Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
On April 1, Jay Z showed up at a Brooklyn Nets game sporting a large medallion of the Five Percenters’ Universal Flag. Once white people figured out what the medallion represented—a community founded upon the notion that black men are the supreme beings of the universe—they went ballistic. As news of Jay Z’s possible affiliations with black supremacists spread, a New York Post writer named Gary Buiso contacted me for an interview. We talked for nearly an hour and he followed up with more emails and calls as he tried to sort out the story. I made it clear to him that I spoke as an outside researcher, not a card-carrying member of the community. On the subject of “white devils,” I let him know that in my decade with the Five Percent, I was never mistreated on the basis of racial prejudice. I also told him that the Five Percenters’ national headquarters, the Allah School, still stands at its original location in Harlem. Unfortunately, he never took the time to check it out. The Post article included one statement on Jay Z’s wearing of the medallion from a Five Percenter, but it’s less than five miles from the Post’s headquarters to the Five Percenters’ headquarters. This guy literally works in the Five Percenters’ Mecca (the community has renamed Harlem specifically, but Manhattan more broadly, as “Mecca”) and he couldn’t bother to meet Five Percenters in person?
The article had other limitations. First, you’re not going to capture the heart of a community or tradition in a 600-word piece. I couldn’t do it in the roughly half a million words that I’ve written on the Five Percenters in numerous books and articles. Second, and perhaps even more obviously, you’re not going to do it in a rag like the New York Post. The article boiled down our long conversations to some quotes that became provocative when isolated, spiced up with a decontextualized statement from one of my VICE columns in which I said that “Fuck white people” was my first lesson in the Five Percent. The Post never balanced my “Fuck white people” line with my acknowledgment that there were/are actually white Five Percenters, a phenomenon that I had discussed with the writer. To his credit, he at least squeezed in a mention that I saw white devilishment as relating more to the politics of privilege than the fiction of biological race, but whatever nuance could be achieved in his 600 words was undone by the ridiculous headline: “Jay-Z’s Bling from ‘Whites Are Devils’ Group.”
The article traveled. Angry white people accused me of teaching “hate.” An angry Five Percenter wrote to me in all caps and blamed me for the article’s inflammatory spirit. A guy whose Twitter photo showed him in a “Free George Zimmerman” shirt tried to get me on his radio show to talk about my “views on race and God.” As numerous sites reposted the original article, others pasted my quotes into new pieces. My words were presented as those of a disembodied, contextless yet authoritative “expert.” These few sentences, detached from the moments of their utterances or the original texts in which they appeared, became positioned as a summary of the community’s shared principles. Perez Hilton has since commented on the Jay Z medallion story, pasting together my quotes from the Post story into a neat paragraph that he presents as the quintessential statement on Five Percenters. Moreover, he tries to explain what my words mean and puts words in my mouth: “On the Five Percent Nation, author Michael Muhammad Knight says that its teachings are extremely anti-white.” This one stung me, mainly because the community so often quotes its founder as having said that Five Percenters are “neither pro-black nor anti-white.”
“This doesn’t sound like a very friendly, tolerant group!” Hilton remarked.
I have never called the Five Percenters “anti-white,” nor have I been troubled by the possibility that some gods could very well be; but it has since dawned on me that, yeah, if you try to summarize Five Percenter thought in a few sentences, the tradition might read as racially antagonistic. Reading the Lessons that Five Percenters study and strive to live by, some would find it hard to get around the declaration that the white man is the devil, having been created by an evil scientist to be weak, wicked, and beyond reform. But there’s also a tension between what I read in the Lessons and what I’ve experienced with the gods in real life. The Lessons talk about swords and murdering devils and suggest that for presenting four devils, you win a trip to Mecca. The Lessons, depending on which version you’re reading, call the white man the “skunk of the earth.” No one called me a skunk when I showed up at the Allah School. No one threatened to take off my head. Five Percenters politely answered my questions, sometimes exchanging contact information with me to build further. People invited me into their homes. I made friends. The insider/outsider boundary became blurry at times. Sometimes it seemed to dissolve entirely. This isn’t to say that the Five Percenters are entirely asshole-free, because every community needs its assholes, and I have had my own friction with the gods—not on questions of race or religion, but rather on gender and sexuality issues. But if the Five Percenters were anything close to the race-warrior image in which they are often depicted, I would be dead several times over.
Yes, the Five Percenters’ Lessons call black men gods and white men devils. But what are the Lessons’ social consequences—how do people live out a statement like “The black man is God?” How do these ideas materialize in the world? For the folks who want to label the Five Percenters a “hate group,” I would ask how many white people have been injured by Five Percenter ideology. Where are all the Five Percenters dragging white guys from pickup trucks? Where are the grown Five Percenter men shooting at unarmed white teenagers? Go find them if they exist. They don’t. Historically speaking, there is no black supremacist group that can challenge white supremacist Christians in terms of accumulated body count.
Traveling among the Five Percent, I learned early on that the community isn’t nearly as preoccupied with white people as the media has suggested. From what I observed in my decade engaging the community, the center of Five Percenter concern is less often the wickedness of white devils than the divine power of the united black family. Again, this is something that came up in my conversations with the New York Post writer as he asked me about the meanings of the moon, star, and 7 on Jay Z’s medallion, but strangely failed to make it into the article.
No, the Five Percenters are not a hate group. The New York Post got it wrong. Perez Hilton got it wrong. And while I am confident in my work with this community, putting me at its center is also getting it wrong.
Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of nine books, including The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop, and the Gods of New York; Why I Am a Five Percenter; and Blue-Eyed Devil. Follow Michael on Twitter.