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Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop

Mos Def | Photo: Cognito for FROLAB-Culture Capture Champ.

To most people, when you say "Islam and hip-hop," they will look at you a bit surprised. To most, Islam is viewed as being pre-modern and anti-Western, with a strict, puritanical code that is also anti-pleasure, while to most people, hip-hop is viewed as the exact opposite: it's decadent, rampantly materialistic, hyper-sexual and hedonistic. But if you peel back the layers (or barely scratch beneath the surface), that initial look of surprise will soon turn to awe. Because not only is Islam a part of hip-hop culture, it's central to its very foundation. Harry Allen, hip-hop journalist and Public Enemy's "Media Assassin" has said that "if hip-hop has an official religion it is Islam."

Los Angeles has its own specific histories around Islam and hip-hop -- from the presence of artists such as Kam, Jurassic 5 and Divine Styler, to a May 2001 benefit show at the Watts Labor Community Action Center for Jamil Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown), which featured Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Zion I and others.

But arguably the most significant moment was when Ice Cube, who had just left N.W.A., teamed up with Public Enemy's production unit the Bomb Squad, to record his first solo album, "Amerikkka's Most Wanted" (1990). The combination of Ice Cube with Public Enemy was incendiary -- a volatile mix that combined Cube's militant street poetry with Public Enemy's Black Nationalist fury.

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In the exhibit catalog to Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop, Chuck D writes that this was the period following the release of their anthem "Fight the Power" and that "this alliance of Cube and Public Enemy was a show of Black and rap unity that the powers that be feared may ring the alarm and spin the youth away from being lured into stupor and sleep."

And indeed it did. For this was a period in hip-hop when political consciousness raising was central to the music's mission, as ideas about Afrocentricity, Black Nationalism and most notably Islam deeply influenced the culture. And not surprisingly, Malcolm X would become the icon of hip-hop, as his books were read, his voice was sampled, his ideas were referenced, and his influence shaped ideas about Black resilience and resistance. Malcolm's influence would culminate in Spike Lee's 1992 biopic of him, as "X" caps, and Malcolm merchandise became all the rage.

But more than just the popularity of his "By Any Means Necessary" slogan, or the circulation of symbols and the iconography of him, Malcolm's resurgence in urban America beginning in the mid-1980s and into the early 1990's also spoke to the profound disillusionment of Black youth in the post-Civil Rights era. This was hip-hop's "Golden Age," and through the legacy of Malcolm, it was deeply influenced by Islam, as seminal artists as diverse as Rakim, Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, Big Daddy Kane, Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, the Wu-Tang Clan and others carried on a long standing protest tradition in which Islam influenced Black art and culture -- from Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, to its influence on jazz (Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal, Yusef Lateef, etc.) and the Black Arts Movement.

Message to the Black Man, East Flatbush Section of Brooklyn, 1980 | From the Archives of Jamel Shabazz

By the time Cube was collaborating with them, Public Enemy had already been vocal supporters of the Nation of Islam, but it was Chuck D's baritone voice, his deeply informed lyricism, and his brilliant songwriting that made Public Enemy the standard bearers when it comes to revolutionary hip-hop, even to this day.

Ice Cube's work with Public Enemy on "Amerikkka's Most Wanted" proved to be a turning point, as Cube would continue to weave the ideas of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam into his albums, infusing his music with political urgency and biting social critique, from his magnum opus "Death Certificate" (1991) to "The Predator" (1992) and "Lethal Injection"(1993). Cube's music proved prophetic in many ways, as a closer listening to his first two solo albums add support to his claim that he in fact rang the alarm about what would become the L.A. Rebellion of 1992 in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict.

By the mid-1990's, at about the time that Cube's career path took a serious turn toward the world of film, hip-hop was increasingly becoming the soundtrack to 21st century capitalism. No longer being compared to the previous generations of Black artistic genius, hip-hop instead was being compared to itself, as the "Golden Age" is constantly being held up as the standard and beacon for hip-hop's own potential in the face of hyper-commodification.

In these demands for hip-hop to get back to its roots, what is often overlooked and understated is not only the extent to which Islam played a vital role in politicizing the music and shaping the politics and culture of early hip-hop, but how it has continued to do that even today through artists such as Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Lupe Fiasco, Jay Electronica, and others. This is partly what "Return of the Mecca" hopes to begin to redress, that through the songs, album covers, photos, flyers and poetry, these histories that too often go unseen are made visible. And that despite the post-9/11 context that has tried to silence these histories and separate Blackness and Islam, these powerful histories are a testament to legacies of struggle that need to be urgently understood and reflected upon.

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"Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop" is exhibiting at the William Grant Still Arts Center as part of the city-wide Los Angeles Islamic Arts Initiative. This Saturday October 11th, starting at 2pm, Chuck D of Public Enemy, along with activist and organizer Rosa Clemente will be in conversation with curator Sohail Daulatzai about hip-hop's role -- both past and present -- in social justice struggles.

Limited edition 120 page exhibit catalog featuring an extended interview with Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), essays by Chuck D and Sohail Daulatzai, photos by Jamel Shabazz, Ernie Paniccioli, B+, Katina Parker and Cognito, as well as other artwork and ephemera is also available.

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