Converting Islamic ideals to a hip-hop flow

Converting Islamic ideals to a hip-hop flow

Converting Islamic ideals to a hip-hop flow

Caille Millner

Monday, May 11, 2009

To convert to Islam, a man or woman must pronounce the shahada, or testimony of faith, either in private or in public. The convert states that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet; the reason, according to the Quran, is that followers need to understand that they may not worship anything but God. Many converts opt to shower either before or after their declaration, to symbolize the repenting of sins from their previous life. Nothing more is required.

Becoming a rapper is a bit more complicated. The sheer technical skill (learning rhythm and meter, building a vocabulary, adjusting one’s voice) often requires years of practice, and then there is the not-so-small matter of developing beats and musical production. The convert to rap must also prepare to adjust his lifestyle. The most successful rappers on the market focus their subject matter and their public appearances around a small list of topics: one’s previous experiences of poverty, drugs – especially the dealing thereof – guns and/or criminal records, fast money and loose women.

The twain shall meet, however, as I learned while watching “New Muslim Cool,” a new documentary about a Puerto Rican convert, Hamza Perez, who gave up drug-dealing in exchange for Islam, but couldn’t quit hip-hop. Perez’s new life is certainly rich with subject matter – the FBI raids his mosque without giving a reason; he teaches prisoners in the county jail until his security clearance is mysteriously revoked – but it’s a different kind of subject matter, and he’s operating under different constraints. His ideal audience isn’t the head of a major label – it’s the young men hanging out on the corner, to whom Perez offers his albums and a new way of life. He doesn’t consider there to be anything odd about this. He considers his music to be a form of da’wa, or religious outreach.

“New Muslim Cool” will be showing on PBS on June 23, but I couldn’t wait that long to find out more. Perez’s record label was originally based in the Bay Area – where there is, apparently, a thriving Islamic hip-hop scene.

“Oh, I love being a citizen of the Bay,” Tyson Amir-Mustafa told me. Amir-Mustafa is a 29-year-old San Jose native who’s released four Islamic-influenced rap albums. “Islam is still young here. The Muslim community is still shaping its identity here. And it’s very much a Muslim-American identity, with no question that the two things can go hand in hand.”

And the “American” portion of that identity would include hip-hop. Many local Islamic rappers have been rapping longer than they’ve been Muslim.

“I started writing poetry, winning poetry awards when I was 10 years old,” said Amir Abdul-Shakur, who’s 26 and originally from Oakland. “Then I started honing my rap skills in middle school.” Abdul-Shakur, who raps under the name Five Eighty, converted to Islam in 2000. There are no contradictions, he said, “but there are a lot of things I can’t talk about. There are a lot of things I just don’t do.”

Those things would include: drinking alcohol, using drugs, any kind of criminal behavior, casual sex. Both men are married. Neither wants to use his music to evangelize.

It would seem to be hard to create lyrics around these limitations until I realized that they both had a bigger topic than most mainstream rappers: their own personal journeys. After all, the rap marketplace is saturated with the same old, same old – who better to offer a different take on risk and reward than a converted Muslim rapper?

“You’re already different,” Amir-Mustafa told me. “People are already looking at you with all these associations, all these misperceptions. So why not take the opportunity to talk about things they’re not used to hearing in the music, things like integrity? Why not talk about why you decided to go a different way?”

Caille Millner is an editorial writer. E-mail:

This article appeared on page A – 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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