Category: Arts&Culture


Taking Control of Our Narrative: The #BilalianExperience

By Rashida James-Saadiya

In the United States, many media platforms struggle with being intersectional when representing Muslims. Thus the legacy lived experiences and complexities of Black Muslims in America is often ignored. Filmmaker and Sapelo Square’s Arts and Culture editor Malikah A. Shabazz confronts this erasure by using photography to highlight the lives of folks both proudly Black and Muslim. Photography is a visual means of storytelling that documents history, culture, social hardships, and change. We spoke with Shabazz to discuss the inspiration behind the Instagram project, entitled the “#BilalianExperience,” and her decision to use photography as a tool to capture Black Muslims in their everyday lives. By sharing these images, she aims to expand the public’s perspective on who American Muslims are by highlighting its oldest and most prominent ethnic group.

How is photography important to this project?

Photographs are visual stories. I aim to honor the various stories and identities among Black Muslim communities by depicting imagery that instills a sense of pride. There are few creative platforms dedicated to highlighting the Black Muslim experience in the United States. Through this project, I want to change the narrative from an overdetermined image of Muslims as foreign and/or migrant and shift the focus to relay our humanity, our struggles, and our triumphs. Black Muslims have daily struggles and wins just like everyone else. We feel the pain of our brothers and sisters in Palestine as well as our brothas and sistas in Ferguson. As a filmmaker who has studied media, I am acutely aware of how false or negative imagery can shape and skew our definitions of worth, success, and beauty. Our youth are bombarded with images of Muslims that fail to reflect their community or physical appearance. I chose photography because it is vivid, and can be easily understood and shared on social media platforms. My hope is that the #BilalianExperience is a visual platform which highlights Muslim photographers and creatives in addition to crafting a more visually inclusive representation of Islam.

Photographs are visual stories. I aim to honor the various stories and identities among Black Muslim communities by depicting imagery that instills a sense of pride.

What is the #BilalianExperience and why did you create this Instagram channel?


Picture courtesy of #BilalianExperience

The “Bilalian Experience” is a response emanating from my frustration with the Black Muslim American narrative being ignored or rarely included in national dialogues on Islam in America. Instead of waiting for others to include our voices. I decided to create a platform highlighting both our experiences and existence through art, specifically photography. The project launched in 2015 on Instagram as a digital space to celebrate Black Muslims in America. In the early stages, I posted portraits from other photographers, in addition to personal pictures that highlighted images of close friends and Eid celebrations in Brooklyn, New York. Over time, I began to incorporate photographs of historical and or notable Black Muslims in an effort to show a long-standing presence of Black Muslims in America. Fairly quickly, folks began sharing their portraits, street, and family celebrations with me through Instagram, and on other platforms like Twitter and Facebook expanding both the reach and diversity of the project. #BilalianExperience is ongoing and reshaping itself, as I am currently in the early stages of curating an original exhibit utilizing a collection of personal images gathered over several years, with a focus on the contributions of Black Muslims in pop culture.

I was blessed to be raised in an environment where I did not have to choose between being Black or Muslim.

What inspired you to use Bilal’s (RA) lived experience as a contemporary representation of Black Muslims in the United States?

I can’t take credit for this term. My Imam, Imam W. Deen Muhammad (RA) coined the termed “Bilalian” in 1975 as a way for Black Muslims to free themselves from the limitations of social inequality, utilizing the life of Bilal Ibn Rabah (RA) as an example of resilience. The term embodies our lived experience and history, but most importantly clearly defines who this project seeks to highlight. Writer and historian Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, notes that “Imam Muhammad’s use of the term “Bilalian” was designed to free the minds of a people; to move beyond the trappings and limitations of colorism and racism; to enable them to see themselves as slave servants of God alone; to follow the moral arc of Bilal ibn Rabah; to be truly free.”

#BilalianExperience explores layered identities: Black, Muslim, and American. How does this project reflect your lived experience?

File Jun 30, 11 04 04 PM

Picture courtesy of Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Being born into the community of Imam W. Deen Muhammad, I was blessed to be raised in an environment where I did not have to choose between being Black or Muslim. Those identities co-existed. In essence, this is the core message of this project, to use a creative lens to highlight Muslim’s from all walks of life, affirming through culture, celebration and scholarship, that we can and should be Black and Muslim at the same time. Our collective history and experiences are unique and should not be ignored or reshaped to fit into false perceptions and stereotypes that eliminate Islam as a diverse spiritual path with roots in the United States. It is my hope that this project alongside those of other bloggers, creatives, and scholars  expands mainstream representations of Islam in America.

Although there is a long history of Black Muslim contributions to music, art, community development and academic scholarship, these narratives are often missing.

This project features artists, educators, emcees, bloggers, scholars, and academics. What do you hope to accomplish with this project?

The core goal of this project is to educate through a creative lens by crafting a visually inclusive space of vintage and contemporary photographs with short narratives exploring the accomplishments of Muslims from various Islamic ideologies: Sunni, Shi’a, Tijjani, Salafi, etc. The photography posted on #BilalianExperience channel reinforce diversity and our connection to to the deen. By using personal images and photographs from other Muslim artists, this project also sheds light on the diverse professionals and artists who are members of  our community.

Although there is a long history of Black Muslim contributions to music, art, community development and academic scholarship, these narratives are often missing in the retelling of how this country’s formation and rise into the industrial age. There are many Muslim bloggers and academics who are doing an amazing job sharing their personal experience or the layered history of Black Muslims through scholarly articles.

As a filmmaker and photographer, I use this craft in conjunction with social media to focus on reshaping the visual representation of Muslims. We learn so much through photography, information on food, culture, environment and history. Photography draws people in, however subtle, and they learn something. It is my hope that with this project, folks outside of the Muslim community learn that that our lives like many of other Americans are tied to family, joy, hardships and community. We laugh, cry and gather in celebration. We work hard and continue to add to the fabric of the country. We continue to carve out a space for both our history and lived experience in a country struggling to include our stories.


Image uploaded from iOS

Rashida James Saadiya is a cultural educator and multidisciplinary artist working at the intersections of social justice, community building, Black Muslimness and multi-faith dialouge.

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by Narjis Abdul-Majid

Just in time for Eid.  #BlackMuslimKidsRead. A list of books that every Black Muslim family should own.


Nanni’s Hijab by: Khadijah Abdulhaqq

What Am I? by: Papatia Feauxzar*

Muhiima’s Quest by: Rahma Rodaah

Bashirah and The Amazing Bean Pie: A Celebration of African American Muslim CultureThere Is Greatness In Me by: Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins 

Jennah’s First Hijab by Halimah DeOliveira

Zaynab’s Enchanted Scarf/ You are Beautiful by: Robyn Abdusamad*

Mommy’s Khimar by: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Hind’s Hands by: Umm Juwayriyah

Hijab-ista by: Jamila Mapp

Islamic Phonics Readers: From Adam to Zamzam by: Jamila Alqarnain/Karemah Al hark*

Ngozi’s Little Brown Princess Tea Party by: Asiyah Muhsin-Thomas Salaam Waajid Thomas 

Jariya Jar by: Aisha Mohammed

The Beauty of My Hijab by: Fatimah Ashaela Moore Ibrahim


*This author has multiple children’s publications.
**By no means is this list exhaustive. If you know of other Black Muslim Reads for kids email us at


Narjis Abdul-MajidNarjis Nichole Abdul-Majid is a part-time lecturer in the departments of Pan African Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville and Philosophy Department at Indiana University Southeast. Her research interests focus on the African American and Native American Islamic experiences (Slavery-Melungeons-20th Century Islamic Movements-Present Day) with emphasis on minority voices.



Do For Self: A Legacy Of Food And Resilience

By Kia Campbell 

As a dietitian and nutrition educator, I often think about how marginalized communities are negatively affected by an inability to access healthy food. As an African American Muslim, who like, all African Americans, comes from a farming legacy, I believe that we should be on the forefront of movements that improve our connection to nature and the land. I live in a city that is experiencing an exponential rise in the farm-to-table movement, which focuses on producing and consuming foods locally; specifically, that all food on the table is grown, produced or harvested directly from a local farm.

This return to using and buying local food is amazing until you notice that Black people, who represent a significant percentage of the population, are largely missing from this progressive movement. Owning and operating local farms that supply local restaurants, farmers’ markets and community markets are an important means of providing nutritious food as well as economic opportunities for communities of color.

The NOI pioneered the farm-to-table model before it was deemed hip or progressive.

Through my parents, I was exposed not only to the religious components of Islam but also the importance of food through their experience in the Nation of Islam (NOI) under the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The NOI pioneered the farm-to-table model before it was deemed hip or progressive. I vividly recall stories of the NOI grocery stores selling products made from beans, chickens, squash, wheat, and cattle that were grown on land owned and operated by Black folks. These farms also supplied “Steak ‘n Take” restaurants, bakeries and other food-related businesses.


Muhammad Speaks, Jan. 1968

The NOI’s motto of “Do For Self” and much of its economic blueprint revolved around Black people managing our own food production and providing food and other agricultural needs for the community.

They believed that a connection with the land and its resources was directly linked to improving the health and economic outcomes of Black communities. When I reflect on the NOI’s agricultural endeavors, I think about how Black people, at the end of slavery, struggled to create farms both as a means of feeding themselves and making a living.

Author Edna Lewis, who was often referred to as the “Queen of Southern cooking,” was born in a rural Virginia community started by her grandfather after emancipation in the 1860s. In her classic cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking, Lewis provides beautiful and poetic descriptions of life in Black farming communities of the Virginia Piedmont. For instance, she reminiscences about when life in Black communities was centered around worshipping the Creator, farming and education; a time when Black families experienced the joy of “finally” owning the land that they toiled over; the delight of rising every morning to cultivate land after hundreds of years of being owned and forced to produce yields to which they had no right.


Edna Lewis, chef and food historian

During her childhood in the 1920s, every family had at least a small garden, if not a full-fledged farm. What you ate was determined by the seasons, weather or your geography. Planting time was determined by watching the constellations or listening for certain animal calls or behaviors. The members of Edna Lewis’ community were nourished by the blessing of The Creator’s will, strengthened by prayer and hard work. There was no “fast food” except for the fruits and vegetables you pulled straight from the earth. This was a time when neighbors traded seed, food, and labor. The members of Edna Lewis’ community were nourished by the blessing of The Creator’s will, strengthened by prayer and hard work. There was no “fast food” except for the fruits and vegetables you pulled straight from the earth. This was a time when neighbors traded seed, food, and labor.

When did we stop being cultivators and producers of our own nourishment?

Reflecting on the legacy of Edna Lewis and the NOI, it is apparent that Black people have moved too far away from food production. We have transitioned from the people driving the food system to those benefiting from it the least. We once grew, processed, and prepared the food that nourished our communities. However, we are no longer benefiting economically from this industry and, in turn, our food-related health issues like diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, are increasing. In my city of Durham, N.C., Black folks don’t own or manage many farms. In fact, we account for a small percentage of people who shop at farmers’ markets. I would be remiss to ignore the trauma of 400 years of forced agricultural work and the continued dispossession of land that intentionally dismantled Black farms, thus exempting Black communities from food and economic advancement and sustainability.

Nonetheless, racism existed when Edna Lewis’ grandfather started his farm after emancipation and when the NOI became involved in the agricultural industry. Despite the challenges of racism, owning and cultivating land with one’s own hands was worthwhile. When did we stop being cultivators and producers of our own nourishment? One reason may be a lack of healing from our historical traumas and a shift in our own priorities, away from the importance of buying and cultivating land.

As Black Muslims who are descendants of a “ Do For Self “ legacy, we should be on the forefront of movements to improve our connection to nature and the land.

As Black Muslims who are descendants of a “ Do For Self “ legacy, we should be on the forefront of movements to improve our connection to nature and the land. With the holy month of Ramadan steadily approaching, I am reflecting not just on how to better myself, but also on how to be a benefit to my religious community, my geographical community and the physical environment in which I live. What does it mean to be a Khalifah — to be “deputized” by Allah as stewards on this earth, maintaining peace, balance, and justice for all of its inhabitants?

Surely, this must include producing food that is in balance with nature, in addition to ensuring that all citizens have access to healthy wholesome food. I don’t have all the answers, but I believe we can start by intentionally supporting Black-owned farmers, markets, and restaurants. We can start small gardens or participate in community gardening efforts. More importantly, we can encourage our children to pursue degrees in horticulture, agricultural science, technology animal husbandry, and finance. Thus, we will rebuild a cadre of skilled professionals and future generations of Black farmers who are invested in improving the health and wellness of Black communities, moving us closer to reclaiming our connection to food as nourishment and our rightful inheritance as stewards of the earth.


Kia Campbell is a wife, mother of two sons, registered dietitian, nutrition educator, writer and an amateur gardener. She is a proud member of W. Deen Mohammed Islamic Center of Durham, North Carolina.


Power of the Griot: An Interview With Mohamed Tall

By Vanessa Taylor

Drawing on a rich literary and musical heritage, spoken word has become a staple within Black communities. The legacy of spoken word is a continuation of ancestral stories, a genre that sprang from a multitude of inspirational points and it has assisted the creation of many others itself. To track and celebrate the artistry, legacy and power of words within Black communities, from spoken word to the griot and beyond, Sapelo Square spoke to Mohamed Tall, Baltimore’s 2017–2018 Youth Poet Laureate.

Tell me about yourself. Who are you? What originally introduced you to, and inspired you to pursue, poetry?

I am the current Baltimore city Youth Poet Laureate, 20 years old. Avid sneaker enthusiast. I don’t really think anything introduced me, or inspired me, to pursue poetry; I feel like it was something that was already in me. In West Africa, we have the culture of the griot or the storyteller. I…come from that same bloodline of storytellers, people who exist to preserve the narrative of the people.

You are the first Muslim youth poet laureate of Baltimore. How’d you get to that position? What does it mean to be a poet laureate?

For me, being the first Muslim poet laureate meant a lot of sacrifice and a lot of self-reflection. It wasn’t my first time competing for the position and I lost the first time by 0.2 points. So, coming back the second time, it was like [a] redemption and it meant more this time, because my mom was sick. She had just been diagnosed with cancer. So, accomplishing that, was like a signaling moment; in the darkest day, it was light.

It also means being a cultural and artistic ambassador for my city. I’m in the kind of position where my face is on posters in the library and it’s like, “Who’s this kid? What’d he do? Why you?” It’s a source of light, because I’ve been hearing so much bad about the youth and my city, so being the Youth Poet Laureate is another way to get the truth out.

There’s a lot of stigmas around Muslims that I have to navigate. Whether that’s, “Oh, are you from the Nation?” or “What are you?” or “Are your parents Muslim? When did you convert?” I think understanding all [of] those microaggressions and trying to work against it, trying to represent a different narrative, goes back to the idea of the griot. Their purpose isn’t only to preserve narratives through stories but through the very person [who] they were. That in and of itself helped tell the story; the griot knew what everybody was. Like James Baldwin said, the poets and the artists are the only ones who know the truth about us.

Who, past and present, have been some of your biggest creative influences?

Amir Sulaiman. Lupe Fiasco. James Baldwin. Denzel Washington. Lorraine Hansberry. Hannah Sawyerr. Sadiyah Bashir. Jacob Mayberry. Slangston Hughes.

Amir captivated me really young with the story he was trying to tell and I felt like he was telling my story. I felt like I could trust him; I believed what he was saying. When I began to write and perform, I knew that anything I wrote, I’d have to believe myself. That was what drew me to him. He believed what he was saying, so that made me believe what he was saying, and I took that same mindset into my art. I made it a conscious decision to completely embody my work, whether I’m performing or just speaking to someone.

Lupe, basically, is the reason I became smart. I used to listen to his music and I’d stop the song to go look up every single word. The song “Dumb It Down” drew me to him, because it encapsulated every reason why I love Lupe. They’re telling him to dumb it down and the whole song he’s completely over everyone’s head. He’s like, “Yo. I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing this for me” and I took that from him. Even in the poems I write, “Oh, why are they centered around Black people? Suffering? Blah, blah, blah” and I’m like, “Cause that’s my story. That’s what I’m writing about.” Lupe didn’t dumb it down, so I won’t dumb it down for you.

I feel like, at one point, everyone I admire was where I’m at and I’m just trying to get to where they are now. I just follow their stories and try to take their advice, wherever it applies.

Black youth are the heartbeat, bones and flesh of the art world. And of the world itself. I feel like we are the culture; everything we do, everybody else wants to do.

What is the role of Black youth within the arts? How do you contribute to embodying and supporting [others within] that role?

Black youth are the heartbeat, bones and flesh of the art world. And of the world itself. I feel like we are the culture; everything we do, everybody else wants to do. Whether it’s in fashion, the way we talk, or the way we carry ourselves — it’s real. There’s something enchanting about the creativity of Black youth that draws the world to us. And there’s something fresh about it, too; like, it always feels new, but it always feels right. We continue to challenge the boundaries that have been placed before us and I think that’s what makes our work so daring. We’re willing to take it to a place that other people aren’t willing to explore.

What have been some of your defining moments as a poet?

Performing at ICNA [Islamic Circle of North America] in 2015 and DC MIST [Muslim Interscholastic Tournament] in 2015; becoming the Baltimore youth grand slam champion in 2016. Winning my first “Louder Than A Bomb” competition as a coach my freshman year of college — that was 2016. Going to Brave New Voices in 2015. Doing a Social Justice Poetry tour in 2014. And, becoming [Baltimore’s] Youth Poet Laureate of 2017. Oh, and I did a Ted Talk!

A poem of yours, “Do The Right Thing” became a protest chant in its own right. How do you view the connection between oral traditions/art as a whole and protest?

I’ve always thought that art was at the forefront of every revolution and every moment. Artists are the vanguard of social movements and we possess a unique ability in which we disguise the truth, yet make it apparent. And, we make it attractive and something that people want — we just introduce people to what they already knew they needed. Or what they already had, but didn’t know they needed.

They say that history is written by the victors. As long as we continue to tell our own stories, we’ll never lose — that’s how artists keep the revolution alive.

After this interview, Mohamed’s mother Sister Aisha Sherif passed away after battling stage four stomach cancer. If you are able, please donate to assist the family cover funeral expenses and hospital bills.

Mohamed Tall is Baltimore City’s current Youth Poet Laureate and the 2016 Grand Slam champion. He is a former Baltimore City Poet Ambassador, as well as the two-time DC MIST spoken word champion. Mohamed has been the opening act for Native Deen, the former National Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway and Congressman Elijah Cummings. He has also performed at various venues throughout the country such as the Johns Hopkins Health Symposium on the Prison Industrial Complex, and the annual ICNA-MAS convention that takes place at the Baltimore City Convention Center. In 2015, Mohamed began working for DewMore Baltimore, a nonprofit organization addressing social justice issues as well as civic engagement through poetry. During the fall, he acts as a teaching artist in Baltimore city middle schools. A current Political Science major at Morgan State University, Mohamed plans to establish poetry workshops in different masajid across the country. Mohamed believes that art is at the forefront of every revolution. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @freshcutmo.

19510485_10211619443855905_6849194475272266932_n (1)Vanessa Taylor is a freelance creative based out of Minneapolis. She is interested in using a multi- disciplinary approach to achieve social justice, from on-the-grounds activism like co-founding the Black Liberation Project to finding accessible ways to educate community with writing as a way to make sense of it all. She is currently a fellow of Muslim Wellness Foundation’s Deeply Rooted Emerging Leaders inaugural cohort.