Reuters, Nov. 26, 2002
By Kelli Esters
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The song, with its syncopated rhythms, sounds like your typical hip-hop or rap song. But as the first verse makes its way to the chorus, the lyrics might be a bit surprising:
“So always be proud, you can say it out loud
I am proud to be down with the Muslim crowd!
I’m so blessed to be with them…”
The song is called “M-U-S-L-I-M” and is sung by Native Deen, a Washington-based group which fuses its African-American culture and Muslim faith to create a hip-hop sound with a unique message.
That message encourages Muslims to pray five times daily, not to smoke or drink and to be proud of their faith in a place where others sometimes don’t understand it. In 2001, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased 1,700 percent in the U.S. after Sept. 11, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
Group member Naeem Muhammad, a 27-year-old who grew up in Baltimore, said that he hasn’t run into anybody who does the same thing that Native Deen does. The group takes its name from the Arabic word for religion, which it transliterates as Deen.
“What’s becoming more and more and apparent with Native Deen is that we are, God willing, charting the course for Islamic cultural art form,” Muhammad said.
The two-year-old trio performs at Muslim weddings, celebrations, conferences and fund-raisers. You will not find them where there is dancing or alcohol is served.
They will be performing in front of an expected audience of 1,000 in New York Dec. 7 and are preparing for their first five-city tour in Britain as part of the Nasheed Extravaganza from Dec. 13-17.
STRICT READING OF THE FAITH
When performing, the trio wears traditional Islamic dress consisting of knitted skull caps, loose tunics and pants. They use only two drums and a synthesizer, avoiding dance as well as wind and stringed instruments, which are frowned upon in some Islamic traditions.
Joshua Salaam, Muhammad and Abdul-Malik Ahmad met more than 15 years ago in an organization called Muslim Youth of North America. According to the organization’s Web site, MYNA was created to deal with the challenges Muslim youth face in an un-Islamic environment.
Salaam, the group’s 28-year-old leader from Indianapolis, said they get their inspiration from growing up Muslim in America, which he said was not easy. His faith requires that he pray five times a day, fast during religious holidays, not date and act and dress a certain way.
Muslim men and women are expected to dress modestly: Men cannot expose certain parts of their bodies, wear gold or silk, and sexually mature girls must wear the hijab, the Islamic headcovering.
“Kids are going to make fun whether it’s not going to the prom, wearing jogging pants on the cross-country team or girls wearing hijab while playing volleyball,” Salaam said. “Whatever it is, they’re going to find something to make fun of you.”
The song “Hellfire” deals with the issue of being young and Muslim:
“Slip to bathroom, find an empty classroom,
Don’t wanna miss a prayer here at school or even at home
Man it was a struggle, trying to be a Muslim and staying out of trouble,
The stress seemed double.”
Sekinat Kassim, 19, a student at Howard University, saw Native Deen perform at Muslim American Heritage Day last month in Washington, D.C. She says she listens to the trio because their music is not frowned upon by Muslim authorities and they are a positive influence on Muslim youth like herself.
Mixing Islamic principles into the lyrics of hip-hop songs is nothing new. Mainstream hip-hop artists like singer Lauryn Hill and rapper/actor Mos Def throw in references to Islam in their rhymes.
There is no significant connection between Islam and hip-hop culture, other than the fact that some artists are Muslim, said Kriston Atkinson, who studies hip-hop and writes reviews for a hip-hop Web site. But there do seem to be more references in hip-hop to Islam than to any other religion.
“Islam is very marketable in the black community, and therefore in hip-hop. There is a lot of ‘street credibility’ in the religion of Islam because of various misconceptions, assumptions and principles, so when a black artist talks about his Islamic faith, people of all faiths seem to listen a little more,” she said.
Muhammad said that unlike other Muslim hip-hop artists, Native Deen doesn’t mask its faith.
“What separates our music from mainstream Muslim hip-hop is the amount — the Islamic message is more in the forefront,” said Muhammad. Instead of mainstream Muslim artists who throw in a couple of “subtle” lines here and there about their faith, Native Deen is “very public” about their beliefs, he said.
The group is broadcast live on the Washington-area’s only Muslim radio station and available on the Web at http://www.ibn.net at 2:30 p.m. on Fridays.
All of the group’s songs are about living as Muslims, and they just chose to convey their message through hip-hop.
Muhammad grew up in the early ’80s, the golden years of hip-hop, and kids in his neighborhood would try to emulate what they saw on television. But he wrote about what he knew — the experience of growing up Muslim.
“Hip-hop was the thing to do, period, especially for inner-city kids, and that was the mode of expression I chose,” said Muhammad. “It came naturally to me.”
“It became more apparent, for people to receive the message of Islam, it has to be in a form they can relate to. The Koran came down in the form that people could understand. I saw that in hip-hop as well. I thought it would be an excellent way to spread the word, and it is something that I enjoy.”