Brother Ali Notes Some Of Our Biggest Heroes Are Muslim & They Should Be Celebrated
Islam and Hip-Hop have coexisted for the entirety of the culture’s existence. The Nation of Islam is one of the Universal Zulu Nation’s greatest influences, as is the Five-Percent Nation. From Afrika Bambaataa to Oddisee, generations of MCs, producers, and DJs have incorporated their religious beliefs into their music and lifestyles, though these artists are rarely (if ever) mentioned when the media or politicians discuss the American Muslim. Now immersed in a political climate in which “Muslim ban” is a household name, America’s 3.3 million Muslims continue to be ostracized, feared, and neglected at disproportionate levels as other religious groups, though Hip-Hop has always been a community in which they are embraced.
Brother Ali may be one of Hip-Hop’s most visible Muslims. The Minneapolis MC is getting ready to release his sixth solo album, All the Beauty in This Whole Life on May 5, five years after dropping his most recent LP, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color. Celebrated for his impassioned lyricism, Ali has never shied away from merging his music with his faith, and has been a practicing Muslim since his teenage years. In speaking with Billboard, the Rhymesayers rapper touched on his feelings as a Muslim in Donald Trump’s America, but rather than pontificate, he used the opportunity to mention the names of other American Muslims who he feels deserve more acknowledgment and adoration.
When asked to comment on the significance of his latest single, “My Own Light,” Ali says he wanted to focus on a positive side effect of America’s current political turmoil: “You see different groups becoming allies that were never really conscious allies before,” he says. ” He then mentions A Tribe Called Quest’s “We The People,” the group’s most staunchly political record of its career. “In the chorus, Q-Tip says, ‘Muslims and gays.’ It’s weird that people still say ‘gays,’ but anyway, the LGBT community and the Muslims, I don’t think, ever before now, have been such overt allies,” says Ali. “I think that’s one of the examples of different groups within the population that have become allies because of the fact that they have a mutual force to resist.”
Q-Tip, who is a practicing Muslim, is one of the artists in America Ali says is overlooked when we think of what a Muslim in America looks like. “Right after the election, there was a Saturday Night Live episode with Dave Chappelle and A Tribe Called Quest. Everybody up there identified with Islam in one way or another. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are openly Muslim, Busta Rhymes, a Five-Percenter, there’s Consequence, and then Dave Chappelle’s a Muslim. The only non-Muslim in the group was Phife Dawg and he had a Muslim name, Malik. It’s really amazing,” Ali explains. “We have those leaders, but we talk about Muslims and we don’t think about Dave Chappelle. Muhammad Ali, too. There are other amazing Muslim leaders that the public doesn’t know about and it makes you think: What is the purpose or the media’s role in this?”
It’s easy, says Brother Ali, to focus on the negative fallout as a result of Islamophobia in the U.S. He chooses to focus on the positive. Rather than spend time lamenting Trump’s executive order which attempted to ban Muslims from certain countries from entering the States, Ali says “I’m most focused on the enormous masses of people at airports welcoming refugees, visitors and immigrants.” He shares an anecdote a conversation he had with a Muslim woman in which she said she has been seeing more and more businesses and schools with “We support our Muslim neighbors” and “Refugees welcome” signs. “She said that it’s really only been in the last few months that she’s seen these establishments really make it known, as an establishment, that they welcome and support her and her community. I think those are things that are worth focusing on. There needs to be mobilized and organized resistance to all this lovelessness, fear and overt hatred.”
Small steps forward like welcoming signs in storefront windows are important, argues Ali, because America has a long history of stereotyping and demonizing those of the Islamic faith. “For a long time, there’s been propaganda of fear of Muslims and statistically, it’s just ridiculous,” he argues. “They talk about Muslims, but they almost never talk about what Islam is. Who are the Muslims and what do they really believe? There are incredible Muslim public intellectuals, thought leaders, religious, spiritual and cultural leaders in America and around the world. For as much as they talk about Islam in the news, the public does not know who these people are.”
Ali then shares the names of Muslims in America whose names and work we ought to know and celebrate. “One of the greatest was W. Deen Mohammed, who passed away a couple of years ago. He was the son of the honorable Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam for 40 years. This was a person who supported a healthy patriotism and saw America as a shared freedom space that African Americans helped create,” says Ali. He also mentions UCLA professor Dr. Sherman Jackson; “Imam Zaid Shakir, who led Muhammad Ali’s funeral; a European American, Imam Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who’s on ISIS’s hit-list and started Zaytuna College — the first accredited Islamic university in Berkeley, California; and another academic, Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah.”
Before moving on to other topics including fatherhood, White supremacy, and his rapping style Ali says “You have these Muslim public intellectuals who have incredible Western academic credentials, but they’re masters of Islamic tradition as well, and they bring those worlds together. They could be highlighted and they could speak on behalf of Islam. They should be household names.”
For Heads looking to hear more about the relationship between Islam and Hip-Hop, this short film featuring words from Yasiin Bey and music from Oddisee documents the “Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop” exhibit curated by artist Sohail Daulatzai.
Brother Ali’s full interview with Billboard.