Hip-Hop and Islam

When Columbia University PhD candidate (and project coordinator of the Malcolm X Project) Zahir Ali came to campus to talk about the intersection of hip-hop and Islam, he didn’t just come to lecture. Last Thursday Chase Auditorium was full of the sights and sounds of hip-hop itself, making the topic come alive.

When was the last time you heard Lauren Hill or Common played in a classroom? Or watched an Eric B. & Rakim video during a lecture? If you made it to last week’s talk about the relationship between Islam and hip-hop, given by Columbia University Ph.D. candidate Zaheer Ali and sponsored by the Muslim Students Association, your answer would be “last Thursday.”

Zaheer Ali

Giving the crowd in Chase Auditorium a sneak peak at a visualization tool he’s been using, Ali traced the history of Islam and hip-hop’s interaction starting in the early 1970s, when Africa Bambaata’s hip-hop awareness group Zulu Nation incorporated doctrines from the Nation of Islam.
Ali, who was also the project manager on Columbia University’s Malcolm X Project, began his talk by giving historical context to the relationship by discussing how both jazz musicians in the ’40s and ’50s and those in the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s adopted Islam as a way to “foster a black identity outside of the racial caste system of America.” Ali said that Dizzy Gillespie once wrote that his band members who had taken on Muslim names didn’t have to enter through the back door of hotels in the South; they weren’t subjected to Jim Crowe laws because they seemed foreign. “The Nation of Islam,” Ali said, “engaged in a kind of counter-citizenship, appealing to a sense of black identity that isn’t constrained to the nation-state of the U.S.”
Ali’s visualization tool, which was laid out like a highly interactive timeline, gave an icon to each of the three major strains of Islam (global Islam, Nation of Islam and the Five-Percent Nation) that have influenced hip-hop, so the audience could see the different movements’ prominence over time. And by playing musical examples from each movement in the different eras of hip-hop, we could hear how Islam’s influence over the art form has changed over time. (For instance, Ali’s timeline had a noticeable gap in it between 2002 and 2008: the era post-9/11 and pre-Obama’s election when Islam was “quieted” in popular culture.)
To illustrate the first phase, which Ali calls “Islam as foreign site,” he played Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” video, which exoticizes Islam by marrying a sample of a Hebrew singer to images of Quranic text and bellydancers. The second phase, which coincides with the Nation of Islam’s peak and the Million Man March in 1995, he calls the “pedagogical phase,” in which Islam is being used as a teaching tool. (For that he played some Queen Latifah and Ice Cube.) And the third phase, the “religious pluralism phase,” was typified by songs like Common’s “G.O.D.” and Jill Scott’s “A Long Walk,” both of which make a case for acceptance of varying religious ideas, quoting not just the Quran, but also the Bible.
One of Ali’s most interesting theses, however, had little to do with Islam and more to do with how hip-hop as an art form was created. Ali posited that hip-hop’s process of production “maps the geographies of black arts and jazz” by sampling from the archive of African American experience; a technique he ascribes to the cuts in music funding for urban public schools (e.g., since kids were no longer being taught how to play instruments, they had to learn to make music by sampling and mixing music that was already made).

Interested in learning more on the topic? Ali hopes to put his visualization tool up on his website soon, so keep your eyes peeled.