I believe that sometimes, people don’t even know why they’re drawn to the things they are. It’s like something in their spirit is telling them to dance, write, cook or sing and they have no idea that the urge to do so came from deep within their ancestry. Maybe from a long-ago relative who was an exceptional dancer, writer, chef or singer who passed the talent down but kept it dormant for generations until the right person came along to claim it. Or maybe what they’re drawn to is ingrained in their people’s history, but a history that has remained hidden for too long.
Such is the case with Islam for some who choose to convert. Becoming Muslim, to them, is reclaiming a faith that had been stripped away many decades earlier when Muslim Africans who were brought to America as slaves were prevented from practicing their religion. This may also be the case with my brother, a twenty-something guitarist who seemingly overnight became a Blues musician. The Blues, of course, has deep roots in the African American tradition but generally, not with young people. To see him–in a graphic T-shirt and a pair of Vans–so comfortably strumming his pain away and humorously singing his heart out, makes me think that Blues music originates from further down in our people’s past than the Mississippi Delta.
Take a look at what I found out about African Muslims and American Blues in this piece written for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And this video, Islam and Blues, is a must-see; particularly listen to the comparison between the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) and a Blues song, “Levee Camp Holler,” starting at about the two-minute, fifty-five-second mark.
I know she’s no one’s favorite person right now but today’s Monday’s Music selection is from Lauryn Hill. Her 1998 song “Doo Wop (That Thing)” opens with part of a line from Al-Fatiha, which has to be the most often repeated surah in the Qur’an since Muslims utter it while praying several times a day. When I first heard the song with Lauryn–that was back when she still answered to “Lauryn”–speaking Arabic, I said to myself, “Hey, how does she know about that?” It was like she had breached a secret society and would finally succeed in bringing Islam into the mainstream. You have to remember, after the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released, she was the crossover success; she graced the cover of Time magazine, won five Grammy Awards and went multi-platinum. So hearing her say, “Don’t forget about the deen,” and then in Arabic, “guide us on the straight path,” was really something.
In honor of my ummi, who visited me in my new place this past weekend, I’m putting up Mos Def’s “Umi Says.” My ummi is the most selfless person I know. She always comes through in times of need and she didn’t disappoint this time. I wish I had an adequate way to repay her. I hope that when my son grows up (who’s on my lap watching me type this right now), I can be as good to him, insha’allah. For now I say, thank you, Ummi, and here’s to you!
Oh, a side note: When I was a teenager, I sort of met Mos Def. He came out to an underground hip-hop event called Da Cipha that my sister put on in New York City. My job was to get the attendees’ contact information. I have his signature, Dante Smith, on the sign-up sheet a few times.
I discovered The Last Poets when I was a student at Howard University. I don’t remember exactly how I first came upon their poems or who introduced me to their recordings–it might’ve been a PBS special I saw–but I know that once I heard them, I felt like I’d found something special. These guys are spitting the truth, I thought. Of course it was the truth of the late 1960s and early ’70s, some 30 years prior, but their words seemed authentic to my time. Niggas were scared of revolution. That’s why we had to choose between Al Gore and George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, and when the courts determined that Bush won, we did nothing about it. That’s why when Howard tried to shut down funding of the school paper I worked for, only a handful of my cohorts backed me to storm the president’s office in order to save it. (Result: The most orderly storming I’d ever witnessed and elimination of our funding.) Anyway, I, like The Last Poets, surmised that when the revolution came, niggas wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Several of The Last Poets including Umar Bin Hassan, the featured poet on “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution!”, and Jalal Mansur Nuriddin are Muslim converts. My favorite Last Poet, Abiodun Ayewole, the featured poet on “When the Revolution Comes,” is not. It’s clear, though, that the group was influenced by the black nationalism and militancy popular among African American Muslims of that time. It’s also clear that “conscious hip-hop” has been influenced by them. Common, Nas and dead prez have featured the Poets on their albums. dead prez also sampled them on their song “Turn Off the Radio (Radio Freq).”
The Last Poets are good for stirring up righteous indignation. I just may have to go out and replace my copies of their CDs that I lost.
There’s no doubt that Islam has had an impact on hip-hop music and artists, particularly in the early 1990s. Groups like Brand Nubian and A Tribe Called Quest put Arabic words into a hip-hop head’s vocabulary and brought some styles of Muslim dress to the fore. For a so-called conscious rapper not to know anything about Islam was just unheard of.
At the same time though, the early ’90s was one of hip-hop’s most hardcore times and some of the images put forth purportedly representing Islam were not, let’s say, peaceful. Exhibit A: Brand Nubian’s “Allah u Akbar.” This video would not have been made today–not this way. But it does say something about what being a Muslim–part of a religion outside of the American mainstream–meant to some Black men, particularly those who converted.