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|Rapper Mos Def talks about Islam, music|
|04/18/01 at 00:20:47|
|You're Gonna Serve Somebody|
Rapper Mos Def says we all devote our lives to something. He's chosen
By Ali Asadullah
Look at Mos Def and you see a poster child for the East Coast hip-
hopper, Brooklyn division. But when he opens his mouth, whether
plying his rhymes or just chatting, his eloquence shatters the
preconceptions. What comes out is a surprising moral rectitude and
"Black on Both Sides," his 1999 breakthrough album, has the same
affect: witty title, and a look that's all about street cred. But the
first words the listener hears are "Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem"
("In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful")
Islam has long played a prominent role in hip-hop. Among early rap
groups like Afrika Bambata or mid-'80s groups like Poor Righteous
Teachers and Big Daddy Kane, the Islamic inclinations were more
implied than explicit. But by the '90s, Public Enemy was openly
praising Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and references to
the 5 Percent Nation of Islam (a spin-off of the Nation of Islam)
were popping up on albums by the Wu Tang Clan and Busta Rhymes.
Especially when the topic is social justice, an Islamic understanding
has been a hallmark of socially conscious hip-hop.
Mos Def, however, represents arguably the first time that an artist,
solidly wedded to the orthodoxy of the religion, has stepped into
mainstream popularity with a complete, well-articulated Islamic
message as part and parcel of that popularity.
Born Dante Smith in 1974, the 27-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native
first learned the importance of Islam from his father, who was a
member of the Nation of Islam before becoming an active member in the
community of Imam Warithdeen Muhammad (the son of Nation of Islam
founder Elijah Muhammad who brought the Nation of Islam into
orthodoxy in 1976).
Raised by his mother in Brooklyn, across the river from his father's
home in New Jersey, Mos didn't receive a formal introduction to Islam
until adolescence. "I got my first exposure to Islam when I was 13,"
says Mos. "My dad taught me how to make wudhu [the ritual ablution
Muslims perform before prayer]."
It wasn't for another six years, when he was 19, that he took his
shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. He'd gotten there by
reading and personal reflection and after getting to know other
Muslim rappers, like Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip of the group A
Tribe Called Quest.
Since then, Islam has been the cornerstone of Mos' life and of his
socially and spiritually themed music. "You're not gonna get through
life without being worshipful or devoted to something," says
Mos. "You're either devoted to your job, or to your desires. So the
best way to spend your life is to try to be devoted to prayer, to
Tackling a broad swath of issues that include water rights, African
American self-esteem, and the destiny of humankind, Mos enlightens
the listener as well as entertains. Taking on such issues, he says,
is an Islamic mandate. "If Islam's sole interest is the welfare of
mankind, then Islam is the strongest advocate of human rights
anywhere on Earth," says Mos.
He puts special emphasis on the "anywhere." "It's about speaking out
against oppression wherever you can," he continues. "If that's gonna
be in Bosnia or Kosovo or Chechnya or places where Muslims are being
persecuted; or if it's gonna be in Sierra Leone or Colombia--you
know, if people's basic human rights are being abused and violated,
then Islam has an interest in speaking out against it, because we're
charged to be the leaders of humanity."
Mos' vehemence is somewhat rare in a hip-hop culture dominated by
superficiality. Lyrics these days bet heavily on the financially
successful triumvirate of sex, violence, and materialism. Mos Def
credits his parents with guiding him away from such negative content.
His father has been advising him on professional decisions for
several years now. "My parents have been vocal and influential in all
the decisions I made in my life," says Mos. "It made sense to me to
include [my father] officially and to include my mother officially
cause she'd been there from the beginning. You need to have that
synergy--because who really cares the most about you?"
This family-oriented approach is most evident in Mos' choices about
his management. His mother, Sheron, and father, Abdul Rahman--whom he
refers to affectionately as Umi and Abi--handle everything, from
media calls to general management and corporate strategy. Mos'
brother tackles technical matters in the studio, and when it's time
to hit the road, the entire clan travels together. "I just try to
stay around the right people," says Mos. "I try to stay around
family...[try] to stay around people who believe what I believe and
[beg] Allah to help me."
His strategy has worked. After the critical acclaim for "Black on
Both Sides," Mos was tapped by MTV last year for a recurring role
on "The Lyricists Lounge Show." He also appeared in Spike
Lee's "Bamboozled" and ABC's "NYPD Blue." Then earlier this year,
Nike gave its seal of approval by choosing his track "Umi Says" to
score commercials launching Michael Jordan's "Brand Jordan" Nike
division. "They just called and said, 'Mos, we'd like to use 'Umi
Says,'" he says of the low-key negotiations. "That was it...I wasn't
savvy in my presentation at all. It was very natural and plain.
"That's really just somebody in his organization or [Jordan] himself
just really responding to the song," Mos says. The 30-second spots
feature Jordan and other athletic standouts such as NBA stars Ray
Allen and Eddie Jones, New York Yankee Derek Jeter, and world
champion boxer Roy Jones Jr.
In speaking with Nike representatives, Mos raised his concern about
allegations of sweatshop conditions at some of Nike's overseas
plants. "I voiced pretty early on that the corporation has a little
bit of a shadow cast on it, on its character," says Mos. "And it was
something that was very personal to me. And we made a verbal
agreement that they would make a donation to some community-based
organization of my choice, to at least say that they're giving
Giving back to the community is a high priority for Mos. Last spring,
he performed at a benefit for breast cancer awareness in Lake Tahoe,
Calif., and he will perform in Los Angeles at a benefit to support
the legal defense fund of national Muslim leader and former Black
Panther activist Imam Jamil al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown), who is
awaiting trial in Atlanta on controversial murder charges.
Social activity is part of Mos' mission as a person--as a Muslim--of
conscience. "I'm just trying to do the best I can with what it is I
have and begging Allah to help me."
Ali Asadullah is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.
Comments concerning this article can be directed to him via email at
|Re: Rapper Mos Def talks about Islam, music|
|04/18/01 at 00:36:39|
|Interesting stuff: [url=http://comp.uark.edu/~tsweden/5per.html]Islam in the Mix: Lessons of the Five Percent[/url]|
|Re: Rapper Mos Def talks about Islam, music|
|04/25/01 at 21:26:50|
|unfortunately most rappers get played as illiterate, belligerant, punks...|
mos def has been one of my favorite rappers since 1996. listen to his first ever release, a album with talib kweli as his partner in rhyme.
they have a really good bookstore in brooklyn, usa.
p.s. bronx forever
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