Return of the Mecca
Return of the Mecca
Public Enemies, Reaganism, and the Birth of Hip-Hop
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses the aesthetic and political dimensions of the Muslim International through hip-hop culture during a period when the “Black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist” were viewed as fundamental threats to U.S. national identity. Through the resurgence of Malcolm X and the embrace of Black Islam, hip-hop culture in the 1980s and 1990s tapped into Black internationalism to challenge racial domination, militarism, and mass incarceration, imagining Black freedom beyond the United States and into Africa and the Muslim Third World. The hip-hop culture—like jazz and the Black Arts Movement—became a space where Black radicalism, Islam, and Muslim Third World politics would have a strong influence, interpreted through lyrics that have been expressed by various artists such as Rakim, Public Enemy, Mos Def, Ice Cube, and many others.
Man what happened to us?
Geographically they moved us from Africa
We was once happiness pursuers
Now we back stabbing, combative, and abusive
The African and Arab go at it they most Muslim
We should be moving in unison.
—Nas and Damian Marley, “Tribes at War”
NEW YORK CITY, and by extension the United States, got remixed by the influence of Islam well before the idea of 9/11. But this time it was through hip-hop culture. For Muslim MCs in the 1980s, New York City and its surroundings were reclaimed by its Black inhabitants in more ways than one. In the lexicon and imagination of Black Islam, New York was rechristened via Islam’s holiest sites, with Harlem becoming Mecca and Brooklyn becoming Medina. Harlem was named Mecca for many reasons, one of which had to do with Black Islam’s prophetic voice—Malcolm X—making Harlem sacred ground, where he, through Islam, would connect Black peoples in the United States to the larger Third World of Africa and Asia as he cast his verbal stones at the evils of white world supremacy. It is no surprise, then, that Malcolm X would also become hip-hop’s prophetic voice, as his influence and the embrace of Black Islam in hip-hop culture were forged out of a crucible of post–Civil Rights America and the expansion of U.S. empire abroad, a volitile period when the “Black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist” became the domestic and foreign threats, respectively, to U.S. national security.
(p.90) As Black Power raged and urban rebellions roiled U.S. cities in the mid- to late 1960s, U.S. state agencies saw these rebellions as the domestic front in a broader war against popular people’s movements throughout the Third World. During this period, marked by retrenchment and a backlash against the perceived gains of the Civil Rights movement, U.S. federal, state, and local authorities mobilized a broader campaign to silence and destroy these movements and any possibility of their reemergence in the future. From the 1960s and into the twenty-first century, COINTELPRO, Nixon’s “law and order” mantras, and Reagan-Bush-Clinton policies in the “War on Crime” gave birth to an urban police state, while a new “carceral imagination” gave shape to the “Black criminal” as a defining threat to U.S. domestic security.1
And as U.S. empire extended European colonialism into the Muslim Third World and intensified its already existing dominion in the late 1960s, the emergence of the “Muslim terrorist” within mainstream political discourse and popular culture defined Islam and the Muslim Third World as a fundamental threat to U.S. national security. As a kind of “prehistory” to the current “War on Terror,” U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim Third World of Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere constructed Islam and the figure of the “Muslim terrorist” as a fundamental threat that came to haunt U.S. political discourse beginning in the 1970s and 1980s and extending into the 1990s with Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis and, of course, the post-9/11 era.
When the hypernationalism of the post–Civil Right backlash created the “Black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist” as threats to U.S. national identity, it was through the presence of Malcolm X and the embrace of Black Islam that hip-hop artists responded, using their collective exclusion as both Black and Muslim to tap into a deep vein of Black internationalism that not only challenged domestic racism but also imagined Black belonging beyond the United States, into Africa and the Muslim Third World. By crafting an alternative community of belonging that has given contour to the Muslim International, Black cultural activists in hip-hop challenged U.S.-based racial control and domination, and they also linked these struggles with the expansion of U.S. empire abroad, extending and inflecting a long-standing tradition (p.91) of internationalism that has been a hallmark of Black radical practice and Black political thought in the post–World War II era.
Hip-hop culture, then, stands as a powerful example of what Amiri Baraka referred to as the “changing same” of Black music.2 For it was through the historical influence of Islam and Malcolm X within Black political culture that Black artists in the post–World War II era invoked Islamic themes and symbols in their radical Black cultural practices, giving shape and contour to the cultural politics of the Muslim International. Like jazz and the Black Arts Movement before it, hip-hop culture, especially its “Golden Age,” became a space in which Black radicalism, Islam, and the politics of the Muslim Third World had a powerful impact on the lyrical imaginations, sonic landscapes, and political visions that were being expressed by artists such as Rakim, Public Enemy, Mos Def, Ice Cube, Gang Starr, and Lupe Fiasco, to name a few. In forging the aesthetic and political dimensions of the Muslim International through sound, hip-hop became a space for Black artists to express what the official language of politics proved incapable of translating, as they imagined Black freedom beyond America’s borders. Using the language of the unheard, Muslim artists in the age of empire and mass incarceration turned the possibility of prison bars into musical bars of rebellion and hope, as hip-hop became a powerful site of redemption and deliverance, mapping a new imaginative geography in the post–Civil Rights era, a geography that was forged through the cultural and political histories of Black Islam, the Muslim Third World, and Black internationalism.
Sound of Da Police
Brilliantly captured in Cle Shaheed Sloan’s 2005 documentary Bastards of the Party, hip-hop’s emergence from urban America in the 1970s was a result of a host of political, economic, and racist state forces that can be traced back to the rise of Black Power in the 1960s and to the profound shifts in the U.S. economy that began at roughly the same time. As capital and commerce left the urban centers and crossed borders into the Third World in the second half of the twentieth century, cities in the United States came to embody and represent something radically different from what they had before. No longer the engine of progress (p.92) and prosperity or the center of American sophistication and modernity, the city instead came to embody decline, fear, and danger.
In order to displace the fears caused by global capital, America’s political discourse portrayed the country’s “decline” not as a result of the larger contradictions in capitalism but rather as a result of the moral decay and degeneracy that the city—and its inhabitants—supposedly represented, as racial anxieties and economic insecurities once again became cemented in the American imagination. From the mid- to late 1960s on, as a result of repression, white flight, and the erosion of local tax bases due to corporate flight across borders, the “city” was demonized to embody fear, danger, and crime within the mainstream imagination, all of which became code words in justifying a full frontal assault on the Black and Brown communities that lived there.3
In the immediate aftermath of urban unrest and heightened Black discontent, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs in the mid-1960s were one of the first in a long line of initiatives that claimed to address the condition of the nation’s cities. As Black anger intensified over white resistance to racial justice, Johnson’s programs failed. Under the banner of “law and order” after the presidential election of 1968, Nixon and his proxies, including the FBI and local police forces, used covert programs such as COINTELPRO and other “legitimate” means to destroy the political unrest that was taking place all across urban America. With hundreds of urban uprisings that set American cities ablaze and sent smoke signals of Black Power rising, Nixon used the mantra of “law and order” to mobilize what he called the “Silent Majority” (his white constituencies) to generate the political will and national consensus he needed to destroy the Black Panthers and other Black (and Brown) liberation and antiwar organizations. As Black communities challenged policing, poverty, and U.S. imperial desire around the world, Nixon repeatedly returned to his “law and order” mantra in order to contain and destroy the domestic unrest that ultimately made America’s actions in Vietnam untenable.
As the 1970s wore on, the rhetoric of “crime” captured the national imagination. And it was New York, specifically the Bronx, that came to represent a kind of national symbol of urban decay, the ashes from which the phoenix of hip-hop would arise. All over America, the movement of factory jobs abroad exacerbated the conditions set in motion (p.93) by Nixon’s politics of aggression. As employment, tax bases, and economic opportunities shrank, both federal and state governments began to shift their focus from education and infrastructure to the eradication of “crime,” fattening police budgets and triggering the passage of punitive laws (such as the notorious 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws) in order to calm the national fears about “crime” in the city.
As white fears deepened throughout the 1970s in the shadows of Black Power, the defeat in Vietnam, the post-Watergate discontent, the economic stagflation of the decade, and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, the widespread perception of whites was that “their America” was in decline. This sentiment found coherence in the figure of Ronald Reagan, who, with the emergence of the New Right, sought to comfort white America through a resurgent U.S. nationalism that was predicated upon the creation of both domestic and foreign enemies of the state.4
A telling moment occurred on August 4, 1980, when Reagan chose to launch his presidential campaign in the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. As the symbolic first stop on his campaign for the White House, Reagan’s choice was a harbinger of things to come, for this was the town where, in 1964, Civil Rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were murdered by white supremacists. In his speech there in 1980, Reagan openly declared, “I believe in states’ rights”—a not-so-subtle support of the southern segregationist mantra that dated back to slavery and had become a white rallying cry against the Civil Rights movement. This was essentially the flip side of Reagan’s deeply coded attack on “big government” and distrust of D.C., which echoed throughout his campaign and tenure as president, as his appeal to not only the conservative white upper class but also working-class whites (known as Reagan Democrats) tapped into a rich vein of white resentment about the perceived gains of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.5 Reagan aligned himself with deeply racist currents in the United States, tapping into the prevailing perception among whites that, through the passage of Civil Rights bills and related policies, the U.S. government had betrayed the interests of “real Americans” and was instead beholden to minorities, giving special treatment to Blacks, women, immigrants, and other aggrieved groups.
What Nixon had begun under the banner of “law and order,” Reagan repackaged as the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Crime” as part (p.94) of his “Morning in America” crusade in the 1980s. But it was mourning in America for urban communities. Reagan’s far-right-wing politics and attacks on Civil Rights gains went big time under the lights of the new Hollywood–Beltway axis, as his “War on Drugs” and “War on Crime” slogans captured the white imagination, and he used “welfare queens,” “crack dealers,” “gang wars,” and “illegals” as supposed threats to domestic order and the very essence of his view of America.6
Reagan sought to link the idea of America to an implicit idea of whiteness that leaned heavily upon notions of tradition, family, responsibility, work ethic, and character, molding all of these into a larger conception of citizenship. Against this backdrop, Reagan made coded and not so coded appeals to whites by distinguishing them from and contrasting them with the inhabitants of urban centers, as he played on the sensationalized fears of supposed Black criminality. In doing so, Reagan tapped into a deep historical vein of white supremacy that marks the distinction between “citizen” and “criminal” as a racial one, in which whiteness is linked to the nation, and Blackness is coded as un-American. Reagan manipulated these ideas as a resurgent whiteness retook center stage with a vehemence, pitting supposedly hard-working Americans against the “criminal” element in the cities, who were not only accused of draining the resources of hard-working taxpayers but were also seen as moral failures and a collective shackle on America’s feet. In Reagan’s doublespeak, the inner cities kept America captive and prevented the nation from reaching its destiny, a powerful narrative that encouraged the demonization of Blackness in mainstream television, newspapers, and popular culture.
Reagan’s legacy and his deep connections to Hollywood strengthened the complicity between the bright lights and the Beltway, and the hysteria-generating sequels that were the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations furthered the narrative about the inherent dangers of the inner city. Both Bush and Clinton continued to use “crime” to generate political capital as the mainstream media continued to utilize the logic of Reaganism. Bush I grabbed the mic from Reagan and spat the same rhymes, using Willie Horton to get elected the first time and the Los Angeles Uprisings of 1992 to try to get reelected. And though Bush failed at that reelection, Clinton’s subsequent “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in the prison population (p.95) during any presidency in American history, and his passage of the repressive 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act added thirty billion dollars to build more prisons and put a hundred thousand more police officers on the streets.7 So if Clinton was a friend to Black folks, imagine the enemies.
This was indicative of a larger pattern that had begun in the late 1960s under Nixon, in which Black discontent and political mobilization resulted in U.S. state-sanctioned repression that included huge cutbacks in education and infrastructure and drastic increases in funding the formation of an urban police state and the building of prisons. As a result, the prison population in the United States skyrocketed by 500 percent between 1970 and 2000, with the United States having a higher rate of prisoners per one hundred thousand of its population than any other country in the world.8 This has culminated in what Michelle Alexander has referred to as “the New Jim Crow,” in which, according to her, “racial caste has not ended in America: we have only redesigned it.”9
As the distinction between the citizen and noncitizen revealed itself once again to be a racial one in the United States, the post–Civil Rights moment further entrenched this distinction by marking the difference between the “citizen” and the “criminal,” making Blackness the domestic marker of exclusion from the national family.10 This national family of America also had supposed global threats that sought its demise, and from the 1970s on, the Muslim Third World complemented the domestic menace of Blackness to the American national family.
On the international front, the hypernationalism of Reagan and the desire to “restore greatness” to America were predicated upon the fears stoked by the administration of the Cold War and the racial panics caused by the fears of “Islamic terrorism.” The New Right’s embrace of evangelical Christianity framed U.S. foreign policy such that “godless” communism and “militant Islam” were viewed as threats to the United States. With anticommunist battles being pitched in Central America and covert wars being fought everywhere, the Muslim Third World also fell under an expanding U.S. orbit, making Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries witnesses to a deepening U.S. military and political presence.
In fact, the fears of “Islamic terrorism” that proliferated in the 1980s had their roots in the previous decade, for the 1970s had witnessed the (p.96) beginning of the rise in the “terrorist threat” to U.S. and Western interests when the politics of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict deepened, and the United States and western Europe provided more diplomatic, financial, and military support to Israel. With Palestinians seeking to bring international attention to their plight, they and their allies across the globe struck at various targets around the world, but none more visible than the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, where they stormed the dormitory for Israeli athletes, which led to eleven of those athletes being killed. Broadcast all over the world, this event and its unfolding drama brought the figure of the “terrorist” to living rooms in the United States, an image and idea that was solidified as the politics of the Muslim Third World became a more prominent part of the American public’s collective awareness. Anti-Muslim sentiment deepened as the Arab oil embargo in 1973 shook the U.S. economy and as economic anxieties, racist rhetoric, and xenophobia congealed in the belief that Muslims were holding America hostage economically, which intensified the racist rhetoric in the United States, a rhetoric that was clearly ignorant of the United States’ imperial role in the region and its demand for a continuing flow of oil and regional control.11
But no event did more to harness the widespread discontent of the 1970s than the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. As a result of American intervention in Iran, including the CIA’s “Operation Ajax,” which overthrew the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and immediately installed a brutal dictator in the shah, Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and took sixty-five Americans hostage. Lasting for 444 days, the Iran hostage crisis gripped the United States and sparked hypernationalist sentiments as television, newspaper, and other media covered the story intensely, constructing a narrative in which an innocent America was under siege from ruthless and maniacal Muslims.
Coincidentally, the hostages were released on the day that Reagan was being inaugurated in 1981, giving truth to the lie of his “Morning in America” slogan, as it symbolized a newly redeemed America that had to be ever mindful of the threats that were posed to it. Catapulting from the nightly news coverage of the Iran hostage crisis, a steady diet of television programming, news media coverage, and Hollywood films throughout the 1980s portrayed a constant threat of “terrorism” against (p.97) the United States. And with increased U.S. involvement in the region, several events in the late 1970s through the 1980s and into the early 1990s figured the Muslim Third World as a threat to U.S. interests, linking “terrorism” to Islam and Muslims and further justifying U.S. control and dominance in the region. In addition to the Iran hostage crisis, there was also an increase in U.S. intervention in Lebanon, which resulted in the 1983 bombing of an American military barracks in Beirut, killing 243 U.S. soldiers. The United States also began fighting a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which necessitated deeper dependence and control of neighboring Pakistan and the use of Saudi Arabia to assist in weapons deals. In addition, the increasing tensions of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, the Iran–Iraq war, in which both sides were given U.S. funding and arms (as revealed in the Iran–Contra Affair), the U.S. attacks on Libya in 1986, and the Gulf War against Iraq in 1990, just to name a few, all created a national hysteria about the fear around “terrorism” and the perceived menace of the Muslim Third World to the United States.
With the “Black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist” becoming the twin pillars of U.S. state formation in the post–Civil Rights era, it is deeply ironic that Malcolm X would become the iconic figure for Black radicalism and hip-hop culture late in the twentieth century. For not only had he been incarcerated and labeled criminal at an earlier time, but he also converted to Islam and became a radical Black internationalist who challenged U.S. anti-Black racism and linked these struggles with those in the Muslim Third World. In addition, as the figure of the “Muslim terrorist” dominated mainstream discourse, it served to undermine the historical role of Islam within Black political culture by isolating and stigmatizing those Black activists and artists who aligned themselves with Islam and the politics of the Muslim Third World. Despite these attempts to fracture Black Islam from the Muslim Third World and also to undermine the politics of the Muslim International, Malcolm’s role as iconic figure was a testament to the enduring political vision that he had crafted, for Black Islam in hip-hop culture reclaimed the interpretive authority over Black destiny in the United States and imagined a different community of belonging with very different possibilities for freedom, in which Black peoples would be seen not as national minorities but as global majorities.
Malcolm’s resurgence in hip-hop in the 1980s and into the 1990s was due to a host of different factors, not the least of which was the increasing significance of Afrocentricity, Black Nationalism, and the resurgence of Black Islam. As a result of these direct responses to the massive repression of the post–Civil Rights backlash, the Reagan–Bush policies of the “War on Crime,” massive incarceration, and the racist appeals and rhetoric of Reagan, Malcolm’s resurgence signified the renewed desire and longing of a new generation of Black youth to seek answers to the probing questions they had about their place in U.S. society and how to resist it. And what they found was what others before them had found: that white supremacy and Eurocentrism were alive and well, having shape-shifted into a U.S. nationalism that was predicated on containing Black freedom struggles at home and an expansionist politics abroad. As a result, there was a tremendous resurgence of interest in the history of Black Power, Afrocentric thought, and Islam as forces that could potentially empower and challenge the prevailing dogmas of post– Civil Rights repression. And if one figure could harness most of these energies, it was Malcolm X, who became the icon for the hip-hop generation as his voice was sampled, his ideas were referenced, and his influence shaped ideas about Black resilience and resistance. Culminating in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic titled Malcolm X, interest in Malcolm was widespread, from his presence in hip-hop music and video to sales of his autobiography, which rose 300 percent from 1988 to 1991, while sales of four of Malcolm’s books from Pathfinder Press increased 900 percent from 1986 to 1991.12 In addition, Malcolm became a cottage industry after Lee’s marketing campaign, as “X” caps, T-shirts, and other merchandise made Malcolm a mass-market commodity.
Malcolm’s resurgence in urban America in the mid-1980s also spoke to the profound failure of and disillusionment with the Civil Rights project. Put plainly, the mountaintop was not reached. And Malcolm became an enduring reminder of that failure, for no one sounded the warning about the limitations of Civil Rights more so than Malcolm. It was no surprise that when hip-hop embraced Black radicalism and Islam that Malcolm became the iconic image of the culture. It wasn’t only Malcolm’s embrace of Black radicalism, his conversion to Islam, (p.99) and his Pan-Africanist and Third Worldist politics that appealed to a younger generation. For Black youth facing down the barrel of the Reagan–Bush backlash, the hip-hop generation and Malcolm shared a great deal in common. Just as the hip-hop generation did, Malcolm represented the idea of an “authentic” Blackness that did not sell out or compromise to white America. Both Malcolm and hip-hop also gave voice to the poverty and difficulties of urban existence while also speaking truth to power against the Black bourgeoisie, white power, and state authority. Both Malcolm and the hip-hop generation faced accusations of reckless violence, while, ironically, both were also subject to incarceration and the constant threat of imminent violence and death as Black bodies in white America. Malcolm had transcended the violence and despair of the ghetto and incarceration, providing a redemptive possibility to Black youth who had already been locked up or were constantly subjected to that possibility in the era of mass incarceration, which defined the post–Civil Rights era. And just as Malcolm had, hip-hop during this period celebrated an enduring valorization and sanctity of Blackness as a source of pride, redemption, and resistance. Finally, and possibly most important, like Malcolm, hip-hop was deeply invested in the power of words as a weapon, and, like Malcolm, it used its rhetorical rebellion to speak its truth to power.
Through the long shadow cast by Malcolm X, the sometimes strident but always determined challenge to U.S. power was also seen in the influence on hip-hop culture of the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, who galvanized Black youth and the hip-hop generation in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Having broken away from Wallace Muhammad, who had taken over after the death of his father, Elijah, and moved the Nation of Islam toward Sunni Islam, Farrakhan went on a trip to Africa and the Middle East and returned to revive and lead the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan would travel frequently throughout Africa and Asia in the 1980s and ’90s, continuing that tradition within the Nation of Islam of linking Black struggles in the United States with those in the Third World. As a result of his travels, his rhetoric, and his influence, Farrakhan faced tremendous political pressure from all sides and from the highest levels of the U.S. government, including when he received a five-milliondollar loan from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to assist in the economic development of urban America. Farrakhan would become a lightning (p.100) rod for controversy, as the news media attacked him incessantly. A 1995 special issue of Newsweek magazine, for instance, put Farrakhan on the cover just after his Million Man March on the Mall in Washington, D.C., with the nebulous headline “The Two Faces of Farrakhan.”13 His influence on hip-hop culture would continue, not only when he played the peacemaker of “beefs” between several artists, but also when he held the Hip-Hop Summit in 1997 following the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. This summit brought together a number of wellknown and respected hip-hop artists. In fact, Farrakhan has become the second most influential figure within hip-hop culture behind Malcolm X, having been sampled and mentioned in songs by artists such as Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Big Daddy Kane, Biggie Smalls, Brand Nubian, Queen Latifah, Digable Planets, the Fugees, and numerous others. More recently, in 2008 Nas, on his controversial Untitled album, stated in a refrain, “They did not have the power to stop Louis Farrakhan, a testament to the Nation of Islam’s influence on hip-hop culture.”
But Lee’s Malcolm X was, for better or worse, a signal moment, because it sought to capture, and catapult from, the renewed interest in Malcolm among the hip-hop generation and the deep discontent that existed in urban America. Lee’s film framed an exploration of three different Malcolms—the hustler, the Nation of Islam devotee, and the post-Mecca Black leader. In seeking to tell Malcolm’s story, Lee firmly situated him within a conventional Hollywood logic of individual heroism and tragedy and, in doing so, catered to Hollywood’s expectations about Blackness by spending a great deal of time on Malcolm as a hustler and “criminal.” In portraying the arc of Malcolm from street hustler to prisoner to revolutionary and finally to martyr, Lee’s film almost completely ignored Malcolm’s Muslim Internationalism and his linking of Black liberation in the United States with Third World liberation struggles, a radical position that was a central part of Malcolm’s politics both while he was in the Nation of Islam and especially after he left. Absent were Malcolm’s poignant insights into the global nature of white supremacy, the relationship of U.S. empire to European colonialism, and the role of Black peoples in the United States in dismantling racial injustice nationally and internationally. By not exploring how Malcolm situated his criticism of U.S. racism within a broader struggle against white world supremacy (to reference Malcolm), Lee domesticated Malcolm’s (p.101) politics and undermined Malcolm’s radical Third Worldist ideal under the banner of a liberal universalism. Tellingly, the film’s opening showed the iconic “X” in red, white, and blue, burned out of an American flag, which suggested that Malcolm was merely part of a larger tradition of American liberalism and dissent. In true Hollywood biopic form, Malcolm was framed as an American hero worthy of recognition, and not the Third World militant that he truly was.
What made Malcolm so powerful was his radical and redemptive vision for Black liberation. But Lee’s film overlooked and undermined this, especially at a time when the Muslim Third World was in the crosshairs of U.S. empire, as the first Gulf War in Iraq had just been “won.” Through the prisms of domestic racism and Third World decolonization, Malcolm shaped his Muslim anticolonialism into an enduring legacy that deeply influenced a younger generation of activists immediately following his assassination, including RAM, the Black Arts Movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and of course the Black Panther Party, who saw themselves as “a living testament to his life work.”14
But in order to understand the significance of the resurgence of Islam and Malcolm X in hip-hop in the 1980s and ’90s, when the “Black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist” were the violent specters threatening U.S. national identity, it is important to understand the historical context of the rise of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X in America in the 1950s and ’60s, when desegregation battles were taking place in the United States and decolonization was overtaking the Third World of Africa and Asia.
As the widely recognized architect of Black Power and the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X traveled throughout Africa and the Muslim Third World of Africa and Asia, seeking to link U.S. Black struggles with the worldwide rebellions taking place against European colonialism. Linking the struggles of Vietnam, the Congo, Cuba, and other nations to those of U.S.-based Blacks, Malcolm’s own Muslim Internationalism not only sought to link Black Muslims in the United States with the larger movements of decolonization in the Muslim Third World, but in doing so, he also sought to link the struggles of U.S.-based Blacks in general with the Bandung world and the global struggles against white supremacy taking place throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
(p.102) In the immediate aftermath of World War II, as U.S. empire expanded, Black intellectuals and activists who were being influenced by the anticolonial movements taking place in Africa and Asia began to look at the Middle East as an emerging battleground upon which to negotiate their own political identities, affiliations, and agendas. As scholar Melani McAlister has written, while “the tendency has been to see the transnational elements of Black culture in the United States as focused exclusively on identifications with Africa,” she argues that for Black activists, intellectuals, and writers, they “looked not only to Africa but also to other areas, and particularly to the Middle East, as site and source for explorations of blackness and the recovery and reconstruction of black history.”15 As McAlister details, for Black Christians and the emerging Civil Rights movement, the religious narratives of Exodus, slavery, and suffering were powerful tropes and analogies for translating biblical histories into contemporary struggles around racism—all of which served to create and forge ties to the Middle East through religious narratives of liberation and redemption. But Black Islam in the United States also laid claim to the region and its histories, including but not limited to Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. In fact, during this same period through the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, Islam came to be seen as an alternative form of radical Black consciousness that was quite distinct from what was perceived to be the integrationist goals of Black Christianity—a consciousness that was internationalist in scope and one that more clearly aligned itself with the revolutionary nationalism that was overtaking the Third World. Because of Christianity’s association with whiteness, Islam, as echoed by James Baldwin and others, came to be understood as “the Black man’s religion.”
For the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, Islam became the focal point for redefining a new Black identity that built upon earlier periods of Black anticolonial sensibilities and that tied their vision of Black liberation to the larger Muslim Third World, forging links and trading upon the fact that Islam was a major world religion. A central part of this alternative narrative of origin and sense of belonging for Black peoples in America was how the Nation of Islam respatialized Black identity without exclusively looking at Africa as the site for the recovery of Black history. As a result, the NOI redefined and expanded Black identity beyond the United States and in relation to the Third World, using terms such (p.103) as the Asiatic, Asian black nation, Afro-Asiatic Black Man, and the Asiatic Black Man, all of which echoed Elijah Muhammad’s claim in his seminal text that “we are descendants of the Asian black nation … the rich Nile Valley of Egypt and the present seat of the Holy City, Mecca, Arabia.”16 As a result, the Nation of Islam “provided an alternative to—and in some sense a fundamental critique of—the nation-state. [For] African-American Muslims could claim a symbolic counter-citizenship, an identity that challenged black incorporation into the dominant discourse of Judeo-Christian Americanness.”17 These alternative identities and the forms of countercitizenship that they made possible were powerful rhetorical mechanisms for Black converts to Islam to redefine themselves not only in relation to the United States but also to the larger Third World of Africa and Asia, for as Malcolm X said, “Islam is the greatest unifying force in the Dark World today.”18 As the presence of Islam witnessed a resurgence within Black political culture in the mid- to late 1980s, these ideas and histories became a means of reclaiming a narrative of resistance, expanding the scope of Black belonging, and redefining Blackness in the face of the politics of repression during the era of Reagan.
Malcolm, Mecca, and Black Art
Even in death, Malcolm was the ideological architect and radical theorist for groups such as RAM, SNCC, and the Black Panther Party. But while his influence is most often and most notably seen within the realms of Black political thought, Malcolm also had a tremendous influence on Black cultural production and artistic practices. Both Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, two of the central figures in the formation of the Black Arts Movement, have discussed the impact of Malcolm on Black life. According to Baraka (then Leroi Jones), “The concept of Black Power is natural after Malcolm. Malcolm’s legacy was the concept and will toward political power in the world for the Black man.”19 In addition Larry Neal said,
But even though Malcolm’s death—the manner of it—emotionally fractured young black radicals, there were two central facts that all factions of the movement came to understand. And they are: that the struggle for black self-determination had entered a serious, more profound stage; and that for most of us, nonviolence as a viable technique of social (p.104) change had died with Malcolm on the stage of the Audubon…. Malcolm’s ideas had touched all aspects of contemporary black nationalism: the relationship of black America and the Third World, the development of a black cultural thrust, the rights of oppressed peoples to self-defense and armed struggle; the necessity of maintaining a strong moral force in the black community; the building of autonomous black institutions; and finally, the need for a black theory of social change.20
Although Malcolm’s influence on Black political thought has been recognized, his ideas on Black cultural radicalism have not been explored at great length, in particular his influence on the Black Arts Movement and then hip-hop culture. One of Malcolm’s more involved discussions on cultural politics came at the opening rally for his newly formed Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). At the founding rally in 1964, Malcolm demanded that Black peoples “launch a cultural revolution,” stating, “We must recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy…. our cultural revolution must be the means of bringing us closer to our African brothers and sisters. It must begin in the community and be based on community participation. Afro-Americans will be free to create only when they can depend on the Afro-American community for support and Afro-American artists must realize that they depend on the Afro-American community for inspiration.”21
Malcolm’s declaration on the founding of his OAAU, modeled after Kwame Nkrumah’s Organization for African Unity, was part of a larger and broader framework for Black liberation. Forged from Malcolm’s travels to Africa and Asia, his insurgent Third Worldism, and his Muslim Internationalism, Malcolm’s statements on art and its role within social movements is a telling and revealing look not only into the power and promise that the Black Arts Movement offered but also into hip-hop culture. Echoing Fanon’s famous declaration in “On National Culture” (from the Wretched of the Earth) about the role of culture in the formation of the nation, the idea of a Black nation that was forming in the post-Malcolm period saw cultural and artistic production as central to Black liberation.
Fanon argued that in the formation of national culture the final phase is the “fighting phase,” in which “the native, after having tried to lose himself among the people, with the people, will rouse the people. (p.105) Instead of letting the people’s lethargy prevail, he turns into a galvanizer of the people. Combat literature, revolutionary literature, national literature emerges. During this phase a great many men and women who previously would have never thought of writing … feel the need to proclaim their nation, to portray their people and become the spokesperson of a new reality in action.”22 Echoing Fanon’s dictates about the formation of the nation, Baraka’s famous phrase “its nation time” was also reflected in his vision of the role of the artist within the Black Arts Movement or other radical cultural practices. As Baraka said in an essay titled “The Black Aesthetic,” “The purpose of our writing is to create the nation.”23 While Fanon warned against a national culture that reached into the romanticized past, he argued that the artist “who uses the past must do so with the intention of opening the future, of spurring them into action and fostering hope.”24
Both Malcolm’s and Fanon’s ideas about the aesthetics and ideologies of insurgent art took as their root the demand to challenge Eurocentric and white supremacist ideas about the nature of art, radical politics, and the practice of liberation. For both of them, the new moment of Black and Third World radicalism held utopian possibilities that had to be seized, because both offered principled critiques of the destructive force of the West, Europe, and the United States on Black and Third World peoples. For Malcolm, “Black artists need to recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy,”25 whereas Fanon saw European dominance as a psychically powerful foe:
Let us decide not to imitate Europe…. Let us endeavor to invent a man in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving. Two centuries ago, a former European colony took it into its head to catch up with Europe. It has been so successful that the United States of America became a monster, where the flaws, sickness, and inhumanity of Europe have reached frightening proportions…. We must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man.26
Rooted in the Muslim International, which grew out of Malcolm’s conversion to Islam and his travels to Africa, Asia, and Muslim Third World as well as Fanon’s lifework in Algeria, both Malcolm’s and Fanon’s proscriptions to resist European or white supremacist notions of art, truth, (p.106) and aesthetics became a fundamental tenet of Black Arts’ cultural practice. The Black Arts imperative sought to challenge what were seen as white-dominated ideas about art and literature and to replace them with new literary conventions and thematics that were not only radical breaks from white or Western ideas about art and aesthetics but were also distinctly different from previous eras of Black creative impulses, be it the Harlem Renaissance, the Harlem Writers Guild, the Negritude Movement, or other artistic and literary movements. Black Arts sought to wed aesthetics to ideology and writing to fighting. Congealing into a quasicoherent set of ideas around Black Arts, Blackness became the primary pivot point on which the new cultural and political landscape would turn, as Black artists sought to give creative expression to the racial pride and “Black is beautiful” slogans of the post-Malcolm 1960s. Seeking to purge Black peoples’ minds of racial self-hate and the internalization of anti-Black ideologies, Black artists emphasized the creation of new models that were radical breaks from those of whiteness and the West. Whether it was Larry Neal’s pronouncement that “the main thrust of this new breed of contemporary writers is to confront the contradictions arising out of the Black man’s experience in the racist West,”27 or James T. Stewart’s comment in his essay in Black Fire, titled “The Development of the Black Revolutionary Artist,” in which he says, “We must emancipate our minds from Western values and standards,”28 Black Arts writings are replete with references to and admonishments of Black peoples to break from the West and its racial handmaiden, whiteness.
In response to Malcolm’s assertion that in a revolution “you don’t do any singing” because “you’re too busy swinging,”29 Black artists sought to bridge that gap by singing in order to inspire swinging—that is, to create radical art that would foment revolutionary action. And in doing so, the Black Arts Movement became rhetorical rebellion and exile from the lands of Black respectability, as it sought to create a communitybased art that invented new forms and conventions in poetry, theater, and literature.
But the critical disposition of the Black Arts Movement toward the West and whiteness that was influenced and informed by the theoretical frameworks of Malcolm X and Fanon carried with it the histories of the Muslim Third World, whether through Malcolm’s Muslim radicalism or Fanon’s militant anticolonialism in Algeria. Not surprisingly, (p.107) because of the presence of the Muslim Third World within Black political culture in the postwar era, the Black Arts Movement was inflected by ideas and symbols of Islam and the Muslim Third World, for the artistic and aesthetic tradition that it forged was part and parcel of the Muslim International.
While jazz music was also a space for previous explorations of the Muslim International in the United States, through the work of numerous Black jazz musicians such as Ahmad Jamal, Yusef Lateef, and Art Blakey, the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s was also a site for the Muslim International, as it employed Islam and Islamically themed symbols and ideas in their radical Black cultural practices of the time. According to Melani McAlister, “The Black Arts movement defined political struggle as cultural struggle; this cultural struggle required a new spirituality. In literary circles, Islamic symbolism and mythology were incorporated into the self-conscious construction of a new black aesthetic and a revolutionary black culture.”30 Amiri Baraka, whose play A Black Mass was based upon the Nation of Islam’s myth of Yacub, as well as his Jihad record label, was one of the primary proponents of incorporating Islam into the Black Arts Movement, for Baraka believed that Islam offers “what the Black man needs … a reconstruction … a total way of life that he can involve himself with that is post-American in a sense.”31
In addition, in her book “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement, Cheryl Clarke reveals the profound influence and role that women had within the formation of a distinctly womanist Black Arts aesthetic that challenged the oftentimes patriarchal order forged by both Black Power and the Black Arts Movement. Seizing on the trope of “mecca,” Clarke argues, “‘Mecca’ resonates with Black consciousness movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s in the United States, a demand to turn away from the (white) West. In turning away, black artists created a new lexicon of prescriptive and proscriptive blackness.” Borrowing from Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry book In the Mecca, Clarke argues that “mecca” became a signifier with which to define and redefine Black peoples’ relationships to dominant white society. For Clarke, “mecca” became “a trope of deliverance from Western oppression” and also came to “represent the struggle of black people, during the late twentieth century, to envision a world in which African American culture occupied the center. This ‘Mecca’ is as much to be struggled toward as struggled (p.108) for—much like Malcolm X’s ‘hadj’ and Martin Luther King’s ‘mountaintop,’ one is always getting there.”32
While Islam and the embrace of Muslim identities by some Black peoples in the United States were becoming a kind of salvation and reorientation both politically and spiritually, the influence of Islamic iconography and Muslim themes could be seen within Black Arts literature, making its cultural and aesthetic struggles part of the Muslim International. For example, in the seminal anthology Black Fire, by Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) and Larry Neal, poems include Gaston Neal’s “Personal Jihad,” Welton Smith’s “malcolm,” which concludes with the Nation of Islam allegory of Yakub, David Llorens’s “The Fellah, the Chosen Ones, the Guardian,” and Nathan Hare’s “Brainwashing of Black Men’s Minds,” as well as the numerous poems and plays by writers who had changed their names, including Yusef Iman, Yusuf Rahman, and Ahmed Legraham Alhamisi. In addition, Ed Bullins’s anthology New Plays from the Black Theater also featured Muslim-themed pieces, including El Hajj Malik: A Play about Malcolm X, by N. R. Davidson Jr., and The Black Bird (Al Tair Aswad), by Marvin X,33 as did Askia Muhammad Toure’s “Tauhid” (meaning the oneness of Allah), Larry Neal’s “Can You Dig It?,” Alicia Johnson’s “Tae (The Word),” and Marvin X’s “Fly to Allah.”34 Also, as noted by Cheryl Clarke, numerous female poets and writers utilized Muslim symbols and themes, including Gwendolyn Brooks’s In the Mecca anthology, while Umar bin Hassan and Jalaluddin Nuriddin, original members of the seminal group the Last Poets, converted to Islam, as did Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and untold others. According to McAlister, “Even though the majority of Black Arts writers and readers were not Muslims, this myth and culture became part of the language and geography of black cultural identity. For a new generation, then, culture became the basis for constructing an alternative nation; and this (post)nation—with its own sense of spirituality and its own political vision—was the underlying utopian gesture of black nationalist thought and literature. Within this project, Islamic affiliations often functioned as both a site and source for those black identities, linking African Americans to the Arab and Muslim Middle East in ways both literal and metaphoric.”35
Through the Black Arts Movement, the contours of the Muslim International were shaped by the demands for new forms of representation and revolutionary consciousness within Black radical circles. The (p.109) Black Arts Movement’s imperative for a socially engaged art that would challenge Eurocentrism and white supremacy would resonate years later in urban America. Just as Black cultural activists sought to connect art to radicalism and ideology to aesthetics in the literature, theater, and poetry of the Black Arts Movement, the presence and influence of Islam and Muslim identities would reemerge in the Black art and politics of hip-hop culture almost two decades later, making hip-hop in the post– Civil Rights era another radical site for exploring the politics of the Muslim International.
Dawn of the Golden Age
“The Golden Age” (roughly 1986–94) is often referred to in nostalgic ways as a time when hip-hop was at its creative and political peak. And with few exceptions, that era’s most significant artists embraced Islam, deeply influencing the rest of hip-hop history as well, so that a vast canon of songs expresses the relationship between Blackness and Islam, including Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan, Rakim Allah, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Gang Starr, Big Daddy Kane, the Wu Tang Clan, Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Common, Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco, Beanie Segal, Freeway, Jurassic 5, Self Scientific, Oddisee, Shabazz Palaces, Jay Electronica, as well as numerous others. Forged through the violent crucible of the post–Civil Rights and Black Power eras, hip-hop sought to reclaim a history of Black radicalism and internationalism in the context of the criminalization of Blackness, mass incarceration, and what I have called the rise of the carceral imagination in the United States from the 1970s and into the twenty-first century. When the post–Civil Rights consensus demonized urban America and criminalized Blackness as “un-American” in the 1970s, the “Muslim terrorist” emerged within the larger U.S. imagination during the same period, as the politics of the Muslim Third World began to play an increasing role within U.S. foreign policy.36
As the “Black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist” have served to give coherence and purpose to U.S. national identity, the recurring presence of Black Islam in U.S. political culture continues to reveal the unresolved contradictions around race and empire that sit at the heart of U.S. state formation. Rather than attempting to be incorporated or (p.110) embraced by U.S. society, Black Islam, especially through hip-hop, has used its collective exclusion as both Black and Muslim to critique U.S. racial domination by challenging the master narrative of race and Blackness in the United States and the legacies of slavery, while also imagining an internationalism in relation to Africa and the Muslim Third World that challenges U.S. global power in those regions.
Marshaling the history of figures such as Malcolm X and the internationalist dimensions of Black Islam that he forged through his Muslim Mosque Inc. and his Organization of Afro-American Unity, these artists imagined Black belonging beyond the United States, and rather than assuming the logic of the New Right and viewing the Muslim Third World simply as “the enemy,” hip-hop artists tapped into a deeper history of Black internationalism that had linked itself and its struggles with the continent of Africa and the Muslim Third World, mobilizing the struggles and iconography of South Africa, Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere as a site and source of affiliation and solidarity. By crafting an alternative community of belonging that shaped and was shaped by the Muslim International, Black cultural activists in hip-hop not only challenged U.S.-based racial control and domination but also linked these struggles with the expansion of U.S. empire abroad, extending and inflecting a long-standing tradition of internationalism that has been a hallmark of Black radical practice and Black political thought in the post– World War II era, whether it was through Robeson, Du Bois, Claudia Jones, Malcolm X, Harold Cruse, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, and numerous others.
Conjuring the history of Malcolm X and the radical redemptive vision that he outlined throughout his life, hip-hop was a cultural extension of Malcolm’s internationalist vision. Just as Malcolm challenged the limits of the United States in determining Black destiny by connecting Black peoples with struggles in the Third World and providing a lens with which to view the global and entrenched nature of white supremacy, hip-hop also imagined Black possibility beyond America, as Africa and the politics of the Muslim Third World provided an alternative grammar of resistance and a unique language of revolt that was used to probe larger questions about the scale and scope of their friends and foes. With this presence of Islam and Malcolm X, hip-hop culture became a powerful way to explore how its poetry, aesthetics, and political imagination not only forged a redemptive vision of Blackness in the (p.111) face of the remixed racism of the post–Civil Rights era, but also a radical alchemy of art and politics that shaped and contributed to the nuances and textures of the Muslim International.
Though Malcolm X became hip-hop’s prophet of rage, his influence and that of Islam’s are part of a longer history in which Black politics and art have been influenced and inspired by Islam and the Muslim Third World. Just as previous moments in Black history manifested diverse Muslim identities and interpretations—be they the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths, or the Ahmadi and Sunni Muslims—the age of hip-hop culture also reflected this diversity. But what is significant is that just as in the past, Islam became a means to root Black identity in the United States within the larger community of belonging that was global Islam, a move that most often connected Blacks to larger communities of resistance beyond the boundaries of the United States.
There is a vast canon of songs in hip-hop that reflect the history of Black Islam, whether it be the militant nationalism of Public Enemy, the bohemian blues of Black Star, the street swagger of Gang Starr, the cosmic chaos of the Wu Tang Clan, or the revolutionary street knowledge of early Ice Cube. By focusing on the work of Rakim, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, and Mos Def, we can consider the history of Islam and hip-hop within the broader context of the Muslim International, which was shaped and formed by post–Civil Rights repression and U.S. expansionism, when mass incarceration replaced segregation as the source of Black containment and the “Muslim terrorist” was seen as threatening U.S. security abroad.
Above the Clouds
As hip-hop became increasingly commodified in the early 1990s and “gangsta rap” became more prominent, the demand for hip-hop to return to its roots and to tap into its deeper legacies of Black resistance increased. Not surprisingly, it was the Black Arts Movement that was almost exclusively invoked as a standard and beacon for hip-hop’s own potential and political purpose in the face of hypercommodification.
Gwendolyn Pough, Marcus Reeves, Marvin Gladney, and numerous others have discussed the relationships between the Black Arts Movement, Black Power, and hip-hop culture. Viewing hip-hop as an (p.112) extension of that artistic and politicized moment, these scholars and critics explored not only how hip-hop aspired to define a new Black aesthetic but also how it raised social consciousness among Black communities in the post–Civil Rights and post–Black Power moment of the late twentieth century. To many, hip-hop came to be seen as the torchbearer for the Black Arts Movement, and just as that movement was seen as the cultural arm of Black Power, hip-hop was thought to be the cultural arm of a new social movement, if one existed, or, if not, then hip-hop was going to be the spark that would ignite one in late twentieth-century urban America.
Placing hip-hop within this longer arc of Black artistic resistance also served to disarm critics of the music, including those within the Black community themselves, who saw it as self-destructive, apolitical, and even counterrevolutionary. While most of the popular attacks on hip-hop characterized it as violent, misogynistic, and homophobic, these justifiable critiques often overlooked the liberatory intent of the genre and the deeply politicized ideas that, at its best, it embodied.37 But if viewed as a cultural extension of the Black Arts Movement, hip-hop, instead of being dismissed, could be seen as part of a deep artistic, historical, and political legacy in which it would be taken more seriously, not only by critics and audiences, but also by the artists themselves, who many thought did not have a sense of the political possibility—or even responsibility—of the artist and the art form. The desire for a return to a Black Arts imperative, then, signified a longing for an uplifting and empowering art that could mobilize Black peoples, who were staring down the gun barrel of white America.
When hip-hop wasn’t being compared to the Black Arts Movement, it was more often than not compared to itself, for many continue to invoke hip-hop’s Golden Age as the genre’s shining and defining moment, a period when hip-hop emerged as an aesthetic, lyrical, and also thematic force, marked by brilliant sampling styles, lyrically complex poetry, social uplift, and political protest around racial and economic injustice. Just as the Black Arts Movement was deeply influenced by Malcolm X and Black Nationalism and was loaded with the imagery and iconography of the Muslim Third World, so too was hip-hop’s Golden Age. Whether it was Public Enemy’s militant chaos, Rakim Allah, Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, or any number of other (p.113) acts, the Golden Age, with rare exception, wove through its songs of protest an embrace of Black Nationalism and Islam that rooted their critiques of U.S. state racism and injustice within a longer and deeper tradition of Black history and protest.
Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation, which emerged in 1973 in the immediate aftermath of the COINTELPRO-induced repression of Black Power, was formed in an attempt to use the arts as a vehicle to influence Black and Brown youth in the shadows of domestic war. Extending the Black Arts Movement’s imperative to use art for social uplift and to connect it to community organizing, Zulu Nation is considered the founding ideological movement for hip-hop culture, as Bambaataa detailed a whole philosophical approach to Zulu Nation that was about social uplift, transcendence, and unity. Zulu Nation became more popular as Bambaataa’s songs “Planet Rock” and “Renegades of Funk” became early b-boy anthems, and its founding “manifesto” borrowed heavily, and in some cases word for word, from the Nation of Islam’s own statement “What the Muslims Believe,” including opening with the refrain “We believe,” in reference to the “mental and physical resurrection of the dead,” calling for a reinterpretation of the Bible because it had been “tampered” with, stating its belief in the Qu’ran, and encouraging spiritual growth through “knowledge of self” (which became an existential mantra within hip-hop), as well as several other similarities. This early and influential blueprint for hip-hop was deeply informed by Islam and Black Nationalism, and it created an ideological paradigm out of which hip-hop and its relationship to Islam would continue to flourish.
Possibly the first hip-hop release that referenced Malcolm was the 1983 release by Tommy Boy Records, titled “No Sell Out,” which featured Malcolm X speeches over an early hip-hop instrumental by Keith Leblanc. This song was sampled seven years later by Intelligent Hoodlum in his song “Black and Proud,” in which he also invoked Malcolm X. By the late 1980s, the combination of Black radicalism and Islam in hip-hop had exploded. Lakim Shabazz, in his 1989 song “Black Is Back,” also sampled Malcolm X on the difference between “the Black revolution and the Negro revolution” and then again on his 1990 song and video “Lost Tribe of Shabazz,” in which he narrates the stolen legacy and history of Black peoples through slavery, an exile and displacement that were central to the Nation of Islam’s theology, which imagined (p.114) Black peoples as the “lost tribe of Shabazz.” Using the sampled voice of Stokely Carmichael saying, “Our people will survive America,” Shabazz connected breakdancing and graffiti to Islamic worship practices and hieroglyphics. In the video, Shabazz uses the pyramids in Egypt as the backdrop to narrate the history of Black Islam and the origin of Black greatness, invoking a broader community of belonging that is central to the Nation of Islam’s theology, as he says, “To them it’s Africa, to us it’s Asia,” in reference to Egypt, connecting urban America with the Muslim Third World. Schooly D’s 1989 song “Education of a Black Man” also samples Malcolm X, and King Sun’s 1990 song “Be Black” (from his Righteous but Ruthless album) is replete with Islamic references to the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan, and others as he singles out those for whom activism and the embrace of Africa were style and not substance.
Also at this time came the powerful force of Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan, and Public Enemy, who all brought a defiant militancy and poetry to their fusion of Black radicalism and Islam. Brand Nubian, a group that comprised Sadat X (formerly Derek X), Lord Jamar, and Grand Puba, released One for All in 1990. Their song “Wake Up” samples Roy Ayers’s classic “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” and it became one of the canonical songs about the Nation of Islam and the 5% Nation, detailing the specific cosmology and the redemptive power of the “knowledge of self” in the face of white supremacy and the destruction of Black history, asking, “Can a devil fool a Muslim?” They followed up this classic album with 1993’s In God We Trust, with songs such as “Allah U Akbar,” which is Arabic for “God is Great,” and “Meaning the 5%,” which samples Farrakhan as he details the history of Black Islam and its material critique of race and power, identifying 5 percent of the population as the poor righteous teachers and the “Black man of Asia.” The group Poor Righteous Teachers took its name from this, as its members, Wise Intelligent, Culture Freedom, and Father Shaheed, became a foundation for Black Islamic teachings with their albums Holy Intellect (1989), Pure Poverty (1991), Black Business (1993), and also The New World Order (1996), whose songs such as “Rock Dis Funky Joint,” “The Nation’s Anthem,” “Conscious Style,” and “God, Earths and 85’ers” showcased their embrace of Islam and Black Nationalism as the means to critique Reagan-era racism and repression, the legacies of slavery, and the restoration of Black pride and dignity.
(p.115) Another seminal group was X-Clan, whose members were affiliated with the community work of Blackwatch in Brooklyn, New York. Deeply influenced and inspired by Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, Marcus Garvey, the Black Panthers, and Pan-Africanism more broadly, Blackwatch became a community force based on the legendary work of Sonny Carson, the celebrated activist from Brooklyn who was immortalized in the 1974 film The Education of Sonny Carson. Along with Brother J, Professor X (who was Lamumba Carson and the brother of Sonny Carson), and others, X-Clan released two albums, 1990’s To the East, Blackwards and 1992’s Xodus, both of which were laden with Black Nationalist thought, Islamic iconography, and Black internationalist ideals that imagined Black peoples in the United States within a larger global context.
The Native Tongues, a collective that included the groups A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, and others, combined Afrocentricity and Islam with a bohemian aesthetic in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. A Tribe Called Quest would more openly embrace Islam in the mid- to late 1990s while also forming the Ummah, which takes its name from the Islamic ideal of a worldwide community of believers that transcends boundaries of any kind. As a loose collective of artists, the Ummah included Jay Dee (Dilla), Q-Tip, D’Angelo, Raphael Siddiq, and others. The Native Tongues would have a profound influence on hip-hop, both aesthetically and politically. As the hip-hop equivalent to the Black filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, the Native Tongues movement would influence other artists who embraced Islam, such as the Roots, Mos Def, Common, and numerous others.
Grammy Award–winners Digable Planets, whose first album combined jazz-inflected sounds with esoteric rhymes, followed up their debut with the more brooding and politicized 1994 album Blowout Comb, one of hip-hop’s most underrated albums, which combines Black Panther ideology, Nation of Islam rhetoric, and Marxist philosophy into a unique blend of avant-garde abstraction. As the incredible Ladybug Mecca raps on the song “Dog It,” “I raise everyday for the masses, tote my fist right up against the fascists,” and also “in my vein lives bell hooks, Derrick bell …” and later “my tools, jewels, the Nation [of Islam].” On the same song, rapper Butterfly raps, “We symbolize the blessed and represent the rest,” as well as “I’m makin bacon, still saying wa’asalaam alaikum,” (p.116) recognizing that money, which he refers to as “bacon” (a forbidden substance to Muslims), is a necessary evil, and he still maintains his commitment to principle with the Arabic greeting, “Peace be onto you.”
Showing the deep influence of Malcolm X on hip-hop culture and the politics of a new generation of Black youth, the legendary group Gang Starr would continually mobilize Malcolm X as part of their Islamic iconography and street protest music. From their 1989 album No More Mr. Nice Guy, Gang Starr’s video for the song “Manifest” reclaims Malcolm X for the hip-hop generation, as Guru dresses like Malcolm with glasses, kufi, suit, and tie and takes to the podium as he raps to the audience. Sampling Charlie Parker and Miles Davis’s version of “Night in Tunisia,” Gang Starr draws a powerful link between Malcolm’s oratory and hip-hop’s own potential to use language to mobilize and raise awareness, while also revealing that hip-hop is deeply connected not only to previous Black art forms such as jazz but also to a history of Black activism that is a direct extension of Malcolm X’s vision for Black liberation.
In their 1990 song “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” on the album Step in the Arena, Guru opens with “I was raised like a Muslim, praying to the East,” over a horn sample of Maceo and the Macks 1973 song “Parrty” and a chaotic siren-laden track by DJ Premier. The song’s title is taken from a 1971 Kool and the Gang song of the same name, which opens with “People, the world today is in a very difficult situation, / And we all know it because we’re the ones who created it, / We’re gonna have to be the ones to clean it up.” Gang Starr’s song becomes hip-hop’s answer to the situation, fusing central elements of Islamic teachings with street wisdom, which became emblematic of the kind of intergenerational dialogues taking place between the hip-hop generation and the Civil Rights and Black Power generation, be they political or aesthetic, through the sampling of jazz, soul, and funk music.
The video for the song is striking in that it features Guru (wearing a Malcolm X shirt) and DJ Premier dressed in fatigues as images of Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and others appear on screen. Prior to Guru’s rapping, a sampled voice says, “Knowledge is power and knowledge can be the difference between life or death,” a preface to and a suggestion of the power of “knowledge of self,” which is so central to the Nation of Islam—as Guru says, “That’s why I’m down with the Nation, (p.117) spirituality supports reality, we gotta fight with the right mentality.” And with the song’s release just after the first Gulf War, Gang Starr connects the violence and death of urban America with the violence of the U.S. war in Iraq, revealing the group’s solidarity with the people of Iraq by using various images and iconography throughout the video to show U.S. war planes bombing Iraq, women in Islamic clothing, Arabic script, Elijah Muhammad, U.S. military leaders, and Iraqi children in hospitals as victims of U.S. bomb attacks. By connecting urban America to Iraq, Gang Starr rhetorically asks, “Who’s gonna take the weight?” a question that demands accountability and serves as a social protest against the forces of policing in urban centers and U.S. imperial power in the Muslim Third World.
Gang Starr would continue with these themes on 1992’s album Daily Operation, whose cover features a framed image of Malcolm on a wall behind Guru and Premier and whose songs, such as “Conspiracy” and “2 Deep,” are laden with Islamic references and ideas. On their next album, 1994’s Hard to Earn, Gang Starr samples Malcolm X from his famous speech “The Message to the Grassroots” in the song “Tonz O’ Gunz,” highlighting the hypocrisy of the United States in asking Black men to be violent as American soldiers fighting for “democracy” in wars of empire abroad but then insisting that Black peoples be nonviolent in the United States in their demand for Black rights and dignity. On their 1998 album, Moment of Truth, the song “Above the Clouds” is loaded with Islamic references and language that opens with “I self lord and master [ISLAM] shall bring disaster to evil factors,” as Guru provides his “ghettostyle proverbs” and Wu Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck conjures Nation of Islam and 5 percent mysticism with “the maker, owner plus sole controller,” as they both meditate on incarceration, police surveillance, Black prophetic destiny, and the hope of transcending the wilderness of white America to go “above the clouds.”
As the Afrocentric era of the Golden Age began to wane and the influence of West Coast street parables was on the rise, the Wu Tang Clan emerged with their own brand of Muslim metaphysics. With nine different members, all of whom espoused their own vision of Islam, the Wu Tang Clan made mic skills resemble sword styles. Their first hits, 1992’s “Protect Ya Neck” and their 1993 song “C.R.E.A.M.” (Cash Rules Everything around Me), were both recorded on their debut 1993 (p.118) album, Enter the 36th Chamber, which combined obscure martial arts films, the supreme mathematics of the 5% Muslims, and street fables of survival into a rich alchemy of cosmic mayhem. “C.R.E.A.M.” signifies on both the slang term for money and the central tenet of the Nation of Islam: that Black men are “the Asiatic Black man; the Maker; the Owner; the Cream of the planet Earth, Father of Civilization, God of the Universe,” subverting the idea that capital or money (“cream”) is the engine of the world, but rather that Blackness is.
Wu Tang Clan’s second album, released in 1997, was the epic Forever. The album continues with Islamic references, including its opening track, “Wu-Revolution,” a reflective monologue that focuses on the need for radical change and personal transformation and is replete with references to “the original man, Asiatic Black man” and “the supreme being, the Black man from Asia, otherwise known as Muslims,” as well as chants of “Malcolm X! Malcolm X! Malcolm X! Rise Rise Rise!” and other Muslim metaphysics on the nature and existence of heaven and hell.
Their master text titled “Triumph” was the first single from the Forever album and is a manifesto that radically challenged the prevailing paradigm of corporate-controlled hip-hop with its nine-man soliloquy, with no chorus or hooks. Along with Cappadonna’s English rap of the Arabic phrase “Alhamdulillah” (“All praises due to God”) and references to Noble Drew Ali, Wu Tang member Inspectah Deck warns that the Wu Tang are “shackling the masses with drastic rap tactics,” and Masta Killa points out the Wu Tang’s brilliance amid mediocre and simplistic corporate hip-hop by saying, “Light is provided through sparks of energy, from the mind that travels in rhyme form, giving sight to the blind, the dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum.”
Wu Tang member solo albums are just as loaded with Islamic iconography mixed with classic martial arts cinema and street fables of survival. Whether through Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx, the GZA’s Liquid Swords, or Method Man’s Tical (on which he has a song entitled “PLO Style,” in reference to the Palestinian Liberation Organization), members of the Wu Tang Clan spread the ideas and teachings of the Nation of Islam and the 5% Nation like no other hip-hop group or artist. The 2000 album of Wu Tang member Ghostface Killah, Supreme Clientele, has a song called “Malcolm,” in which he samples Malcolm’s condemnation of a “corrupt vicious hypocritical system that has castrated (p.119) the Black man, and the only way the Black man can get back at it is to strike it any way that he know how.” Over an eerie piano loop, Ghostface starts rapping, “I’m like Malcolm, out the window with a joint, hoodied up, blood in my eye,” and throughout the song as the Malcolm sample repeats, he says, “Teach brother Malcolm,” while lamenting the condition of Black youth. Ghostface would continue to invoke Islamic ideas on his 2006 album, Fishscale, especially in the song “Underwater,” a surreal odyssey in faith and despair, and then again on his 2010 album, Apollo Kids. He raps in its opening song, “Purified Thoughts,” wondering if he’s a “good man or a fool,” and goes on to say, “To free my mind on Friday I cleanse in the mosque. Let the imam pray over my head and wash thoughts, sterilized, purified, Godly,” and also seeks to be buried in a “twenty-four-carat tomb” next to the prophets, naming Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad.
By the late 1990s and into the post-9/11 era, a number of Muslim artists continued to emerge, some of them on more independent labels and others on midlevel or major labels. These include rappers Freeway and Beanie Segal, who emerged from Philadelphia and signed to Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records. They both combined a more street-centered bravado with their Muslim-inflected redemptions, sprinkling their tales with existential laments about street life and the corruption of this world. For example, on Beanie Segal’s 2005 song “I Can’t Go on This Way,” he raps, “I was taught trust in Allah but tie your camel, use your tongue as your sword and your books as your ammo.” Later in the song, Segal contends with the contradictions of negotiating between the rap industry and family life and the personal failings that occur as a result: “My heart in the faith I don’t practice, I still pray Allah forgive me for my actions, ’cause I spit gangsta, think Muslim and act Kaffar [unbeliever].” In this poetic ode to underclass existence, Beanie Segal reveals a poignant vulnerability about the impossibility of worshipping the divine amid suffering and despair.
Also, the artist known as Oddisee, a half-Sudanese, half-U.S. Black rapper who, on his 2009 song “Hip-Hop’s Cool Again,” raps, “I’m half Arab half nigga … in the mosque Friday, on Sunday the scripture … get harassed at the airport and the block, by the FBI, Interpol and the cops.” Oddisee not only details his complicated background but also reveals that as a result of being both Black and “foreign” Muslim, he is (p.120) subject to all manner of surveillance and harassment in post-9/11 America. And the Somali-born rapper K’naan, who gives poetic insight into his experience in his war-torn homeland and the plight of the African continent still under European and U.S. control, has also appeared on Nas and Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives album, on which he raps in the song “Tribes at War.”
Lupe Fiasco is a chart-topping rapper who has continued to invoke Islamic themes in his music and has used his belief to inform his political critiques of U.S. imperialism, capitalism, and inequality. In response to Kanye West’s hit “Jesus Walks,” which U.S. soldiers appropriated as a rationale for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Fiasco released his own “Muhammad Walks,” in which he raps, “I ain’t trying to profit off the prophets.” On his 2011 album, Lasers, his song “Words I Never Said” explores media manipulation, poor educational systems, and the wars in the Muslim Third World, as he states, “I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit, just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets.” He also raps, “Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist, Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit, that’s why I ain’t vote for him, next one either,” and then, “Jihad is not a holy war, where’s that in the worship? Murdering is not Islam! And you are not observant, and you are not a Muslim, Israel don’t take my side ’cause look how far you’ve pushed them.” In challenging Obama and the liberal veneer of his presidency, Fiasco details both the assault on Palestinian lives and U.S. complicity and apathy in it, as well as presenting a reflective critique of those who respond to state terror with violence.
Rebels without a Pause
Arguably the most influential group in all of hip-hop is Public Enemy. Their brand of militant Black Nationalism fuses Islam, Black Power ideology, Malcolm X, and others into a vision of Black liberation that combines a sonic amalgam of James Brown samples, sirens, screeches, and speeches into a chaotic assault on white America. Whether with “Rebel without a Pause,” “Shut ’Em Down, ” their anthem “Fight the Power,” or “Welcome to the Terrordome,” Public Enemy has single-handedly defined the benchmark of hip-hop’s political radicalism. Through song and video, the members of Public Enemy have seen themselves as “media (p.121) hijackers,” and they’ve fully utilized the formats of song and video for their political possibilities, revealing their embrace of Malcolm X and other Black radical figures, for instance, in the video of “Fight the Power.”
Their embrace of Islam is evident in their songs. Whether it be sampling Malcolm X, calling Farrakhan a prophet in “Bring the Noise,” or referencing and utilizing the Nation of Islam’s critiques on race and U.S. society, the rappers in Public Enemy have worn their allegiance on their sleeves. Known as “the hard rhymer,” Chuck D said in an interview, “If people with African roots are connected to Islam, then you got a problem of taking your slaves away: ‘We’ve lost our slaves—our slaves are international now’!”38 Using this understanding as the basis for the group’s political engagement, Public Enemy laid the foundation for some of the most intensely penetrating songs in the genre. Coming as they did in the shadows of the Reagan–Bush regime, Public Enemy has forcefully and poetically pushed the ideological edges of hip-hop with their politically conscious, historically informed, Nation of Islam– inspired lyrical and aural assault. With an empowered defiance unrivaled in hip-hop’s brief history by the mid- to late 1980s, Chuck D’s baritone flow and the Bomb Squad’s chaotic and furious rhythms provided the soundtrack for the rise in Black militancy during that time. Their song “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” stands as a living testament to their political ideals and incisive critiques of American society.
Released on their landmark 1988 album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” is one of hip-hop culture’s most revolutionary anthems and a foundational song in what I call hip-hop’s carceral canon. In this song, Chuck D creates a powerful narrative of imprisonment and redemption as he details the circumstances of his incarceration for refusing military service and national belonging, providing a powerful critique of the two defining institutions for urban Black communities in the era of Reaganism: the military and the prison.
In the song, Chuck D recounts the story of his incarceration from within the prison itself, as his rejection of induction into the United States military is the reason for his incarceration. In refusing to join the army, Chuck D reiterates his disavowal and rejection of American national belonging, foregrounding the ever-present gap that exists for (p.122) Black peoples between national allegiance through military service and the economic, political, and social promises that citizenship in the United States supposedly affords. As Chuck D says, “Here is a land that never gave a damn / about a brother like me and myself / because they never did.” What makes Chuck D’s defiance of military service so empowering is the conservative political climate that existed in the United States in the post–Civil Rights era of “law and order” and the “War on Drugs,” during which the line between citizen and criminal was a racial one, with whiteness defined as quintessentially American and Blackness defined as a social menace to the national family, as Chuck D himself says in the song, “I’m not a citizen.” In addition to Reagan’s racialized claims to “Americanness” were the militaristic overtones of much of his political and social rhetoric. The conservative climate fostered by the Reagan– Bush regime with the themes of national identity and belonging pivoted around an axis of militarism and American power for protecting the nation from the external threats of “Muslim terrorists” and communists. The increases in defense spending and the rise of the military–industrial complex during the Reagan regime signified and underscored the heightened nativism and patriotism that were part and parcel of the conservative political agenda during that period.39
In light of this, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” serves as a powerful response to the racially coded ideas about U.S. national identity. Later in the first verse, Chuck D drives this point home when he says, “They could not understand that I’m a Black man / And I could never be a veteran.” In explicitly rejecting military service, particularly in the era of Reagan, Chuck D forcefully asserts the contradiction between Blackness and American national belonging, an ideological hallmark of the Nation of Islam that sought to define Black belonging outside the boundaries of the United States. In Chuck D’s assertion of this empowered Black identity, his refusal to serve in the U.S. military conjures the history and figure of the iconic Muhammad Ali, who after his conversion to the Nation of Islam but prior to his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War said, “I’m not an American. I’m a Black man.”40 Ali elaborated on his position vis-à-vis U.S. imperial war in Vietnam, saying, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs (p.123) and denied simple human rights?” And he continued, saying, “No, I’m not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”41
Unlike Ali’s, Chuck D’s rejection of military service landed him in prison, the central institution that defined Black existence in the era of Reaganism. Calling incarceration “a form of slavery” in “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” Chuck D echoes what scholars of prisons such as Michelle Alexander have called “the new Jim Crow,” because incarceration has led to legal forms of discrimination in housing, education, employment, and other realms of society. Though the song narrates a prison break, the video shows Chuck D, as the leader, hanged in the prison by the warden while the others escape, suggesting that Black leadership is constantly in peril and targeted by American institutional power.
In spite of this, there is still solace and sanctuary to be found in the possibility of resistance that is woven through “Black Steel,” for fiftytwo Black men do escape incarceration and the institutional violence of the prison. Like other prison narratives of resistance that have been central to shaping Black liberation struggles worldwide, such as those from George Jackson, Malcolm X, Mumia Abu Jamal, Assata Shakur, and Jamil Al-Amin among countless others, Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” stands as hip-hop culture’s defining contribution to the legacy of that carceral canon.
Damn, I Wanna Kill Sam
As the lyrical architect and political conscience of the group N.W.A., Ice Cube released his first solo album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, which was a landmark moment in hip-hop, when the West Coast’s most talented MC fused his militant street poetry with the production mayhem of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, tackling Black oppression, the incarceration of Black men, and racial inequality, asking, among other things, “Why more niggas in the pen than in college?” His follow-up the next year, Death Certificate, was infused with the Nation of Islam’s strident politics. The album cover showed Ice Cube standing in a morgue next to a dead body that was covered by an American flag and had a toe tag that (p.124) read “Uncle Sam.” While the album cover clearly suggests the metaphorical death of America, the liner notes to the album more clearly associate him with the Nation of Islam, as he is shown standing between two groups of Black men, one group dressed in sweat suits and athletic sneakers and the other group in the Nation of Islam’s standard wardrobe of suits and bow ties. Reading from the Nation of Islam’s official newspaper, titled the Final Call, with the headline “Unite or Perish,” Cube is shown in the middle, giving visual truth to his attempt to unite both elements. In addition, he writes in the liner notes about the historical decimation of Black peoples in the United States, who are “mentally dead” and have “limited knowledge of self,” a situation that Ice Cube suggests can be rectified, explaining, “The best place for a Black male or female is the Nation of Islam.”42
Death Certificate is divided as the “Death Side” and the “Life Side,” with the “Death Side” revealing the structural and systemic forces causing the “death” of the Black community as Cube’s incendiary critiques of white supremacy, policing, and economic injustice turned on the “Life Side” to what he sees as self-destructive behavior and Black complicity with the powerful forces allied against them. The song “I Wanna Kill Sam” is an incisive critique of the U.S. armed forces and their recruitment of Black men for imperial war as it serves as a sonic parable about the relationship between the slave trade and military service. Released just after the euphoria of the Persian Gulf War and the nearly decadelong hypernationalism and militarism of the Reagan–Bush administration, Cube’s “I Wanna Kill Sam” stands as a powerful and defiant song about the legacies of slavery, persistent Black suffering, and the role of the U.S. military in maintaining white domination both domestically and globally.
While Death Certificate reveals Ice Cube’s relationship to the Nation of Islam, the lyrical content of this album—and that of his subsequent ones as well—features many references and allusions to the Nation of Islam that thematically reflect the philosophical underpinnings of its views on race and American history. This is most clearly evident in the song “When I Get to Heaven,” which appears on Ice Cube’s 1993 album, titled Lethal Injection.
Ice Cube’s “When I Get to Heaven” is perhaps one of the three most searing indictments of Christianity’s role within the Black community as (p.125) expressed in popular music, the other two being Me’Shell N’Degeocello’s “The Way” and KRS-One’s “Why Is That?” In “When I Get to Heaven,” which is heavily rooted in the liberationist eschatology of the Nation of Islam, Ice Cube poetically expresses a redemptive tale about what he perceives to be the hypocrisies of Christianity within Black communities, commenting on a variety of subjects such as slavery, materialism within the Church, the racial divisions that have existed within Christian practice in the United States, the incarceration of Black men, and ultimately the redemptive promise of the afterlife.
“When I Get to Heaven” cleverly and creatively uses a sample from Marvin Gaye’s classic “Inner City Blues” to form a powerful and pensive backdrop for Ice Cube’s ruminations on Black identity, American history, and social struggle. In invoking and evoking “Inner City Blues,” Ice Cube creates a powerful cultural space of communal critique that forges a link among generations of Blacks in the history of their struggle as he connects the Civil Rights–Black Power lamentation of ghetto existence and inner city suffering in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the rage of the underclass produced by Reagan–Bush policies, Daryl Gates’s policing, and the failure and complicity of institutions to remedy the conditions created by these approaches. While Marvin Gaye sings, “This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’” (italics mine), throughout “When I Get to Heaven,” Ice Cube thematically underscores Gaye’s refrain with a vividly compelling vision of social death within Black communities wrought by the history of institutional failure and the complicity of Christianity in it.43
Ice Cube’s critique in “When I Get to Heaven” has profound historical resonance with larger claims made by Black communities regarding the relationship between American national identity and Christianity. The Nation of Islam reached its zenith in popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Malcolm X was its most visible minister, and it appealed to Black peoples through its resounding critiques of race and white supremacy, which deliberately and destructively built the edifice that is American society. Much of the Nation of Islam’s rhetoric has employed highly racialized notions that served to challenge and rhetorically resist the power of white supremacy. In claiming that Islam is “the religion of the black man,”44 the Nation of Islam has retold American history from the perspective of the aggrieved, detailing the devastation (p.126) and dispossession of Black history and culture vis-à-vis the holocaust of slavery—a decimating process of erasure that many saw as accompanied and even legitimized by the introduction of Christianity into Black communities.
As a critique of the role of Christianity within the Black community, “When I Get To Heaven” reveals the various contradictions and hypocrisies of the Church and its clergy. Ice Cube claims his “whole neighborhood is comatose,” and the second and third verses also make reference to the hypocrisies of the Church in relation to its materialism and lack of social outreach (“Mr. Preacher, if I can’t pay my tithe, do I have to wait outside?” and “I just stare at the Church man, spending more money on the Church band”). While in these instances Ice Cube points to what he views as the misplaced priorities of the Church, these critiques of the contemporary moment also serve as rhetorical devices that allow Ice Cube to begin a discussion of what he—and by extension the Nation of Islam—believes to be the historical role of the Church in the process of Black political marginalization, economic debasement, and spiritual colonization. Ice Cube foregrounds this historical trajectory when he says, “Lookin’ for survival / The devil made you a slave and he gave you a Bible / four hundred years gettin’ our ass kicked / By so-called Christians and Catholics.”
In the third verse, Ice Cube provides one of the most explosive indictments of white supremacy in hip-hop, at once artful in its emphasis on the historical continuity of white supremacy and poignant in Cube’s critique of Christianity and what he perceives to be its incestuous relationship with racist terror. In the third verse, Ice Cube says, “The same white man that threw me in the slammer / He bombed a church in Alabama.” Here Ice Cube connects white supremacist terror of the 1960s Civil Rights movement in the South with the contemporary imprisonment of Black men throughout the country in the era of Reagan and mass incarceration, highlighting the historical continuity between an era of enforced legal and social segregation and one reeling from the aftermath of Reagan–Bush conservatism, postindustrial decline, and continued state repression.45
By invoking the church bombings of the 1960s by white supremacists, Ice Cube underscores the violent racial rifts that existed within the supposed brotherhood of the Christian faith. In doing so, Ice Cube (p.127) powerfully highlights the historical frustration of some Black communities with Black Christians who continued to seek brotherhood with whites despite the continued violence by white Christians against the nonviolent Civil Rights activists of the era. These frustrations formed the tensions that divided the Black community between the nonviolent Civil Rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the more defiant posture of the Nation of Islam, associated with Malcolm X.46 The church bombings in the 1960s, the most notorious of which involved the killing of four young girls in Alabama, sparked serious criticism by Malcolm X of the emerging Civil Rights movement. In his famous speech “The Message to the Grassroots,” Malcolm X clearly distinguishes himself and the Nation of Islam from Dr. King’s movement when he says, “As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven’t got any blood.” Malcolm continued, saying, “If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her.”47
By exposing this hypocrisy, Malcolm’s linking of Black military participation in American violence abroad and the refusal of Black Christian leadership to use violence as a defensive tool against white supremacist terror was a powerful critique of the Civil Rights establishment and its enduring commitment to, and identification with, America. In “When I Get to Heaven,” Ice Cube’s insightful referencing of this social and political history raises a historical mirror to the contemporary conditions of Blacks, suggesting that Christianity, whiteness, and “Americanness” are intimately tied together still, so even though Black incarceration has replaced an earlier mode of racial terror, the repression of Blacks continues nonetheless, vis-à-vis “the same man” but in a different era and through different means. For this reason, later, in the second verse of the song, Ice Cube—like Malcolm X during his relationship with the Nation of Islam—makes an urgent call to Black communities, saying, “Black man you gotta make a decision,” in reference to the vital necessity for Black peoples to choose to identify with what is viewed as a hypocritical Christianity rooted in white supremacist America or to (p.128) identify with the alternative yet empowering Nation of Islam, which is more internationalist in its scope.
Despite Ice Cube’s dystopic description of the secular suffering in “When I Get to Heaven,” an abiding sense of hope still runs throughout the narrative, such as in its chorus, “They won’t call me a nigger when I get to heaven.” For despite the New Right attacks on the underclass and the constant criticism of the Black poor as societal “problems,” Ice Cube’s radical vision of the Nation of Islam’s salvation for Black peoples trapped in a white world of racism, recrimination, and degradation suggests an alternative moral anchor and utopian vision for America’s truly disadvantaged.
God by Nature
Known as “the God”—in line with Black Islam’s deification of the Black body in response to America’s demonization of it—Rakim Allah is arguably hip-hop’s most gifted lyricist and its reigning poet laureate, for he has continued to express his Islamic mysticism in lyrically complex and metaphorically dense deliveries. Songs such as “Move the Crowd,” on 1987’s Paid in Full album, in which he raps “All praises due to Allah and that’s a blessing,” and 1988’s Follow the Leader, in whose title track he raps, “God by nature, mind raised in Asia, since you was tricked, I have to raise ya, from the cradle to the grave, but remember, you’re not a slave,” and then continues, saying, “’Cause we were put here to be much more than that, but we couldn’t see because our mind was trapped. But I’m here to break away the chains, take away the pains, remake the brains, rebuild my name,” are iconic examples of Rakim’s brilliance. His empowering odes to Black redemption and Muslim Internationalism continue in the song “In the Ghetto,” from the 1990 album Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em. Sampling Bill Withers’s 1972 song “Kissing My Love” and the 24 Carat Black’s 1973 song “Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth,” from the brooding album of the same name, Rakim details a vivid narrative of time travel and memory, rapping, “Then I take a thought around the world twice / From knowledge born back to knowledge precise / Across the desert that’s hot as the Arabian.” He continues, “Reaching for the city of Mecca, visit Medina / Visions of Nefertiti then I seen her / Mind keeps traveling, I’ll be back after I stop and think about the brothers and (p.129) sisters in Africa.” While these songs and almost any other of Rakim’s songs are deeply lyrical and metaphysically abstract and rarely touch on overtly political ideas, his 1992 song “Casualties of War,” from the Don’t Sweat the Technique album, is a rare exception among his body of work.
Rakim’s “Casualties of War” is an incredibly vivid narrative about race and belief, slavery and imperialism, national allegiance and international belonging, and individual redemption in the face of horror and war. Rapping from the perspective of a U.S. soldier in Iraq during the first Gulf War of 1990, Rakim not only potently links U.S. power and violence with the Muslim Third World of Iraq within the narrative of the song but also connects himself to this region through Islam, as the “Asiatic Black man.”
In the first verse of the song, Rakim reveals the violent similarities between New York City and Iraq with his vivid descriptions of “sand that is hot as the city streets” and “bullets whistlin’ over my head remind me,” which suggest that Rakim is linking the violence of the war in Iraq with the violent, warlike circumstances that exist in impoverished neighborhoods in the United States. Rakim’s linkage of these two social traumas, war abroad and violence at home, reveals the powerful political and economic forces in the United States that contribute to both of these violent conditions. While one is the product of centuries of institutional racism and structured neglect, the other is the result of a colonial legacy of pillage and plunder by the United States and Europe.
Whereas the first verse only suggests these linkages, the third verse of the song drives this point home, with Rakim prophetically suggesting the possibility that New York City may be under attack. Released in 1992, “Casualties of War” came out before the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and well before the September 11, 2001, attacks. As Rakim says, “The war is over, for now at least, / Just because they lost it don’t mean it’s peace,” and he continues, saying, “Remember Pearl Harbor? New York could be over ‘g,’ / Kamikaze, strapped with bombs, / No peace in the East, they want revenge for Saddam.”
In poetically connecting place and violence, Rakim’s “Casualties of War” further proceeds to highlight the powerful forces at play in structuring the racial and economic basis for the war. But whereas Denzel Washington became the cinematic citizen–solider who mirrored Colin Powell in the post–Cold War 1990s, Rakim seeks to challenge (p.130) this incorporation of Blackness into the national fabric. Washington’s character in Edward Zwick’s film Courage under Fire (1996) is the moral center responsible for righting the national ship after the first Gulf War in Iraq, imploring his commanding officers to “tell the whole truth” about what happened in Iraq. Rakim’s redemption though comes not in his identification with and allegiance to the American nation-state but in his rejection of it.
Throughout “Casualties of War,” Rakim defiantly expresses his rage against U.S. control and domination of the Muslim Third World. While at the end of the first verse Rakim critically elaborates on American bloodthirst and his own “training for torture” as a member of the U.S. military, the second verse forms the ideological basis for his critique of U.S. power. In the middle of the second verse Rakim comes to a selfrealization of his own position regarding military service and national belonging when he raps, “But what are we here for? Who’s on the other side of the wall? / Somebody give the president a call! But I hear warfare scream through the air, / Back to the battlegrounds, it’s war they declare, / A Desert Storm, let’s see who reigns supreme, / Something like monopoly, a government scheme.” Rakim’s questioning leads him to forge a historically nuanced critique of Black identity and belonging in relation to the Muslim Third World.
Rakim refuses to comply with dominant U.S. conceptions of individual achievement for Black men through military service when he says, “Go to the army, be all you can be / Another dead solider? Hell no not me.” He then proceeds to forge a powerful critique of slavery and a nationally bounded conception of Black identity that is in dialogue with Malcolm X and the longer history of Black radicalism, internationalism, and the Muslim Third World that emerged after World War II. Instead of describing empowerment and self-actualization coming from military service and an embrace of U.S. nationalism, Rakim says:
- So I start letting off ammunition in every direction
- Allah is my only protection
- But wait a minute, Saddam Hussein prays the same
- And this is Asia, from where I came
- I’m on the wrong side, so change the target
- Shooting at the general, and where’s the sergeant?
- Blame it on John Hardy Hawkins for bringing me to America
- Now it’s mass hysteria.
(p.131) In invoking Allah, not only does Rakim proceed to provide a powerful critique of modernity itself by linking the history of slavery with American imperial aggression in Iraq, but he also suggests an alternative vision of Black identity that expands the geographic referents of Black origins that emerged out of Black Islam and sought to connect Black peoples in the United States with those in the Third World of Africa and Asia.
In saying “this is Asia, from where I came,” Rakim mobilizes a powerful trope within Black Islam regarding the expanded origins of Blackness, that of the “Asiatic Black man” (or the “Afro-Asiatic Black man”). In doing so, Rakim taps into Black Islam’s rich legacy and resources, which have been used to connect Black peoples in the United States with those in Africa and Asia, specifically those in the Muslim Third World. Rakim’s epiphany regarding his origins and community of belonging within the song’s narrative specifically links him with the Iraqi people, who are seen as the victims of U.S. imperial aggression, and at the same time rejects any identification with the American national body. He rhetorically rejects Americanness and its racially coded whiteness, and he also begins to fire his weapon at the agents and symbols of Americanness and American aggression—namely, his general and the sergeant. What underscores the racial component of Rakim’s embrace of his Asiatic roots, his rejection of America, and the shooting of U.S. military officers is his reference to John Hardy Hawkins, who bears the blame for “bringing me to America,” for Hawkins is responsible for initiating British involvement in the slave trade in 1562, which was the year the institution of slavery was first established for the British empire.48
In linking slavery to his embrace of his Asiatic roots, Rakim’s “Casualties of War” powerfully bears witness to the philosophical basis of Black Islam and its relationship to the larger Muslim Third World. Just as Malcolm X saw Islam as the bridge that connects Black peoples in the United States with those in Africa and Asia, Rakim embraces his Muslim identity to forge a vision of the Muslim International that powerfully and poetically combines the past and present, the local and the global, and slavery and contemporary imperialism into a grammar of resistance that critiques not only the U.S. nation-state but also any bounded sense of Black identity.
Mos Def first came to prominence in the mid- to late 1990s through his collaborations with Da Bush Babees and also De La Soul. But it was through his collaboration with Talib Kweli that he emerged as a maverick for a new era in hip-hop. Mos Def and Kweli’s landmark single “Fortified Live” signaled a new moment for hip-hop in 1997 and became the launching pad for their careers and the birth of their collaboration known as Black Star one year later. On “Fortified Live,” they not only invoke the female revolutionary Assata Shakur, exiled in Cuba, but also create a visual narrative that culminates in the hook in which both Talib Kweli and Mos Def rap, “This once in a lifetime like a Halley’s comet / Yo, we bring it to Medina like the Prophet Muhammad / Peace be upon he / and we MC’s.” Also, Mos Def and Talib Kweli invoke Islamic themes throughout their self-titled full-length collaboration Black Star. In the song “Astronomy (8th Light),” they signify on the Last Poets’ song “Black Is Chant” by cleverly ruminating on the various meanings and possibilities of Blackness in contemporary society, rapping, “Black like the veil that the Muslimeena wear / Black like the planet that they fear, why they scared? / Black like the slave ship the day they brought us here.” On his song “Beef,” Mos Def invokes the Muslim Third World: “When a soldier ends his life with his own gun / Beef is tryin’ to figure out what to tell his son / Beef is oil prices and geopolitics / Beef is Iraq, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip.”
Beginning all of his albums (and some songs) with an Islamic prayer, Mos Def’s body of work is full of Islamic ideas and a unique and gifted blend of poetry, politics, and Black internationalist sentiments. His most recent album, 2009’s The Ecstatic, is a globe-trotting collection laden with Islamic references. Although the album cover is a still from one of the L.A. Rebellion’s landmark films (Charles Burnett’s brilliant film Killer of Sheep), Mos Def uses several Islamic references, including a photo of the Moorish Science Temple on the back of the album, a sampling of a Malcolm X speech that opens the album, Turkish protest singer Selda Bağcan’s “İnce İnce,” a scene spoken in Arabic from the Battle of Algiers, and also names one of the songs “Wahid,” which is Arabic for “oneness.” While this eclectic range and Pan-Islamic mash-up inform much of Mos Def’s work, it was his first solo venture, 1999’s Black (p.133) on Both Sides, with which he solidified his place as one of hip-hop’s most talented and gifted lyricists.
The opening song on Black on Both Sides is “Fear Not of Man,” one of the most historically rich, culturally layered, and politically complex songs in recent times. Using the opening track as an opportunity to discuss and describe the state of the hip-hop union, Mos Def, rather than aiming his lyrical sights at other MCs who somehow dilute or damage the art form, meditates on hip-hop’s possibilities and the power of self-realization. In doing so, he creatively and brilliantly taps into the rich history of Black Islam and Pan-Africanism that Malcolm X embodied, imagining Black peoples beyond the United States.
In beautifully expressing his position in “Fear Not of Man,” Mos Def raps over a pulsating and insurgent beat that is sampled from a 1977 song titled “Fear Not for Man” (italics mine), from the legendary and incendiary king of Afro-beat, Fela Kuti. Fela, who was and is arguably one of the most radical cultural spokespersons from within the history of popular music, recorded numerous albums from the early 1970s until his death in 1997. Influenced by James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and the Black Power movement in the United States, Fela’s music is a hypnotic blend of Nigerian rhythms, jazz, and funk, over which he sang some of the most politically charged anthems of anticolonial dissent and Pan-African hopes and dreams. In invoking the spirit and soul of Fela Kuti, Mos Def’s “Fear Not of Man” (italics mine), is an ongoing dialogue with Fela’s vision and a slight, but significant, recontextualization of the Fela original.
Fela Kuti’s 1977 song “Fear Not for Man” begins with the words “The father of Pan-Africanism, Kwame Nkrumah, has said: ‘The secret of life is to have no fear,’” and then Fela and his band, driven by the beautiful percussion of Tony Allen, proceed to unleash a beautifully intoxicating rhythm of resistance. In invoking the revolutionary Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, Fela admonishes Black peoples to continue the struggle of those who came before and to do so without fear. In the throes of the postcolonial misery that has viciously and violently characterized the postindependence moment for the decolonizing Third World, Fela’s “Fear Not for Man” is meant as an inspiration for collective solidarity, suggesting that man, as the gendered representative of humanity, (p.134) will prevail despite the men who create and perpetuate injustice and inequality. As an empowering ode to a utopian vision in dystopic times, Mos Def’s sampling of the Fela original creates a compelling conversation between two revolutionary cultural movements: Afro-beat and hip-hop.
In sampling Fela’s song and slightly modifying the title, Mos Def artfully places his piece in the context of a Pan-African ideal reminiscent of Malcolm X and a diasporic Black radical imagination. Through the art of sampling, hip-hop has been able to reclaim a sense of history stripped from Black peoples as a result of slavery, while also creating forms of communal memory, as songs and fragments of the past get recontextualized and the past is made present and relevant to charting a redemptive future. By invoking the memory of Fela Kuti (through the sample and song title) and in turn Kwame Nkrumah (whose quote informs the philosophical basis for Fela and therefore Mos Def’s song), Mos Def creatively connects the contemporary struggles of Black peoples in the United States with the insurgent, anticolonial history of both Nkrumah and Fela Kuti. This kind of cultural history and critical archaeology not only reflect the transnational dimensions and ideological reach of Mos Def but also serve to reimagine Black identity both within and beyond the borders of the American nation-state, forging a diasporic consciousness that is rooted in a specific antiracist critique of American society.
But in addition to connecting racial and cultural struggles transnationally by invoking Fela Kuti and Kwame Nkrumah, the song also invokes the politics of the Black Nationalist struggle within the United States by referencing the legendary Last Poets of the Black Arts Movement. After describing a world dominated by technology and filled with satellites, cameras, and televisions—as he says, “societies and governments trying to be God and having the all-seeing eye”—Mos Def follows this with, “I guess the Last Poets wasn’t too far off when they said that certain people got a God complex / I believe its true.” By referencing the Last Poets’ classic song “White Man’s Got a God Complex,” Mos Def expresses a scathing critique of whiteness, and he assents to the Last Poets’ powerful assertion regarding the machinations of white supremacy, as his silence in not naming who these “certain people” are becomes a deafening critique of race, power, and surveillance.
(p.135) In addition, being that the song is a meditation on the power of the divine or at least the relative powerlessness of man (“Fear Not of Man”), Mos Def’s employment of the Last Poets’ “White Man’s Got a God Complex” also serves to mobilize the history of Black resistance to and understanding of the claims regarding the whiteness of God/Jesus/the divine, thereby also subverting the dominant racial logic and hierarchy of white supremacy in America. In addition to this critique of the intersection of race and belief, Mos Def’s “Fear Not of Man,” in invoking the Last Poets, also suggests the historical connection and political possibilities between contemporary hip-hop culture and the radical spoken word tradition of the Black Arts Movement, both of which have been deeply influenced not only by Malcolm X and his Muslim Internationalism but also by Islamic themes, symbols, and iconography.
In linking past and present, memory and place, culture and resistance, and ultimately hope and redemption, Mos Def’s “Fear Not of Man” echoes and reflects many of the central concerns that have defined the political and cultural history of Black Islam in the postwar period, by creatively remapping Black identity transnationally and even invoking and drawing historical connections to the legendary Last Poets and the Islamically influenced Black Arts Movement. Similar to Malcolm X modeling his Organization of Afro-American Unity on Kwame Nkrumah’s Organization of African Unity, Mos Def, by implicitly invoking Nkrumah’s memory, creates the hip-hop equivalent of Malcolm X’s unfulfilled yet radical political ideal. As part of the broader iconography and history of the Muslim International, Mos Def uses hip-hop culture to explore the overlapping influences of Islam, Black internationalism, and Pan-Africanism within the realms of art and politics. By weaving together a powerful and poignant narrative that links Afro-Beat, hip-hop, and the Black Arts Movement, Mos Def, like many before him and since, continues to extend a radical tradition of resistance by powerfully envisioning himself and the Black liberation struggle beyond the borders of America.
After the Crescent
By conjuring the history of Malcolm X and the radical redemptive vision that he outlined throughout his life, hip-hop culture became a powerful (p.136) space for expressing and extending Malcolm X’s internationalist vision in the post–Civil Rights era. By reclaiming the terrain of Black Islam and internationalism during a period in U.S. history in which the “Black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist” structured the logic of U.S. power domestically and globally, hip-hop’s Golden Age and artists such as Gang Starr, Rakim, Public Enemy, and Ice Cube, among numerous others, challenged the limits of U.S. power to determine Black destiny. By imagining Black freedom beyond America and in Africa and elsewhere in the Muslim Third World, the history of Malcolm X and Black Islam provided a grammar of resistance and a language of revolt for these artists to use in crafting powerful platforms of rhetorical rebellion against white supremacy, militarism, and U.S. state power, as hip-hop culture became a powerful site for exploring how poetry, aesthetics, and the Black political imagination sought to shape the contours of the Muslim International in late twentieth-century America.
But when the Cold War was ending and the power and resonance of hip-hop were increasing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the embrace of Muhammad Ali as a national hero sought to undermine the terrain of Black internationalism and Black Islam that hip-hop culture had struggled so hard to rekindle and reinvigorate. And when the “Green Menace” of Islam and Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis were becoming the defining paradigm for U.S. power in the 1990s, the domestic “culture wars” sought to contain the antiracist impulses that had powerfully emerged throughout U.S. society through a rhetoric of “diversity” and multiculturalism. As a result, the twin figures of “Blackness” and “the Muslim” that had haunted post–Civil Rights America now became celebrated as quintessentially American through a figure like Muhammad Ali. For the radical internationalism of Malcolm X was now being challenged by the silent ghost of Muhammad Ali, as the United States sought not only to domesticate Black Islam and fracture it from the Muslim Third World, but also to create new imperial citizens.
(1.) By “carceral imagination,” I’m referring to a fundamental logic of U.S. state building, in which Black, First Nations, and Third World bodies are (p.214) contained and controlled through the larger apparatus of U.S. state power and its white supremacist and imperialist essence. While this carceral imagination has taken shape and legitimized itself in different ways in various historical moments and contexts, its emergence in the post–Civil Rights era took the form of an urban police state and the rise of the prison as a form of social control and racial domination. In this way, I’m suggesting that prisons and mass incarceration have become the operative site and even metaphor for U.S. state power, whether it be the massive prison apparatus in the United States, which has replicated previous forms of racial domination dating back to slavery and Jim Crow, or the emergence of imperial incarceration evinced by Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Bagram, and other so-called Black sites in the perpetual “War on Terror.” In addition, the carceral imagination is revealed through U.S. empire and its Eurocentric inheritance, which has constructed the “nation as prison,” in which the Third World, through neoliberal economic policies, support, and installation of proxy rulers, along with the creation of a security-state through heightened militarism, has become the operative model of global rule.
(2.) Baraka, Black Music, 180–211.
(3.) See Sohail Daulatzai, “A Rebel to America: ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ after the Towers Fell,” in Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic, ed. Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 33–60. Also see Clarence Lusane and Dennis Desmond, Pipe Dream Blues: Racism and the War on Drugs (Boston: South End Press, 1991).
(4.) See Herman Gray, Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for “Blackness” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995). Also see Michael Paul Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
(5.) See Daulatzai, “A Rebel to America.” Also see Gray, Watching Race.
(7.) See the publication by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice: Lisa Feldman, Vincent Schiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg, “Too Little Too Late: President Clinton’s Prison Legacy” (Washington, D.C.: Justice Policy Institute, February 2001), accessed on July 11, 2011, www.cjcj.org/files/too_little.pdf.
(8.) See Eric Schlosser, “The Prison Industrial Complex,” Atlantic Monthly (December 1998): 51–79. The State of California has the biggest prison system in the industrialized world, housing more prisoners than France, Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined, and the State of New York, under liberal governor Mario Cuomo’s reign (1982–95), added more prison beds than all previous governors in the state’s history combined.
(9.) Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 2. In her brilliant book, Alexander (p.215) reveals that in the post–Civil Rights era and through “War on Crime” rhetoric and policies, Black incarceration has been stunning. Despite Blacks being only 12 percent of the general population, Black inmates make up 50 percent of the prison population, and overall, over 80 percent of Black incarcerations are for nonviolent drug offenses. According to Alexander, mass incarceration has become a more contemporary form of racial control that replicates previous mechanisms of racial exclusion. Despite the removal of de jure forms of racial discrimination through Civil Rights legislation, racial discrimination is now legal through mass incarceration, because convicted felons who have completed their sentences can be discriminated against in housing, employment, and education, as well as stripped of the right to vote.
(10.) See Ian Haney-López, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996). Also see Alexander, The New Jim Crow.
(11.) See Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981).
(12.) See David Ansen, “The Battle for Malcolm X,” Newsweek, August 26, 1991, accessed on July 11, 2011, www.newsweek.com/1991/08/25/the-battle-for-malcolm-x.html.
(13.) See “The Two Faces of Farrakhan,” Newsweek, October 30, 1995.
(14.) Huey Percy Newton, The Huey P. Newton Reader, edited by David Hilliard and Dagmar Weise (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 52.
(15.) McAlister, Epic Encounters, 87.
(16.) Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America, 31.
(17.) McAlister, Epic Encounters, 93.
(18.) Quoted in DeCaro, On the Side of My People, 124.
(19.) Quoted in Lisa Gail Collins and Margo Natalie Crawford, introduction to New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement, ed. Lisa Gail Collins and Margo Natalie Crawford (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 5.
(21.) Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, 54–55.
(22.) Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 159.
(23.) Ameer (Amiri) Baraka, “The Black Aesthetic,” Black World/Negro Digest 18, no. 11 (September 1969): 5.
(24.) Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 167.
(25.) Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, 54.
(26.) Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 236–37.
(27.) Quoted in Cheryl Clarke, “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 51.
(28.) James T. Stewart, “The Development of the Black Revolutionary Artist,” in Black Fire, ed. Jones and Neal, 10.
(29.) Malcolm X, “The Message to the Grassroots” speech.
(30.) McAlister, Epic Encounters, 104.
(31.) Marvin X and Faruk X, “Islam and Black Art: An Interview with Leroi Jones,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Black Arts Movement, ed. Jeff Decker (Detroit: Gale, 1984), 128.
(32.) Clarke, “After Mecca,” 2–3.
(33.) See McAlister, Epic Encounters, 109.
(34.) See Baraka, “The Black Aesthetic.”
(35.) McAlister, Epic Encounters, 110.
(36.) In fact, the relationships between the “Muslim terrorist” and the “Black criminal,” or the Muslim Third World and urban America, in the 1980s and 1990s can be seen through the Iran–Contra scandal that became public in 1986. The “scandal” involved the United States secretly selling arms to Iran in exchange for both money and the hostages it held and then using that money to help fund the anticommunist Contras in Nicaragua, who in turn were using U.S. cargo planes to import cocaine into urban centers in the United States—all under the watch of the CIA. This triangle trade, so to speak, and the importation and presence of drugs in urban America were the central means on which policing, mass incarceration, and the demonization of Blackness as “criminal” focused, as the informal drug economy became the “War on Drugs,” which Reagan–Bush used to legitimize the massive police state that was urban America, the ashes from which the phoenix of hip-hop emerged. As Jay-Z would say in his brilliant 2007 song “Blue Magic,” in which he meditates on the politics of 1980s urban America: “Blame Reagan for making me into a monster, / Blame Oliver North and Iran–Contra / I ran contraband that they sponsored / before this rhyming stuff we was in concert.” Implicating himself in the drug trade, Jay-Z spins wordplay (“I ran contraband”) that suggests the elaborate CIA network through which drugs were imported from Latin America into urban areas in the United States, which intensified the “War on Drugs” hysteria that hip-hop emerged from, a form of music that Kanye West brilliantly and subversively called “Crack Music.” In this way the link between the “Black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist” is more compelling than meets the eye.
For more information, see Leslie Cockburn, Out of Control: The Story of the Reagan Administration’s Secret War in Nicaragua, the Illegal Arms Pipeline, and the Contra Drug Connection (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987); Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2010); and Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
(37.) See Gwendolyn D. Pough, Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham, and Rachel Raimist, eds., Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip-Hop Feminism Anthology (p.217) (Mira Loma, Calif.: Parker Publishing, 2007); Joan Murray Morgan, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000); Michael Eric Dyson, Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip-Hop (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007); T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women (New York: New York University Press, 2008).
(38.) Chuck D, interview with the author, August 2006.
(39.) See Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie.
(40.) Quoted in Robert Lipsyte, “Cassius Clay, Cassius X, Muhammad Ali,” New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1964, 29.
(41.) Quoted in Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (London: Verso, 2005), 215.
(42.) See liner notes of Ice Cube, Death Certificate, album (Priority Records, 1991).
(43.) See Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982). Patterson, through his notion of “social death,” examines slavery as a universal phenomenon and as a set of practices, ideologies, and forms of violence that perpetuate the evisceration of the slave’s subjectivity.
(44.) See Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America.
(45.) See Alexander, The New Jim Crow.
(46.) See Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America; Essien Udosen Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism: A Search for an Identity in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); and Michael Eric Dyson, Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
(47.) Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks, 8.