To Be Muslim And Cool

Sapelo Square founder and senior editor Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer recently released her long awaited work, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States. Muslim Cool is an in-depth look into what it means to be Muslim in America and how Hip Hop guided Islam’s pathway into popular culture.

Sapelo Square had a chance to speak with Dr. Abdul-Khabeer about the inspiration for her book as well as the link between Hip Hop and Islam.

SAPELO: What was the basic inspiration for this book? What made you want to get into this particular subject matter in terms of dealing with Islam and culture and hip hop?

DR. ABDUL-KHABEER: A couple of things. A lot of Muslims in the United States talk about 9/11 as kind of a watershed moment that made them change what they think it means to be Muslim in the United States. For me, 9/11 wasn’t that kind of moment. Personally, I didn’t feel that way but what I did begin to notice was the way Muslims as a group were being represented in the media. News media, popular culture, that sort of thing. I noticed how Muslims like myself, Muslims who were Black, Muslims who were Latinx were absent from all those depictions and the conversations and the histories that come with them were absent as well. So when people talked about Islam it was either that 1965 was an important date because that’s when the immigration laws changed or 9/11 was an important date because that’s when Muslims became a “thing.” But that’s not really the whole story of Muslims in this country. So seeing that,  I began to think about how I may want to respond to it and that’s what actually brought me to graduate school. This project in particular? I’m a hip hop head. I love hip hop. My first research project on Islam and Hip Hop was when I was studying in Damascus at an institute. US Embassies have these cultural centers where people in that country can learn about American culture. The year I was in Syria, the American Cultural Center in Damascusy  had scheduled a Black History Month program where they were showing He Got Game, Boyz In Tha Hood and Love & Basketball and I was appalled. I talked to the guy who served as the cultural attache who was a friend of a friend of mine and told him he should invite Dr. Sulyman Nyang from the United States or something like that if you’re going to do programming. Of course they weren’t going to do any of that in terms of bringing someone from America, so they said “why don’t you give a talk.” So I thought I’d give a talk on Islam and Hip Hop. I used the computer that they had to do some research and pull things together and gave the presentation to a predominantly Syrian audience and this experience boosted my own interest in the topic. Being a hip hop head and also not seeing people like myself being represented in the public conversation on Muslims on the United States, I think that inspired this project.

SAPELO: The project is Muslim Cool, not to be confused with the documentary New Muslim Cool, which also dealt with Hip Hop.

DR. ABDUL-KHABEER: I’m a senior editor on that project. I was already working on this topic and Jennifer Taylor who is the director reached out to me to participate. But they’re different. New Muslim Cool was Jennifer’s term but I didn’t like the “New” part because I felt like it isn’t new. One of the things that is really important to the kind of work that I do and what this book is doing is talking about not just what’s changing but also continuity. The kind of things that link us across time. Muslim Cool is an example of that. There are new parts of it, things that are somewhat different but it really is this continuity. It really is linking the early history of Muslims, of Hip Hop, of Black People and I thought that was really important so that’s why, which her permission, I took part of the term and made it my own.

SAPELO: The book does deal a lot with Hip Hop and race. What is that connection within the book in terms of not only Hip Hop being connected to Islam but Hip-Hop via African Americans being connected to Islam? What influence does that have not only on the culture but on the religion itself?

Photo courtesy of Eve Rivera

DR. ABDUL-KHABEER: The way that I talk about this and this is what my first chapter is on, it’s called the “Loop of Muslim Cool” and the first bend in that loop is the ways in which Black Islam influenced Hip Hop. And I use that term “Black Islam” to talk about all the different and diverse movements of Black people who engage Islam as a religious and spiritual tradition. So I’m talking about the Moorish Science Temple, Ahmadiyya Community, The Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths , Sunni, Shi’a, Nation of Islam, a really broad range. I talk about them as a group collectively because I think not only are they engaging Islam, but they’re engaging Islam because they have this singular commitment to Black Liberation. Islam becomes a way that they seek that in terms of individual empowerment as well as community empowerment and activism. Black Islam shaped Hip Hop and what I argue in the book is the primary and fundamental influence that Black Islam has had on Hip Hop is what people in the (hip hop) community call “knowledge of self” or the 5th element of Hip Hop. Knowledge of self is this idea of being able to understand where you come from, knowing your history so you can interpret your present and do some action so you can change the future and make an impact on the world. Knowledge of self is a way of living, being, thinking and interacting with other people, with the divine and the natural world, etc. So I say knowledge of self is the fundamental influence and impact that Islam had on Hip Hop because knowledge of self is an idea that comes into Hip Hop through the Nation of Islam specifically. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad in his book Message to the Black Man gives this exegesis and explanation of knowledge of self. You find some of the Godfathers of Hip Hop talking about the Nation of Islam and how their messaging shaped the way they were thinking and how they were creating Hip Hop culture. You find this appearing through Hip Hop whether it’s sampling Malcolm X or Minister Louis Farrakhan, whether it’s talking about different Islamic concepts, diets, all these ethical ways of being. How do you become righteous, how do you be a good person, how do you live in the world. I think this is what Black Islam has given to Hip Hop in the first Loop and then loop goes around…you have this ethical imperative, this way of living righteously that Black Islam gives to Hip Hop and it really permeates Hip Hop music in many ways. It makes this impact, then you have in the current moment which I’m studying, you have these young Muslims who are not just Black, they’re South Asian, they’re Arab Americans, and they’re coming to Hip Hop and music and finding Islam in it, finding knowledge of self in it and returning back to Black Islam making this full loop.

SAPELO: Because of the current political climate, everyone is talking about Islam. At one point in time Islam was a dominant force in Hip Hop that now is not as prevalent as it once was. What factors do you think played into Hip Hop taking a backseat as opposed to where it had more influence in the culture in the 80s and the 90s?


Photo courtesy of Eve Rivera

DR. ABDUL-KHABEER: On one level you had Brand Nubian talking about injustice or you had Public Enemy citing Minister Louis Farrakhan or you had A Tribe Called Quest sampling Imam Siraj Wahaj, you have these explicit references to Islam so you couldn’t deny they were there. Today you don’t find that as much in commercially profitable Hip Hop music. I think a lot of things are missing from commercially profitable Hip Hop. A lot of messages, themes and ideas are missing. Women are missing. At the same time, I think you still find it. For example, Chance the Rapper presents himself as a Christian rapper in his identity but at the same time Kanye West will still make references or has “Alhamdulillah” on his song or Chance (will feature) Jay Electronica on a song, so there’s a way in which Islam and Muslims are still there in how Hip Hop expresses its spirituality and particularly its ethics. In my book I talk about this one line from Nicki Minaj’s Itty Bitty Piggy in 2009 where she has this line “I don’t eff with pigs like Assalaam Alaikum”. That’s also really important. What is she doing with that line? She’s saying people who say “Assalaam Alaikum” don’t mess with the Police. It’s embedded that the Police are corrupt. People who as “Assalam Alaikum” are righteous. All that stuff is embedded in those words that she said and that song is not a “conscious” Hip Hop song. I think there is still kind of an awareness in the Hip Hop community about what Islam means, who Muslims are and what they are supposed to stand for. Knowledge of Self is in all kinds of Hip Hop, music and culture, in a way I feel Islam hasn’t gone away. It doesn’t look like saying “Assalamu Alaikum” or “Peace to the Gods,” people might not be saying that but they have a particular kind of politics and consciousness. I think is representative of what Islam has meant and continues to mean to Hip Hop music and culture.

SAPELO: Can Hip Hop be the unifier within the Muslim community?

DR. ABDUL-KHABEER: It does. One of the things I talk about in the book and I found is, it does. Muslim Cool is a way of being and thinking about what it means to be Muslim in the United States. Doing that engages Blackness to counter anti-blackness that we see both in the Muslim community in the US as well as the broader American society. I encountered Muslim Cool amongst young Muslims from a variety of ethnic backgrounds in a number of ways — how they thought about it, conceptualizing, talking what it means to be Muslim and their style and their activism. For example,I talk about a “’hoodjab.” I got this name from this young South Asian American Muslim woman who is at this elite university and during her internship her white supervisor said “you’re so hood i’ma call you hoodjabi” and that was hilarious but it was also kind of interesting because why would this white woman call this South Asian upper middle class Muslim woman “’hood”?


Photo courtesy of Eve Rivera

I was talking to someone about this scarf style. We know it’s an Afro-diasporic style. It’s a way in which the women of the African diaspora have been covering their hair in this country. We know that Black Muslim Women have made this style of headscarf Islamic. They’ve made it something Muslim women can wear as part of the obligation to be modest in dress. Black Muslim Women then create a stylistic possibility for all Muslim women. And another girl who was also South Asian said “I did like it because it was cool. I saw Erykah Badu wearing it. I can show my earrings when I wear my scarf like this.” And then also for her because she wasn’t Black she could be Muslim without being Muslim in a way that is stereotypical, but she waited before she started wearing this head scarf style because she knew it had these cultural implications and she didn’t want to be “coppin’ someone else’s style.” How did she come to that kind of awareness? She came to that awareness because she was an activist at IMAN (Inner City Muslim Action Network)  in Chicago so she was engaged in Hip Hop based activism working with young people. IMAN is located in the southwest side of Chicago which is a working class, predominately Black and Mexican neighborhood and they do a lot of work on advocacy for the community, arts activism in the community, and services for the community. She has been engaged in IMAN’s work so she has real life relationships with Black people. They weren’t just figures on the TV. They weren’t these two dimensional things. She recognized what that would mean so she waited until she felt it was appropriate and she was comfortable enough to do that without being disrespectful to the community that she was taking her style from. I think that’s really important, specifically for the non-black Muslims in my work is that when they engaged Blackness they could engage it in a way where it wasn’t “it’s just a fad”and “it’s just cool.” Because of their work and because of Hip Hop they actually engage blackness to better understand their own position as racial subjects. The girl, for example, why did she pause? Because she was South Asian. She was upper middle class. She was from the suburbs. So she knew, “what does it mean for me to do this kind of stuff because of my class position I’m privileged, because I’m Muslim I’m privileged. Because people assume I’m Muslim because I look Brown.” So she developed a particular kind of consciousness, a particular way of speaking, so when she’s engaged in blackness she’s doing it to understand her own position and then to work with other people to really try to help us eradicate racial inequality in our society. I think Hip Hop enables all of that. I think Hip Hop and Islam enabled that because of the kind of knowledge of self that Black Islam gave Hip Hop, because of the language the Hip Hop community has been committed to, the ethical ways of being in the world and of spreading knowledge and spreading truth, I think that enabled this young woman to come into this and do something really different.

Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop can be purchased from NYU Press. Also visit Dr. Abdul-Khabeer’s website and be sure to follow her on Twitter.

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