'The influence of Islam on hip-hop is huge'

Recitative is not something alien to Muslims

Many religious associations perceive hip-hop as an effective way of communicating with young people. At the same time, young rappers themselves often turn to the Almighty in their work. How one of the most striking phenomena of African-American culture gets along with Islam and about the early connection of the Koran with this movement — read in the article for our publication of Karim Gaynullin, a columnist for Realnoe Vremya, expert of the Center for Islamic World Studies.

“The tradition of mutual relations between Muslims and hip-hop”

Bismillah Hir Rahman Nir Rahim It is with these words that American rapper Mos Def begins his solo album “Black on Both Sides”. As researcher Suad Abdul Khabeer notes in this regard, “while some consider Islam and hip-hop as opposite phenomena, the statement of Mos Def is not an anomaly in hip-hop culture, but it is based on the tradition of mutual relations between Muslims and hip-hop”.

In his track GZA, member of the legendary hardcore hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan performs the following text: “I'm deep down in the back streets, in the heart of Medinа\About to set off something more deep than a misdemeanor.”

As the researcher of our Center Mir-Ali Askerov notes, “by Medina is meant Brooklyn, and by Mecca — Harlem”. “As hip-hop continued to develop in the 1990s, even non-Muslim rappers adopted the 'features' of Muslims. For example, the frequent ending of songs with the word “peace” became commonplace. But it was originally used by Muslims from the “Nation of Islam”, translating and abbreviating “as-salamu alaykum”. For example, Big Daddy Kane in the track Ain't No Half-Steppin (attached it second in the list) didn't even shorten it and ended with the following words: “Hold up the peace sign, as-salamu alaykum”.

Indeed, despite the fact that the connection between Islam and hip-hop is not obvious, it is directly present in American culture and goes back to the luminaries of the genre — such names as Wu Tang Clan (including solo projects — RZA, GZA), Rakim, Afrika Islam, Big Daddy Kane, Q-Tip. The abbreviation RZA translates as “Rakim Zig-Zag Allah”.

Cultural roots

Hip-hop as a phenomenon is directly related to the African-American tradition and cannot be separated from religious and political trends that are present and present among black Americans. Hip-hop originally originated in the 1970s in the Bronx, aided by the mutual penetration of African American and Latin American cultures from the Caribbean. The recitative of hip-hop — emsiing — is rooted in the African-American style of “capping”. Initially, the theme of the emcee related to parties did not concern political or religious topics. However, the culture of struggle for the rights of blacks, which just escalated at that time, very soon made hip-hop the most important way of expressing their political aspirations among the African-American population.

It is worth saying that recitative is not something alien to Islam itself. During the period of prophecy, there was a great poetic culture among the Arabs, where poets often participated in poetic “battles”. The Koran itself refers to these poets in many places, speaking of its stylistic exclusivity: “poets”(shuara) is the name for the whole surah of the Koran. Along with the Quranic “lost poets” who attacked the Prophet in their poems, among the poetry of the prophetic period there were also Muslims who glorified the young religion. In some ways, the poetry of the Arabs of that era is related to the early hip-hop culture.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, African Americans had been searching for their own identity. For many, Christianity became associated with the religion of whites, at the same time, Islam began to be seen as an alternative — especially because of its prevalence in Africa, which African Americans saw as their promised land.

In the 30s, Wallace Fard Muhammad began to preach among African Americans, whose identity is still unclear. There are theories that Wallace Fard could be African-American, Pakistani, Afghan or Arab, he himself allegedly said that he was rooted in Mecca. Fard Muhammad was a former member of the Moorish Scientific Temple of America— a theosophical organisation where Islamic images were important. It consisted of many African-Americans, as it was distinguished by its racial tolerance.

Fard founded the Nation of Islam religious movement. The “nation” largely referred to the Muslim religion — the rejection of pork, alcohol, drugs was proclaimed, the Islamic dogmatic dictionary was actively used. However, the basic dogma of the “Nation” is far from Islamic orthodoxy, especially after the reforms of Fard's disciple, Elijah Muhammad. Fard was called a prophet (in Islam, Muhammad is considered the last and final prophet), after his death he was deified altogether. All people, according to the teachings of this religion, are descended from the African race, and white people are devils (however, today the “Nation” has softened its position).

Other “currents” of African-American Islamic culture originated from the “Nation”: the lines of Varit Din Muhammad (son of Elijah Muhammad) and Malkom X turned to orthodox Sunni Islam, and more heteroorthodox cells of the “Nation” were created, including the “People of Gods and Lands”.

Through contact with the general Islamic culture, images from Islamic dogma and history began to be included in the texts of hip-hop compositions.

At the origins of hip-hop

The influence of the ideology of pseudo-Islamic and, as a result, Islamic groups on black culture in general and hip-hop in particular was enormous. Suffice it to say that one of the pioneers of the genre, Afrika Bambaataa, came from a family of members of the Nation of Islam group. According to Rüdiger Lohlker, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Vienna, among the hip-hop artists who studied the teachings of the “People of Gods and Lands”, the daughters of the “Nation of Islam”, are: Jay-Z, Nas, Rakim, Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang Clan, Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, Gangstarr, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, Big Pun; Erykah Badu, the Digable Planets are all mastodons of the genre.

Naturally, the teachings of the sect of the “People of Gods and Lands”, where black men are meant by gods, and black women are meant by lands, are far from orthodox Islam. This sect created a bizarre idea about the existence of “higher mathematics”, a numerological doctrine, where through numbers the adept had to reach the highest point of self-consciousness. This system, as well as external references to the Islamic doctrine, were firmly embedded in the texts of the emsi of that period, including those who were not directly associated with the “People”. For example, in the song “Jigga my nigga” Jay-Z sings: “The God, send you back to the earth from which you came”, which is a reference to women and for those who understand the theology of the “People” has a twofold meaning.

However, the influence was not limited to pseudo-Islamic groups — some former members of the “Nation of Islam” converted to orthodox, Sunni Islam. The most famous example here is Mos Def, besides him there are examples of Loon (after the appeal — Amir Muhadith), Scarface, Freeway, Q-Tip, Brother Ali, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Lupe Fiasco.

Among the groups that are more connected with the Islamic theme, it is worth mentioning the Native Deen collective, founded in the early 90s, but in its final form formed in 2000. They are distinguished from other Muslim rappers by their refusal to use musical instruments — only percussion. The thing is that playing musical instruments is considered forbidden by most Islamic theologians — it is believed that it develops passions in a person, while the mind of a believer should be calm and stable.

Islamic images continue to appear today. For example, in the famous composition “Plain Jane” A$AP Ferg often repeats the phrase “Alhamdulillah”. On this occasion, he himself says: “I am not a Muslim. My grandfather was a Muslim, but I am not a Muslim. This is just another way to say “all praise to God”. After all, there is only one God, right? There is only one energy.”

With the general popularisation of hip-hop, when this genre began to represent a global phenomenon, many performers from Turkey and the Middle East appeared. Hip-hop artists from migrant communities in Europe and America are a separate phenomenon. For example, Turkish-German rappers Massaka and Kodes, whose work is inspired by underground culture and Turkish migrant groups in Germany, actively use Islamic images in their work.

Some hip-hop artists, accepting Islam, went into radical and extremist currents. An example of this is the infamous German rapper Desp Dogg, who eventually became a propagandist of the banned pseudo-Islamic state ISIS*.

Despite the popularity of the genre, including among ethnic Muslims, hip-hop in Russia has not accepted the political and cultural significance that it has in the West. The same applies to ethnic Muslims — even with the presence of popular artists, “Muslim rap” remains underground and unpopular among the mass audience.

*ISIS is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia.

Karim Gaynullin

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The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.