women, money, and jewelry to reminders of the hereafter as well as a form of political polemic discourse. This heightened sense of Black consciousness is perhaps best exemplified by Ice Cube’s Death Certificate album with a song titled I Wanna Kill Sam, which mentions raises in taxes, remnant memories from the slave trade and Jim Crow laws, and the suppression of both religious freedom and freedom of expression through the chosen medium of hip hop:

“Now in ninety-one, he wanna tax me 
I remember, the son of a bitch used to axe me 
and hang me by a rope til my neck snapped 
Now the sneaky motherfucker wanna ban rap 
and put me under dirt or concrete 
But God, can see through a white sheet 
Cause you the devil in drag 
You can burn your cross well I'll burn your flag... 
I wanna kill Sam cause he ain't my motherfuckin Uncle!” [16] 

Even the album cover creates a visual polemic in its depiction of the artist standing with his right hand over his heart facing an individual  covered with a United States flag laying on a table in what seems like a mortuary room. The only body part of the individual that is visible is the feet, which have a tag hanging from the leftmost toe with the label “Uncle Sam.”

This pattern of political activism continues into the late 1990s, early 2000s, and today bringing us to the contemporary hip hop diatribes of artists like Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco. It is also at this point that a new form of African American Muslim hip hop and spoken word artists emerges with the refined goal of assisting those Muslim Americans who find the interaction of their Islamic faith and American culture to rest on an imbalanced scale. While the politically active artists continue the mission of breaking the stereotype of Islam in what was once the post-slavery period and what has now become the post-9/11 period, these new artists, like Native Deen, Boonaa Mohammed, and Amir Sulaiman, who direct their Islamic voices to a Muslim audience are able to accomplish the same sort of representation of the faith through the medium of hip hop, but with the intention of reminding instead of educating their audiences.

My Faith, My Voice 
“Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem 
We (are) Hip-Hop... 
So.. if Hip-Hop is about the people 
and the.. Hip-Hop won't get better until the people get better 
then how do people get better? 
Well, from my understanding people get better 
when they start to understand that, they are valuable 
And they not valuable because they got a whole lot of money 
or cause somebody, think they sexy 
but they valuable cause they been created by God 
And God, makes you valuable 
And whether or not you, recognize that value is one thing 
You got a lot of societies and governments 
tryin to be God, wishin that they were God 
They wanna create satellites and cameras everywhere 
and make you think they got the all-seein eye 
Eh.. I guess The Last Poets wasn't, too far off 
when they said that certain people got a God Complex 
I believe it's true” [17] 

Renown contemporary hip hop artist, Dante Terrell Smith, better known as Mos Def, addresses a number of issues in his opening track to his debut solo album, Black on Both Sides. Perhaps most striking in his song, Fear Not of Man, is the use of the phrase Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem as the opening to what evolves into a message to fear God, not Man. This particular usage is noteworthy in particular because the use of subtle references to key Islamic tenets or key figures has transitioned into the actual use of words from the Qur’an. The phrase Mos Def begins his song with literally means “in the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful.” The phrase is the opening verse to every chapter of the Qur’an (except one) as well as a simple act of worship that Muslims recite as an invitation to God that He may shower His blessings upon whatever task one is about to ensue. When Mos Def was asked about the motive behind the usage of this phrase as the beginning of his debut album, he responded, “I took my shahada [declaration of faith to become a Muslim] four years ago... I had been advised that when you do works that go out to the public -- written works or spoken works -- that you should bless them like that, you know. It makes sense to me. The spiritual level just puts the seal on it. Like I'm making an effort to reach Allah with this. And, Insha' Allah [God-willing], my efforts will be accepted” [18]. The lyrics of Fear Not of Man are reminiscent of the music made by artists like Ice Cube and KRB-One, who advocated for the transition of hip hop from a genre that speaks of the material world to one that has greater substantive value. Mos Def accomplishes this by mentioning the Heideggerian notion of desire to be the omniscient eye of God. The continuation of the Muslim influence on American music is also cited through the reference to the Last Poets, a popular Muslim hip hop band from the time of Malcolm X and the rise of the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation.

Mos Def is unique in his use of hip hop to educate his predominantly American non-Muslim audience of the message of the peaceful faith of Islam because of his mission to reify the existing bridge between hip hop as a form of poetry and the inherent poetic nature of the Qur’an. The Holy Book is so easily memorized by Muslims because of the poetic formula of rhyme in which it is written. Mos Def recognizes this correlation as did Sylviane Diouf in her analysis of the adhan and the Levee Camp Holler, but what makes Mos Def even more interesting is his recognition of the ability to convey a wide range of vital information in a short memorable form that lasts between two and four minutes. The effectiveness is obvious, as Jittaun Batiste, a 24-year-old senior at De Anza College and avid listener and fan of Mos Def, recognizes, “These artists use their music as a tool to talk about their struggle, their identity and to recognize us and embrace us as their own” [19].

The popularity of the polemic continues with Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, a young rapper from Chicago who gained his claim to fame in 2006 and received a multitude of Grammy nominations in the years to follow. This particular hip hop artist, known best by his stage name of Lupe Fiasco, finds similarities with the poetics of Mos Def. Both artists seek to educate the same audience as well as exemplify their Muslim faith through their actions within the industry and beyond [20].

Lupe Fiasco speaks out against the injustices of the world we live in through his hit song, Words I Never Said, by addressing a range of topics including budget cuts, education reform, warfare in the Gaza strip, conflict with Israel, racism, and of course the understanding of jihad. The critical focal point of the song is not the issues referenced, but the fact that one cannot and should not complain about something if one does not speak up against it. Essentially, you have no right to ownership of “the words [you] never said”:

“Now you can say it ain't our fault if we never heard it 
But if we know better than we probably deserve it 
Jihad is not a holy war, wheres that in the worship? 
Murdering is not Islam! 
And you are not observant 
And you are not a muslim 
Israel don’t take my side cause look how far you’ve pushed them 
Walk with me into the ghetto, this where all the Kush went 
Complain about the liquor store but what you drinking liquor for? 
Complain about the gloom but when’d you pick a broom up?” [21] 

Lupe Fiasco takes this notion of educating his non-Muslim audience to a different level with the creation of a song in response to Kanye West’s Jesus Walks. The very action of rebuttal is in itself a polemic of its own, but the message of Lupe Fiasco’s Muhammad Walks also mentions a list of tenets that Muslims follow, including those that are prescribed by the five pillars as well as actions like refraining from sex before marriage and the consumption of alcohol. The way this particular song is formulated places it almost on the border of the missions of the two subcategories of contemporary African American Muslim hip hop artists: to educate and to remind. What places Muhammad Walks at parallels with the work of Mos Def is Lupe Fiasco’s use of the phrase Awootho billahee min ash-shaytaan ir-rajeem, Bismillah ir rahman ir raheem, followed by a recitation of the adhan, or call to prayer. This opening phrase is one which Muslims recite prior to the recitation of the Qur’an and can be roughly translated as “Lord, from you I seek refuge from Satan, the accursed; In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful.” The song itself also proclaims a message to non-Muslims to clarify the misconception that Muslims do not believe in Jesus:

“Abraham Talked 
Muhammad Talked 
And Moses split the sea 
(Jesus Walk with me) 
I ain't tryin to profit of the prophets so this one's for free 
G's up along with Muhammad and Jesus 
In the Quran they call him Isa 
Don't think Osama and Sadaam is our leada 
We pray for peace, but the drama intrigues us 
All, so we fall for the illusions of the beast 
So instead of tryin to teach we show our teeth 
Saying God, different beliefs 
Hijabs, Sunday clothes, yamika, kufi, same mission beneath 
We all tryin to get to where the sufferin ends 
In front of the Most High bein judged for our sins” [22]  

Parallel to the transitional in-between of the two subcategories of hip hop artists who educate a non-Muslim audience and remind a Muslim audience is spoken word artist Boonaa Mohammed. A critically acclaimed award-winning performer, Boonaa Mohammed has a series of Islamic-themed poems that he has presented to both Muslim audiences as well as non-Muslim audiences as a guest speaker for TEDx Toronto [23]. Mohammed finds a unique approach to gaining a young audience in his ability to cite popular trends among the generation. While some pieces like Heroes is specifically addressed to a young Muslim audience that seems to have forgotten its Islamic history and the names of those who have died to make the faith what it is today, other poems speak of topics such as his love for the faith, as in For the Love, and the stereotypes associated with Muslims in America today, as in the War on Error [24].

The burgeoning form of spoken word brings forth another African American Muslim artist with a slightly more anger- and passion-filled tone than Boonaa Mohammed. This particular artist from Rochester, New York, Amir Sulaiman, has performed in many settings, including the Radical Middle Way, which aims to create a more moderate vision of Islam both in the United States and in Europe [25]. His Dead Man Walking is an exemplary indication of Sulaiman’s burning frustration and desperation with the world whose inhabitants are more interested in their brand name fetishes than that which is of greater importance beyond this world:

“Just know 
There is no soul taken accident’ly 
The angel of death has an itinerary 
Snatch you right outta your Bently 
Right outta your Gucci jeans 
Right outta your Fendi 
Right outta your dashik’ 
And right outta your Kente 
Allah has written in his book 
And there is no erasing the pen’s ink 
So why do we ignore what God knows 
And rely on what men think 
We’re just boys in the backstreet 
Just tryin’ to get in sync” [26] 

Along this categorical spectrum of contemporary hip hop artists is a band whose audience may be a mix of Muslims and non-Muslims, but who aims its message solely for Muslims in America. Native Deen (deen is an Arabic term meaning “faith,” or “way,” or “religion”), the Washington D.C. trio of Joshua Salaam, Abdul-Malik Ahmad, and Naeem Muhammad seek to inspire Muslim youth to embrace their faith even when forgetting it or overlooking its tenets may be the easier deen to follow. The group chooses to use only vocals and percussions in their music to please those in their audience who hold a more conservative outlook on the requirements of music according to Islam [27]. ative Deen is able to creatively capture the attention of Muslim youth in America by speaking of topics such as decision making, finding strength to stand up for one’s faith, as well as performing small deeds. The group advocates for Muslim youth to speak for their Islam before someone else speaks for them in their inspirational work, My Faith, My Voice.What makes Native Deen unique in comparison to other Muslim artists who perform for a mainly Muslim audience is the existence of an “extensive website, a MySpace page, a weblog, CDs for purchase, an online store with t-shirts and hats for sale, high budget concert tours, and a new music video for the song Small Deeds” [28]. They are now the first Islamic music group with their own iPhone app.

Final Thoughts 
Although there may not be a one-to-one correlation of the rhythmic eccentricities of the Muslim adhan and the Levee Camp Holler, we have enough evidence to infer a strong interlacing of the slave traditions from West Africa and the blues revolution in the United States. The same can be said for the jazz revolution that followed. The movement towards a political consciousness through hip hop separates it as a political discourse against the cultural adulteration of American society since the mid-20th century. Because it is a medium many youth find a connection with, hip hop music gives African American Muslim artists an outlet to speak against the state of affairs of their respective decades and speak for their Islam. The generations that enjoy hip hop are those that mold without much effort, which is why the medium is so effective. Until a new genre reaches the popularity of hip hop, I predict its perpetuation as a medium of political, religious, intellectual, and cultural discourse for many years to come. It may very well be the mere fact that the current “hot topic” of American discourse revolves around the Islamic faith that Muslim hip hop artists are such dominant entities in the public consumption of this particular medium. Regardless, we cannot afford to forget that the effectiveness of the messages these artists endeavor to proclaim find their roots in the initial bouts of influence that Muslim slaves from Senegambia had on the American culture, until today when we see the two cultures intertwined to the extent that a need for artists addressing a Muslim American audience becomes apparent. It is hip hop’s ability to maintain an identity of American authenticity that allows it to be both a success and a necessity and allow African American Muslim artists to speak for their Islam.


[1] Native Deen. “M-U-S-L-I-M.” Not Afraid To Stand Alone. Native Deen. 2007.

[2] Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Public Culture. Ed. John McAloon. Center for Transnational Cultural Studies, 1990. 1-24. Print.

[3] Boyer, Dominic. Understanding Media: A Popular Philosophy. Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007. Print.

[4] Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Public Culture. Ed. John McAloon. 2Center for Transnational Cultural Studies, 1990. 1-24. Print.

[5] Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

[6] Diouf, Sylviane A.. "African Music and American Blues ."Muslim Voices: Art and Ideas. Muslim Voices Festival, n.d. Web. 26 Apr 2012.

[7] Muhammad, Wallace D. "music." Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History. New York: Facts on File, 2010. Print.

[8] Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

[9] Muhammad, Wallace D. "music." Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History. New York: Facts on File, 2010. Print.

[10] Rashid, Hussein. “Muslim Voices in America: The Making of a Modern Music Scene.” Muslim Voices: Art and Ideas. Muslim Voices Festival, n.d. Web. 27 Apr 2012.

[11] Hirschkind, Charles. The Ethical Soundscape. Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.

[12] Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Public Culture. Ed. John McAloon. Center for Transnational Cultural Studies, 1990. 1-24. Print.

[13] Floyd-Thomas, Juan M. “A Jihad of Words: The Evolution of African American Islam and Contemporary Hip Hop.” In Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music, edited by Anthony B. Pinn. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

[14] Floyd-Thomas, Juan M. “A Jihad of Words: The Evolution of African American Islam and Contemporary Hip Hop.” In Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music, edited by Anthony B. Pinn. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

[15] Poor Righteous Teachers. “Holy Intellect.” Holy Intellect. Tony D. 1990.

[16] Ice Cube. “I Wanna Kill Sam.” Death Certificate. Priority Records. 1991.

[17] Mos Def. “Fear Not of Man.” Black on Both Sides. Rawkus Records. 1999.

[18] Abdel-Alim, Hesham Samy. “Hip Hop Islam.” Al-Ahram Weekly Online. Available online. URL: Accessed April 26, 2012.

[19] Liu, Marian. "Hip Hop's Islamic Influence." Davey D's Hip Hop Corner. N.p., n. d. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

[20] "American Muslim Music." The Pluralism Project at Harvard University. Harvard University, 2007. Web. 26 Apr 2012.

[21] Lupe Fiasco. “Words I Never Said.” Lasers. Atlantic Records. 2011.

[22] Lupe Fiasco. “Muhammad Walks.” Fahrenheit 1/15. 2004.

[24] For a full list of Boonaa Mohammed’s works, see

[25] For more information on the Radical Middle Way, see

[26] Sulaiman, Amir. “Dead Man Walking.” Goodestuff Enternainment. 2008.

[27] Muhammad, Wallace D. "music." Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History. New York: Facts on File, 2010. Print.

[28] "American Muslim Music." The Pluralism Project at Harvard University. Harvard University, 2007. Web. 26 Apr 2012.