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The origins of Islamic Faith in the African American Hip Hop

Tahlia Palmer: Steady Eye

The origins of Islamic Faith in the African American Hip Hop

Andrew Ryan

Religious people perplex me. Straight up, they perplex me. And something I find a little upsetting is when a human goes from living life with no religious ideals for the first 30 or so years, go through a traumatic experience which reminds them of their mortality, then they switch to super-dooper-child-of-god mode because heaven just makes sense, you know? Even worse is when a celebrity switches sides, because it pops up in the news and people say things like “bad boy turned good”, and for a little while people proclaim their tolerance for religious freedom if it’s one of the big ones (Christianity or Catholicism or Islam) or make snide little jokes if it’s a less popular choice (Kabbalah or Jehovah’s Witness or even Scientology) and it’s all very corny and very predictable. If the celebrity enjoys their fame, they will take the opportunity to preach and spread the word, and even more media attention is given, and teenagers will look at it all and think to themselves: “Wow, if Snoop Dog has become religious, maybe it’s the right thing to do”. Heck, it seems that other celebrities will looks at it all and think exactly the same thing.

Conversion to religion is rife amongst musicians- the African-American hip-hip community in particular. Many, DJs and producers turn to religion as their career progresses, and some of the most widely known and respected proponents of this music genre follow Islamic teachings. There are up to 7 million Americans who are practising Muslims, with 24% being African-Americans. Why so popular huh, and why so much in hip-hop?

It boils down to empowerment. Somewhere along the way, political and humanitarian idealism got mixed up with religion, and black people who believed in their worth as human beings were tied to Islamic teachings.

After slavery was abolished in America, there was left a large group of people who were displaced, unwelcome and totally hated upon in. They knew they had been wronged, that their ancestors had been wronged, and things were pretty grim. Religion was there, alleviating pain and offering solace, but it just didn’t cut for most. After nearly three hundred years of being fucked around by white people, it’s easy to see why some were loath to fully embrace what was seen as a white religion. Jesus and Mary are shown as white. Preachers were white. And while the black community did have its own churches and preachers after a while, there was still enough frustration to warrant the creation of a church that catered to the black man who wanted to embrace his African heritage openly, an act that was illegal since fucking 1619.

Slaves were forced to take on Jesus as their saviour, and have all the pretty things associated with Jesus and his mamma in their quarters. With a rich blend of native spiritualism and Catholic imagery, vodou was born, but after so long masking their true beliefs with the facade of another, the remnants of their African cultures were all but crushed by the shiny, jewel encrusted boot of Catholicism. No one had a real idea of what their ancestors knew or believed about right and wrong, life and death, and the origins of their people.

So then Timothy Drew founded the Moorish Science Temple in 1913, under the premise that a race of people called the Negroid Asiatics were in fact the first race to inhabit the Western Hemisphere, and this race got interbred with the African slaves or something, and his version of Islamic (plus bits of Buddhist, Taoist, Christian and Freemason) teaching was more beneficial to their “earthly salvation”. This paved the way for The Nation of Islam, founded in 1930 by W. D. Fard Muhammad, where afro-centrism and the teachings of Islam became the number one priority, with the idea of Moors falling to the wayside. Followers were taught to embrace their African heritage, and to realise that the world is made up of three groups of people- the ignorant masses, the rich manipulators, and those who can see through the manipulation of the masses, which were, in theory, great things for this downtrodden group of people. However, to build a following, it was necessary to appeal to the base, spiritual needs of the people, most of them poorly educated, and claimed to be both the Messiah of Christianity and the Mahdi of Islam. BAM. Instant flock.

Thirty years down the track, a lot of intelligent young black people were searching for their voice, and for their rights in wider American society. The political teachings of the Nation of Islam supported their unrest, and the understanding of the workings of society whilst remaining separate from it must have created a revolutionary yearning for change, and so was born the Black Power movement. Malcom X was a Nation of Islam minister, and his attitude towards the injustice experienced by his people lead him to becoming a major spokesman for the movement.

Let us get back to musicians now. Fame and success lead easily to a ridiculously decadent lifestyle. Material possessions, mass consumption, drugs, promiscuous sex etc etc, and the world of hip-hop is no stranger to excess amongst its rich and famous. After years of partying and whatnot, a change of perspective occurs- whether it be from a near-death experience, a divorce, a chance encounter with a spiritual stranger in another country. Whatever. Something happens, life and death come into question, a search for the higher meaning of it all begins. The individual turns to their idols for inspiration, and in African-American communities, Malcom X would be the guy. A strong, powerful black man overcoming the obstacles of his generation and of his people… they relate, they empathise, they respect, and because he was so widely respected for his political ideals, the religious ideals associated with them- the faith that got him through all the shit he dealt with- was given heightened respect also. And there it is, another religion has been shaped to fit a portion of humanity who has not been treated well by the status quo.

As with any example of religious power in a group of people, I am both fascinated and repulsed. It’s unfortunate that the most effective way to bring a group of people together is to get involved with their fear of mortality. “You are great, you are powerful, the world is your oyster and there is no need to be so unhappy anymore…just so long as you do these things that God told me to tell you, because God is the answer to all your questions that can’t be explained about death and suffering and fairness, so uh… worship that guy via me and everything will be okay because we’ll all meet again in heaven.” But you’ve heard me rant about that all before, so I will leave you with this.

Watch it and have a little think.