Jehron Muhammad: Islam’s influence on hip-hop

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Minister Louis Farrakhan (center) with Hip Hop Since 1987 interviewer E-Money and Tahirah X.

The influence of Islam on black music in general, and hip-hop in particular, is a matter of record.

Early hip-hop was rife with the influences of the Nation of Islam and its offspring, the Five Percent Nation. Their Islam-rooted language penetrated and influenced mainstream hip-hop.

This influence appears to be coming full circle. Last year, rapper Jay Electronica emerged from exile to a Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival wearing a Fruit of Islam uniform and flanked by besuited members of the Fruit of Islam. During the festival, Jay Z removed a “glistening” Five Percent Nation medallion from his neck and placed it over the head of Electronica.

This year, during a national tour to drum up support for the “Justice or Else”-themed 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan met with and gained the endorsement of America’s most influential hip-hop artists, including Ice Cube, Rick Ross and Kanye West. Farrakhan’s history of settling beefs between rappers is a source of his influence. His counsel among artists is much sought after. 

Recently, for example, Viacom, the owner of BET (Black Entertainment TV), announced that its hip-hop awards show would be held on the same day as the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March commemoration. Russell Simmons, hip-hop’s most influential ambassador, demanded  that BET choose another date to hold its awards show. Viacom rescheduled.

The fact that rap groups like Public Enemy sampled portions of Minister Farrakhan’s speeches in their songs and used the “Security of the First World” (S1W), sometimes dressed in white Fruit of Islam uniforms, shows Islam’s early influence on hip-hop.

This synergy between Islam and black music really resonates in Philadelphia, according to Columbia University professor Hisham Aidi.

“At the heart of these decades-old attempts to use faith and art for community building stands Luqman Abdul Haqq, a real-estate developer who has harnessed the energies of diverse Muslim groups to revitalize Philadelphia’s southeast area. Better known as Kenny Gamble, he is the founder of Philadelphia International Records and is considered one of the fathers of disco and R&B - specifically, a sub-genre called the Philadelphia Sound,” Aidi says.

During a recent meeting with local hip-hop and spoken-word artists gathered to discuss the upcoming 20th anniversary of the MMM, Gamble talked about the importance of “message music,” and the fact that much of his interest in developing the South Philadelphia neighborhood he grew up in came out of the positive messages that he included in many of the songs he and his partner, Leon Huff, wrote. Many of these songs he said were influenced by Nation of Islam patriarch Elijah Muhammad and his “do for self” program.     

In Ice Cube’s new movie, “Straight out of Compton,” he actually plays a clip of a Farrakhan speech. Commenting on Cube’s role in the film Farrakhan said he didn’t know Cube was such a lyricist. He said the white manager of the rap group NWA in the film represented whites seeing “merit in our talent and desiring to exploit it for their personal gain. Make us famous, but keep us dumb.” 

Farrakhan, who in recent months has sat with many of hip-hop’s most prolific artists, including Eminem, Ice Cube and Kanye West, said that he sees “the greatness in them to educate our people with the right wisdom and beat in their raps. I sit with them because they are the natural leaders of young people all over the earth.” 

During the interview, the 82 year-old Farrakhan said, “Pain is the mother of creativity. It is out of our pain that all these musical genres came.”

Farrakhan, who is an accomplished violinist and former calypso singer, in the past has said, we’ve been “socially engineered into madness through music.” He also said during the interview that he told hip-hop artists the same way they rap about violence and sexual encounters with women, “they can turn [that] around and teach through rap and the beauty of the rhythms.

“I see greatness in them to educate our people,” said Farrakhan, “with the right wisdom and beat in their raps.”


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