Across Britain, a new generation of outspoken young rappers are interweaving Islam and hip hop to create a lyrical tapestry that’s all their own.
The doors to London’s Central Mosque are open to visitors, but few outsiders cross the threshold to witness Friday prayers. Just around the corner, tourists queue to have their pictures taken with a costumed Victorian policeman outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street, oblivious to the muttered greetings of Muslims gathering in socked feet beneath the great blue dome. As the clock strikes 1pm the first office workers begin filing into local pubs for lunch, unaware of the masses arranging themselves in rows for the jummah – old beside young, waiters beside slick city brokers, foreheads sinking to the carpet while their voices rise in a chorus as old as any of the capital’s churches.
Their prayers completed, some descend to the basement for a canteen lunch; others slip upstairs to study scripture in the library. Most head out into the stone court, chatting on phones, embracing friends, catching up on the week’s news and making plans for the week to come. “We don’t drink, so we can’t get together in pubs like most people,” says thirty-one-year-old Mohammed Yahya. “The mosque is a place for social as well as spiritual gathering.”
With his spotless trainers and sleeveless puffa, baseball cap and colourful headphones, Mohammed stands out amid the mostly sober clothing of his peers. It’s a fitting nod to his position as one of the figureheads of a movement of British Muslims channelling their faith in the form of hip hop, and a reminder of his impressive roster of recordings and performances – the former including a prolific solo career and collaborative projects like Blind Alphabetz and Native Sun, and the latter encompassing live slots at major US festivals and clubs across the UK.
Mohammed wasn’t raised a Muslim. Born in war-torn Mozambique, he spent his early years living as a refugee in a crumbling tenement block in the slums of racially segregated Lisbon, a building without electricity in which drug users defecated in elevators and left needles for kids to play doctor with on stairwells. After repeatedly being passed over for demeaning jobs on the grounds of his ethnicity, his father finally found work in the UK; Mohammed’s parents separated soon after, and the eleven-year-old followed his dad to London. Feelings of cultural isolation and sadness at the separation were things Mohammed tried to make sense of through poetry – until he discovered hip hop, at which point his life changed almost overnight.
“To see rappers like Public Enemy, who were not only black but celebrating their blackness by wearing African colours and pendants, that was very affecting and empowering for me,” says Mohammed. We’re chatting over coffee in the north London flat he shares with his wife, the shelves lined with books on Islam, the walls with framed quotes from the Qu’ran in calligraphic Arabic script. “Back then hip hop was about social oppression, and the topics they spoke about – poverty, police brutality, racism – those were things I could relate to. So when my poetry began to turn into lyrics, I found myself heavily influenced by those artists.”
Mohammed’s was a search for spiritual as well as social change. He became a born-again Christian aged thirteen, but left the church after voicing doubts that his pastor wasn’t able to dispel. He then studied several religions before discovering Islam on a trip to Gambia aged twenty-four, his first reconnection with Africa since his parents’ flight more than twenty years earlier.
“I went with dreadlocks and an Afrocentric world view, and I came across a very beautiful, very humble Muslim community,” explains Mohammed. “The people were poor but giving – if you visited a family and they were eating a simple plate of rice and tomato, they would insist on sharing whatever they had with you. Everything worked in perfect harmony: I’d come back from a club in the early hours, and I’d hear the sound of the morning call to prayer, and it occurred to me how beautiful, how balanced everything was in this culture. I got back to the UK and began reading about Islam, and once I felt I understood the religion better I cut off my dreadlocks and decided to convert.”
Mohammed was already signed as a rap artist to the label Silent Soundz; on his return he formed Blind Alphabetz with Abdul Rahman and began exploring his relationship with Islam in a series of tracks that grew into the album Luvolution in 2007. Lead single ‘Change’ was a hit despite its religious overtones (‘Saw a vivid new vision based on balance and peace / Finally adopted one ideology that to me felt complete’), and the group went on to support artists as established as Dead Prez, RZA from Wu Tang Clan and – more than ten years after Mohammed first felt the power of their message – Public Enemy.
All of which is testament to how far things have developed in the three decades since hip hop first reached British shores and the ears of a schoolboy named Rakin Fetuga. Now forty-one, Rakin juggles his career as a rapper with a day job teaching religious studies in a north London school, but growing up in Ladbroke Grove – the epicentre of the capital’s first hip hop scene – he fell powerfully under the sway of this new sound. He formed a breakdance crew, Supreme Rockers, which in time turned into a rap outfit called Cash Crew, and from day one he used hip hop as a means of learning more about his place in the world.
“The amazing thing about hip hop at that time was that it was all about knowledge,” says Rakin, picking at a box of grilled chicken in a north London branch of halal fast food chain Chicken Cottage. “KRS-One’s tune ‘You Must Learn’ sounds strange now, but back then that’s what hip hop was. It was about empowering black people, about exploring African history and the true story of slavery – stuff that wasn’t being taught in schools.”
In keeping with such ideals, Cash Crew would descend on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park every Sunday to unleash new lyrics on an unsuspecting public. Afterwards they would wander between speakers and listen to fragments of speeches and sermons, and in doing so they first heard the tenets of Islam, embarking on a journey that would see all three of them converting in the early nineties. They subsequently started their own label, Street Ministry, and began releasing hip hop singles heavily infused with their new beliefs – ‘The Light’, for example, which opens with a Muslim prayer and features Rakin invoking the words: ‘There’s no superpower / Only Allah is power / And all will be revealed in the last hour.’
Not that everyone was listening to the lyrics – many were swayed by the beats alone, and tracks like ‘The Provider’ became radio hits thanks to support from deejays like Richie Rich at a then embryonic Kiss FM. In the Muslim community, however, Cash Crew’s words were being taken very seriously indeed.
“What we were doing had never been heard of back then,” explains Rakin. “Even America didn’t have openly Muslim rappers for another couple of years, and when they did they were members of westernised groups like Nation Of Islam. We were orthodox Muslims rapping about orthodox beliefs, and we came under a lot of fire from traditionalists saying that what we were doing was haram, the devil’s work. It was a massive blow.”
Rakin eventually took a break from music, only returning on the advice of a Sufi sheikh who insisted that rapping was his best means of spreading the word of Islam. Rakin formed Mecca2Medina in 1996 with fellow Muslim Ishmael Lea South, and began recording Islamic hip hop that aimed to save as much as sway listeners – ‘Life After Death’, for example, with its references to the eternal punishment awaiting sinners, and ‘Settle Down’, an ode to the powers of a strong Islamic marriage. Needless to say such messages didn’t always sit well with secular listeners, but Rakin rejects accusations that he was making religious propaganda, or that hip hop was an unsuitable forum for promoting such ideas.
“We weren’t setting out to convert non-believers to Islam,” he says. “Instead we were trying to find those people who were already questioning conventional wisdom and offering them an alternative to a secular way of life – which is nothing more than a belief system in itself, although secularism is promoted in the modern world as the only way of living. To me, that’s propoganda. What we were doing was giving people an alternative: if they wanted to look into it further, then fine. If they weren’t interested, that was fine too. And hip hop is the perfect medium for those messages: it’s always had a spiritual undercurrent, it’s always sought to express issues that were outside the mainstream, to critique conventional ways of thinking and offer a platform for revolutionary movements.”
The duo still received criticism from hardliners within the Muslim community – until 9/11, after which they were seen as diplomats capable of showing another side to a religion being demonised by the media, and called to perform for young people in schools and colleges across the country.
Ten years on, and the playing field is very different. In the UK a new generation of young Muslim rappers – many of whom were children at the time of Mecca2Medina’s post-9/11 schools tour – are repurposing the rugged beats and rapid fire vocals of grime music, fusing a love of Allah with an angry disavowal of western capitalism in keeping with the Occupy generation they’ve been born into.
One artist exemplifying that movement is twenty-one-year-old Melissa Melodee, a fiery part-Jamaican, part-Irish girl with a background in gospel singing and grime emceeing, a weekend job in a club cloakroom and a notebook filled with lyrics on feminism, the struggle for Palestine and everything in between. Melissa has had flirtations with major labels, but refused to be recast in the eyes of record executives. After converting to Islam three years ago – following a dream from which she says she awoke capable of reciting prayers in Arabic – it became all the more important for her to celebrate her identity and use her music as an agent for change.
“I’ve been working in clubs for years, and I’m constantly being told that I should cross over into mainstream dance music,” says Melissa, surrounded by framed family photographs in the east London flat that she’s lived in alone since her father passed away from cancer last year. “But there’s no way that kind of music will deliver the sort of message I’m trying to put across. I love the fact that hip hop has its roots in the idea of overcoming struggle, and the way it allows you to create such a powerful connection with your audience. I honestly think hip hop can help educate kids, but they need to be hearing music that isn’t just about guns and knife crime, about drugs and materialism.”
Despite her positive ideas, Melissa has faced criticism from females in the Muslim community, many of whom see her as betraying her duty as a Muslim woman. “I often go to the mosque and the sisters will come up and ask if I’m still making music,” explains Melissa. “I’ll say, ‘Yes.’ And they’ll say, ‘Inshallah you’ll give it up soon, inshallah you’ll pray for guidance.’ And I tell them that my mind is made up. I’m spreading a positive message: I’m trying to dispel some of the stereotypes about Islam as a violent religion, when at its heart Islam promotes a peaceful way of life. There are still problems with sexism in Islam, but there are also people like Mohammed and Rakin trying to move things forward, and I’m helping encourage that more progressive way of thinking with my music. This is part of my journey as a Muslim, so it’s frustrating when I encounter opposition from sisters in the mosque.”
All of which suggests that, for all the progress made since Rakin first encountered opposition to mixing rap with religion, there is still some way to go. It’s arguably significant that the majority of young Muslim rappers seem to be converts – orthodox Islam may still be too closed a community to foster aspiring rappers within its hallowed halls. The doors to the mosque may be open to visitors, but Mohammed Yahya believes that the gatekeepers need to do more to encourage cross-pollination with the culture that exists outside its walls.
“There’s still a lot of misrepresentation, and part of that’s to do with what the media propagates,” explains Mohammed, “but I think Muslims are partly to blame for not reaching out, for not opening up and allowing people to learn more about Islam. A lot of Muslims, the more religious and self-righteous they become, the more they want to move away from the outside world and all that they see as wrong with society. And I don’t think that’s what Islam is about. The teachings of the Prophet Mohammad were about serving the community – not about what you can gain from society, but what positive input you can give back. And if people start seeing more positive Muslim role models, then perhaps Islam as a whole will be seen in a more positive light.”