Image by Harrison Searle
You may have noticed that Republicans aren’t hustling to win over the hip-hop demographic. In the war on black youth, they have sided with authorities. In the war on poverty, neanderthals like Texas Senator Ted Cruz side with corporations. Every time. There is, however, yet another significant way in which the GOP has alienated innumerable rap fans throughout this toxic election season, and that’s by disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad, whose influence among the country’s hip-hop constituency is far greater than most people—and certainly most conservatives—may care to overstand.
“I watched the last Republican debate,” says Yusuf Abdul Mateen, a Shia Muslim and one half of the Boston duo Blak Madeen with AL-J. With his group’s most political offering to date, Supreme Aftermath, dropping amidst so much Islamophobia, Yusuf continues: “Obviously there was [Donald] Trump saying his stuff, but it was [Florida Congressman Marco] Rubio that made me angrier, because he tried to get sectarian and actually used the word “Shia.” I dare him to define the word. He sounds like ISIS now.”
Of the Republican presidential hopefuls, Rubio should know better. The youngest candidate in the main stage debates, he’s claimed to be a fan of Golden Age hip-hop, and has professed affection for the Wu-Tang Clan. Had Rubio paid more attention to the teachings of the Staten Island rap group, he would have known that his incendiary rhetoric regarding Muslims strikes at the heart of their entire essence, and at the universe in which their music lives. To quote directly from The Tao of Wu, in which The RZA offers critical background:
The [Five Percent Nation] were the next generation of the Nation of Islam, whose teachings had shaped giants like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. The newer school was founded in 1964, by a Harlem student minister known as Clarence 13X, who we now call the Father. He was looking for a quicker and more powerful way to bring those teachings directly to America’s black youth, so he condensed the Nation’s Lost-Found Lessons into a philosophical core called the 120.
Indeed, the line between Muhammad and boom bap may even be shorter than the rope between modern Republicans and slaveowners. As The RZA writes in another book, The Wu-Tang Manual, “About 80 percent of hip-hop comes from the Five Percent. These same brothers are the fathers of a lot of our MC styles. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Poor Righteous Teachers, Busta Rhymes …” “In a lot of ways,” RZA adds,” hip-hop is the Five Percent.”
Rather than leverage such information—hardly guarded trade secrets at this juncture—to attract unlikely GOP constituents, Republicans would probably instead eschew this holy matrimony. Because while most facets of American society revolve around Christianity, as Yusuf and AL-J are quick to note, hip-hop circles around a different set of principles. More benevolent politicians, typically of the Democratic variety, have made attempts to show the humanity of Muslims in the face of reckless xenophobia. That’s honorable, though a simpler lesson may be that the beat of young America—hip-hop in virtually all its forms save for some unsavory bastard crossover spawns—is rooted deep in the Quran.
Recently, a mosque in Worcester held a Meet a Muslim Day, the idea being that some members of the public could benefit from such an introduction. GOP debate sludge considered, it seemed appropriate to take a similar approach in interviewing AL-J, a Five-Percenter, and Yusuf—both veterans of Boston’s underground rap scene—about life and their latest project.
How similar are your backgrounds?
AL-J: I started to gain some knowledge of who I was around 13. I was living in Bridgeport [Connecticut], and I was pretty much a loner, I lived an isolated existence. I was interested in hip-hop, listening to DJ Red Alert … It was an interesting journey for me. I’ve always been the one to cling on to hope and to have a big heart.
YUSUF: I grew up in Methuen and North Andover with two parents, which is rare these days. My father worked in the court system, and I was quiet. I’m a few years younger [than AL], but we both have memories of hip-hop like, ‘I remember what I was doing when that came out, and what shirt I was wearing.’ … It’s been 13 years now since I became a Muslim. My foundation was already there, but when I started rapping I didn’t think about music too seriously. Then I met AL [in 2005] at the Western Front.
AL-J: He was very sincere. A lot of cats can spit, but rarely do I feel their sincerity.
One of you affiliates with the Five Percent Nation. The other with the Muslim faith. What are the differences?
YUSUF: You could talk to three Five-Percenters and get three different answers. The differences have evaporated a lot over the years … The meeting place is the basics—what makes you a Muslim.
AL-J: We go to Friday prayer [Jummah] together at the Masjid Al Quran mosque in Roxbury. This was the original mosque where Malcolm X preached at one point.
YUSUF: The differences that people want to see, they aren’t there.
Am I right that neither of you curses on record?
AL-J: I used to think I had to be savage along with these other new guys coming up, so I had to prove myself, and I might say something a little vulgar. I’m an underground MC, but I’m an intelligent person, and an intelligent person doesn’t need to use profanity. That can go either way, and sometimes I might slip up in my daily usage, but as we grow as humans, I just try not to [swear].
YUSUF: I have a lot of Muslim friends from other parts of the world who might not listen to hip-hop, but they’ll listen to me. Swearing isn’t a big deal, but I know I’ll lose them quick.
You address a lot of public ignorance about Muslims in your music, but how do you deal with all the hate in your daily lives? How does it affect you?
AL-J: I’m numb to the hate. If you let it get into your soul, that’s when you’re in trouble. I’m a lot older in my age now. I’m not going to debate and argue with you. If I offended you, I will quickly repair it and say, ‘You know what, I apologize.’ I will humble myself.
YUSUF: The word apology is an interesting one. Right now we’re living in a world where at least one out of five people on the planet is a Muslim, and we’re all expected to apologize for things we had nothing to do with. So I’m not going to apologize, because I don’t know who that dude is. But still, there are a lot of good people … As for ISIS, we’re supposed to believe a bunch of idiots driving around with long hair in Toyota trucks are taking over the world? No air force, no navy, but they’re taking over the world?
AL-J: We respond all through the album—that’s not Islam, that’s a state of barbarians.
And how do you respond on the regular?
YUSUF: I work at a group home. I was working in auto insurance before. It might sound cliche, but in calling myself a Muslim, I wanted to do something with humanity. I wanted to do something human, so I got involved and it clicked. And when you work with these kids, you count your blessings.
What should people know about Muslims, and about Muslims and hip-hop, from where you’re standing?
YUSUF: The Prophet Muhammad said a Muslim is someone who your possessions and your family are safe around. He didn’t say you have to believe A, B, and C.
AL-J: Faith without works is dead. Works like if you see a person who is hungry, you ask them if they need something to eat. You treat your neighbor the way you want to be treated.
YUSUF: If there was no Five Percenters, there would be no hip-hop. So when people say it’s weird what we’re doing, they must be either young or not too bright.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.