Lupe Fiasco recently appeared on one of the most conservative, anti-hip-hop shows out there— “The O’Reilly Factor”— to defend his controversial statement that the “root causes of terrorism” stem from the United States government and it’s foreign policy. Cool and assertive, he defended his comments with intellect and a poised hip-hop swagger.
Lupe represents a minority, if not dying breed in hip-hop today as someone who is not afraid to bring a socially conscious message in his music and speak out on personal and political views. He has successfully raised eyebrows, while still being able to sell albums and pack shows. Additionally, and in their own way, artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Lauryn Hill, Immortal Technique, Nas, Dead Prez and now Jay Electronica, have also done and are doing the same; as they are some of the main artists who have successfully brought music laced with heavy messages to mainstream audiences in recent years.
But in addition to this, there is something else these rappers have in common—the influence of Islam.
Whether practicing Muslims or just drawn to aspects of the culture and beliefs, many of today’s rappers, conscious or not, have been impacted by Muslim culture; namely that of the Nation of Islam and off-shoots such as the Five Percenters. And while you might be surprised to know just how many rappers have ties to or support Muslim organizations (Jim Jones, Busta Rhymes, Ice Cube, T.I., Snoop Dogg, among others), what distinguishes these rappers is that their music, style and image tend to makes this influence more obvious than said others. Carrying on the baton left from groups and artists such as Public Enemy, KRS-One, Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah and more, they are ushering in a new tradition and approach to being conscious artists, with elements of Black Muslim culture still present. They, in my opinion, represent the ‘New Muslim Cool.’
During the rise of Islam in Black America, amidst the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, it was a time of change for many. Many Blacks began giving up pork and taking on Muslim names such as Ali, Muhammad and Shabazz. Not only was it common to see brothers in suits and bow ties selling papers and bean pies, but you were also guaranteed a lesson on everything from how to eat properly to the godly nature of the Black man and woman. Their strong presence impacted Black America greatly, and their boldness and discipline attracted many young African-Americans who were at the time dealing with very blatant forms of racism and discrimination. The Muslims’ message of self-love, self-determination and Black unity struck a chord with many, and soon not only was it attractive to be Muslim, it was cool.
Our community began referring to one another as god, queen, sister, brother, and greeting each other in Peace. The term ‘Black’ was embraced with pride, and it became more and more acceptable for a person to declare they had stopped eating pig or had taken on an ‘X’ as their last name in lieu of their former “slave name.”
The influence of Islam was very strong and evident. And so hip-hop, a baby at the time, was of course shaped by this as well. Hip-hop gave Black youth a platform and a voice. Many admired the Muslim lifestyle, and were captivated by the fearlessness and intellect of men like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Louis Farrakhan. Thus, many artists began to use their lyrical skills to speak on political issues and the problems in the black community.
So even if you didn’t encounter those brothers in suits and bow ties or the Five Percenters “building” on the science of just about everything in life, you heard some of their beliefs intertwined in the lyrics of many artists. Therefore, when Public Enemy said “Fight the Power” it was clear who and what they were referring to. And when Ms. Latifah decided she was a Queen, called for “U.N.I.T.Y” and stated “Who you calling a B*tch?!” it was evident she was exposed in some way to the self-affirming doctrines of the Muslims in the Black community.
These elements of influence still exist today in hip-hop. Whether it’s as obvious as Mos Def’s “Cream of the Planet” (a title which stems from the NOI’s teachings), Lupe’s “Muhammad Walks” remix, or as simple as the political swagger and outspoken lyricism many of these artists bring to the table—the influence is still there.
History has shown that it is often the underground or conscious artists that will dictate what is cool by bringing substance and being the antithesis to the mainstream and gimmicky. The New Muslim Cool is not just limited to artists who are actual Muslims like Lupe (born Wasulu Muhammad Jaco), but I believe it’s a tradition of political, social and moral awareness, that is made attractive to the current generation, and that has been shaped by the presence of Islam in Black America. And just like the genre, it will continue to develop, grow, evolve and change.
So, I know there are some Clutchettes who are Hip-Hop heads. Have you noticed the influence of Islam in Hip-hop? And if so, what artists—male or female—do you feel represent the New Muslim Cool?