Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip-Hop in the United States
(New York University Press)
US: Dec 2016
Some years ago, a guy sidled up to me after a town hall meeting and asked, “Are you a Christian?”
I answered warily, not sure where the conversation was headed. He then handed me a mixtape of songs he thought I would enjoy.
It was mostly late-‘90s Christian hip-hop by artists like TobyMac. Such fare wasn’t high up on my personal playlist, but one song buried in the middle caught me by surprise: “Tennessee”, Arrested Development’s greatest hit.
I’d never heard the song before in a faith-based context, but it made perfect sense there. After all, it begins “Lord I’ve been real stressed out / down and out, losing ground.” Speech went on to describe his trials and tribulations, seeking a retreat from all that was making him wanna holler and throw up both his hands. That retreat, that idyllic place where he could restore himself, was Tennessee. In its coverage of the band’s sudden success, Time dubbed the song “an open letter to God.”
All of which is to say to all who’ve marveled at the spiritual passion inside Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and contributions to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo: spirituality in hip-hop is not news. While it hasn’t always come with the full-on gospel trappings Chance and Kanye brought, it’s been expressed by many a rapper in an introspective moment, from 2pac back in the day (“Heaven for a G”m among others) to Chance’s Chicago contemporary, Mick Jenkins. On a more braggadocian tip, there was Run-DMC’s 1993 “Down with the King”, subtly foreshadowing the future Reverend Run. And then there’s Kirk Franklin, who proved that church-ified hip-hop (or, if you prefer, street-ified gospel) could, with the proper showmanship, strike a sanctified chord.
But there’s a more subtle strain emerging in the connection between hip-hop and faith. It’s not likely to win Grammys anytime soon. It may be unfamiliar to non-believers, and may not be obviously apparent even if you’re looking right at it. It branches beyond music to incorporate fashion, performance, and activism. It has ancestors in previous strains of black life, but is wholly of today’s moment. And one significant nexus of it isn’t all that far from Chance’s South Side base.
By the way: the faith I’m speaking of here is Islam.
The Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), a center in the southwest section of Chicago, was the focal point of anthropologist Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer’s research into an emerging Muslim youth culture. She spent time with young Muslims who draw upon hip-hop culture to shape both their faith and their activism. In Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States, she describes how many young Muslims, both black and non-black, frame the practice of their faith through hip-hop and other traditions of black culture, politics and style—often to the dismay of other Muslims.
Her guides into the Muslim Cool world (whom she refers to as her “teachers”) have created this sub-sub-culture as an affirmation that all the lives within them matter—their artistic lives, their political lives, their ancestral lives, and their spiritual lives. And they live these lives inter-connectedly: those who are black don’t stop being black to pray, and none of them stop being Muslim to drop some knowledge on the beat.
First, a few words about IMAN: it’s much more activist community center than mosque. Not surprisingly, it’s involved in the fight against proposals to ban or restrict immigration to the US from Muslim countries; it announced plans to join other activist organizations in a late-February protest at the Trump Tower in Chicago. It works to ease tensions between local Muslim and/or Arab corner store owners and their black customers, helps former prisoners re-enter society by providing job training in green industries, and trains young people in organization building and program development.
It also hosts Community Café, an arts series featuring Muslim (and sometimes non-Muslim) performers with a socially conscious focus. Many of the performances and performers (Adbul-Khabeer was one of them) are either hip-hop through and through or deeply influenced by it. This performance series is part of the way of life she dubbed Muslim Cool, deriving the moniker from Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s 2009 documentary, New Muslim Cool.
This way of life is not a repudiation of Islam. Those who practice it, according to Abdul-Khabeer’s research and immersion, do not seem to be any more or less devout than other Muslims of their generation. But they bring their unapologetic blackness, or sympathy with it, to their unapologetic Muslimness. Many Muslim Cool women, for example, wear a hijab, but they rock it in a non-traditionally Muslim way, incorporating head wrapping techniques from black culture and calling it a “‘hoodjab”.
Muslim Cool also has a lot of hip-hop in it. Check that: a lot of hip-hop in it. It includes rappers who speak both as politically conscious young people and spiritually conscious Muslims (in other words, don’t expect tales about the trap life). It also includes DJs who might scratch or sample an Islamic-based recording, but take great pains to not disturb any sacred text. Muslim Cool people seek to live out hip-hop’s most progressive and community-minded values; they embrace this mindset as a vehicle for living their faith in the world.
All this is a different breed from the Nation of Islam, a constant of life in the urban ‘hood for generations. The Muslim Cool generation draws more from traditional Muslim teaching than from Elijah Muhammad’s interpretations of it. But that doesn’t mean a Muslim Cool brotha can’t be as sharply dressed as the bowtied brotha hawking the NOI newspaper The Final Call while you’re stuck at a traffic light. It’s also not an offshoot of the Five Percenter ethos, which was a highly influential strain of early hip-hop through the likes of Rakim and Big Daddy Kane (but Abdul-Khabeer traces how key concepts, including “knowledge of self”, weave through various historical strains of what she calls Black Islam into today’s Muslim Cool rap).
Another thing Muslim Cool isn’t, Abdul-Khabeer learned, is universally liked. She encountered numerous Muslims who disapproved of such behavior, claiming it besmirches Islam. This wasn’t purely a generational divide, either; at an Islamic convention in suburban Chicago, other young Muslims were among the most vociferous protestors of a Muslim Cool hip-hop performance. One sharp-dressed Muslim Cool dandy reported more than one comment about his wardrobe choices somehow making him seem less “Muslim” among his peers and even a bit less masculine, despite his extensive study of the Qur’an.
Abdul-Khabeer moves around the conflict in an academician’s way, which makes reading Muslim Cool a slog at times for non-academics. But it seems that what other Muslims dislike about Muslim Cool might all dial back to its irreverence and swagger, which is wholly rooted in its blackness and hip-hopness. Indeed, Abdul-Khabeer notes some measure of anti-black sentiment in the Muslim community, citing how some Muslims don’t readily accept traditions from non-Arab African countries like Senegal as sufficiently “Muslim” enough for their liking. Muslim Cool, as she paints it, is distinctively a black thing, or at least a black-rooted thing, and various other Muslims seem to be unable or unwilling to accept it or any other manifestation of blackness as another way of being Muslim.
The irony is that black folk themselves likely don’t or wouldn’t dismiss Muslim Cool as an affront to their traditional values. Abdul-Khabeer doesn’t look at the reactions of non-Muslim blacks to Muslim Cool, but it’s more than conceivable that other blacks would regard Muslim Cool as another way of being black, regardless of faith, and not think much of it one way or another. As I noted earlier, Islam is not an unknown presence in the ‘hood. In addition to the NOI, Abdul-Khabeer discusses the sartorial phenomenon known as the Philly Beard, which I saw in abundance during my time in Philadelphia in the mid-oughts. These long, full beards were originally known as the “Sunni Beard” worn by Muslim men as a declaration of their commitment to their faith. In time, non-Muslim brothas in Philly started sporting them too, years before they became a hipster fashion statement (and who’s to say they didn’t influence that trend?).
As if to underscore Muslim Cool’s black roots, Abdul-Khabeer looks back at posters advertising IMAN-sponsored Community Café events in 2008 and 2009 (the latter in New York City, which she helped promote using her contacts as a native New Yorker). The 2008 poster was heavy on hip-hop, featuring the likes of Ali Shabazz Muhammad and Brother Ali. The 2009 poster represented a wide swath of the black panorama: H. Rap Brown and MC Lyte; Coretta Scott King and Chuck Berry. While Malcolm X’s visage loomed large in both pieces, the broader message was a linkage of Community Cafés (and the progressive hip-hop they showcase) to the broader legacy of the Black Arts Movement of the late ‘60s, and black progressive politics in general. She goes on to specify much of IMAN’s philosophical grounding in the black progressive struggle, greatly informing how it responds to today’s fierce urgencies.
As it happens, Muslim Cool arrives at a particularly perilous moment for Muslims in America—it was published just after Donald Trump was elected President. But it calls to mind a curious notion: for most Americans, the face of Islam, or at least the one they’ve been conditioned to fear, is not black. While Trump and his toadies want to shut the door on Muslim immigration from certain Arab countries, they likely have no clue that there’s been a black Muslim presence here for hundreds of years (Sapelosquare.com, the website Abdul-Khabeer founded as a repository of black Muslim history, is named for an early black Muslim community). That doesn’t mean that black Muslims are any less subject to microaggressions, discrimination, and other acts against them because of their faith. But it does suggest that even among that sector of the populace that wants Muslims gone from sight, the blackness of black American Muslims may render them a bit less visible than their Arab counterparts.
None of that means that Muslim Cool hasn’t been affected by post-9/11 paranoia. Abdul-Khabeer discusses at length a 2014 tour of the United Kingdom, sponsored by the American embassy there, by Muslim-American and other hip-hop artists. She can’t help noting the similarity between this tour and state-sponsored foreign tours by jazz musicians in the ‘50s and ‘60s, designed to promote America as a culturally enlightened land. What she encountered, aside from several poorly promoted events, was the evidence of Muslim Cool stirrings abroad. But she also realized how tricky it can be for organizations like IMAN and Muslim Cool artists to negotiate an age-old fine line: acceptance and visibility on one hand, opposition to discriminatory practices on the other.
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It makes both cultural and political sense that such a movement would be happening in Chicago (although Abdul-Khabeer interviews people from other cities, the book is all but specifically Chicago-centric). The NOI is headquartered there, so a Muslim community has been part of the ‘hood for years. Another black Chicago tradition has been the cultivation of its own sense of style and creative expression. Add to that the growing politicization of black youths as a result of economic and educational divides (and, oh yeah, racist policing), and the ongoing surge of activist culture production in response.
So it seems natural, if not inevitable, that young black Muslims would feel the need to define themselves in this space, and bring righteous panache to the process. What remains to be seen is how widespread Muslim Cool becomes, and how it will affect both Muslimness and blackness.
Muslim Cool’s detractors dictate faith in its most austere trappings over hip-hop, or style in general. Muslim Cool’s practitioners are finding ways to incorporate both, without sacrificing anything integral to either. Where Chance injects spirituality into hip-hop, Muslim Cool injects hip-hop into spirituality. And in doing so, as Abdul-Khabeer’s Muslim Cool-hunting presents, it’s expanding the ways in which black history, culture, and politics get expressed, re-defined, and redeployed into new contexts.
It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone—Muslim or not, black or not—that a thing like Muslim Cool exists. Being black in America has always required a measure of cleverness and attitude, to keep one’s wits and self-esteem intact and make better days possible. Apparently, being Muslim here can call for that, too.
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