The story of Islam in the US and the story of hip hop are intertwined.
In most accounts, the story of hip hop begins in the South Bronx during the 1970s during a time when “urban renewal” policies resulted in severe unemployment, the loss of quality housing and public services and the flight of private investment. Hip hop emerges as response to these conditions: a way to explain them, resist them and live despite them. Another defining feature of hip hop history, though not often remarked upon, is Islam. Take for example the legendary poetry ensemble, The Last Poets, who are often seen as a precursor to the hip hop emcee. Members of the group were either Muslim or influenced by Black Islam.
Hip hop continues to be influenced by Islam. The music is replete with references to Islam, whether the symbolic interpretations of the Five Percenters, praise for Minister Louis Farrakhan or citations of orthodox Sunni and Shi’a beliefs and practice. Many hip hop artists are also US Muslims, converts and raised Muslim alike. This is a long list that includes hip hop legends such as Popmaster Jorge “Fabel” Pabon of the Rock Steady Crew, veteran emcees like Yasiin Bey and up and coming artists such as Maimouna Youseff.*
As the US Muslim community expanded beyond the urban centers of Black and Latinx life, immigrants and their children, particularly from South Asia and the Middle East, are also engaged in hip hop. As a result, US Muslims share something important and transformative: a second and third generation of young people who are growing up as Muslims in the United States and are profoundly impacted by hip hop. And thus we find ourselves at another juncture of the story of US Islam and hip hop: Muslims are no longer just inspiring hip hop but looking toward hip hop to figure out how to negotiate being Muslim and American in the 21st Century United States. This is also leading to movement building as hip hop’s relationship to Black Islam is a jumping off point for solidarity among differently marginalized groups united in the effort order to eliminate racial, religious and other forms of injustice.
*The list of North American Muslim hip hop artists is really way too long but some folks to check out include (in no particular order): Brother Ali, The Reminders, DJ Man-O-Wax, Omar Offendum, The Narcycist, Tyson, Khalil Ismail, Miss Undastood, Alia Sharrief, Quadeer Latin, Amirah Sackett and Mvstermind.