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.
I tried to ignore the controversy. It seemed so silly to me—people up in arms over a mosque proposed to be built two blocks from Ground Zero. As if New York City Muslims didn’t have the right to worship on Friday afternoons near their jobs, or shouldn’t be allowed to pray in lower Manhattan at all. People are smarter than that, aren’t they? I asked myself. This issue will soon go away.
But it didn’t. For four months already, from May until now, the disagreement over the project has continued to grab headlines and rile the public. As time goes on, it becomes more and more evident that while most people won’t be standing outside the planned Park51 community center with picket signs screaming “Hell no, mosque gotta go,” lots of folks don’t think that a mosque near the site of a terrorist attack perpetrated by so-called Muslims is a good idea. According to a Quinnipiac poll released at the end of August, 63 percent of New York City voters said the mosque should be built somewhere else.
The intolerance that people are displaying saddens me, especially because it seems based on ignorance. Surely, people must know that Muslims also died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They must recognize that Muslims were among those police officers, firefighters and EMTs who responded to the tragedy. They must understand that there already was a Muslim prayer room inside at least one of the World Trade Center towers. That’s why when I heard that U.S. Muslim organizations were planning a summit—which was held in New York City on Sunday—to discuss plans for the new center and the increased anti-Islamic sentiment that has subsequently surfaced, I was glad. American Muslims, particularly African American Muslims—myself included—stay quiet on these issues too often. We don’t want to expose ourselves to the bigotry, don’t want to get caught up in controversy that may or may not concern us.
Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid of the Muslim Alliance in North America and Harlem's Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood.
But by doing that, we allow the ignorance and the intolerance to persist. Only by standing up and standing together, as the collection of imams and other American Muslim leaders did at their Monday press conference
, can we begin to combat the misplaced anti-Muslim sentiment. So let me say, unequivocally, there’s no reason to protest a mosque being built near Ground Zero. Now, a shrine to Mohammed Atta on that site—that would be something to protest. A visitors and welcome center for Osama bin Laden—that would be something to protest. A continuing education course for would-be hijackers—definitely something to protest. But a place to worship God should not be opposed.