By Rasul Miller
Several authors have written about the long relationship between Black American Muslims and jazz. Much has been made of the ways in which some of the most prominent artists in the genre, including Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Dakota Staton, and a host of others, demonstrated varying degrees of interest in the faith. Thus far, most academic writers concerned with the subject have focused on the Ahmadiyya movement and its efforts to spread its particular understanding of Islamic theology and practice among Black American communities beginning in the 1920’s. This does not, however, capture the entire story. Considerable numbers of Black American jazz musicians, as well as members of the Black Arts Movement which emerged during the 1960’s and 70’s, demonstrated an interest in virtually all of the various expressions of Islam that took root within the Black American community over the course of the 20th century. In New York City, the oldest Sunni Muslim houses of worship, Brooklyn’s Islamic Mission of America founded in the late 1930’s, attracted many of the musicians that made up Brooklyn’s legendary jazz scene. Bilal Abdurahman, an accomplished percussionist, educator, and cultural ambassador was a fixture within this community. Along with his wife, Rakhia Abdurahman, Bilal made a deep impact on several New York City communities through arts and culture.
Bilal Abdurahman was born in June of 1928. As a young man during the 1940’s, Bilal Abdurahman worked as an illustrator for a local Brooklyn newspaper, while simultaneously studying music. He took special interest in the music and percussion instruments of the African continent. Like many Black American artists of the time, his interest in African art was coupled with a broader interest in African history, which led him to explore new spiritual traditions. In particular, he began to study Islam and the Afrocentric Hebrew tradition — both of which had become staples within the Black communities of New York City and several other American urban centers. It was also around this time that Bilal met a young woman who worked at one of the publications for which he would occasionally provide artwork. In the years that followed, Bilal and Rakhia Abdurahman married and undertook a lifelong journey of spiritual discovery and artistic and entrepreneurial endeavor.
The couple began to further investigate Islam at the Islamic Mission of America in Brooklyn (also referred to as the State Street Mosque and, more recently, Masjid Daoud), under the guidance of the communities founder Shaykh Daoud Ahmed Faisal and his wife, Khadijah. The two embraced Islam in the late 1940’s and became fixtures within their community. Bilal and Rakhia, who took these names after they adopted the faith, were among the most active members of what was, at the time, the largest and most prominent Sunni Muslim institution in the city. As a result, they regularly interacted with a diverse congregation of worshipers from around the globe. The mosque was also attended by a growing community of skilled musicians including the bassist and oud player Ahmed Abdul Malik, the trombonist Hajj Daoud Haroon, and the trumpeter Rajab Abdul-Wahab. As Bilal’s renown as a multi-reed player and percussionist grew, he became a regular collaborator with Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who produced a number of records that fused jazz with African and Middle Eastern musical forms. During the 1950’s, the two participated in the famed weekly jam sessions at the Putnam Central Club that typified the remarkable jazz scene that flourished in Brooklyn during the era. These jam sessions were attended by jazz luminaries like Max Roach, Randy Weston, Wynton Kelly, Charles Mingus, and so many others.
The role of Sunni Muslim artists, several of whom attended the State Street Mosque, within this community of artists in Brooklyn from the 1940’s to the 1970’s has received little attention. However, Bilal and Rakhia Abdurahman certainly did their part to further the cultural awareness of their community. They created two institutions to that end: The African Quarter and Ethno Modes Folkloric Workshop. The first was a restaurant that served African cuisine and provided live and recorded jazz and African music. The restaurant hosted dignitaries from newly independent African nations during the 1960’s and, on at least one occasion, was visited by none other than Malcolm X. The second, Ethno Modes Folkloric Workshop, was a non-profit organization that provided demonstrations of African instruments at museums throughout Brooklyn. Such demonstrations were well attended, and offered members of the community a chance to learn more about the music and culture of the African continent. Bilal, who also worked as an educator in the New York City public school system, cherished the opportunity to increase the community’s knowledge and to give young people culturally enriching experiences. These workshops evolved into full-on ‘cultural shows’ that also showcased Islamic and African-inspired clothing. For Bilal and Rakhia, cultural education, rather than proselytization, became the preferred method of contributing to the broader community’s knowledge and appreciation of their Islamic faith.
Through Ethno Modes, Bilal and Rakhia took several trips to the African continent, where Bilal conducted further research into various African musical traditions. The couple developed relationships with Muslim communities on the continent that last to this day. In addition to appearing on several recordings with other prominent jazz artists, Bilal produced three albums of his own during the 1970’s. These albums were educational projects, intended to introduce students and others to African instruments and African and African American traditions of music and poetry, and to develop rhythmic coordination and better motor control in children. His passions for both music and education motivated his work throughout his entire career. In 1993, he published a memoir entitled, Life In The Key Of Me: The Bedford/Stuyvesant Renaissance, 1940s – 60’s Revisited, originally published by Bilal and Rakhia Publications. In 1994, the Brooklyn Borough President’s office issued a proclamation recognizing the work of Ethno Modes Folkloric Workshop. Bilal passed away in July of 1998. However, he is well remembered within the community that he spent his life serving. As an ambassador for his Muslim faith, as well as a promoter of arts and culture, Bilal Abdurahman’s example is extraordinary.
Rasul Miller is a PhD student in History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include Muslim movements in 20th century America and their relationship to Black internationalist thought and West African intellectual history.