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Top Billin’: Muslim Cool on Left of Black

By Sapelo Square

This week, we invite you to watch to an episode from “Left of Black,” a weekly Black Studies webcast hosted by cultural critic and professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal. In this episode, Sapelo’s Senior Editor Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer discusses how she uses cultural anthropology and hip hop to explore the intersections of race, Islam and popular culture; most notably in her book Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States. She also explores these topics through her one-woman show, Sampled: Beats of Muslim Life. This performance piece, which fuses theater, poetry, and movement, was inspired by George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuff by Ntozake Shange.  

During this engaging interview, Dr. Abdul Khabeer shares her own relationship with hip hop and reminisces about the songs she grew up on, such as “Top Billin’” by Audio Two, and discussing their collective impact on her personal development. For example, she shares how hip hop artist Jean Grae’s cathartic storytelling offers a pathway to explore the art of lyricism outside of a masculine paradigm. In addition, she shares how both cultural and religious identities have formed her perspective. In particular, Abdul Khabeer credits her travel outside of the United States as the impetus for her to explore religious, racial and cultural identities among American Muslim communities through hip hop.

Check it out below!

Arts&CultureBlog

How I Learned to Breathe

By Rashida James-Saadiya

What function do my scars have, when the world is madly in love with them.

                                                                                                                  – Tariq Touré

Storytellers are carriers of history, cultural memory, resilience and hope. Tariq Touré is a storyteller, who uses poetry to shed light on social injustice, anti-Blackness and the complexities of the Black Muslim identity in America. His sophomore collection 2 Parts Oxygen: How I Learned to Breathe is a vulnerable exploration on fatherhood, identity and the arduous task of finding your own voice. This new work offers a 118-free verse poems, including a series of paintings illustrating themes around self-worth and healing. Born and raised in West Baltimore, Touré garnered national attention in 2017 for his critically acclaimed poem, “For the Love of The Game,” which highlighted the controversy surrounding athletes engaged in protest against police brutality. We spoke with Touré about his new book and how he came to use poetry as a  medium to create discourse on self-care, culture and Black Muslim narratives.

Sapelo: How did you discover that poetry was the way you wanted to communicate?

TT: I’ve written since I was about 7 years old intentionally. From poetry, to raps, to prose I’ve been really intrigued with language. My mother is an English major and a retired third grade teacher. My father is a retired Imam and currently teaches classical Arabic. Language and its power has always magnetized me. I didn’t believe my words had significant power until I started to share my writing in college. It was during a Black History month event [in February] and I was asked to give a speech. I just wrote a poem because I wasn’t that comfortable yet speaking publicly. Alhamdlillah, when I was done, there was a charged silence, and then an eruption of emotional applause. Since then, I’ve accepted I might have something that connects with folks. I’m humbled by it.

Realizing that words could create change sparked something in me.

Sapelo: Growing up, what literary influences inspired you?

TT: Yo, my mother wasn’t the type to shove books down my throat, but she did make sure that literature was falling out of every corner of my house, centering Black authors (laughs). I remember reading Maya Angelou early on — just passing through her poems and being touched by her force and grace. Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and even the writings of Marcus Garvey introduced me to a spectrum of voices. I also read the clever quirky stuff like Shel Silverstein, which was also cool to me. A shift for me happened when I read [George Jackson’s] Soledad Brother. George Jackson captured the political energy of his time. His words, just his words and ideas, pushed his brother to attempt to free him at all costs. Realizing that words could create change sparked something in me.

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Photo Credit: Devin Allen

I’m particularly intentional about how much space I allow racism and white supremacy to take up in my mind. There’s a material reality to it. I accept that, but my mind is my last safehouse

Sapelo: The world affects what and how we create. How has this particular social political landscape influenced your newest work?

TT: I’m particularly intentional about how much space I allow racism and white supremacy to take up in my mind. There’s a material reality to it. I accept that, but my mind is my last safehouse. 2 Parts Oxygen was a way for me to decentralize reactions to white supremacy. I think about Toni Morrison’s reflection on racism a lot when she says its function is to eat away at our minds at the most basic levels. With this political landscape attempting to choke the light out of so many marginalized people, I made a point to write about the light in my life, the things that helped me breathe through all [of] this chaos. The world in general was weighing heavily on me. I had to do something critical to become lighter. Maybe reading it will help others do the same, or at least add perspective.

 QiyamahOn the day all the Quran I memorized and forgot molds into a lion and gnaws my legs down to the bone. I will dress in my father’s kufi and Khamees, and scrub my hands until paragraphs begin to show. I am unsure of what verses testify against me. I am certain darkness, whenever I made time for it has blackened chambers in my heart. And despite our posture in prayer, or the position of the sun when we bow for asr, our bill is to be collected. If not for the marching army of supplications exhaled by our mothers, we spend eternity slaying beasts of no nation, cursing our hands for what they’ve touched [1]

Sapelo: The title of your book 2 Parts Oxygen: How I Learned to Breath  is a collection of prose exploring family, fatherhood and a deep desire for mental and spiritual wellness. The title alludes to the process of learning to heal.  How does the idea of healing or self-care play into this collection of free-verse poems?

TT: One of the things that was most important to me in developing this collection of poems was to let the art speak for what I was experiencing and digesting from the world around me. That being said, I realized that for a long time I was knowingly and willingly a participant in habits that were aiding in my own self-destruction. What I fear in this world that has put commodification above humanity is that the arduous process of walking through the fire of your own soul and mind has been reduced to conspicuous consumption. Basically, if you want to feel better society says, “Buy this. Take that. Look this way. And everything will be fine.” I believe language matters for marginalized and oppressed people, with this collection, I’m reminding myself to breathe. I am not whole or healed yet simply working to develop a better sense of self.

Sapelo: One of central themes in your sophomore book is family and the complexities and joy of being a Black father. What lessons have your children taught you?

TT: Having a family has given me a helicopter view of life. When I was young and slightly less stupid than I am now, I had no longitudinal perspective of life. Family sort of makes you [become] responsible for attempting to curate a future as best as possible. Being married to a phenomenal woman is a human reminder that our potential is nowhere near operating at its maximum level. My wife is one of the most ambitious people I’ve ever met. There’s a grounding element to it all. I guess the biggest impact my children have had on me is that I now have the patience to accept that no two days will be alike (laugh). Kids kind of push you to live in the now and cherish every moment. There’s two threads that I believe will stick out among many in this collection: one is time and the other is relationships. I hope people see the urgency of now and the urgency of pouring into the people you love.

I think about how our connection to Islam was interrupted by chattel slavery and how Allah decreed we’d find it again.

Sapelo: Cultural and spiritual imagery seems to be a recurring theme in this collection  — in your poem “I found God in a bean pie,” we find the lines: “ We have never had a home here. But lord knows we can turn a bando into paradise. Lord knows we can turn lemons into La Ilaha illallah.” Can you talk about this poems’ relationship to spirituality and the legacy of Black Muslims communities  in the United States?

TT: For many Black Muslims, Islam was/is a liberating force in their lives. As my mother and father would say Islam found so many Black people while they were searching. Many were searching for a way out from under oppression and the residue of subjugation.  It’s truly a beautiful thing to witness and be a part of this legacy. The bean pie is something you can literally taste that represents that triumph. I recently watched a video where my nephew who has an incredibly beautiful voice call the adhan during jumu’ah; afterwards, my father delivered the khutbah. It made me tear up.

I think about how our connection to Islam was interrupted by chattel slavery and how Allah decreed we’d find it again. Every part of that story is beyond fascinating and affirming for me. It’s built a resolve in myself and so many Black Muslims. There’s a pride you see in the eyes of  pioneering Muslim women and men, their walk is different, their talk is different. They’ve spent a lifetime reunited with a lost love and it shows in every aspect of their lives. Our legacy is one of rebellion in the pursuit of Allah’s light. We should celebrate every inch of our history.

[1] Toure, Tariq. 2 Parts Oxygen: How I Leared to Breathe. 2018, p. 33


Processed with VSCO with b5 presetRegarded by Hip Hop artist Black Thought as the “Amiri Baraka of our time” Tariq Touré is the soul stirring Baltimore born, Muslim griot, whose poetry carries ages wisdom in each letter. Touré’s debut collection of poems, Black Seeds, blitzed through the core of inequality, and proxy war on Black communities in America, winning Best Poetry book of Baltimore in 2016. His poems graced the pages of NAACP image award nominated book A Beautiful Ghetto by heralded photojournalist Devin Allen. In 2017, Touré summoned one of the most powerful oral depictions of the contradictions and conflicts surrounding NFL players and their right to free speech with his Al Jazeera produced poem, For the Love of The Game. The viral poem garnered the praise of civil rights icons such as Omar Suleiman.

Arts&CultureBlog

Back to Black: Are Black Muslims the new (old) face of American Islam?

Before the 1960s, the dominant images of U.S. Muslims highlighted in the media and popular culture were Black. Yet, today’s media portrayals overwhelmingly present Muslims as foreign to this land. We invite you to revisit a post written by Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer from August 7, 2017, titled “Back to Black: Are Black Muslims the new (old) face of American Islam?”

Dr. Khabeer discusses the use of media as a tool of erasure, upholding historic and contemporary forms of racial and religious marginalization, and calls for a more inclusive representation of Muslims.

by Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer

If you passed the magazine section at your local newsstand or grocery store recently you might have seen two Muslims, actor Mahershala Ali and model Halima Aden, gracing the covers of this month’s GQ and Allure magazines, respectively. This inclusion is notable in light of the Muslim Ban but also because the Muslims featured in these issues, which are dedicated to celebrating American diversity, are not “Brown“ but Black.

When it comes to Muslims in the media, the images are both plentiful and monolithic. Typically speaking, Muslims who make appearances in US media share two fundamental characteristics–they are “originally” from somewhere else and they are “brown” – in this case, either South Asian, Arab, or Middle Eastern. This is the case for negative portrayals, like your run-of-the-mill terrorist on primetime TV, and also in more complex depictions like Aziz Ansari’s character on Master of None. While it is true that many Muslims in the US are immigrants and people of color when depictions solely revolve around these two characteristics it helps to perpetuate the “foreign-ization“ of Americans who are Muslim and subsequently the mistaken idea that there is something intrinsically incompatible between Muslims and the United States. In a country where people who are anything other than white male Christians still have to prove their loyalty to flag and country, if Muslims are always non-white and not “originally” American then there is always the chance to tell them to “go home!”

Depictions of Muslims as “foreign” and “Brown” have not always dominated. Around 50 years ago, the dominant image of Muslims in US media was Black and native-born. Back then, they were called the “Black Muslims,” a term popularized by historian C. Eric Lincoln to refer to Black Americans who were members of the Nation of Islam. A precursor to the anti-Muslim racism of today, the Black Muslims were demonized in the media as a threat to American values because of their advocacy for Black American liberation. This was famously done in the five-part 1959 public television docuseries, “The Hate that Hate Produced” which depicted NOI parochial schools and small businesses as evidence of hate. The show’s host, Mike Wallace, also delegitimized the Muslim identity of the “Black Muslims” telling his audience that “Black Muslims” practice hate whereas orthodox [read “real”] Muslims (who weren’t, at that point, Americans) preach peace and reject the NOI. At the time, this was a common way to frame the Nation of Islam and so for these mid-century Muslims the “threat” they posed was not due to un-American beliefs and practices based on Islam but Black nationalism. The most of famous of these “Black Muslims” in the media were Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Today, these figures still loom large in the US mainstream imagination but not as Muslims, or even as terribly threatening, but as symbols of a spirit of Black American protest that has morphed into proof of what makes America exceptional.

Nevertheless, the trope of the Black Muslim as protest figure does still make occasional cameos in US popular culture. For example, there was Regina King’s character, Aliyah Shaheed, in the first season of the TV drama American Crime and most recently, Kendrick Lamar reproduced some of Gordon Parks’ famous images of the NOI in the video for his song “Element.” Yet the GQ and Allure covers mark a departure from that as well. They give a picture of Black Muslim identity to goes beyond protest tropes. Both Black, American and Muslim, although the Allure piece never references Aden’s Blackness, they are also different in key ways: gender – Ali is male and Aden female, ethnicity – Ali is Black American and Aden has roots in Somalia, citizenship – Aden is a refugee turned citizen and Ali was born in California, and religion – Aden was born into a Muslim family and Ali converted to Islam.

Other Black Muslims have also made media splashes in the past year. There was bronze-medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad who was the first American to compete at the olympics in a headscarf and was later detained at the border and A Tribe Called Quest’s (Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are Muslim) performance alongside Busta Rhymes and Consequence, also Muslims, at the Grammy Awards. And before Aziz Ansari, Dave Chappelle hosted the first Saturday Night Live after the 2016 US elections. Of course in the mainstream media, some of these Muslims are usually only talked about only in terms of their race. Yet each of them, like Ali and Aden, subvert the prevailing idea that Muslims are “foreign” and “brown” while also complicating stale notions of Black identity in the US.

Do these covers portend a major shift or a “back to Black” as the face of Islam? To be honest, in a media landscape that tends to skew simplistic and sensational, it’s not likely. Nor should it be since there are many faces of Islam, including Black Muslims. Yet even if they don’t shift the tide, the circulation of images of Black Muslims in media culture is useful. While today’s “Black Muslim” cannot be reduced to a protest trope they are not depoliticized. Writer Carvell Wallace’s profile on Mahershala Ali depicts a man who knows the struggle continues and meets it with grace. This is, perhaps, the hallmark of the Black Muslim experience. Since they live at the intersection of multiple forms of historic and contemporary marginalization, Black Muslims continue to have a keen sense of what’s wrong, which can help keep all us Americans more honest. They also continue to have a hopeful vision of what’s possible, which can help us all do much better. Black Muslims have a lot to offer, but the question remains: is America ready yet?


skhabeer Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is a scholar-artist-activist who uses anthropology and performance to explore the intersections of race and popular culture. Su’ad is currently an associate professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan. an assistant professor of anthropology and African American studies at Purdue University. She received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Princeton University and is a graduate from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and completed the Islamic Studies diploma program of the Institute at Abu Nour University (Damascus). Her latest work, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States (NYU Press 2016), is an ethnography on Islam and hip hop that examines how intersecting ideas of Muslimness and Blackness challenge and reproduce the meanings of race in the US.

Arts&CultureBlog

Remembering The First Mosque in North Carolina

By Youssef Carter

It is a recognized fact that the United States has been profoundly shaped by the experience and contributions of Black Muslims. Yet, the retelling of Black Muslim history is often missing from public educational spaces. Thus, it is a welcome surprise that a small history museum in the south, Museum of Durham History, also known as the “Museum Without Walls,” has committed itself to retell the history of Black Muslims in Durham, North Carolina. Its current exhibit “Building Bridges through Good Faith” highlights the history of Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center, the oldest mosque in the state of North Carolina. Inspired by the Museum’s earnest interest in partnering with local communities, Sister Naomi Shakir Feaste, community leader and member of Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center since 1971, suggested the idea of featuring Ar-Razzaq. Sister Naomi wanted to offer a positive envisioning of Islam in America that greatly differed from the countless stories of extremism that all fail to represent her faith and identity as a Muslim. In fact, it was mainly due to her desire to combat harmful stereotypes about Muslims that Sister Naomi worked with MODH curator, Katie Spencer, to curate the Ar-Razzaq exhibit and explain their process on WUNC’s program ‘State of Things.’

Sister Naomi Shakir Feaste, community leader and member of Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center since 1971, wanted to offer a positive envisioning of Islam in America that greatly differed from the countless stories of extremism that all fail to represent her faith.

The exhibit features vibrant artifacts spanning the founding history of Ar-Razzaq. A photograph entitled “Planting Roots in the West End,” shows one of the mosque’s more prominent members and renowned jazz musician, the late Yusuf Salim, posing with smiling neighborhood youth who participated in Ar-Razzaq’s “Clean-Up Squad.” The Clean-Up Squad was an initiative on the part of the mosque to beautify Durham’s West End neighborhood the children who participated were nurtured and fed through the community’s food program.

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Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Durham History.

The community rooted itself in charitable programs, and its restaurant and bakery were important avenues through which members also conducted outreach to the broader community.

Salim organized the “Clean-Up Squad” and served as a dishwasher in Ar-Razzaq’s adjacent Shabazz Restaurant and Bakery. The community rooted itself in charitable programs, and its restaurant and bakery were important avenues through which members also conducted outreach to the broader community. This legacy of provision and care continues today. During the summer, Ar-Ar-Razzaq feeds thousands of children daily through its lunch programs. In addition, it contributes heavily to refugee relief and provides educational opportunities for adults, children, and the broader community.

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The Shabazz Restaurant and Bakery sits next door to the mosque.  Photograph courtesy of Museum of Durham History.

The exhibit which opened on April 20, 2018, and concludes this August, offers personal photos, keepsakes, recipes, and oral histories capturing the legacy of Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center. The opening reception hosted scores of community members who converged on the bright, welcoming space to learn about the men and women who helped to establish an Islamic presence in the American South.

Participants shared old memories, met new friends, and tasted samples of bean soup and the community’s treasured bean pie. Yet the power of this exhibit is in its interactive digital collection of interviews. Over the course of a year, researchers and community volunteers collected personal narratives, photos, and artifacts to creatively document and share the stories of countless members of the Ar-Razzaq community by highlighting its economic, social, political, educational and cultural impact on the city of Durham.

Patrick Mucklow, Executive Director of the museum, credited the exhibit with increasing his own awareness of Ar-Razzaq’s legacy in Durham as well as the legacy of African American Muslims in the United States more broadly. In commenting on why Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center was chosen by the Museum to highlight, Mucklow says:

“we felt that the story of Ar-Razzaq was important because of the impact and contributions on not just the West End neighborhood, but on the city of Durham as a whole. The community introduced new foods and traditions to Durham, gave jobs to locals, established a vibrant cultural presence, and is an anchor institution in one of Durham’s oldest neighborhoods. Those who grew up in the Ar-Razzaq community have become parents, entrepreneurs, public servants, citizens and neighbors who bring the values of their upbringing to Durham and the world. The longevity of the community is a testament to the strong foundation built by its founders in its early years. We wanted to show that Muslim presence in the United States is at least as old as European contact, that one-third of Muslims in the U.S. are African American, and have been here for generations. Of the many Africans brought to America and enslaved, historians, estimate that anywhere from 10 to 33 percent were Muslim.”

His testimony provides us with a glimpse of the importance of both documenting and sharing the Black American Muslim historical experience. Meanwhile, Sister Naomi asserts that the historical and current significance of the mosque is also vitally connected to its name and mission. ‘Ar-Razzaq’ which loosely translates as “The Provider” signifies one of the attributes of a Merciful Creator. Just as humanity gets its provision from Allah, Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center has consistently understood itself as a community that has a responsibility to provide for others, particularly those who are less fortunate.

Ar-Razzaq’ which loosely translates as “The Provider” signifies one of the attributes of a Merciful Creator. Just as humanity gets its provision from Allah, Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center has consistently understood itself as a community that has a responsibility to provide for others.

 

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James Baldwin stands in front of Muhammad’s Mosque 34 (Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center).

The beige and purple displays at the exhibit reveal to its visitors that since its inception in the late 1950s as Muhammad’s Mosque No. 34 (when it was a Nation of Islam-affiliated mosque), the Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center has long been a bastion of relief and provision for its members as well as Durham’s West End community. Kenneth and Margaret Murray Muhammad, founders of the mosque, arrived in Durham as the city was immersed, as was much of the South, in the question of how to deploy the right of equal treatment that African-Americans were demanding from their local and state governments. In fact, the exhibit situates Ar-Razzaq in that history by opening the narrative with the famous 1963 James Baldwin photograph in which he stopped in front of a storefront window to write in his notebook. That storefront window read “Muhammad’s Mosque,” the place of worship and service that Kenneth and Margaret Muhammad opened in Durham in order to give life to what is now a modest, but vibrant community of African-American Muslims. During this time of social and political tension in the American South, Durham’s Black Muslim community firmly established itself into the fabric of the city as a place of worship where its members learned the value of public service.

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Children and teachers pose at Ar-Razzaq’s school. Photograph courtesy of Museum of Durham History.

The Muslims who were the fuel for mosque activity understood that education was vitally connected to economic self-determination and nation-building.

It is in this context that what was possibly the state’s first Islamic school was established within the walls of the mosque. Proof of this fact is found in the tiny, brown faces that beam in a photograph of the mosque’s primary school. The photo taken in the 1980s shows students in khimars and hand-sewn school uniforms with several teachers of the Sister Clara Muhammad School at the Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center. The Muslims who were the fuel for mosque activity understood that education was vitally connected to economic self-determination and nation-building. It is with this in mind, that the Museum of Durham History commemorates the enduring presence of Durham’s Black Muslim community with inviting displays that connect the founding of the mosque with the long history of Islamic presence in the United States before the founding of the country itself. The Ar-Razzaq community thus crafted a foundation for generations of Muslims within and beyond the Black Muslim community. As the nation continues to grapple with the reality of its Muslim citizenry, this exhibit documents a valuable history, a story of spiritual commitment, and the deep legacy of Black American Muslims.

 

 

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Youssef J. Carter is visiting scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and research fellow at the International Institute for Islamic Thought. His research interests include Sufism in West Africa, the anthropology of Islam, spiritual performance and care, Black Muslimness, African Diaspora and embodiment.