Islam & hip-hop have always been aligned. Historically, there was a poetry culture among Arabs where poets would battle each other. The Quran refers to these poets in many places with a whole Surah named Ash-Shu‘ara or The Poets.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was known to enjoy the art form of poetry, and he assigned Muslim poets to answer to the verbal challenges of non-Muslim poets. In this way, poetry performed the role of dawah or an invitation to Islam. The Quran is encouraged to be recited aloud & memorized. Similarly, hip-hop has a tradition which is about recitation & memory. In 3 different Surahs, the Quran refutes its disbelievers by challenging them to attempt to write a better text.
Calligraffiti Artist Diaa Allam
Poetry battles took place in South Asia from the 11th c. through Qawwali - a form of music practiced by Sufis to inspire religious devotion. Qawwali performers are talented musicians & poets, able to adapt to different moods of ceremonies & improvise through poetic battles.
This is directly related to early hip-hop culture, with artists experimenting with spoken word & delivery – competing through lyrical battles. The Quran is considered the highest form of communication, and linguistic mastery is important in both Islam and hip-hop.
The precursors of hip-hop music were a group of African-American and Latino poets from New York City called the “Last Poets”. The group was formed on May 19, 1968 in Harlem, New York City out of a black writer’s workshop. The original line up of the Last Poets was Gylain Kain, Abiodun Oyewole, David Nelson, Felipe Luciano, Omar Bin Hassen, Jalal Nuriddin, and Suleiman El-Hadi. They were united by the struggle for civil rights and their prospects as poor minorities within a racist American society.
The Muslims of the Last Poets, Jalal Nuriddin and Suleiman El-Hadi, were known to give powerful messages of the harsh realities of being Black in America while fusing their understanding of the religion of Islam into their poetry.
The influence of Islam on African-American culture dates well before the rise of hip-hop in the Bronx, and to a time when Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, and the Nation of Islam particularly influenced the Black culture in seeking an identity that could ultimately resist oppression.
Hip-hop emerged at a time that spoke to many people about social issues that Islam has historically regarded as well. Things like inequity, self-determination and the need for national community or an ummah.
Since its beginnings, the pioneers of hip-hop culture – Rakim, Afrika Islam, Q-Tip, Big Daddy Kane, Nas, Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) & more have connected themselves to an Islamic ideology & practice that has empowered Black movements since the early 20th century.
Brooklyn MC Yasiin Bey talked about the exhibition ‘Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam And Hip-Hop’ curated by Sohail Daulatzai. It showcases how hip-hop culture, from its very foundation until today, has been influenced by its relationship to Islam
Prayers and Arabic terms have famously been incorporated into rap music. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) started his 1999 album Black on Both Sides with the words “Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem” meaning “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful”.