Lifting Up My Skirt

By Michael Muhammad Knight

A few years ago, when I was interviewing the RZA for a Vibe article on Five Percenters in hip-hop, I asked him about the Five Percent’s doctrine of “white devils.” Was there a chance for white people to be anything but weak and wicked? RZA assured me that even if whites were predisposed to act as devils, they could go against their natural inclinations and become “righteous.” As evidence that humans had power to betray the essential cores of their being, he explained, “Look at homos.  Homos are going against their nature.”

I chose not to publish the quote. The article focused on the Five Percenters’ contribution to music, and offered no room to meaningfully discuss white devils or sexuality. But the RZA’s words stayed with me as a marker of the tension that I already felt with the Five Percent, having accepted its verdict on the poison of whiteness while also finding myself hurt by its own poison of hetero sexism.

Last week, after I wrote on “Lift Up Your Skirt,” Lord Jamar’s homophobic diss track against Kanye West, Five Percenters started bombing me on Facebook and Twitter.  Lord Jamar and Sadat X, his partner from Brand Nubian, both explicitly threatened me with bodily harm, while numerous other Five Percenters wrote that I needed to be served “justice” in the form of a “universal beatdown.” While there’s some satisfaction in saying that I’ve defeated two guys from Brand Nubian in a Twitter battle, the Five Percenter response to my column woke me up to a difficult reality. Over the course of being harassed by internet gods and put on blast by Five Percenter elders for whom I held the highest respect, I faced the notion that publicly attacking Jamar’s homophobia meant my exile from the community. After almost a decade, we were breaking up.

For Five Percenters, the black man is God, and the black woman is Earth. Some in the community are more flexible on racial inclusion (allowing for white male gods) or gender inclusion (allowing for black female gods), or even both, but the dominant orthodoxy holds that godhood requires both blackness and maleness. This means that for the black man to be Allah, only the black man is Allah, but not even all black men are equally gods, because not all men are seen as “real” men. In my travels with the Five Percent, I learned that gender and sexuality can sometimes overrule race. There are more possibilities in the Five Percent for a straight white man than a gay black man, or perhaps even a straight black woman. To a certain extent, I was able to transcend my status as a white devil because I still had the privilege of being male and heterosexual. This white man was welcomed into the Five Percent while numerous black people—including both men and women who violate the culture’s gender or sexual norms, or even just women who would claim equal godhood for themselves—are locked out. The Five Percenters stand for black liberation, but this white man is more acceptable as a Five Percenter than Angela Davis.

There’s a long history behind this. Yes, American culture performs psychological warfare on black men and women, and the tactics are gendered. In this sense, we can ask serious questions about fashion shows in which black male models are made to walk the runway in skirts. For many Five Percenters, therefore, the answer to racial inequality is for black men to reclaim the masculine privilege that the white supremacist patriarchy had denied them. Masculine privilege itself is not questioned, but perceived as an inherent natural right. In other words, when Lord Jamar argues that black men are “emasculated,” he sees this as only a problem of racism. He does not see it as also a problem of sexism.   

Undeniably privileged by both race and sex, I cannot assume that I have the right to speak on this issue. But the refusal to speak is also an act of privilege, because silence is not neutral. Regardless, Lord Jamar’s online slurs did not take place in a private conversation to be heard by only one community, whether that community is hip-hop culture or the Five Percenters or African Americans at large.  When you put forth an argument on Twitter, it’s like standing on a street corner, shouting at everyone who walks by. When Lord Jamar tweeted “#halfafag” and promised to “rebuke all this gay shit,” he said it to me.

I wrote against Jamar, and my hetero shield fell to the ground. In the controversy that followed, I learned something about straight privilege as compared to white privilege. When I publicly affiliated with the Five Percent, I would sometimes see “race traitor” comments on the internet, but no one accused me of being secretly black. Straight privilege works differently. For some Five Percenters, taking a pro-queer stand meant that I had exposed myself as secretly gay, as suggested in comments that I wrote my column because Jamar had “touched a nerve.” Gods asked me why I was “so defensive about gays” and many just flatly called me a “fag” and a homo. I also saw my whiteness become problematic in a new way, because my apparent queerness revealed the danger of welcoming devils into the cipher. I even read a suggestion that from my very first encounter with the Five Percenters in 2004, my plan was to ultimately promote homosexuality from within.

I have become the devil who must be driven out of the holy city. Lord Jamar has not only threatened violence, but posted several photos of me on his Twitter page with an invitation for other gods to give me the “welcome” that I deserve. But the exile is not absolute. While numerous Five Percenters have made “MMK is a fag” posts, there are also a few who have reached out with kindness and support, and I continue to correspond with more than one queer Five Percenter who cannot be open within the community. Our safe space can have its own flag. If there are still Five Percenters who would build with me after all of this, I will happily build with them, but I will most likely never step foot in the Allah School again.   

I walk in peace and with gratitude. The Five Percenters taught me lessons about whiteness and religion that I will carry with me until I die. However, one of the most crucial lessons empowers me to confidently wash my hands of the Five Percenters altogether. This movement began in 1964 with one man who was willing to walk out of a mosque when he smelled the pigshit. He felt no need for the organization, subjection of himself to its rules and regulations, or anyone’s claim to transcendent authority. When he named himself Allah, he both affirmed the mosque’s teachings and radically undermined the mosque itself. He stood outside the mosque with a few fellow exiles and followed his own understanding. Peace to the gods and earths, and thank you for everything.

Michael Muhammad Knight (@MM_Knight) is the author of nine books, including Why I am a Five Percenter.

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