Rap’s Islamic Roots?


by Lavon L. Brown

Hip-Hop – specifically the Rap art form of Hip-Hop – is usually preceded by its reputation of ”Gangsta life-style” lyrics riddled with curse words, bad grammar, and the infamous “N” word, stereotypically painting a post-apocalyptic portrait of poor African-American communities. It is widely promoted as an American subculture/multi-faceted art form rooted within the 1970’s poverty stricken South Bronx communities of New York City. For many, it may even be seen as the most abased form of artistic American culture to date. Despite its “hard” reputation, the once musical fad called Hip-Hop has reached every facet of the world from the Techno clubs of Japan to the war torn “ghettos” of the Gaza Strip. Within the Muslim community, it may be seen as something foreign since music itself is a controversial topic within the Muslim community.  The interesting fact about Hip-Hop is that its inception into American culture was actually pioneered by Muslims.

The precursors of Rap were a group of African-American and Latino poets from New York City called the “Last Poets”.  According to the website of Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, the group was formed on May 19, 1968 in Harlem, New York City out of a black writer’s workshop. The original line up of the Last Poets was Gylain Kain, Abiodun Oyewole, David Nelson, Felipe Luciano, Omar Bin Hassen, Jalal Nuriddin, and Suleiman El-Hadi. They were mostly a confederacy of poets separated by style of writing and internal conflicts. Despite this, they were united by the struggle for civil rights and the common outlook of their prospects as poor minorities within a racist and harsh American society. The Last Poets were undoubtedly a revolutionary group spewing revolutionary poetry, and their body of work could definitely be seen as extreme for the time. The Muslims of the group, Jalal Nuriddin and Suleiman El-Hadi, were known to give powerful messages of the harsh realities of being Black in America while fusing their understanding of the religion of Islam into their poetry. For these poets, their poetry was seen as a way to satirize the American society in which they found their community and religion opposed. The poetry also served as a powerful tool of da’wah. In “The Mean Machine”, one of the most famously known songs from the Last Poets, Jalal Nuriddin displays the influence of the hadith (tradition) of the Dajjal and the state of the world at the end of time in his poetry.

“… All products of The Mean Machine/The Devil was guised as a human being/ And he will even preach that God is dead/ And some of yall will believe what the devil had said/ And then he will act as the world’s police/ And the sun will rise up in the West and set down in the east/ And  when it came time for the end And when it came time for the end And when it came time for the end/ The men will look like the women And the women like the men/ And some will dance in a hypnotic trance like as if they had no care/ But these will be signs of the changing times that the end is drawing near/ For it was prophesized many centuries past/ that the end will come in a fiery holocaust  and only the righteous people will survive the blast/ And the Devil’s Machine will  bring out his own end/ and peace, love and joy will reign once again…/”

The Muslims of the Last Poets were not known to be, nor did they profess to be, scholars of Islam. It is clear, however, that their understanding of their religion influenced their body of work. One of the most famous albums of the duo of Jalal Nuriddin and Suleiman El-Hadi was called the Delights of the Garden. A poem in this album was divided into three songs called “be”, “yond” and “er” in which the poets give a fantasy-filled depiction of the end of the world. It involves two companies of men and jinn debating on how to deal with the last day, ending in a literal race against time and jinn as the party of men seek to surrender to the Will of God and no longer attempt escape from the inevitable.

Many of the other poems written by these poets and the larger group of Last Poets were mainly politically charged. Suleiman El Hadi was known for his poem called “Ho Chi Minh” in which he poetically tackles the events of the Vietnam War. This particular poem satirizes the American government’s foreign policy as the distastefully aggressive and vain “Uncle Sam” character who parades his might and technology over an old rice paddy farmer representing North Vietnam. As Uncle Sam sets to bully the old man, he is ambushed by booby traps, sending him in retreat for fear of his life. Another famous historical poem written and performed by Suleiman was the “Unholy Alliance”. This is a rap over twelve minutes long depicting over 400 years of western colonialism/imperialism. The purpose of this spoken-word poetry was to make the community aware of the times that they were living in as they saw it.

The content of the overall body of work of the Last Poets from their formation in 1968 until today is the basic structure and mission statement for what mainstream Hip-Hop is producing now. The poets would probably say that modern “rappers” have fallen below the standard that the Last Poets set within their poetry. Modern rappers may beg to differ. The outlying structure, as previously stated, is the same.  Rappers attest to make a larger audience aware of what is going on in their world as they see it. This has always been at the core of Hip-Hop. If, in fact, hip hop has remained true to its roots and purpose set by the Last Poets, then the art being produced depicts reality. While I make no assumptions that the majority of rappers intentionally produce indecent, misogynistic, and ignorant music to alert their audiences to those characteristics within society, does this music in fact depict a true account of the present? If the answer is yes, then whether intentional or not, the music gives the listener the opportunity to question the moral and civil injunctions set by the current society.  At the least, the intention of Last Poets, specifically Jalal Nuriddin and Suleiman El Hadi, was to send the message of Islam to their audience as well as wake them up to the realities of their time. One can only hope that rap and Hip-Hop as a whole returns back to its roots.

Author’s Biography:

Lavon Luther Brown attends St. John’s University where he is completing his Master’s Degree in Toxicology. Lavon also has a Bachelors of Science in Biology from St. John’s University.  He is a devoted husband and poet.

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10 Comments

  1. If in the general sence calling hiphop or rap strong poetry if so I don’t think there’s something wrong with poetry with no music trying to spread the word of Islam or the true meaning of life though the way it has been consumed by people these days is radical they feel in order for it to be good it must have a great beat and filled with outrage consumed with curses and things that don’t have no meaning in life the words hiphop and rap IMO have greatly become in the minds of most that it has to have beats curses etc the wording the wording has a completely different definition know no one will look at it as poetry or meaning of life or a call to Islam .hip hop and rap in minds have become filled with what we call haram and what they call great music so in the general sence the call to Islam by hiphop or rap with no music or bad words I’d rather call it strong poetry ..

    • Sammer says:

      There’s nothing wrong with music free of lewdness as well. The issue is not as clear cut as one may think as the author correctly points out…it’s a controversial topic.

  2. I’m glad this article made to Suhaib Webb’s website, of all places. In my experience, I don’t think there is enough recognition given to the pioneering contributions of Black Muslims within the Muslim community at large for various reasons, for it wasn’t the bearded, thobe wearing Arabs or Desis that penetrated the ghettos with Islam, but rather, it was no doubt the early Hip-Hop artists.

    I mean really, consider this: the first time I ever heard Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim or Allah or Qur’an was in a rap song – not from a conservative, bearded sheikh from over seas or a hijabi or a niqabi or even from a recitation of the Qur’an itself but from a rap song. In fact, were I betting man, I would bet hip-hop introduced a significant number of people in the 80s and 90s to Muslim terminology. Just think about that for a moment and let it marinate. We would do well to learn from this…

    • Ahmad says:

      I believe Imam Suhaib himself would attest that hip-hop had a significant influence on him embracing Islam.

      • True, but since he subscribes to the Maliki madhhab, for which music is deemed forbidden if I’m not mistaken (I very well could be mistaken though), I figured he might not necessarily put it out there as such. Perhaps I’m not giving the imam enough credit. :)

        • Ibn Abdul Rahim says:

          Not everyone gets a chance to be sponsored by community to go and study in al Azhar. Take example of India. Entire subcontinent had Islam spread through several channels majority being Sufi. Today look at a commoon Indian. He is a part sufi, part ashari and part Hanafi. There is nothing wrong in choosing a fiqh of their choice but those practices remain. One has to be very very careful about how we get our Islam from. As for music being controversial. Thank you for someone above at least appreciating that fact and we have a hadith to stay away from doubtful matters and there is no doubt in that hadith. None of the first three generation people went through spreading Islam with hip hop, but they went through lingo of people so they may understand. Hip hop music is not lingo of people. I admire the courage and resistance african american community has put to stay put on Islam amidst tides. may Allah accept from them. I do not find any roots for music or hip hop culture to be Islamic. I have my right to believe this.

  3. Yasmin says:

    Mashallah, this is such a interesting post! I hope that some non-muslims read it as well so they know that Muslims also had a significant role in the begining of this type of music! Many people will likely find this to be very interesting!

  4. dreamer says:

    Assalam u Alyakum,

    Excellent! The Last Poets have a tremendous catalog that deserves more recognition. Thanks for drawing attention to their work and it’s Muslim contributors.

    Peace,

  5. The Hijabi Revolution Will Not be Televised says:

    MashAllah! As the writer eludes, Islam has penetrated so many of the grittier facets of American life. I woul venture to say that in doing so, it has drawn many people to the deen. I would also say that many of the Sahabah themselves came from a very gritty way of life before joining Islam-Abu Sofian for one instance stands out to me. May Allah reward those who brought this piece to the world wide web. Ameen.

  6. Hussein says:

    This is also the foundation of the slam poetry of today. I am sick and tired of everything being corrupted and then reprocessed. Most of what has happened to rap and hip-hop today has made minstrel shows out of the seriousness of the topics at hand. And, the reason is because of deliberate misguidance by those that have the machinery to make things “popular”.

    I remember listening to the last poets as a child (I’m 43 now) and it was impressive. I remember when the rap and hip-hop of my generation picked up this so-called Street poetry, but, very little homage was given to the generation that came before, because, what they discussed was taboo and too rough for the White society. The Whites continued to call it “Jungle Music” and discredit the poetry and the poets themselves. That has been the way since the founding of this country and before it.

    So, when it made it to white suburbia it had to be “dealt” with in a way to make it palatable to their society. How was this done? First by watering the poetry down, then by dumbing it down, and finally trying to kill its soul and social relevance.

    I very much appreciate you putting this article on your site, Jazakhallah Khair, and I remember when the Poets put out an album either in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s trying to reclaim that which was given the generation before mine and it the popular press it was derided. Fortunately, groups like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, Digable Planets, The Fugees, Common, the Locks, The Roots, and Nappy Roots to name a few have not forgotten the struggle nor have they forgotten their predecessors upon whose shoulders they stand as a foundation that keeps them strong.

    Ma’ salaama

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