by Amirah Muhammad
My first instrument was my voice. Then, in sixth grade, I began learning how to play the trumpet. The trumpet not only introduced me to different music genres, but also to more of the beauty of black music. Black music is a big part of my identity just as much as being Black and Muslim. I knew how important it was and still is to celebrate Black music before I knew that Black Music Month existed a few years ago.
President Jimmy Carter designated June as Black Music Month in 1979 to recognize the contributions of Black music creatives in the United States. This initiative was advocated in part by Black creatives, including Luqman Abdul-Haqq, who many of us know as Kenny Gamble of Gamble and Huff.
Black Music Month celebrates Black music creatives who have impacted our culture. It is even more important to recognize the contributions of Black Muslims in the elevation of Black music and its identity. As a Black Muslim who loves to support creatives in the music industry, it is a beautiful time to recognize and show appreciation for my favorite Black music creatives.
One of the Black and urban music genres that I love but don’t talk about enough is jazz. This art form is so diverse in sound and has birthed many of the genres that are prominent today, especially hip-hop. Even though jazz is not the first Black art form ever or even in the United States, it is definitely the first Black art form that catapulted black art internationally , partially because of the technological advancements of the 20th century. We still see the effects of jazz, specifically jazz from the 1940s through the 1970s, today in many art forms.
Because of Islam’s rise in popularity in the United States in the 1900s, many jazz artists became Muslim and others were inspired by Islam and included elements of it in their music. According to an article by Hisham Aidi in Al Jazeera , John Coltrane had a lot of Islamic influence in his later works, specifically “A Love Supreme.” His first marriage to Juanita Naima Coltrane, as well as the artists he collaborated with, like McCoy Tyner and Yusef Lateef (who were both Black and Muslim jazz artists), helped to influence and create some of Coltrane’s most revered work. His work up until his death continued to reflect more of Islam’s influences on jazz. One of my personal favorites, saxophonist and bandleader Pharoah Sanders, worked with and contributed to Coltrane’s last few albums. Sanders’ few solo albums included Islamic influences, mainly of peace and remembrance. One of his songs is titled “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum Allah” (which can be interpreted as Alhumdulillah) and one of his albums is titled “Tauhid,” which we know as the oneness of Allah. A saxophonist who played with Pharoah Sanders’s band became the teacher of saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who you may have heard on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” and on his album, “The Epic.”
We cannot forget the drummer and bandleader Art Blakey, another convert to Islam. As bandleader of the Jazz Messengers, Blakey named the band based on Messengers’ abilities to spread the word of the religion: in this case, they spread jazz (and even the faith to some degree) to the masses. Even though he is not Muslim, Islamic influences run through the music of Nas, whose father, Olu Dara, toured with Blakey in the 1970s (see: Whispers). Another distant connection to Nas is Ahmad Jamal. A trip to Detroit and interactions with Muslims there brought the pianist and bandleader to Islam in the 1950s. Much of Jamal’s music influenced legends like Miles Davis who covered many of his songs. His 1970 album, “The Awakening,” is one of Jamal’s most popular albums and his recording of “I Love Music” is known as a popular hip-hop sample because of Nas’ “The World Is Yours.”
Much of the influence of Islam in jazz during that time came from Ahmadiyya and Eastern influences. Meanwhile, in soul and R&B, the Nation of Islam had a major influence in the 1950s and 1960s. Hip Hop saw influences from the Nation of Gods and Earths in the 1980s and 1990s. All of these Islamic influences continue to resonate in our music and provide us with strength, love and peace within ourselves as indigenous Black Muslims. Because of Black music and platforms like Black Music Month that provide the opportunity to learn more about Black music, Black Muslims will continue to be prevalent not only here in the United States but throughout the world, despite the (sometimes intentional) ways that our influence is marginalized.
Amirah Muhammad, also known as amirahrashidah, is a music advocate and curator that inspires independent music creatives to create conscious, authentic art and to be better informed as they take their music into the industry. As a blogger creating content for a few years, she has used her passion for the arts, the law, and community development, as well as her music background and membership in music organizations, to write about the music industry and culture as it relates to black and urban music creatives in hip-hop, R&B, and jazz. Amirah is the founder and editor of music blog Transcending Sound.