American Muslim Music (2007)

Islamic worship is rooted in oral and aural experience. Qur’an in Arabic means recitation; the literal word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad is not a text to be read silently, but a text to be recited and listened to by believers. The first pillar of Islam is the shahadah, an oral testament to the Oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad, and the only necessary action to become a Muslim. The second pillar of Islam is salah, ritual prayer five times a day. Salah commences with the athan, a call to prayer, and consists of reciting and listening to the Qur’an alongside specified movements.

Islamic spiritual expression may also take on an oral or musical style. Many Sufis use dhikr in worship, the “remembrance of God” through recitation, singing, instruments, and dancing. Similarly, nasheed is an Islamic-themed song that is traditionally sung a cappella, but in contemporary times has adapted to secular music styles. Within Islam is a rich history of oral and aural expression both in ritual and religious culture. It is no surprise, then, that in America, Muslims are also using music as a means of religious expression.

This paper will examine several Muslim American musicians and the subsequent creation of a new genre of Islamically-inspired music.[1] These musicians can be organized in two basic categories: those in the mainstream, and those performing for specifically Muslim audiences. Although these categories overlap somewhat, they are necessary in understanding the basic context and style of each musician: the first category has incorporated subtle Islamic references into mainstream music for a wide American audience, while the second has fused American music styles with overt Islamic themes for a specifically Muslim audience.[2]

I. Muslims and Islamic References in Mainstream American Music

Most recently, Islam has entered mainstream American music primarily through rap and hip hop. Particularly members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the Five Percenters, many black American Muslim musicians were influential in the development of rap and hip hop in the mid-1970s. These musicians frequently referenced the NOI, and sampled speeches of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.[3] Today, the link between the NOI and mainstream rap and hip hop persists, as evidenced by Louis Farrakhan’s keynote speech at the 2001 National Hip Hop Summit, where he spoke to an audience of superstars like Sean Combs, L.L. Cool J., Will Smith, and Queen Latifah. Sunni Islam has also entered mainstream rap and hip hop; in the past two decades, Sunni Islam has been influential in the emergence of “socially conscious” rap, which evolved as an alternative to the West Coast “gangsta” rap of the 1990s.[4] This section will examine two of these Sunni Muslim musicians, Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def, and two songs, Muhammad Walks and Put Your Lights On, which represent the incorporation of Islam into mainstream American music.

Artists

Lupe Fiasco

Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, whose stage name is Lupe Fiasco, is a young black rapper from Chicago who gained popularity in 2006 with his debut album Food & Liquor. Lupe is explicit about being Muslim, and in several interviews has discussed how his religion impacts his music career. In a notable interview with allhiphop.com, Lupe explained:

Well, I was born Muslim, so Islam plays a part in my everything I do, to a certain extent. I’m not like the poster boy for Islam you know what I’m saying? So it’s like I still got my flaws and stuff like that, so I don’t really wear that on my sleeve . . . It [also] plays on the extra curricular stuff that happens about, about being like a rapper and being in the music business and going to – all right, I don’t go to clubs, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, you know like my whole – the whole groupie situation is shut down.[5]

Lupe’s religious commitments clearly impact his relationship with the entertainment industry and the surrounding culture of fame. However, his Muslim identity is not the overt subject of the majority of his music. Rather, he occasionally incorporates Islamic symbols into his music, disseminating them to a popular American audience. For instance, in 2006 Lupe used a Persian-inspired calligraphy font on the cover of his Food & Liquor album and Kick, Push single. For this album and single Lupe was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 2007 (best rap album, best rap solo album, and best rap song). Lupe was subsequently featured in G.Q. magazine as the “Breakout Man of the Year.” In a separate G.Q. feature, Lupe explained, “I’m a Muslim so I love halal McDonald’s, halal Burger King, and halal Pizza Hut when I’m abroad.”[6] Although the calligraphy font and halal food are both minor references to Islam, their significance is in the audiences they reach. The Grammy Awards and G.Q. magazine are two extraordinarily popular secular sources of entertainment that reach audiences who may otherwise be unfamiliar with Islam. Another more significant example of Islamic symbols surrounding Lupe’s music is his song Muhammad Walks, which will be addressed in the next section.

Mos Def  [Editor’s note 2016: The artist Yasiin Bey is no longer known by the stage name Mos Def. For more information see http://www.okayplayer.com/news/okp-exclusive-yasiin-bey-mos-def-correction.html.]

Dante Terrell Smith, whose stage name is Mos Def, is a twice Grammy-nominated musician, and an Emmy and Golden Globe Awards-nominated black actor who rose to fame during the 1990s. Mos Def is explicit about being Muslim, and relates hip hop with Qur’anic recitation: both utilize rhyme schemes and other poetic devices to compress large amounts of information in a few easily-memorized words. In an interview he explains:

I mean, do you know how much information – vital information – you could get across in three minutes?! You know, and make it so that… I mean, the Qur’an is like that. The reason that people are able to be hafiz is because the entire Qur’an rhymes . . . Like, there’s a rhyme scheme in all of it. You see what I’m saying? And it holds fast to your memory . . . and you learn it and you recite it. And you learn it and you recite it. Then one day you’re reciting it, and you start to understand! You really have a deeper relationship with what you’re reciting . . . Hip hop has the ability to do that – on a poetic level.[7]

In addition to linking his art with spirituality, Mos Def weaves Arabic words and broad Islamic themes of God and unity into his lyrics. His second album, Black on Both Sides, begins with the basmallah, a Muslim invocation and the opening to each surah (chapter) in the Qur’an: “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” The same album includes the single Umi Says, released in 2000. The chorus begins:

My Umi said shine your light on the world
Shine your light for the world to see
My Abi said shine your light on the world
Shine your light for the world to see . . .

And the final verse includes:

Gotta have that love
Peace and understanding
One God, one light
One man, one voice, one mic . . .
One God, one voice, one life
One man, gon’ shine my life
Black people unite, now hop up and do it right

This song uses the Arabic words for my mother (umi) and my father (abi) alongside general Islamic themes of God and unity. These two songs incorporate subtly distinct Islamic references into otherwise non-religious music. As with Lupe, the Islamic symbols Mos Def utilizes in his music are significant in terms of the enormous audience they reach. Both Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def draw Islamic symbols into mainstream American music, disseminating them to a wide audience that may otherwise be unfamiliar with Islam. Their contribution to mainstream American music is additionally their Islamic ethics and spirituality which influence their behavior in the entertainment industry and understanding of music itself.

Songs

Muhammad Walks

In 2005, Lupe Fiasco wrote the song Muhammad Walks, which pays tribute to his Muslim identity by remixing and playing off Kanye West’s Grammy winning song, Jesus Walks. As the title indicates, the song is an ode to the Prophet Muhammad instead of Jesus, as in the original. The song incorporates Islamic references in two ways: it simply mentions issues relating to the religion in the lyrics, and weaves Islamic sounds of worship into the melody. The lyrics draw upon a variety of Islamic issues, including the people residing in the Muslim world; the Five Pillars of Islam; the Qur’an; Osama bin Laden; Saddam Hussein; abstinence from alcohol, sex, and gambling; and the Prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. The melody of the song includes a sampling of the athan, the Muslim call to prayer. This technique synthesizes an aural marker of Muslim space with a classic technique of rap music. The song also begins with Lupe Fiasco’s voice reciting, “a’udu billah min ash-shaytan ir-rajiim, bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahiim,” a set prayer for God’s protection and an invocation of God. This line is frequently used before reciting the Qur’an; like the athan it initiates worship. In this song, Lupe Fiasco not only sings about Islamic symbols to a wide American audience, but creates an entirely new musical sound by sampling the athan and beginning with recitation, both Muslim sounds integral to worship. Therefore, he does not merely reference Islam in his lyrics, but weaves the very sounds of worship into the background.

Put Your Lights On

In 2000, Carlos Santana and Erik Schrody, whose stage name is Everlast, won a Grammy for best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals for the song Put Your Lights On. Everlast, who is openly Muslim and a white convert to Islam, sang the vocals for the song and included the first half of the shahadah in the last verse. The final verse is as follows:

Because there’s a monster living under my bed
Whispering in my ear
There’s an angel, with a hand on my head
She says I’ve got nothing to fear
La illaha illa Allah
We all shine like stars
La illaha illa Allah
We all shine like stars
Then we fade away

The shahadah is the first pillar of Islam and the requisite oral affirmation of faith: “there is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.” The recitation of the shahadah is the most basic act of being Muslim, an oral mark of faith. The shahadah is seamlessly integrated into the rest of the song, as Everlast sings it in the same style as the song (instead of reciting it in the style of prayer). Everlast incorporates perhaps the most important Muslim sound into the foreground of his song; he does not just reference or sing about Islam, but integrates this oral act of Islam into his music. As it stands in the song, the shahadah is meant to be sung, unlike the basmallah preceding Mos Def’s Fear Not of Man and the athan sampled in Lupe Fiasco’s Muhammad Walks. As such, when fans sing along, they are also participating in an act of Muslim worship by attesting to the unity of God.

Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, and Everlast have each incorporated Islamic symbols into their music. More than simple references to Islam, each of these artists has additionally woven aural markers of Islamic faith and worship into their music. Lupe Fiasco sampled the athan, Mos Def recited the basmallah, and Everlast sang the first half of the shahadah. These three Islamic sounds are integral to worship; by incorporating them into their music, these artists have subsequently created an entirely new sound. Although Islamic themes do not dominate the entirety of these musicians’ work, the incorporation of these Islamic sounds is significant because of the wide audience each musician reaches. Each of these musicians has attained wide popularity and success in addition to being nominated for (or won) a Grammy Award. These artists are therefore exporting important Islamic symbols and references to a large mainstream American audience, bringing Islam into the mainstream.

II. The Creation of a New Music Genre for Muslims

In addition to Islam entering mainstream American music, Muslim Americans have also created a new music genre for their own community. Like those in the mainstream, these musicians draw upon both Islamic and American themes and sounds; the difference however, is that for these musicians, Islam is the central (and explicit) theme, and Muslims are the primary audience. This form of music resembles nasheed music in American form, a distinctly Muslim “version” of mainstream American styles. This section will examine several of these artists and the styles they have adopted in their music: Amir Sulaiman and Brother Dash with spoken word, Native Deen with hip hop, and Kareem Salama with country.

Spoken Word: Amir Sulaiman and Brother Dash

Amir Sulaiman is a black spoken word and hip hop artist from Rochester, New York. Sulaiman credits a wide range of influences in his work, but most prominent have been the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the Qur’an. His music possesses angry and insightful political and social commentary, part of the pursuit of justice that he views as integral to Islam. He explains the role of his music:

My poetry is a sacred obligation that does not require the approval of the FBI or any other government agency. I will not ask for my right to speak, as that right has been given to me by the Most High . . . In truth, coming forward in the name of justice is a sacred obligation upon us all. We must give hope to hopeless souls, warning to obstinate tyrants, and try to contribute to a more livable life for the Human Family.[8]

Like Mos Def, Sulaiman views his music as an expression of the basic nature of Islam. In February 2004, Sulaiman performed his biting piece, Danger, from his album, Dead Man Walking, on HBO’s Def Jam Poetry. The piece is an angry and passionate call for freedom, revolution, and justice. The piece concludes with the fierce command:

We must learn, know, write, read
We must kick, bite, yell, scream
We must pray, fast, live, dream, fight, kill, and die free

Sulaiman’s subsequent album, Broad Daylight, is a collaboration with BeLikeMuhammad, D.J. and founder of Remarkable Current, an independent Muslim record label. His newest album, Like a Thief in the Night, as released in May 2007 and features Mos Def and Goapele & The Last Poets.

Dasham K. Brookins, whose stage name is Brother Dash, is also a black spoken word poet from New York. According to his website, Dash is a “rare poet that combines high quality Islamic content with entertaining flair,” and is credited for performing before the largest live audiences of any other Muslim poet in the world.[9] Dash’s music explores overt Islamic themes, as well as social themes. In addition to these overt references, Islam influences the ethical parameters of Dash’s work, like abstaining from profanity, erotica, and glorifying the haram. Although Dash frequently performs for non-Muslim audiences, he is explicit about the intention of his poetry; it is only for God and drawing his listeners close to God. His first Islamic poem, The Meaning of Life discusses the trivialities of life and ends with a reminder that humans’ only true purpose is the worship of God:

It ain’t about books and who wrote ‘em
American Indian totems
Lust you found through your modem
Scholars and who quotes ‘em . . .
It’s about worship to the one Supreme Source of Subsistence
If it ain’t about worship then tell me the point of your existence

And a newer piece, entitled Headline Islam, ends with a call for Muslims to take back the news headlines:

So in times of defining moments
In this moment define yourselves
Tell your own stories
Sing your own psalms
Rewrite the headlines saying – No, this be Islam!

Hip Hop: Native Deen

Native Deen is a musical trio from Washington D.C. consisting of Joshua Salaam, Abdul-Malik Ahmad, and Naeem Muhammad. The word “deen” is Arabic for religion or way, an obvious reference to the group’s heavy Islamic focus. This trio reshapes American hip hop styles for a more conservative Muslim audience, creating a sort of Muslim “version” of mainstream American music. The content of their music is entirely Islamic, and they perform almost exclusively for Muslim audiences (typically families, young teens, and children). Their lyrics focus primarily on issues of spirituality, decision making, and life as a Muslim in America. The title track to their most recent album, Deen You Know features the chorus:

I am the Deen you know
I am the Deen you need
I am the Deen you love
Please come back to me

Small Deeds, a song from the same album preaches charity:

Put a dollar every day in the sadaqah (charity)
It may be small but you do it for the barakah (blessing)
I know you’re saving for the Polo and the Nautica
A poor student but you do it for Allah

The lyrics demonstrate the influence of nasheed on Native Deen’s music; Native Deen’s lyrics focus primarily on spirituality and ritual, and abstain from any political commentary or radicalism that mainstream hip hop often includes. Their choice of hip hop as the artistic vehicle for their religious expression is at once faithful to the trio’s cultural identity and the religious boundaries put forth by their interpretation of Islam. As their website explains, the Qur’an is silent about the permissibility of musical instruments, so a variety of opinions exist on this issue. Many believe wind and string instruments are impermissible while others do not; to accommodate more conservative Muslims, Native Deen uses only percussion. Hip hop is at once wholly American and religiously permissible in their view since it does not rely on the use of wind or string instruments; Native Deen neither imports a foreign musical style nor transgresses their personal boundaries of religious permissibility. In this way, the trio finds an American way to express their religiousness. Accompanying their music is a growing consumer culture. Like mainstream American musicians, Native Deen has an extensive website, a MySpace page, a weblog, CDs for purchase, an online store with t-shirts and hats for sale, high budget concert tours, and a new music video for the song Small Deeds. Muslims have therefore begun to create an independent music culture parallel to the mainstream, but fitted to their particular beliefs. Young Muslims can participate in the consumer culture of American music without violating a conservative religious ethic.

Country: Kareem Salama

Kareem Salama is an Oklahoma native of Egyptian heritage who performs country and pop music. Salama was influenced by classical Western poetry and classical Arabic poetry, country music and Qur’anic recitation. The combination of these cultural influences gave way to Salama’s style that is undoubtedly country-pop, but reflects a distinct Muslim disposition. While possessing an Islamic flavor, his songs touch upon universal themes of love, war, God, and humanity, allowing his music to resonate with a wider audience. Likewise, the intention of his music is not limited to Islam or Muslims. As he states on his website:

My hope is that my words will fall upon ears and hearts that may be seeking the same thing I am seeking . . . the inspiration to live a virtuous life that is pleasing to God.

The opening track to his debut album, Generous Peace, is Get Busy Living, a song about the passing nature of life. Salama sings in the chorus:

And I believe tonight is the night that I decide
That I get busy living and I get ready to die
So that when the fateful day does come
When I’m six feet in the ground
The poor and the weak and the orphan and the meek will miss having me around

Themes of Judgment Day and feeding the orphan dominate the Qur’an, but clearly Salama’s lyrics have accessibility beyond a Muslim context. In fact, Salama says that the South embodies many Islamic values like neighborliness; likewise, he says the traditional moral message of country music is compatible with Islam. His perspective that country music is fundamentally compatible with Islamic values enables him to integrate these two so easily. Salama, like Native Deen, found a distinctly American form of music to express a religious message.

All four of these American-born musicians have adopted American musical styles for an explicitly Islamic purpose. These Muslims represent vastly different voices from amongst the diversity of American Muslims who utilize a wide range of musical styles from amongst the diversity of American music. These Muslims have created their own musical niche specifically for other Muslims. Interestingly, this niche has also gained an international following. Native Deen has performed in countries including England, Palestine, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and will be performing in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Australia, Egypt, and New Zealand in the summer of 2007.[10] Brother Dash and Kareem Salama have likewise performed in London. Despite their international appeal, the focus of each of these artists remains their Muslim-American audience. Their creation of a separate Muslim music culture in America has provided an alternative to the mainstream, one that is religiously acceptable but trendy by American standards.

Conclusion

As this paper has demonstrated, music provides an interesting lens through which to view the intersection between Islam and American culture. The Muslim musicians surveyed above offer just a few examples of the diverse ways in which Islam has influenced mainstream American culture, and the ways mainstream American culture has influenced Islam. The first pillar of Islam found its way into a Grammy-winning song, just as country and rap found their way into nasheed music. Through the first group of musicians, distinct Islamic symbols are being exported to wide American audiences who may never encounter the religion otherwise; similarly, the second group imports American musical styles to Muslims who may never encounter them otherwise. Both however, represent a new artistic synthesis that mirrors the growing demographic of American-born Muslims seeking to integrate their two identities.


[1] It should be noted that some conservative interpretations prohibit musical performance. It is not the intention of this paper to investigate this debate or offer an ethical judgment on it. Voices of prohibition however, are not the majority, as evidenced by the prominence of musical performance in events sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Muslim Students Associations (MSAs), and the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), for example.↩︎

[2] This paper does not seek to survey every Muslim American musician and Islamic reference in music; rather, it utilizes a few examples to illustrate broader themes in Muslim American musical styles.↩︎

[3] See in particular Public Enemy.↩︎

[4] For example, Jurassic 5, Talib Kweli, and Common.↩︎

[5] Jigsaw, “Lupe Fiasco: Revenge of the Hip Hop Nerd,” allhiphop.com, January 2006, Accessed 12 March 2007. [Editor’s note 2016: Available at http://allhiphop.com/2006/02/10/lupe-fiasco-revenge-of-the-hip-hop-nerd/.]↩︎

[6] “Secrets of My Style: Lupe Fiasco,” GQ Magazine, August 2006: 44.↩︎

[7] Hesham Samy Abdel-Alim, “Hip Hop and Islam,” http://weekly.ahram.org.ed/2005/750/feature.htm, 7-13 July 2005, Accessed 20 March 2007. [Editor’s note 2016: Available at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/Archive/2005/750/feature.htm.]↩︎

[8] Amir Sulaiman, “The High Cost of Freedom Speech,” found at: “Hip Hop: Amir Sulaiman,” http://www.muslimhiphop.com/index.php?p=Hip-Hop/Amir_Sulaiman, 2004-2007, Accessed 20 March 2007. [Editor’s note 2016: Download a PDF of Sulaiman’s article here.] ↩︎

[9] Brother Dash, “MuslimPoet.com,” http://www.muslimpoet.com/blog/index.php, Accessed 20 March 2007. [Editor’s note 2016: learn more at brotherdash.com].]↩︎

[10] Native Deen, “Native Deen,” http://www.nativedeen.com, Accessed 20 March 2007; and Carolee Walker, “Muslim-American Rappers Promote Tolerance in Middle East,” and USINFO, http://usinfo.state.gov/xarchives/display.html?p=washfile-english&y=2006&m=December&x=20061212165055bcreklaw0.8355371, 13 December 2006, United States Department of State, Accessed 20 March 2007. [Editor’s note 2016: Now available at http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/article/2006/12/20061212165055bcreklaw0.8355371.html#axzz47tpR7HAB.]↩︎


Bibliography

Books

Cooke, Miriam and Bruce B. Lawrence, eds. Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Floyd-Thomas, Juan M. “A Jihad of Words: The Evolution of African American Islam and Contemporary Hip Hop.” Ed. Anthony B. Pinn. Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Gardell, Mattias. In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1996.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press: Published by University Press of New England, 1994.

Articles

Abdel-Alim, Hesham Samy. “Hip Hop and Islam,” http://weekly.ahram.org.ed/2005/750/feature.htm, 7-13 July 2005, Accessed 20 March 2007. [Editor’s note 2016: Available at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/Archive/2005/750/feature.htm.]

Jigsaw. “Lupe Fiasco: Revenge of the Hip Hop Nerd,” allhiphop.com, January 2006, Accessed 12 March 2007. [Editor’s note 2016: Available at http://allhiphop.com/2006/02/10/lupe-fiasco-revenge-of-the-hip-hop-nerd/.]

Muhammad, Richard and Saeed Shabazz. “Hip Hop Summit Convenes in New York.” The Final Call News 26 June 2001. http://www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/National_News_2/Hip_Hop_Summit_convenes_in_New_York_2748.shtml.

“Secrets of My Style: Lupe Fiasco,” GQ Magazine August 2006: 44.

Sulaiman, Amir. “The High Cost of Freedom Speech,” found at: “Hip Hop: Amir Sulaiman,” http://www.muslimhiphop.com/index.php?p=Hip-Hop/Amir_Sulaiman, 2004-2007, Accessed 20 March 2007. [Editor’s note 2016: Download a PDF of Sulaiman’s article here.]

Walker, Carolee. “Muslim-American Rappers Promote Tolerance in Middle East.” USINFO 13 December 2006, United States Department of State. http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/article/2006/12/20061212165055bcreklaw0.8355371.html#axzz47tpR7HAB.

Websites

Kareem Salama. http://www.kareemsalama.com/.

Lupe Fiasco. http://www.lupefiasco.com/.

Meem Music and Audio. http://www.meem.info/.

MuslimHipHop: Building a Movement. http://www.muslimhiphop.com/.

Mos Def. [Editor’s note 2016: Yasiin Bey is no longer known by the stage name Mos Def. For more information see http://www.okayplayer.com/news/okp-exclusive-yasiin-bey-mos-def-correction.html.]

Muslim Poet. http://www.brotherdash.com/.

Native Deen. http://www.nativedeen.com/.

Remarkable Current. http://www.remarkablecurrent.com/.