Brother Ali and the Secret Islamic History of Hip-Hop
There’s a secret Islamic history to hip-hop. Various expressions of Islam are deeply embedded in the music’s foundational years and golden age, but most heads just don’t know the codes. How many people have looked at the back of Rakim’s jacket on the Follow the Leader album cover and knew what they were seeing?
In the first half of the 90s, Islam was hip-hop’s religion. Even a young Jay-Z showed up in videos alongside members of Brooklyn’s Nubian Islamic Hebrew movement. On the other side, hip-hop also became Islam’s language through which it found a whole generation of kids. These were the years that saw a resurgence of interest in Islam as a message of social justice, self-empowerment, and resistance to white supremacy: Spike Lee released his epic Malcolm X biopic, and Louis Farrakhan led a million black men to Washington. Malcolm and Farrakhan were canonized as hip-hop’s patron saints and spiritual guides. Their names were dropped and their voices were sampled in thousands of songs.
Brother Ali carries on that tradition. He and I were born in the same year (1977) and became Muslims in the same year (1993). Meeting Brother Ali after his tour’s stop in Chapel Hill, I didn’t ask him for his “How did you come to Islam?” story, and he didn’t ask for mine. But our shared matrix of references and anecdotes told me that we might have walked similar paths. It turns out that Rakim and Public Enemy lyrics first sparked his interest in the Quran. He converted at 15 with the Warith Deen Mohammed community. For me, it was Malcolm X, as presented by Public Enemy and Spike Lee.
Brother Ali has seen the peak and decline of so-called “political” or “conscious” hip-hop manifest in two ways: We now have musically gifted and charismatic performers with nothing to say, but also brilliant thinkers and activists who make weak music. Brother Ali has love for people on both sides of that divide, but in his own work, choosing between the art and the social consciousness isn’t a problem. He kills it on both levels.
“Mourning in America,” the title track from his new album, speaks from the political hip-hop tradition that he found as a teenager—it even opens with a Malcolm X sample—but translates that tradition to a new context, declaring terrorism to be the “war of the poor,” while warfare is “terrorism of the rich.” Mourning in America and Dreaming of Color offers Brother Ali’s meditation on the current conditions of the nation’s soul: poverty, war, prejudice, and delusions of a post-racial landscape. The rapper also extends hip-hop’s concern for freedom, justice, and equality to encompass an erasure of homophobia from the culture, including his own lyrics. “I haven’t always been on the right side of that battle,” he confessed in a heartfelt reflection concerning his previous use of slurs. (He now censors himself when he performs earlier material.) In “Say Amen” from the new album, he also confronts homophobic MCs: “Fuck ‘No Homo,’” he raps. “You a no-homeownin’ old grown/ unsigned chump, month behind on your car loan.”
At the show, when someone shouted a remark about “crying like a bitch,” Brother Ali corrected him. “Watch a woman giving birth and you’ll never use the word ‘bitch’ again in any context, let alone to call something weak.” Later, Brother Ali stopped the show to teach: “I’m sorry, I know this isn’t what you paid your money to see,” he said, “but some of us are privileged in big, fucked-up ways.” Later on, backstage, we talked about maleness, whiteness, and Islam. "The Prophet was a man who cried," Brother Ali told me. "The Prophet would shed tears for children, the elderly, the poor, and the enslaved."
On stage and on wax, Brother Ali and his guests bring both anger and love. The song “Gather Round” ends with an appearance by the brilliant Amir Sulaiman, who raps about taking judges hostage and defining freedom as that place “between the page and the pen/ between the grenade and the pin.” A few years back, Brother Ali garnered controversy with his song “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” but he expresses affection for America on this record with the song “Letter to My Countrymen.” The America that he loves is not the historical one, but a future promise: “I want to make this country what it says it is.” The song concludes with wisdom from Dr. Cornel West: “You want to be a person with integrity who leaves a mark on the world.”
“I think the struggle to be free is our inheritance,” says Brother Ali in “Letter to My Countrymen.” It is a struggle that he reads through hip-hop and its secret Islamic history, a mutation that produces more mutations. “This is a weird fucking world,” he told me after the show. “Why do I have to think about race all the fucking time? The world being weird has made me weird.”
Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of eight books, including The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop, and the Gods of New York and Why I Am a Five Percenter.
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