“And when I got close, the mermaid held on tight and all I heard was Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, bismillah, arahman, niraheem”, Allah screamed.
-Underwater, Ghostface Killah
Islam and its influence that has been exerted within western culture has widely been acknowledge, from everything for the word for ‘alcohol’ having its etymology in Arabic to the mathematic Muslim invention we have known today known as Algebra; but how far is the influence of Islam known within the context hip hop?
During the Civil Rights Movement, there was a huge movement to ‘reclaim’ identity; it’s why Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm, and why Islamic movements were so prominent during this time. Slaves were stripped of their name and native religion and instead, given names by their slave masters. It was seen that Christianity was forced upon people during their time in slavery, and some took the movement forward to reclaim a Black identity by reclaiming their religion, or what they felt their religion was to them. The Nation of Islam played a large influence into all of this; originally having its foundations in Nobel Drew Ali’s ‘Temple of Moorish Science’, that brought together an interpretation of Islam, but fusing ideas of prophets such as Buddha, and the teachings of Taoism with the religion. At one point, it had roughly fifty thousand members, and when the Temple of Moorish Science ended, an argument to its legacy started. Warith Deen Muhammad then took the torch, and formed the Nation of Islam. The NOI produced many black leaders; Muhammad Ali (previously known as Cassius Clay), Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and of course, Elijah Muhammad.
And after the Nation of Islam? That’s where the Nations of Gods and Earths came into it, started by Clarence 13X after internal struggle within the NOI, believing in the lessons of the Supreme Mathematics, a system of numerals and concepts, similar to numerology that believes that these numbers and what they represent helps a person’s thinking to ultimately help their lives. The NOI does not teach the Supreme Mathematics of the Supreme Alphabet, but once these letters or numbers have been calculated, each provides a lesson for each day.
These people are also known as the Five Percenters, believing that 85% of the world are slaves to mental death and power, 10% control this 85%, and the remaining 5% are the righteous teachers of the world. Doodlebug from Digable Planets and Method Man both make reference to the Five Percenters within their music, the former asking “Why? That’s most asked by the 85%” and the latter “I fear for the 85 who haven’t got a clue”. The term “droppin’ science”, hip hop slang for bestowing knowledge upon people, is actually Five Percenter slang for teaching the lessons of the Supreme Mathematics and the Supreme Alphabet.
The Nations of Gods and Earths’ roots lay in ‘Moorish Brooklyn’ in New York City; an area in which the Black Panthers were also active. Not only do their roots lay in Moorish Brooklyn in terms of where they’re based, but the Islam in which they believe is so far from traditional Islam that it’s virtually unrecognisable. Not only do the Nations of Gods and Earths believe in the Supreme Mathematics, there’s also the Supreme Alphabet that has its roots in the Supreme Wisdom of WD Muhammad, drawing letters for meaning and metaphor to unlock the ‘true meaning’ of words and of names around all of us.
New York City. It’s also the home of hip hop; the Nation of Islam, The Moorish Temple of Science and the Five Percenters have had an undeniable impact on hip hop. Take for example, Mos Def’s album “The Ecstatic” whereby the opening lines are “Bismillah, arahman, niraheem”; the opening lines to the Qu’ran, literally meaning ‘In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful’. He took his Shahdah at the age of 19, and his father was in the NOI before going back into more mainstream Islam. The opening lines of Al Fatiha aren’t just found in Mos Def’s album, but also in Underwater by Wu Tang Clan rapper Ghostface Killah; “Everytime I got close, the mermaid held on tight; and all I heard was Allah akbar, allahu akbar, bismillah arhaman, niraheem, allah screamed that we heard from afar, and everybody salah-ted in the world’s bangingest minds got crowded in, with light that I can’t explain. They said ‘Yes sir, I’m glad you came’, they greeted me with Qu’rans and Torahs and after that we said ameen’’.
Then, of course, there’s the Wu Tang Clan, a group from the Golden Age of Hip Hop. All of them are Muslim, and sometimes their five elements of hip hop jam with the five pillars of Islam; take Gravel Pit, whereby a sample at the end says “Yakub, maker and creator of the devil . . .you are the barer of evil, corrupt pork chop eatin’ atrocities”. In NOI thought, Yakub was a black man who lived six thousand years ago who effectively ‘made’ the white man within a laboratory and were thus “destined” to become a ‘race of devils’, according to Nation of Islam theology, along with Yakub being the Biblical Jacob. Public Enemy are Nation of Islam, infamous rappers who recorded ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ and graced our world with ”Fight the Power” and only a few rappers from this age belong to more orthodox forms of Islam, like Philadelphia-based the Roots who are Sunnis. Other artists who are Five Percenters or have close links with the Five Percenter movement are Erykah Badu, a Grammy-winning neo soul female musician Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, Damian Marley collabator and rapper in his own right Nas, Gang Starr and Wyclef Jean of the Fugees.
Of course many of these movements are discredited within mainstream Islam for their differentiation; but even then you can’t deny Islam’s influence on hip hop, in all of its forms. Artists like Canadian-Iraqi rapper the Narcicyst are coming out publicly as Muslim, and Britain’s own Lowkey. Lowkey, originally from London, but with a British-Iraqi background, discusses political issues that are usually defunct or exempt from that of normal hip hop, simply owing to his background. Traditional subjects have always been poverty, drugs, but assessments of the world around us via hip hop with a non-traditional background are only just emerging. Take, for example, his song “Who’s the Terrorist?” not since Dead Prez and Public Enemy have we heard such a political song. While non-traditional he may be in some aspects, owing to his background, his accent and so on and so forth, Lowkey, like many great rappers such as Immortal Technique, kicks it back strictly old skool by refusing a record label, and still making it into the hip hop charts without any advertising. His background provides him with valuable insight, and the same goes for the Narcicyst. The Narcicyst is Iraqi-Candian, and his upbringing, religion and political viewpoints, like Lowkey’s , reflects in his work. Politically, with songs like “P.H.A.T.W.A” and religiously, the two often entwined, like in his song “Hamdulila”, featuring the ‘First lady of Palestinian Hip Hop’, Shadia Mansour. Rap is often born out of oppression; Palestine isn’t exempt from this underground hip hop revolution, exemplified by the Palestinian rap group DAM.
Whether or not we agree with the radical Black theology of the Nation of Islam and the Nations of Gods and Earths, we cannot deny their huge influence on Golden Age and modern-hip hop; and we’ve only just scratched the surface of their influence.
To read more from Yasmin then read her blog http://punkistani.tumblr.com/
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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