Segment 5 – Islamic Hip-Hop

There is so much Islamic hip-hop out there! I can’t hope to cover it all in this short post. But here goes.

Firstly, the audio from today’s segment, sans music for legal reasons: 

The distinction has to be made between Muslims singing hip-hop, and actual ‘Muslim hip-hop.’ There are some quite famous examples of the former (Akon, Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco and many others are either practising Muslims or grew up in Muslim families) while the latter is more of a niche genre. Like the Christians we’ve discussed in previous posts, these artists see hip-hop as a “tool for the sake of Allah,” a method to spread the word about their deen (faith) to other Muslims and to a broader community. [I would suggest that there is a distinction in the way that proselytising versus non-proselytising religions use music. Members of religions that seek to convert people, such as Christianity and Islam, appear to see music as a tool of the divine, a method to spread the word; musicians of other faiths may simply be exploring something that they personally find important.]

These Muslim artists produce ‘conscious hip-hop,’ that is, hip-hop with a message to push, with an aim to better people’s lives and society. A common thread appears to be a distaste for mainstream hip-hop, with its “celebration of gun play and misogyny.” The leader of Mecca2Medina was part of the successful group Cash Crew before his sheikh suggested he turn away from the mainstream scene and form a group dedicated to Islam.

The Brothahood, who I’ve quoted twice already, are a perfect example. They hail from Melbourne, Australia, and all met at a Muslim Youth Camp. They sing explicitly about “life in Australia post-September 11 and Cronulla,” referring to the two (unfortunately) most significant events which have impacted Australians’ perception of Muslims. They “use hip-hop as a tool to break down stereotypes and misconceptions,” presenting an image of a vibrant, young Muslim identity that is not only consonant with, but fully engaged with an Australian patriotism. We played their song ‘Takbir‘ on air.

Mecca2Medina, from London, focus on more traditional Islamic subject matter. We played their song ‘Truth Seekers‘ on air. They are inspired by, and also play, nasheed music – that is, traditional Arabic vocal music sung a cappella over percussion. Other Muslim artists have suggested that if you speed up this kind of Islamic poetry reading, and put it to a beat, it sounds a lot like rapping.

Now as you can imagine, not all Muslim scholars are happy with this. A debate has raged within Islam since its inception over the status of music: is it halal or haram? That is, is it permitted, or not permitted, for Muslims to play music? There is much disagreement, and obviously the Muslim hip-hop artists take a liberal interpretation. A case can be made, on the basis of some passages from the Hadith (the collection of Muhammad’s apparent sayings, referred to for guidance after the Qur’an), that musical instruments are unlawful, i.e. haram. The 14th Century Middle Eastern scholar Ibn Taymiyyah is reputed to have said, “Listening to music and sinful fun are among what strengthens the satanic ways the most.” Generally, however, a more liberal line is taken, which says that music is only sinful when the content discusses sinful things – as much mainstream hip-hop presumably does.

I’ll leave it at that for now, but we’ve only just scratched the surface of Islamic hip-hop. We’ll come back to it another time, inshallah!

P.S. If you read a bit more on this topic online, you’ll find a fair bit of confusion between mainstream Islam and the Nation of Islam. Numerous early African-American rappers in the 80s and 90s, for example, were inspired by figures within the Nation of Islam. It is important to note that although this group uses Islamic discourse and teachings, it is primarily a politico-religious movement interested in race relations. It is rejected by mainstream Islamic institutions; its most famous proponent, Malcolm X, in fact left the group after he travelled to Mecca himself and converted to Sunni Islam, an act that contributed to his assassination by members of the Nation of Islam.

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